Guest Blog: A Different Kind of Quest

By Jose Acevedo

Jose and Randy hiking.
Jose and Randy hiking.

On October 21st, 1991, I walked out of Malden hospital just outside of Boston with a new lease on life. Just 3 days earlier, I had attempted to end my life. It wasn’t a cry for attention–I was deeply depressed and honestly wanted to die. I recognized at the time that life had its ups and downs and thinking it through logically, as well as accounting for where I was emotionally, I felt that living simply wasn’t worth it. I honestly don’t know if everyone feels like this at some point, or if it is only a subset. Is it 1, 50, or 99% of us that faces deep depression at some point? Despite varied research findings, I don’t know and frankly, it’s irrelevant to my message. A good friend encouraged me to write down this story when I shared portions of it recently, and I realize that even if it only touches one person, it will have been worth it. As you read, please consider the possibility that you or someone you care about may need help and pushing through any awkwardness towards open dialogue could make all the difference.

Without jumping into all of the details, I’ll summarize the various aspects of my life that influenced my state of being at the time. My home life was terrible with a lot of bad history and I had very little relationship with my parents. I had made bad choices and alienated my closest friends. High school was over and I wasn’t on my way to college, so I felt adrift. The tipping point was reached when a close friend died in a tragic accident, leaving me to face questions of mortality for the first time, seemingly alone.

Alone. What a tricky little concept. When we’re there, in the roughest of times wrestling with our demons, some of us can’t see anything or anyone that we imagine could truly help. Or, we don’t want help for various reasons, including feeling unworthy like I did. In these moments, we feel utterly alone. Yet the reality is that we are surrounded by so many people and resources that can help. For perhaps the first time in human history, it’s nearly impossible to not trip over some well-meaning person or organization that can assist with just about any problem we might have – at least here in the states. In our darkest personal moments, there are almost always a number of people who care about us, either personally, or at least as fellow people.

Self portrait during dark times.
Self portrait during dark times.

When I was at my lowest point in October of 1991, it didn’t matter that my future had plenty of possibilities to be bright. I didn’t care that people loved me – I didn’t love myself. To be more precise, I think I probably hated myself. It’s tough to say exactly through the haze of time and change, but that’s likely true on some levels. Ironically, I had volunteered as a peer counselor in high school and had formal training on this kind of thing. I knew the symptoms of depression and resources available better than most but when it came down to it, I couldn’t see through the fog of my own depression and didn’t value my own life enough to cherish it. I vividly recall considering my options on the afternoon of Thursday, October 17th, when I hit rock bottom. I remember eyeing a local police officer and wondering if I could wrestle his gun away for personal use, sifting through toxic chemicals available in the basement to drink in volume, and watching trains roll by on nearby tracks. What if I failed to get the gun or the officer was hurt? What if the chemicals ruined my internal organs but left me alive, or the train crippled but didn’t kill me? No thank you. I share these details to make it clear that contrary to any sensationalized image of an obviously emotional time bomb ticking away its final moments, I was the picture of rationale thought that day, logically weighing exclusively bad options. In the end, it was 64 over the counter sleeping pills for me. I even went to 4 different stores to purchase them without unwanted attention.

Luckily, the human body doesn’t easily tolerate vast amounts of weird chemicals so you’re more likely to get really sick and vomit than anything else with this kind of attempt. One doctor would later tell me that the manufacturers of such pills put a little something nauseous in every pill, but I’ve heard and read conflicting reports since. Regardless, I wrote my suicide notes that Thursday night, overdosed, and went to sleep – hoping it would be forever. I can’t tell you exactly how sick I got that night or how close to serious harm. I only know that I was found in rough shape the next morning and rushed to the hospital.

My sketchy memories start that morning with trying to make the bed, while it and I were covered in vomit, trying fruitlessly to pretend to the caring person who found me that nothing was wrong. My next memories are in the hospital as my family arrived, then being transferred to another hospital by ambulance, meeting with various nurses, and trying to pee in a cup for them so they could determine what exactly was inside me. I even remember that I was such a mess, I tipped over a full cup of urine in my completely disoriented state, much to the dismay of the medical staff. I probably have about 60 seconds of recall scattered across 12 hours that day, before I started to come down from my really bad trip in Malden Hospital’s psychiatric ward. I do remember that as I tried to eat dinner that night, my arms were shaking quite a bit – a lingering side effect of the drugs still in my system. I was in a frightening place, surrounded by strangers, trying to play it cool, and I couldn’t even get food to my mouth. It’s still hard for me to think about to this day, without feeling minor emotional aftershocks.

I spent that weekend getting clean in the hospital, but only because I couldn’t sign myself out as an adult until Monday. I sat in group and individual therapy sessions, spoke superficially about my problems, and faked a desire to get better. That Saturday, a friend I barely knew at the time came and brought me clean underwear. It may seem like a small gesture, but it meant a whole lot to me and we grew much closer that coming year. Only years afterwards, when we had drifted apart like people do, was I able to express my gratitude for his act of kindness. It had sparked a desperately needed bit of gratitude in me and on some level, revealed a glimpse of the fact that people really did care. On Monday morning I signed the appropriate paperwork and wandered out into the next phase of my life, not much better equipped to face my depression than when I had walked in.

24 years later, this is a cry for attention. I know suicide prevention day/week/month is in the rear view mirror, but this is a topic that simply doesn’t ever get enough attention, so yes, I’m crying out. I’m crying for people to open their eyes and hearts to a massive hole in our society that last year reported the highest suicide rate in the US since 1987. Suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst 10-24 year olds, accounting for more deaths each year than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED. I’m crying for each of us in a position to help, that we would act with compassion, ask the uncomfortable questions, make ourselves available, and refuse to let the stigmas around mental illness and self-harm continue to be perpetuated. I’m crying for those struggling with depression to take one more chance at life and seek help.

