Settle in, this one is a long one, but I think, this is an amazing one, worth reading…
I want to tell you a story…my story, a story about Grace. A story that proves the connections we have in life cannot be denied. A story that demonstrates if we are only brave enough, patient enough, passionate enough, faithful enough and work hard enough, anything is possible.
Before we dive in, a quick flashback to January 17, 2016. Hours after discovering at age 31, 9 months after having a 95% blocked LAD (named the widow maker), that I had a large brain tumor in my left cerebellum I was transported from Miami Valley Hospital South ER to the Main Campus. I was taken to a hospital room on the neuro floor while awaiting a room in ICU to open up. In walks Dr. Fromke, he says “Hey, I hear you’re the guy who beat the widow maker” referring to my cardiac incident 9 months earlier. “Yes, that’s me” I remember saying, reluctantly. “Ryan, I believe that God’s Grace is sufficient. His Grace brought you through that and I believe that His Grace will bring you through this too.”
11 days and a lifetime of emotions later, after Dr. Pollack performed my brain surgery and removed the tumor, Dr. Fromke returned to my room during his morning rounds. “I told you that God’s Grace was sufficient” he said with a smile. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the inspiration for the name Gratitude and Grace Foundation.
Fast forward two years to last Thursday, the day before I left for Benton Harbor, Michigan to compete in my first Ironman 70.3 race, I listened to one of my favorite podcasts. I listen to podcasts all the time, they are a source of encouragement and a great way to stay focused on personal growth and progress. John O’Leary’s live Inspired Podcast is one of my favorites, I listen to it immediately after it is published each week. The guest on John’s podcast this episode was Mick Ebeling with the Not Impossible Labs.
To listen to the full podcast, click on the image.
This podcast was incredibly moving and had so many teachable moments, that hit me, just as I needed it the most, even though I didn’t know I was looking for it. This was such a great podcast that I wanted to share some of my favorite moments.
Mick created the Not Impossible Lab, a company that is using technology to help as many people as possible. Their website notes:
Since 2008, Not Impossible Labs has engineered, programmed, hacked and crowd-solved issues of inability and inaccessibility and provided low-cost solutions for the most vulnerable on our planet.
The mantra of Not Impossible is commit, and then figure it out, by any means necessary. You don’t have to have a plan or an idea of how to do it, you just have to commit and then work your tail off to figure it out. This is completely relatable to my Ironman journey. Never would I have imagined after being diagnosed with heart disease and brain cancer in the past three years would I find myself competing in an Ironman. But I committed, without knowing how to do it, I committed. Then I figured it out by any means necessary and by working my tail off.
The podcast has some incredible stories that are worth hearing, but the most poignant moments come around the 31 minute mark. At this point the host, John O’Leary leads the discussion. In order to share this most effectively, I will translate my favorite parts:
John: How do you feel when you look back at the journey that you’ve been on, the things that you’ve bumped into and the things that you’ve launched regardless.
Mick: I fundamentally, fundamentally at my core, I don’t believe that brilliance is taught, I think experience is taught, I think relevant perspective might be taught, but I don’t believe that any single person lacks the ability to solve a major problem, an impossibility. Period. Everybody has the ability to solve an impossibility. […] What matters is that when you see something that is absurd, when you see something that from the human standpoint, you go “that ain’t right, that has to change”, and then you just commit to solving it. And what I keep witnessing over and over and over again is that sometimes the people with degrees behind their names solve the problems, and that’s amazing. And sometimes, they are the problem because their experience and their degrees and their diplomas and even the best people will have this certain sense of entitlement because of what they have learned […] and sometimes what you need the most is beautiful, limitless naivety. That you don’t know what you don’t know. […] Sometimes the solutions come from the most unsuspecting characters […] that gives complete credence to this fundamental premise that anybody can make impossible not impossible.
You are one of the most amazing stories that I’ve heard, watching your videos and listening to your stories is just incredible, you are just committed, you are committed to going out and doing it and telling your story, and what I call it. When I get the opportunity to talk to people about what we do at Not Impossible, is that I don’t call it inspiration, I call it reminding people. I am reminding people that they have the ability to make the impossible not impossible. My job is not to inspire you, my job is to remind you that you already have this potential and I am just dusting it off a little bit and reminding you that anybody can go do this, now get your a** out there and make the impossible not impossible.
At this point, listening to this the day before leaving for this impossible journey of an Ironman, I feel like they are talking to me. Its the pep talk of all pep talks, reminding me that I can do this, its time to get out there and make the impossible not impossible.
The podcast then continues into another layer of meaning for me. Mick takes over the podcast, goes from being the person being interviewed to the interviewer, asking John one very important question, the answer to which, put chills down my spine.
