Forging Lifelong Athletes

70.3 Miles Into The Pain Cave To Find “Why”

Pain Cave

A good friend asked me to join him in completing a half Ironman, also known as the Ironman 70.3 for the 70.3 miles covered in the race – a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile run, respectively.  At the time, I thought he was off his rocker.  How in the world did he (a very successful and busy surgeon) expect us to complete a half Ironman with both of our insane work schedules?  Depending on ER call, I was working between 40 and 70 hours per week at the hospital on top of getting my business off the ground, volunteer coaching with the high school wrestling team, coaching our youth club wrestling team, passionately pursuing my wife, and striving to raise four children in excellence.  This race either had to enhance these priorities or at least not detract from them.  So, if I was going to do this, some conditions had to be set for myself:

  1. I would not sacrifice any time with my wife or kids. If something came up that Rebekah or the kids wanted or needed necessitating changes in my training schedule, I would oblige with a smile.
  2. My quiet time in prayer and the Word would remain a daily priority.
  3. I would not allow missed training from the ER to affect my attitude.
  4. I would finish the race, no matter what, without excuses.

On the flip side, I also wouldn’t allow my family or work to become excuses.  This would require me to grow considerably in time management, prioritization, and “saying no.”  Additionally, this had to help me grow closer to God and learn to lean on Him.  It could not become an idol in itself.  Conditions set, I said a prayer and committed to the race.  “Lord, allow this to be a lesson in leaning on You – something that I can accomplish only because You are with me.”  In a conversation with my mother after the race, she noted how dangerous such a prayer can be, in a good way.  In short, I had two goals: grow my capacity to accomplish more and gain a deeper understanding of what it means to lean on God.

My plan was to stick to my current workout regimen, following the Daily Athlos—check it out!—and start swimming, biking, and running on Open Gym days, usually Thursdays and Saturdays.  When time allowed, I would get in a quick run or bike as a second workout 1 to 3 days per week.  I’d slowly build my mileage each week, and I’d continue growing my base of general physical preparedness through the Daily Athlos programming.  Understanding the importance of recovery, I made another deal with myself – if the time to my alarm was less than 7 hours when going to bed, I would sleep in and skip the morning workout.  I had to earn the right to train by getting things done in a timely manner and getting my butt in bed.  This would not leave time for sedating away the day’s stress on Instagram or Netflix with a glass of whiskey after putting the kids to bed. It was time to focus, prioritize, and get to work as a competitive athlete again—a working-dad competitive athlete with only 9 months to train.

Everything started as planned.  I gradually increased my running volume, bought a bike and started riding, and spent every Thursday morning in the pool.  I finished hospital charts sooner and stopped bringing work home. I was able to knock some things off the honey-do list, and I found  MORE time to spend with Rebekah and the kids.  Over the first couple months, I was astounded at just how much more I could accomplish simply by setting my mind toward productivity and avoiding distractions.  I put my energy into things that truly mattered to me, and I sifted out things that didn’t.  I cut down on social media, watched less TV, removed nearly all alcohol, and started saying no to invitations out.

What followed was incredible.  I felt happier and more satisfied.  I had a deeper sense of purpose and became emotionally more resilient to the unexpected.  I grew exponentially more intentional in scheduling my calendar to match my stated priorities – I spent more time with Rebekah, had more daddy-daughter dates, and had more man-time with my son, just as a few examples.

However, this improved life wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.  There were nights my charting wasn’t done before getting home, call shifts that kept me up most of the night, missed workouts, illnesses (society had just opened up following the pandemic), missed plans with the children, honey-do lists left unfinished, and bouts of short tempers towards those who mean the most to me.  Then, there was that prayer I mentioned above about learning to lean on Him…and God was going to answer it over the 6 weeks leading into the race and during the race itself.

High School wrestling started, and it cut into the majority of my afternoon workouts.  Cold and flu season meant very busy call shifts with little sleep.  And if everything just went according to “my” plan, I would never have gained a deeper understanding of what it means to lean on Him.  I missed most of the final 6 weeks of training from increased time in the ER and coaching, and the week before the race was a living hell.

I started getting sick two weeks before the race, and I seemed to catch every virus coming through town, one right after another.  I relied on Advil, Tylenol, Zofran, and copious amounts of caffeine to get through my shifts. Then, I failed to plan ahead and request time off from my ER call shifts the week before the race.  This meant I had four 24-hour shifts in the five days before leaving during a very busy season in our ER.  During those 96 hours, I slept maybe a combined 16 to 20 of them.  Going into these shifts, I started a Z-pack and dexamethasone in desperation to start feeling better by the race.  I also set my mind to staying positive, no matter what, which I firmly believe made a huge difference in getting through those shifts to the race.  Two days before the race saw me still in the ER at 4:30 in the morning, just a few hours before we had to leave for the airport.  Just before leaving, it started dumping snow in a near whiteout, my oldest son, Uriah, spiked a fever, and Bekah asked me for some Zofran.  Finally, we were on the road at 8:00 a.m.  As we were leaving, we received a call from friends who were boarding our horse telling us she had passed away.  It was starting to feel like a country song, and like someone or something wanted me to miss the race.