Jose poses at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro
Reaching new heights on Kilimanjaro.

I was reminded on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro of a decision I came to years ago, after breaking free of my own depression. If I want my life to have any one specific impact, it is to share my experiences in ways that would help others live. That those in need would feel just a little less alone and seek help, and that those nearby would be more quick to offer it. Scaling Kili was one of the hardest challenges I have ever undertaken. I keep telling people, it was only about 30% physical and 70% mental. At that altitude, unless you are an elite athlete or you have trained a whole lot, your body simply starts to fail. You can breathe, but you aren’t getting enough oxygen per breath. By summit day, every single member of our team was dealing with multiple symptoms of altitude sickness – shortness of breath, fatigue, lack of appetite, nausea, light headedness, disorientation… you name it. You don’t make it to the top of Uhuru peak at 19,341 feet because you feel great – you make it because you choose to put one foot in front of the other, over and over again. You reach the top of the world because you persevere, even when you don’t want to anymore and feel like you can’t. Eventually, when you get back to normal altitude and you get more oxygen, you can truly appreciate what you’ve accomplished and be thankful. Before getting oxygen and rest however, I described the summit experience in the moment as the most defeated I have ever felt after a victory.

I sure am glad I went up that mountain, and that I came back down. It is not lost on me that mountain climbing is a great metaphor for dealing with adversity and just as we made our last push for the summit of Kilimanjaro during the deepest hours of night from midnight ‘til dawn, so were the worst years of my depression utterly dark. Just like I stumbled up through switchbacks for hours on end a month ago, wanting to quit and doubting I would ever reach the top, the years after my suicide attempt are somewhat of a blur. If you’ve ever been depressed, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If not, think of all the dreams you quickly forget each morning when you wake up. Try to remember them even 5 minutes after brushing your teeth, let alone years later, and you can’t even be certain the memories are of your own making vs something you may have seen on TV.

After leaving the hospital 24 years ago today, I politely refused medication and therapy. In my mind, if I couldn’t figure out how to survive without help, I shouldn’t live. What a stubborn idiot I was. I’m eternally grateful it all worked out in the end, but it was touch and go for years. If you knew me between 1991 and probably around … 1996, you knew a dead man walking. I was so depressed during that period that I barely recall the early 90s. Months and months of my past are simply lost based on how little I cared at the time. If you did know me back then, you may have caught a glimpse or a steaming heap of that particular symptom – how little I cared, for myself and others. There was a façade that I was trying super hard to make true, so congratulations if that’s what you saw. The truth is I was extremely selfish and made a further high volume of bad decisions during that phase of my life. What I did do however, that worked out in the end, was to choose one thing I hated about myself at a time and work to change it. It didn’t happen overnight and I still make mistakes today, but eventually the scales tipped the other way.

In the beginning, I thought about killing myself multiple times daily. That faded to once daily, then every few days, then weekly, and eventually monthly. It didn’t matter that good things were going on in my life or that I had great people who cared about me. I was secretly struggling with these emotions and at any moment, I could have ended it. One day, years later, I realized months had gone by and I simply didn’t feel that way anymore. I actually recall the occasion. I was on my way to work one morning and saw a small child passed out in the back seat of his mother’s car. Mom was navigating her station wagon around a rotary and this little boy was only loosely strapped into his car seat, such that he was leaned forward unconscious on the back of his mom’s seat. For whatever reason, this blissfully exhausted child mashed up against the driver’s seat at an awkward angle struck me as beautifully funny and I laughed out loud to myself. I realized in that moment that I had fallen back in love with life again. Perhaps not even again, but for the first time in my adult life.

Where am I even going with all of this? I suppose it comes back to a few key concepts:

  1. So many of us struggle with depression and specifically, thoughts of hurting ourselves or even taking our own lives. Even if only through the power of shared experience, you are never, ever alone.
  2. To borrow from other campaigns, it gets better. Or, I should say that it can. Ultimately, it comes down to choice. Depression may be a phase or a life long struggle, but there are choices you can make and steps you can take to make things better.
  3. Don’t ever be ashamed or afraid to ask for, accept, or offer help. Whichever one of those invisible boundaries you break through, it may just be the connection that makes all other things possible.

This whole experience is something I am completely available to talk about. If you feel alone and ever consider harming yourself, I hurt for you. Whether you are facing your own demons or thinking of a friend, please don’t hesitate to reach out if I can help in any way. I own no capes and can’t solve your problems, but I can find time to listen really well and offer my own perspective if you think that may help. Whether it’s me, someone else you know, or specifically someone you don’t, seek help. No one should have to face this by themselves. I’m not a professional in this space and contrary to my own journey, I strongly recommend seeking professional help, but we can talk about that and other options you have. That’s the key: you always have options, no matter what it feels like. Speaking of help, if someone makes the offer, they’ve made a choice – they’ve put themselves out there. They care on some level and have broken through at least some levels of discomfort to be there for you. Try not to dismiss these offers off hand, as is so easy to do for various reasons from embarrassment to attempted selflessness. Respect their choice and effort – see where it may lead. I didn’t accept as many offers as I should have and my road was much harder as a result, needlessly, for me and probably others.