Mick: One of the things you say is that when you’ve been asked if you could back to that garage and not have that can explode (John was burned in his garage at 9 years old when a gas can exploded, he was burned over 90% of his body and was not expected to live, but he did) would you do it? And your response is “no, I wouldn’t do that” that you look back now and you look at the life that you have and you wouldn’t change it. Now I think most people, would, at first, say “John, come on, there’s no way, there’s no way you would say that, that’s not real.” And for those of you who maybe don’t believe John or think he’s just saying that, I’ve had the opportunity, just recently to interview a guy named Hugh Her. […] So Hugh lost both of his limbs, his legs, in a climbing accident when he was 17. He now runs the head of bio-mechtronics at MIT. He is basically the $6million man, he has two fake legs, mechanical prosthetics and I interviewed him a couple weeks ago and I asked him that same question, I said “Hey Hugh if you could go back in time and change that climbing accident would you” and he answered the exact same way you did, said no I wouldn’t do it. […] And I am just really taken by that, having not gone through something as traumatic as you went through, John and Hugh, I’m just really taken by that perspective of understanding that the life that we have is this incredible blessing and that our past does not make our future, but our past gives us perspective on how we can move through the present and move into the future powerfully, and I was just so crazy inspired, […] I was just really moved by that, and I wanted to ask you about that, what’s your perspective on that?
John: So my perspective is simply this. I spent the majority of my life looking back at age nine, viewing it all as a tragedy. Viewing amputation and scars and woundedness and pain, both then and now, physically and emotionally, as being bad. But then, with a little bit of perspective and and little bit of reflection, a little bit of prayer, a little bit of insight and wisdom, I look back at it and realize now, Mick, that my wife, who I woke up next to this morning, my four little babies who are probably still asleep this morning, this beautiful life we have, the time that I get with a guy I look up to named Mick Ebeling is the direct result of being burned as a kid. And if you realize and your honest about it, that the best of your life is because of something that is bad, you realize that maybe it’s not bad in the first place, maybe you viewed it as being bad for a little bit too long, and maybe its time to change that perspective.
And so here we are less than 24 hours until I leave to finish off 10 months of training and the message that I hear is, nothing is impossible, and don’t you dare forget, even though you are scarred, scared, wounded and have been through more than most, don’t for a second forget that those “tragedies” are what brought you to where you are right this moment.
As the podcast finished, I pulled into the parking lot at Miami Valley South, to pickup my “stuff bucket” the bucket that I would use to carry my triathlon gear to the transition area. The bucket that I would see as I transition from the swim to the bike and then again from the bike to the run, along this seemingly impossible journey. Earlier that day I dropped the bucket off, hoping my friends in the Oncology Exercise classes might sign their names for some support and encouragement to remind me during the race, of all those people in those classes who, like Mick described, are proving that impossible is a matter of perspective. The results were astounding:
I had planned to take the bucket to work and have my work family also fill my “stuff bucket” but since this group of amazing people gave me so much support, I had to come up with a plan b, I needed a second bucket. And so I got another one and took it to work: Same amazing results: One of the things that I always thought about the race was that I enjoyed the training, but sometimes just wish I had someone to train with, a group, a trainer, or someone to meet me late at night for a night run, or early Sunday morning for a long ride and run. What I found was that I did, it was all of you. Your writing on my buckets was the proof that I wasn’t ever alone. Throughout this whole journey you’ve been there, supporting me and pushing me to keep going.
So with emotions high the family and I packed up and headed up to Michigan late Friday afternoon. We got up to our hotel around 11pm, checked in and went to bed. Saturday we woke up and met up with my sister’s family, mom and boyfriend, who all made the trip. We went down to the beach, and checked out the Ironman Village.
I decided that I wanted to check my bike that afternoon to avoid the rush in the morning and I wanted to get a trial swim in the lake, since I’ve never swam in Lake Michigan, athletically, at least. This was the big question mark in the whole event for me. I’ve trained substantially in swimming, biking and running, but I had no way to expect or train for what the lake swim would be like. I was pleased to see it was relatively calm and comfortably warm Saturday. So Heather took the kids back to the hotel and I returned to check my bike and take a swim. The volume of the event settled in when I returned. It was an incredible feeling to be part of something where so many people had turned out to prove that anything is possible.
The trial swim was great, I felt great, ready, motivated, comfortable with the water and ready for race day.
Sunday morning I was up at 5am, and headed to the race to put an exclamation point at the end of this journey. Upon getting to the event, I learned that the weather and water had changed overnight, it went from a calm flat lake to a windy, choppy and rough surf with 1-2′ chop with swells over 4′. Surrounded by thousands of athletes determined to push on, I mentally prepared to gut it out.