At last, we made it to Haines City, Florida for Ironman 70.3, in no small part due to my family’s support and determination to get me there.  Two days to go, I checked in, prepared my bike, found my transition area, and finally got a full night’s rest.  I was also now off the antibiotics and corticosteroids.  The next morning, Uriah was still needing Motrin to keep his fever down, but he was adamant he would run in the Ironkids race – a half-mile run next to a parent.  He ran it with me and took second place, overtaking another youngster just before the finish line.  Naturally, this steadied my resolve to stay positive.  My 7-year-old son with a fever not only stuck to his guns to complete the race, but he truly went for it showing more grit than most adults.  Little did he know that God was using him as a source of encouragement for his father the following day.

Race day 7:30 a.m. and I’m in line for a rolling start.  Uriah and my parents are walking slowly in line beside me all the way to the water’s edge.  My mom, who’d coached me in running for 11 years and watched me compete my entire life, asked if I was ok.  I admitted I was only going to get through this race to the finish line if God was with me, and it was at that moment I remembered my prayer that started this journey – “Lord, allow this to be a lesson in leaning on You – something that I can accomplish only because You are with me.”  I couldn’t help but chuckle.

Just before leaving them for the last time, Uriah asked me how I was feeling and if I was ready.  In truth, my entire body ached, I felt exhausted, and I was pretty sure I was on the verge of another fever; but, I smiled at him as I said I felt great and that it was going to be a fun race.  He must have seen through my facade because he asked if he could pray for me.  My 7-year-old leaned his forehead against mine and said a prayer of health and strength over me, putting a lump in my throat and instantly helping me feel better.  That forced smile, statement of positivity, and my son’s prayer just before stepping into the water provided my soul with the fuel it needed to get going.  “After all,” I said quietly as I stepped into the water, settling my resolve, “This isn’t gonna do itself.”  Talk about the power of words, a smile, and prayer, huh?

The race was on, and there was no looking back.  I felt how I felt, and there was no use dwelling on it.  Instead, I focused on one breath at a time, 10 strokes at a time, one buoy at a time, and overtaking one competitor at a time. It was go-time.  I set a 7-minute PR in the swim, having a previous best 1.2 miles in the pool at 50 minutes and 30 seconds.  I swam 1.2 miles in open water in 43:13 to start the race.  A huge win and an even bigger morale boost as I came out of the water ready to hit the next leg.

Now the bike – I had completed longer swims and runs than I would in the race, but I had never biked more than 32 miles at once.  Admittedly, this was a large hole in my training, but whether from the morale boost of the swim or the surge of endorphins from the race, I felt really good.  Maintaining a pace between 20 mph and 22 mph, I was definitely feeling the benefits of lower altitude from Meeker, CO to Haines City, FL.  The views were stunning, and I found myself constantly smiling through the first half of the bike leg. My goal was to maintain a decent pace of better than 20 mph for the first ⅔ of the leg, then crush the hill portion starting around mile 42.  This…was a rookie move, and I should have realized the mistake when I passed several athletes with Ironman tattoos on their calves during the hills…most of whom overtook me again before the race’s end.  The 51-mile mark saw me past the hills, but it also saw me past any energy reserve and all ability to smile.  My average speed dropped to 10 to 12 mph, on the flat, as the fire in my legs from sprinting the hills refused to be quenched, and I still had a half marathon to run.

I took 9 minutes in transition shaking out my legs, rehydrating, and refueling before starting the run.  I might as well have skipped the transition for all the good it did me.  Fresh, I can average a 7-minute mile for a half marathon without too much difficulty. I passed the 1-mile marker in 9 minutes…in so much pain and frustration that an attempt at smiling to change my attitude only put a lump in my throat and made my eyes burn with tears.  Yes, for all my high school wrestlers who think I’m tough, I shed a few tears when I passed the one-mile marker thinking about the 12.1 more miles to go.  I don’t think my legs ever really broke out of a shuffle, no matter how much I willed them.  Shortly after the first mile marker, I remembered a conversation with the head wrestling coach, Coach JC Watt, the day before leaving for the race; he told me to remember one thing – “Don’t be a bitch.”  I literally laughed out loud, and the memory snapped me out of the funk and back into a positive attitude despite the pain and exhaustion.  I also started to take solace in the fact that I was still passing more athletes than were passing me.  I had a choice, and I made myself focus on the positive.  I would look at one runner in front of me at a time until I overtook that runner, then I would choose the next.