I’m lucky enough that after facing this head on for over half a decade in my late teens and early twenties, I was able to pick up the pieces and move on, depression-free since. I’m still a passionate and oft-times fickle person, and I still make plenty of mistakes – just ask my closest friends and family. But for years, I have experienced a love of life and found joy in the little things. I’ve been able to navigate a successful career, build loving relationships with people I care about, enjoy the present deeply, and look forward to so much more in the future. That’s not necessarily possible for everyone who battles depression, but various strategies for balance and opportunities for happiness exist if you choose life.

If you need emergency help, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline @ 1-800-273-8255. If you aren’t in immediate danger and think trading perspectives with me would be of any assistance on your journey, please email me by clicking here.

I know this was a long read and may have been tough in portions. Thank you for taking the time to get all the way through. Thanks as well to my dear friend Randy Pierce, who has been an incredible source of strength and support to me through the years – including the invite for this guest blog post.

Be well,
jose

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Autumn’s World Tour – Fact and Fantasy!

By Randy Pierce

Autumn sings with Billy Joel!
Autumn sings with Billy Joel!

While there’s still so much more to tell about our own African adventures, Autumn wasn’t just left home to sing the blues, despite what our playfully adjusted image to the right might suggest!  She is due a little attention because her part of the experience was very important to us as well as rather worthy. On the lighter side, I suggested to our social media manager, Greg Neault, that perhaps he could Photoshop some fun pictures of Autumn’s virtual world tour to post intermittently while we were away. He took the challenge and created a fun series of adventures which our Facebook  and Twitter followers were able to enjoy while we were away. We include all those images in this blog for your enjoyment.

Meanwhile Autumn actually was staying with our friend and Guiding Eyes trainer Chrissie Vetrano. Chrissie originally trained the Mighty Quinn and also brought Autumn to me to work us into the team we are today. Of her own kindness she was taking our precious girl into her home with the promise of plenty of love and attention from the humans of the house and Chrissie’s lovable lab Malcolm. Her accommodations were more like Club Med for dogs than our own home and pictures and video clips of Autumn crossed the Atlantic regularly to keep us posted on her being well loved and tended.

Autumn does a hula in Hawaii.
Autumn does a hula in Hawaii.

During the days, Autumn would travel with Chrissie to Guiding Eyes to enjoy their accommodations and a little bit of extra work along with her vacation. The poignant part of this process is the ongoing care and attention which Guiding Eyes brings to all their teams and dogs. Their work doesn’t end with the training of their incredible Dog Guides but continues throughout the lives and work of the teams. While I’ll never forget the over-the-top care and support they provided to Quinn and me during his battle with cancer, I’m similarly appreciative of the demonstrated way in which they provide this to all handlers and dogs. They were all too glad to accommodate, ensuring our girl would have the best of care in all ways while we were away. She even returned freshly bathed and pampered and so very eager to see and snuggle with us again.

Autumn with Pats players
Autumn snaps some photos with the Pats!

The real key to any organization is always the people (and pups!) who make it great. In this I end as I began, and endured our time away from Autumn with the incredible appreciation I had knowing Autumn was in Chrissie’s so very capable and attentive care. I’m not sure I can ever be thankful enough for the gifts of Guiding Eyes in the dogs and people they’ve brought into my life. I will say with full conviction that I am very, very grateful and hope that every day the open way in which Autumn and I share our teamwork with the world helps to showcase the power of a great organization and the people behind them. Meanwhile, as the photos show – we have a little fun along the way!

Autumn at the Taj Mahal
Next stop: Taj Mahal!
Autumn sits on a ledge at Notre Dame
Autumn saunters over to Notre Dame and hangs with the gargoyles.
Autumn poses beside a large canyon
And finally, Autumn ends an exhausting week taking in some excellent views at Zion National Park!
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The Elephant in the Room and other Secrets of our African Expedition

By Randy and Tracy Pierce

Our African Expedition to Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater was an absolutely amazing experience. While it is not reasonable to chronicle it entirely in a single blog, Tracy and I thought we’d share a couple of insider questions to each other to help you understand just a little of the experience.

Randy and Tracy share a kiss on the Serengeti.
Randy and Tracy share a kiss on the Serengeti.

Randy: While the elephant looming behind our kiss is eye-catching, there’s another elephant in the room in that we did not summit together. Would you be willing to share a bit about that?

Tracy: Oh, dive right into the tough questions! So I did not reach the summit, which was a very tough choice for me. I  spent much of the trip plagued by headaches and shortness of breath. These symptoms caused me to progress far slower than the rest group so I requested a head start on summit night. About three hours into the hike (2am) the rest of the group caught up and easily passed us. By 4am (5 hours in) I was feeling extremely dizzy and was starting to stumble, after about 45 minutes of this I began to question whether I should continue. My teammate Maureen and guide Goodlove encouraged me to keep trying. I pushed on, hoping that sunrise would reinvigorate me. Sunrise came (amazing, gorgeous) but I had no rejuvenation. Finally at 7 am, after 8 hours of climbing I decided that if I kept pushing I would not be able to make it back down. I felt that I made a smart decision that was right for me and was proud that I persevered for hours and came within 10 minutes of Stella Point  (5685 meters). In hindsight I wrestle with feelings of being left out of the experience that the rest of the team shared, yet, I also learned that I reached high enough in my climb to have technically reached Stella Point and I am mighty proud to have climbed so high.

Tracy: Day two was some of the toughest footing we experienced can you share some thoughts on how you felt at the end of the day?

Randy: Day one had particularly easy footing with water bars being the main challenge so in contrast day 2 was a little bit of a wake-up call. It still wasn’t any different than most of the trails in the White Mountains upon which we train. As we were climbing over 10,000 feet there was a constant barrage of incredible views and that gave us pause for photographs and side explorations commonly. As we neared the end of the uphill climb which was handled in the entirety by a strong and motivated Jose, we hit a few interesting side scrambles with a drop off. This required us to be slow to manage the risks of the falls which might have otherwise been a problem. Ultimately it was not the most tricky footing for me on the trip but in comparison to day 1 it was a slow down reality check on our pace even before altitude really reduced our speed.