I decided to wear my wetsuit, as I entered the water it became one of the best decisions of the day. The swim was absolutely crazy. With the wind and the surf, I was unable to get any type of rhythm to my stroke whatsoever. Upon each set of strokes I would turn my head to catch a breath, as I had done thousands of times in training, only this time I would find a wave crashing into my face. Even though the sun was up, with the waves crashing all around, it felt like midnight and the set of a movie. Swimmers were being taken back to the beach via the jet skis monitoring the event left and right, the lifeguards on kayaks were fighting to keep their boats steady. I swam on, about 200 yards (in between the first two bouy markers) into the 1.2 mile swim I realized I had to figure something else out, so I switched to breaststroke, coming up for air in front of my body after each stroke proved to be much easier to combat the “seas”. The buoys designed to mark the course bobbed in and out of view beneath the waves. I trudged on for another 500 yards or so until the first turn. At this point the waves were coming out of the north, so I was swimming right into the surf. This was not going to plan. Throughout training the plan was to swim freestyle using almost all arms so I could conserve my legs enough for the 56 mile bike and 13.1 mule run that followed. The conditions didn’t allow this to be the case, although the breaststroke was great for breathing, it required a lot more effort, especially with my legs. As I passed the second yellow buoy on the top of the course, my left calf started cramping up.
This was the first time I considered giving up.
Scared, out of breath, stomach full of lake water, left leg in a painful cramp, I rolled to my back to try and regain any composure I had remaining. I thought then, of a lot of things, first, that I was about 0.6 miles into a 70.3 mile race, and I am on the brink of calling over the guards, how did it end up this way? Then I remembered this was the exact emotion that I had my first day of Oncology Exercise class. How did it end up this way, the former soccer player, runner and athlete who after heart disease and now cancer can’t even walk 100 feet without cringing in pain. Then I remembered how I kept going to exercise and built strength back up to the point that I felt good enough to sign up for this race. I rolled over to my back and swam backstroke for the next 3 buoys. As I approach the final turn, a lifeguard asked me if I was ok, I said yes, I have to keep going, he said ride those waves on in, I gave him a thumbs up and away I went. The last leg was much better, I was able to finally get some freestyle rhythm together, although once I did a wave would come over the top of me. I kept going, I was committed (re-committed), and ready to work my tail off to get out of the lake on my own.
I finished the swim in about 55 minutes, 15 minutes longer than I had expected and used about 5x more energy than I planned. As I ran up the beach and towards my buckets I saw my sister and brother-in-law, another boost of motivation to keep going.
The bike was awesome, I felt really good the whole way. I was able to maintain my training pace, ate enough that I felt good, and really just enjoyed the course. It was a beautiful, sunny and warm day. It was on the bike that I was able to gain some of that perspective that John spoke about. Without the “tragedies” of life, I wouldn’t be in the position to experience this great adventure, so maybe they weren’t such tragedies after all. The course was long, mostly straight, with gradual rolling hills. I was passing other riders and others were passing me. I felt like I belonged with the other athletes. It wasn’t an all out sprint ride, occasionally other riders and I would talk about how crazy the swim was and how we are happy to be on solid ground again.
The furthest I had ridden in training was about 45 miles in one session. As mile 50-52 approached I realized the extra 10 miles that I hadn’t trained to were going to be a decent amount of work, but I was committed. My legs were pretty tired at this point, but I pushed on. I pulled into the bike transition for another look at my buckets, and to change into my running shoes. Here I got the first glimpse of my mom and my girls. Heather and I locked eyes. There was so much joy in their faces.
My knee had been hurting the past two weeks with training runs, I’d been using KT tape to help stabilize it, and that seemed pretty effective. I taped my knee up that morning, and knew it wouldn’t last the whole race, so I had planned to change my tape between the bike and run. As I sat on top of my bucket, held up through the support of your words, I changed shoes and attempted to re-tape my knee. It wouldn’t stick. 4 hours of effort, it was hot, I was sweating, no matter what, the tape wasn’t going to stick. So I had a decision to make, either sit here and keep fussing with it, and risk my muscles tightening up (more than they already were) and not being able to get up, or I could just get up and go.
I started the run with a decent run/walk/jog strategy, my plan was always to mix those three, I knew I was in no condition to run the full 13.1 continuously. The plan was a 5 minute run, 30 second walk, 90 second jog, repeat, repeat, repeat. This was the plan I executed in my longest training run and it worked well. I ran into a small wrinkle with this plan though, my watch had died at mile 54 on the bike, so I was going by feel. Oddly enough, you may think you are running for 5 minutes and in reality, at this point, it was only about 30 seconds. So a few cycles in, I knew I had to change the game, so I just picked a spot as far as I could see, maybe a stop sign, light post, speed limit sign, anything. Run to that, then walk, then jog to the next landmark, then run again. My lack of consistency meant that I wasn’t in any type of rhythm so mentally I was drained. In turn my legs were too. At mile 1.5-2 or so, I realized my legs were done, it was time to walk.