This seemed to work for at least the next 8 miles as my resilience oscillated between positive grit and desperate deliberate steps.  Mile 9, however, hit me with a new wall and level of pain I had not experienced since the 24-hour workout I completed a year prior (maybe another blog post).  However, memories of what I’d accomplished in that 24-hour workout helped keep me going, like David Goggins’s “cookies in the cookie jar” analogy.  “I’ve felt this before.  This isn’t new.  I can do this again.  God, help me.  I need You.  I can do all things through You.  You’ve proved it many times before, and I know you’ll prove it again today.” This dialogue played on repeat through my mind, almost in rhythm with my steps.

The 9th mile also saw the last of any shade.  Being used to northwest Colorado in December, 80 degrees F in Florida on asphalt without shade after 5 ½ hours of racing put me in just a deeper level of hell.  I was painfully hot.  My stomach was cramping so badly that I wasn’t sure if I needed to vomit or crap.  Every footfall resounded through my pounding headache like a hammer on an anvil.  Each step felt like knives in my legs.  My feet were on fire with no way to cool them.  I felt borderline delirious.  When I finally made it to the final aid station around mile 11, I threw ice water on my head causing me to reflexively piss myself – and not just a little piddle either, but a full bladder let loose down my legs.  I didn’t even care.  I just wanted to be done.  By now, my stomach was so tight that the sudden relief in my bladder stopped me from vomiting.  I had only been this deep in the pain cave once before, but having been there, it wasn’t a total stranger to me and I knew I would finish.

I’m convinced most people never venture this deep into the cave.  When you’re in this deep, you see the weakest and most resilient parts of yourself.  You find God this deep in the cave.  You wrestle with questions like “why,” and not just “why am I doing this” (though that’s undoubtedly part of it), but the “why” to your deeper motives and the meaningfulness of your life.  You face parts of yourself you’d never meet otherwise – the parts you’d always wonder about responding when you’re at your lowest, your most painful, and closest to quitting.  How would you respond?  Would you quit?  Would you keep going? Would the answer depend on what you’re focused on, or the point in life you’re currently living?

I pictured my 7-year-old son choosing to run a race with a fever on his own volition.  I pictured my wife standing by me for the last 9 years, despite my failures and flaws.  I pictured my parents sticking it out all these years and putting my siblings and me before themselves in all of it.  I pictured my children’s faces, and I pictured the faces of the wrestlers I have coached.  They were all my “why.”

But then another question hit me, “What if they were all taken from you?  What then? Do you have a deeper ‘why?’”  And I pictured my little brother (not really “little,” but younger).  I’ve never seen him quit anything in his life, and he’s accomplished some insane feats himself.  I couldn’t see myself quitting and admitting it to him.  Then a memory drifted to mind.  One summer in college, we worked a job requiring more than thirty 16-hour days in a row, with a 1-hour commute on either end.  There was a morning that was especially difficult to get up in time for work due to poor decisions the night before.  I was gonna sleep and be late – Trevor wasn’t having it, and he got me out of bed and made sure we were both on time.  I’ve never forgotten that, and the shame I felt when my little brother was tougher and more disciplined than me.  I remembered this with about 1 mile to go when I finally broke and started walking.  When Trevor reads this, it’ll be the first time he learns about the effect this memory has had on me.  The thought of stopping the race entirely never crossed my mind, but then again, neither did walking.  And now I just wanted to be done – “to stay in bed” like in that memory.

I had successfully run until the last mile when this memory and the question of a deeper “why” drove home – because this is who I am.  I strive for new limits, to be with God, and grow myself in His service, for whoever or whatever He brings my way.”  My wife, my children, my friends, and my wrestlers happen to be the ones He’s brought my way, but there is a deeper “why” underlying it all. It is the development of who I am to become, who God is shaping me to be in service to Him – He is that “why” underlying it all.  One day, I will feel His embrace, and my greatest desire is to hear Him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  This physical suffering is only temporary, and it is training for something so much bigger than me.  So, I ducked my head, prayed, and just kept moving.

I picked landmarks about every 50 to 100 yards to walk and jog between.  As I rounded the final corner, I saw some of my most important “why’s,” my family, with only 150 yards to go.  My oldest daughter, Elsa, locked eyes with me and yelled with all the enthusiasm of a 5-year-old, “Go, daddy! Go! I love you!”  It broke me.  Thankfully I was wearing sunglasses because I instantly turned into waterworks as everything I’d been through the last few weeks culminated in my daughter saying “I love you.”  My deeper understanding of leaning on God seemed to find itself in her voice.  Only a father will understand, as reliving and typing it right now makes my eyes burn again.  Through this journey, God answered my prayer.  By accepting more, my capacity grew.  By choosing to do more, I became more efficient.  By taking on a greater challenge, I learned to say no to the less important and live closer to the important.  By going bigger, my life took on greater purpose.  By leaning into God, I was satisfied and complete.  Doing it all with my family, feeling my son’s prayer, and hearing my daughter’s voice in the deepest part of the pain cave, I found my “why’s,” and they are all bigger than me – wrapped into my daughter’s voice when she said “I love you” as the prelude to when He will say, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

By: Dr. Justin Grant