Jose and Randy Day Two

Randy: Do you have a particularly powerful moment from the Kilimanjaro hike which you might also like to share?

Tracy: I think there were two experiences that I’d share. The first was on day two which is arguably the hardest 2.8 mile route I have ever hiked. I was hiking ahead of you and Jose which provided frequent occasions where I would be worried about how the two of you would navigate extremely tough footing. I occasionally stopped long enough for the two of your to catch up so I would know that you were well. The combination of fear and pride at what the two of you accomplished together will be with me until I die. Such powerful emotions do not fade easily.

The second powerful moment was on the Barranco wall. We camped at the base of the 800′  Barranco wall on day three where it loomed imposing and scary. I woke feeling more than a touch apprehensive. Once we started on the wall I realized that the rock scrambling that we experienced in the Whites really set me up to tackle the wall strongly, although I was still scared of the notorious Kissing wall. We navigated a particularly tough spot and I mentioned out loud that if that one was so tough how hard would the Kissing wall be? That was when my guide told me that we had just done the Kissing wall. I felt so triumphant to have handily tackled something that I’d been so worried about.

Tracy: As we know, summit day was extremely hard. You had some unexpected difficulties while trying to make the lower camp, will you share that story?

Randy: Absolutely I’ll share what all those on the hike already understand all too well. Summit day was incredibly difficult in many ways. We’d had little, or in many cases no, sleep; we had too little nutrition as feelings of nausea hamper the ability to eat. We hiked in the dark which restricted my guides abilities and as the oxygen thinned it was harder on all of us to find ways to keep working. Seven hours of hiking brought us to the summit with nobody feeling well or strong. Still things were good enough to savor the sunrise and the summit before we began the long descent. Down is almost always harder on me though the skree of the upper levels wasn’t too bad. Few guides had much strength to guide long and Jose and Rob had spent much of their efforts in getting me to the summit. Greg Neault really stepped in at a critical time. Unfortunately the last half mile before Barafu (high camp) was truly the most difficult for my feet and we worked incredibly hard to get through it. With my headache pounding at impressive levels, food reserves non-existant it would have been great to get a refreshing break at Barafu. Unfortunately plans called for us to rest briefly, get lunch and then hike six difficult trail miles back to a more reasonable elevation at Mweka camp. I was unable to sleep or eat and while Greg put in two of the miles guiding, we switched to Jose with me feeling more and more nauseated, light headed and struggling to give the focus I need to walk even a moderate trail. Two full days of no sleep along with the mental and physical exertion caught up with me and I lost consciousness for a moment, collapsing behind Jose.

Once again a strength of the entire experience was the incredible dedication and capability of the Climb Killi guides and porters. Our main guide, Emmanuel, and one of the assistants, Vader, walked beside me with our arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders for steady support. The trail became a washed out stream bed which is amongst the worst for my making time. We plodded on slowly and with little progress towards my recovery until we neared 12,000 feet. Finally the nausea lifted enough for me to hold down a couple of Jenn’s sports drinks and keep me conscious through to the final camp. I collapsed into the tent and slept through until morning with again no dinner. While this concerned the guides, Tracy and the team understood I could eat a hearty breakfast but sleep was my essential need. This allowed full rejuvenation and a strong hike out on our final day which was blessedly back on trail which is more easily managed. I’m certainly not proud of how rough it was for me but I’m thankful for how much the team supported the efforts necessary to let me struggle through ultimately enough. A very special thanks to Michelle for the constant medical care along the way and to you, Tracy, for having our tent so well ready for my essential collapse.

Randy: My next question involves our team.  As I was so commonly connected to a primary guide and each of us formed our own interactions, I wonder what you took away from the development of our team?

Tracy: That is an great question. I knew every member of the team to varying degrees prior to our trip, with the exception of Maureen. A wonderful development was that Maureen was by far my biggest, most pleasant surprise.  We found that we hike at similar paces and have similar hiking styles and really got along famously. As to the rest of the team, I loved how quickly the entire team settled into a fun camaraderie coupled with kindness and helpfulness. It is true that sharing epic adventures with a group of people creates a bond that is both amazing and unrivaled. I will cherish this group of people for their sense of fun, adventure and their willingness to help their fellow teammates!

Tracy: One of my favorite, most celebratory moments was the singing that we were greeted with at the Mweka gate on our completion of the trip. Can you share a time that was most celebratory to you?

Randy: You know I’m never shy so I’ll share two very different experiences which took place on the same day, I believe. On Wednesday night we camped at the Barranco Camp with the massive and intimidating 800 foot wall directly ahead of us. This was a hands to the trail slightly technical scramble for much of the morning. Our entire team has enough familiarity with scrambles in the white Mountains that we treated the entire journey like the East Osceola chimney. We were quick and capable such that at the top of the wall we stopped to celebrate together. It was a great bonding moment of achievement and pride for how well everyone had worked. I relished that feeling then and still.

Later that evening we were in the mess tent sharing a dinner when Greg asked Rob to read his guest blog that had been released back home. It was powerful and moving on so many fronts and led to more team emotional sharing which brought us together on an even deeper level. We had plenty of trials ahead but the team was cemented into a strong and caring enough core to undertake that challenge together.

Randy: The Serengeti was so vastly different from what I expected and definitely an incredible experience. What surprised you most about the Safari adventure?