This was another point where I thought about quitting.
I had neglected to wipe my feet very well after the swim and so I had sand in my socks, I was so pre-occupied with my knee I neglected to change socks between the bike and run, so now the sandy, wet socks created a painful walking experience, so I knew to complete this race, I needed to endure this pain and walk for the next 11 miles.
So I just kept walking.
One of the hardest parts of the Ironman (there are probably many) is that unlike other endurance sports (like marathons) headphones are not permitted, so your ability to distract yourself from what you are doing is very limited. You can’t crank the volume on your playlist and tune out the pain of your legs. And so as I walked along, counting step by step, a few hundred yards at a time, I thought about this crazy journey I’ve had. I thought about all of the people who supported me along the way. I thought about the good times, the bad times, and kept telling myself to breathe, and keep going. “You didn’t come out here to do anything other than finish, you’ve made it this far, so finish.” So I just kept walking.
The course had about a 5 mile loop on it that you did twice. So for the run portion you went about 2 miles, took a 5 mile lap, repeated that 5 mile lap, then headed 2 miles to the finish. The first lap was all about just learning what the course was like, where to go, where the aid stations were, etc. The second loop was about determination. In a previous post I wrote about my four steps I used to get through cancer: Information, Inspiration, Hardwork and Determination. I don’t know how else to describe it other than this second loop was about pure determination. Just putting one foot in front of the other, determined not to stop. At the aid stations I loaded up on water, gatorade, and whatever nutrition I could stomach, I knew if I stopped I wouldn’t be able to get going again, so I just kept moving.
Around mile 10 there is a very steep hill, at the top you turn towards the finish and head downhill for the last three miles. After this turn I look ahead and there is a guy walking up ahead of me. As I approach the man, I begin to read the back of his tri jersey:
In all fairness, I usually don’t do a whole lot of talking to other athletes at events. In truth, striking up conversations with strangers is not a strength of mine. But for whatever reason, I see this shirt and I’m curious. What’s this about, is it for you, a friend, are you part of a team, what’s the story? So I ask him.
Allow me to introduce you to Rob Atteberry.
Rob is a two time brain cancer survivor. Triathlete. Good Man.
An inspiration, a reminder that anything is possible. Someone who has turned the impossible into the not impossible.
We spent the next 2 miles walking together, sharing our stories. We talked about radiation, brain cancer, our jobs, our families. I shared with him my story of heart disease. At one point he told me “Ryan, we have to finish this race.” We were running close to the cutoff time for the race. “We are going to finish this thing together, let’s run the last mile, and finish this thing”. I remember telling him that I’m all in, but I don’t know if my knee will hold up. As we approached the last mile we jogged a little and walked a little, jogged a little and walked a little. Inch by inch, step by step, we were getting closer to the finish. Rob tells everyone along the race course cheering us on, that we are survivors. As we approach the final stretch we jog, together.
WE FINISHED TOGETHER.
To paraphrase the words of Dr. Fromke: God’s Grace is sufficient, God’s Grace was sufficient to get you through heart disease, God’s Grace was sufficient to get you through brain cancer. I believe without hesitation that it was God’s Grace that intervened on Sunday to bring Rob and I together to get us through this race.
Not everything went according to plan that day; the swim was tough, the bike was long and my knee didn’t want to run. In some aspects these “tragedies” could be viewed as bad. In the words of John O’Leary, which I heard just 48 hours earlier, with a little bit of perspective and and little bit of reflection, a little bit of prayer, a little bit of insight and wisdom, I look back at it and realize, I completed an Ironman race. I completed and Ironman race because I met a complete stranger in Rob. I met Rob as a direct result of the swim being tough, bike being long and my knee not wanting to run, so maybe those things aren’t all that bad after all.
As we crossed the finish line Rob tells the announcer our story, that we just met two miles ago and that we are both brain cancer survivors. The announcer’s voice booms to the crowd: “Ryan and Rob, SURVIVORS, two brain cancer survivors, just completed an Ironman, out here proving that ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE”. The same saying that is printed on the finisher’s medal.
If you didn’t already believe that sometimes in life things align for a reason, let me give you another example of how this weekend’s events aligned. On the bucket that held my transition gear, a co-worker wrote 3 words, which have changed their impact now that I’ve met Rob. You see, Rob’s tagline is Go! Go! Go! It’s on his jersey, he said it Sunday all the time, it’s what he uses to keep going. This same phrase was written on my bucket a few days earlier. I think it was meant to be.
To wrap this one up…To all of my supporters, my family, my friends, my doctors, my nurses, my co-workers, my co-survivors, to Heather and to Rob, I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for inspiring me, and for reminding me that I had it within me to make the impossible not impossible. I hope I can do the same for you someday!