Tracy: The Serengeti was amazing and the one thing that surprised me the most was just how close most of the animals were. Whether it was hyenas or lions sleeping right off the road, or elephants passing behind our Landrover almost close enough to touch.

While this is just the barest insight into the experiences of only two of our eleven team members, it hopefully provides you with a little flavor as well as the incentive to reach out to any and all of our team for the rest of the many stories. Life has the potential to be an amazing series of adventures whether by hearing or living the stories. As in many things, however, they are always the sweeter when shared together. Thank you Tracy for sharing life’s adventures with me!

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The most perilous peak

By Randy Pierce

“You never know what’s around the corner. It could be everything. Or it could be nothing. You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day you look back and you’ve climbed a mountain.
–  Tom Hiddleston

Team all together in Aurusha before the hike
The team hangs out all together in Aurusha before their epic climb! An important, supportive community.

I’m writing this before departing to Tanzania for my attempt to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. When we publish this, the success or failure of that summit goal will be known. To me though, the success began with the belief that it was a worthy experience and the confidence to choose to try for it. Hundreds of people with whom I speak often relay to me their lack of belief in their own abilities to attempt a variety of things, sometimes within the realm of common activities for the majority of people. What is it which allows doubt or fear to paralyze people in their pursuits? Why even are people so easily consumed by their own lack of confidence?

One of the simplest approaches to easing this challenge is to surround ourselves with people who encourage and support our ideas. Our basic community has such a powerful impact upon us and we forget that we ultimately choose the people with whom we share our lives. I have a marvelous accompaniment of supportive friends and for me it constantly makes a difference. I, in turn, encourage myself to always be that supportive influence in their lives as well. If we are commonly given doubt from the outside, it’s simply no wonder it might ease into us and impact our own thoughts and feeling for ourselves.

Secondly, I believe we so easily focus upon the negatives in our world. Yes, I too have many doubts and some fears which could easily paralyze me if I gave them the chance. I choose to focus on the means of resolution to challenges, of the rewards and benefits possible rather than those doubts and fears. It isn’t that I do not realistically evaluate them and identify the crucial points–it’s that I dwell on solutions more than problems and rewards instead of failures. Whether this approach is of help to anyone else, I cannot be certain, but I do know that in my pursuit of my own peak potential and my well wish for all of your similar abilities to reach new heights, I think the most perilous peak of all is the choice not to climb!

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Frustrations and challenges as an injury arrives

By Randy Pierce

Randy and Jose nearing the finish at their National marathon Championship victory in December 2014
Randy and Jose nearing the finish at their National marathon Championship victory in December 2014.

It’s so easy and fun to share success and celebration and so much more difficult to report on setbacks, failures and injury. Very often I can use determination, willpower, and perseverance to overcome many obstacles and achieve fantastic results. I think occasionally this creates an illusion for some that I do not get mired in frustration or failure at times. Right now I’m in the midst of one of those challenging times which has some ramifications I’m still exploring and trying to find ways to manage properly. I hope it may lend a beneficial perspective for people to get a look inside one of these difficult times for me.

Several weeks ago, I finished a run through Mine Falls which had gone poorly due to some type of stomach bug. As I recovered from that a few days later, I noticed my lower calf into the Achilles tendon was unusually tight. I worked at stretching it but it was fairly minor so I didn’t worry too much. A five-mile outside run with a friend had loosened it up nicely and alleviated my concerns. With Kilimanjaro looming, I broke in new hiking boots on a series of mountain climbs of ever-increasing duration and the tightness seemed manageable through those.

Yet, every faster run or hill-based run soon had the tightness returning and worsening. I have a fair bit of neuropathy in my legs which can mask pain, but soon it was clear to me that the Achilles was sensitive to the touch at an unacceptable level. It was relatively pain-free without my weight on it, but when would lean my knee over my feet with weight, that stretch would be very painful. Every morning I began to hobble a little more. When going down stairs, the back foot would really let me know it was unhappy. It was time for some professional medical explorations.

I halted all training, began a regimen of 4x’s-day ice and Achilles-specific massage while awaiting the appointments. Two weeks of rest with those treatments improved things notably but it hadn’t gone away.  The doctors initially suggested bilateral Achilles tendonitis and a specialist modified the diagnosis to bilateral Achilles tendinopathy. The physical therapy began that same day and continues for a bit of time still ahead.

The harder news is that this condition has an age component and I’m certainly getting older. Often this is not a curable situation as much as it is a managed care approach to minimize the impact. While it absolutely does not presently halt any of my athletic goals ahead, it does add a component of uncertainty.

Kilimanjaro remains absolutely certain at this point. It’s the California International Marathon and the USABA Championships which, while still likely, will require me to be very attentive to continually working with and adjusting a plan for managing the injury and easing into the right training for that injury. My original plan had August 3 as the start of my formal training, but I have not yet even been able to reach out to guides because of the uncertainty of how/when to begin training properly. I may still be a few weeks away from knowing more.

Friend and 2020 Vision Quest secretary John Swenson guides Randy through a water crossing on Mt Liberty.
Friend and 2020 Vision Quest secretary John Swenson guides Randy through a water crossing on Mt Liberty.

So, you may ask, how am I managing my approach?

Overall, I’m fine mentally and emotionally. There is certainly frustration, but I’ve already begun the shift of mentality to accepting my present condition and exploring every possible means to go forward successfully. Well, perhaps not every possible means, as while there are many marvelous home remedies folks might begin suggesting, I need to reasonably limit myself to a targeted plan that has earned my confidence. I’m on the path of that targeted plan right now and will continue to research and undertake with my full determination.

Does that mean I’m not still a little down when my foot hitting the floor each morning gives a little pain and tightness? Of course I feel that frustration, but now I’m as quick to reach for the leash and try the stretch techniques to help it improve and continue to heal. It’s the small steps forward with the long-term goal still in my vision but not overshadowing the need to attend to a lot of small details to manage the immediate challenge. After all, you don’t get to those glorious summits without learning how to manage all the twists and turns of the trail along the path, without learning to get up after each fall and without a little consideration for how to ensure we fall a little less along the way.

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Top Ten List for 2020 Vision Quest

By Randy Pierce

Fireworks
Happy Independence Day from 2020 Vision Quest!

David Letterman may have retired but we can still have a little summertime fun while reflecting upon the top things 2020 Vision Quest has meant to me. Perhaps you’ll have a different order or a few new items to share with us?

10. “Watching” fireworks on July 4, 2010…
…from atop Mt. Washington on our first hike of our quest!

9. The Peak Potential event of  2012
My Dad died that very morning and I needed all the love and support given to me by our community to get me through that night. We had so much to celebrate from the year and folks helped me do that while barely holding it all together.

8. Our final steps to the summit of Flume for our All-Season 48 finish
This was all the more special as Tracy, John, Quinn, and I shared the moment and those final steps together!

7. Ringing the bell for Oberto’s Hero of Summer at the Tough Mudder in LA!
A slightly selfish moment of appreciation for an accomplishment and experience which only happens when you are willing to truly reach beyond comfort zones with all that you can give to the experience!

6. National Championship at the California International Marathon 
Really? This takes sixth? It might even be lower except the teamwork and pride with Jose elevated the experience tremendously as did Tracy’s finish on the same day.

5. Atop Cannon Mountain for the final peak of my single Winter 48 completion
I still hear “Beautiful Day” playing and the cheers and laughter of a perfect winter day.

4. The Boston Marathon
Not just the finish but the entire experience leading to it, through it, and even the aftermath. I worked very hard for the goal and with a purpose well reported elsewhere. The pinnacle moment for me was cresting Heartbreak Hill but I applaud the entire experience.

3. Quinn’s legacy of achievement, dedication, and devotion
Hard to believe this isn’t number one as the boy is certainly top in my heart always. His impact to 2020 Vision Quest will always be integral to our success.

2. Feeling the steady growth and considerable support of an inspired community of friends old and new
I did not have the vision to fully appreciate how many people and places would find our work resonates so well for them.We’ve accomplished so much together and for me the lesson is clear that it’s always the people who matter the most… and for me pups are people too!

And the #1 aspect of 2020 Vision Quest for me thus far has been:

1. Knowing the positive impact of our school presentations on over 42,000 students and counting!
I never realized how much this part of the quest would positively impact our world and me personally. It is the heart of our entire mission to me. When the work is overwhelming in various ways or other challenges emerge, I always come back to the letters from students and teachers to build my strength and my belief that what we do is worth every bit of effort and more.

The truth is there are so many other worthy moments from learning to ski with Brent Bell, Century bicycle rides, Owl’s Head slide, Mt. Welch, Ms. Autumn’s arrival, and so many more. Hiking with Tedy Bruschi didn’t make this list? Winning an Emmy Award with Willem Lang and Windows to the Wild? What about the release of “Four More Feet” and the incredible friendship of Justin and Dina? Well, that’s why maybe all of you might share a different moment or aspect of what we do. I can tell you that handing a donation to Guiding Eyes and NHAB every year is an important foundation of our mission and one from which I take a great amount of joy as well.

The reality is we are now over half way to the year 2020 from our inception and I could not be prouder of the team and community helping us to reach for and achieve this dream every day. Thank you and Happy Independence Day to all of us celebrating our independence in so many varied ways.

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Mt. Kilimanjaro looms large

By Randy Pierce

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” – Henry Ford

Mount Kilimanjaro is the is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Mount Kilimanjaro is the is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Our early plans for this epic climb have grown considerable as our winter training hike demonstrated. Each of us has been in various ways attending the training and conditioning we will all want for the successful experience we hope is ahead. Just four short months remain before we will board planes and fly to Tanzania to begin the official expedition. The questions have begun in earnest and our teamwork must now also begin in earnest: What route are we taking? How many days will it take? Where is Autumn going to be staying? What’s the most challenging part? When do we summit? Will we have updates?

The truth is most of these already have answers and I’ll provide more now but the full trip sharing is still ahead as we must first finalize all the details of our teamwork ahead.

We are working with an expedition company called “Climb Kili” and will be using the most commonly traveled Machame Route up the mountain. We expect to depart the United States near the middle of September and return in very early October. The climb itself will involve six days of ascent with a summit planned for dawn after an all-night hike under a full moon. The sunrise from atop the tallest standalone mountain in the world has an incredible allure, though we all recognize the amount of work involved for all of us to experience this together.

Group shot on Franconia Notch
Group shot on Franconia Notch on a training hike last winter.

Speaking of which, Autumn is not joining us for the trip as the impact of low oxygen upon a dog is something we do not understand well enough to undertake at this point. She has plans to stay with Chrissie Vetrano of Guiding Eyes where she will get incredible love and care as well as some potential opportunities to show off at Guiding Eyes for the Blind!

While we are there we have decided to undertake a four-day safari following our climb. It is unlikely that many of us will ever have such an opportunity again and thus it was an easy part of the plan. There are so many safari variations and we are building ours to take advantage of the best regions for the season we are there.

So what can we do to train? We are all building aerobic conditioning. Running, biking, and climbing locally are certainly some ways. Stair climbers and treadmills can help though we simply need to get time out in the mountains as often as possible this summer as well. We have an oxygen-restricting mask to help simulate the low oxygen of higher altitudes when it is literally one breath per step to ensure the muscles have the oxygen they need to function. Equipment research and purchasing is happening. Finding ways to fully share all of the experience ahead is one of our goals. We’ve even heard from a company giving consideration to sponsoring our trip on our more significant scale but all of that remains for future development. Today we just want to share a little more and invite any of your questions or comments about the great adventure ahead!

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Kilimanjaro team building on Franconia Notch

By Randy Pierce

“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.” – Barry Finlay

Group shot on Franconia Notch
Group shot on Franconia Notch.

Our rather epic adventure to summit the tallest standalone mountain in the world should become reality this year. We have assembled a team of 10 friends to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in September 2015. January 30 brought 8 of the team together for a practice hike in the frigid Franconia Notch.

Originally we hoped the steady steeps of Mt. Lafayette would be excellent work and the views a worthy celebration, but as temperatures began to drop and wind speeds began to rise we adjusted plans to avoid the 2 miles above tree line in dangerous conditions. Hiking just across the notch Lonesome Lake trail and the Kinsman Mountains allowed for more sheltered work which would still have team building challenge and experience. As we assembled by the trailhead, the lowest temperature noted dropped all the way to -8 along with winds to make it more challenging still. This was below the range of our comfort and we expected the hike might be curtailed yet chose to at least work towards the well traveled trail up to the frozen tarn.

Frost-covered Tracy looks at the camera and takes the lead.
Frost-covered Tracy takes the lead!

Tracy took the lead quickly so we could begin keeping warm with the exertions, but many snow drifts quickly had her stopping to don her snowshoes. The long legs of Rob and Randy stayed with micro-spikes to the start of the tree-sheltered incline which made the trail more packed from the frequent daily trips to the AMC hut. This also eased the worst of the wind chills and we all came together along the trail enjoying the beauty of the snowscape and mountain escape.

Autumn guided me with enthusiasm to be working and moving. Pups and people were fine in motion but every stop brought a uncomfortable chill for both Dina and Autumn, the two dogs on the trip. Worse, Dina’s furry paws kept binding snowballs and neither her boots nor the musher’s wax seemed to be helping her.

Rob and Randy cross the bridge.
Rob and Randy cross the bridge.

Thus just before reaching the lake, Michelle turned around and the group consensus suggested that Lonesome Lake would be our turn around point as well. Those few who braved the gusty Arctic chill of the winds on the lake did so mostly to appreciate temperatures well below what we are ever likely to experience during our African journey. We all then headed down with Autumn and me managing much of the down on our own, knowing we had Cat and Tracy ahead of us and the main crew of Rob, Greg, Frank, and Cathy not too far behind. It was a fun part of our trip to work the trail entirely on our own. Once caught up though Rob Webber took over guiding to help us make a faster return to the warmth below. While vastly shortened as a hike, it allowed us to explore the group dynamic for making decisions and supporting each other in fairly difficult conditions.

We spent the rest of the day together feasting, planning the final timing for our travel, Safari, and just having fun. Whether it was a teaser to some of the deeper questions and answers we may share on the trail or the laughter and competition of Catch Phrase, it was quickly apparent that the friendship held by some quickly led to a warm and welcoming friendship for all to share. It’s just over six months away, but it finally feels like the real beginning to our journey together has arrived. We’ve set the next date for a little hike and hang out work. I’m excited to bring the full team steadily together and make the dream a reality. Thank you to the entire Killy Team: Rob, Jose, Greg, Tracy, Michelle, Cathy, Frank, Maureen, and Cat!

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Chocorua: An Autumn Hike with Friends!

By Randy Pierce

Autumn had previously climbed Mt. Agamenticus with students from S. Berwick Middle School, Pack Monadnock with a film crew for a documentary premiering in Maine this October, and Avalon, Field, and Tom with long-time friends. On this her fourth hike, she got to hike with Mom (Tracy!), John, Michelle, Kat, and of course that rather tall blind guy she kindly chooses to guide.

Perhaps of higher import to many of the team, Michelle’s dog Dina and John’s Guiding Eyes-released Frisco were also taking the journey with us. As the season of autumn draws ever closer, the mountains are already gifting cooler days which are ideal for hiking. The clouds were dramatic early while the weather only suggested a chance of rain showers later in the afternoon. We gathered a little later at the trailhead of Champney Falls and set to the gentle first miles of trail.

Autumn had been whining in excitement from the moment we stepped out of the car and had a bit too much eager determination to get into the woods. Putting the harness onto her calmed her down a bit, but not enough. A short but human-guided rock-stepping stream crossing started the trip and probably put her focus even a little further away, such that the first few hundred feet of work along the trail suggested she was tending her job but at a slightly more distracted level than is ideal.

I was making efforts to gain a better focus and enjoying that we were quickly traversing the easier footing when the first stumble arrived. She quickly was reminded that it was time to put her full attention on the job and aside from a few too tempting sniffs on the side she did this very well. Kat and Michelle had last seen my hiking when we finished our 48 on Mt. Liberty and Flume. Both quickly shared kind compliments on how far Autumn had come in such a short time. There’s no doubt that the learning and work done with Quinn enables me to be more aware of all the subtle aspects of possible Dog Guide communication through the harness. We glided nicely along for much of what many would struggle to believe is possible for a Dog Guide team. It does make me reflect in some appreciative humor on how many cues Quinn likely gave to me early which I was slow to learn. Despite this, Autumn doesn’t have it exactly easy as she not only fills big paw-prints but has some serious work.

Randy and Autumn at waterfall smilingThe cascading Champney Falls were a pretty side trail diversion which began the more challenging part of the route. Autumn’s confidence to guide forward no matter who is in front or behind paid some dividends as Tracy is freed to hike at her best comfort rather than needing to stay in front as Quinn effectively required.

A few stretches of trail were difficult enough and Autumn had worked hard enough that it made sense to give her a break and call upon a human Guide. Michelle undertook her first round of that leadership and adapted naturally to the many new perspectives and approaches required. I’ve become steadily more easy to guide as my understanding of trails and my own work grows but I’m always amazed by those willing to undertake the focus, effort, and attention to be a human Guide. Autumn was quite happy to resume her role and bring us ever closer to the summit.

The final half mile or so of the trail is up a moderately challenging summit cone and ensures all who travel get an appreciation for the work required. Here Autumn did some guiding and John did some guiding as we attempted to keep peak efficiency. Clouds were getting more dramatic and we wanted to enjoy the windy and cool summit prior to getting into tree cover for lunch. The summit was surprisingly crowded with hikers and dogs despite the trail having been lighter. Autumn’s distraction value was too high for safe work when combined with the realistic challenge we were facing. It was work to get her attention and a reminder why training is on-going in all facets of our work.

Group at summit

At the summit it was time to relax and appreciate the accomplishment, each of us in our own way. For Autumn it was a surprising indiscretion as she truly marked her territory in the ways of generations of the canine species!

For the generally more difficult descent, teamwork came in as three dogs were juggled on leash by Kat, Michelle, and Tracy while John helped me manage the most challenging of the down terrain. Lunch was a joyous celebration of food and pup interactions as we found a fairly private slab of stone to savor all that a mountain’s majesty inspires within us.

I attempted to work Autumn down the difficult dance of stopping for steps as I felt them out and then guided ahead. She did well for a bit but showed that mentally it was more demanding and she grew weary. John swooped in as the stunt double and Autumn was happy to be a bit of a dog as John’s skills at guiding enabled us to quickly traverse most trails. We kept up with the group for the most part and all had one of our strongest hikes.

When late on the trail rain began to pelt the tree canopy over us, we still kept sufficiently dry as to fully appreciate the day. Only as we cleared the final stream and reached our cars did the rain begin heavier and by then it was off to Flatbread Pizza Company and a guilt-free repast worthy of any hiker’s feast! Sometimes, it’s just about enjoying life and the friends with whom we share the trails.

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Just an Autumn Day in the Life

Randy sitting with Autumn curled at his feet.
Randy sitting with Autumn curled at his feet

By Randy Pierce

Today is Tuesday, September 9 – at least it is as I write this. After posting a couple of topic options on my Facebook feed the results quickly suggested people might prefer to get a glimpse into an ordinary day. While it’s not quite the Autumn day I suggest, in this house, every day is an Autumn day.

Still groggy from our late Monday night Hudson Lions Club meeting, the alarm tones at 5 a.m. since Tracy needs to be out early to avoid the traffic on her way to Duvine Bicycle Adventures in Somerville, MA. That’s all the signal Autumn needs to announce that her face licking, tail wagging energy will unleash upon me should I not begin the day with a trip outside for her needs and then her breakfast. This day, like many, will have a cup of coffee included as I sit by the computer and check messages to ensure the day is still on track. So why not join us for the day?

5:30 a.m.  Autumn relieved and fed first, then water, with banana and a quick breakfast for me at the PC. How many emails can I manage before the next tasks call?

6:00 a.m.  Dynamic warm-up and stretch in preparation for run training.

6:30 a.m.  5.45 mile run with Mary Guiding me and Autumn sulking at home.

7:30 a.m.  Shower and second breakfast for this calorie-counting (albeit tall) hobbit in training.

8:30 a.m.  Prioritize the To Do list which today includes:

  1. Response to Rick Stevenson on 2020 Vision Quest front page layout change in progress: School’s Back, Pet Tales E-book, Tuff Mudder, Corporate Presentation, TED Talk, UNH Award, Miles4Quinn and such!
  2. Response to Peak Potential auction donation.
  3. NHAB strategic planning update for Board of Directors.
  4. Sneak in a New England Patriot news update.
  5. Coordinate run training for rest of week.
  6. Finalize notes for Bank of NH keynote presentation scheduled for Thursday 9/11.
  7. Follow up on Kilimanjaro Preparations as team met on Mt. Monadnock last weekend and a few new members are being included. (Today is likely one year to the day from when we will summit Kilimanjaro, the tallest stand-alone mountain in the world. That’s pretty significant to me in many ways but a sign of just how every seemingly ordinary day can be connected to some very significant days as we choose to live our life in whatever experiences call to us.)
  8. Work with Sarah Toney via email to ensure 2020 Vision Quest social media plans are on track and she has the information she needs to best help our charity efforts online.
  9. Call Mom at her hospital room to coordinate her physical therapy plans and possibility of going home by end of week.
  10. Start draft of blog for Beth Foote and open up topic to Facebook.
  11. Check Status of Apple Watch in my search for a fully accessible wearable fitness device.
  12. Propose a new fundraising idea that has been on hold to a potential volunteer while giving an edit to a student’s note about what they believe we do as a 2020 Vision Quest team.
Autumn at play running with a toy.
Autumn at play.

11:00 a.m.  Hey, where is the day going? Start laundry, water and relieve Autumn who is impatient and deservedly so. Take a 2-mile walk to appease the girl, my legs and our practice time together as training with a Dog Guide is an every day opportunity to learn and grow as a team. Today’s challenge was wanting more time outside as the weather is beautiful. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

12:00 p.m.  Autumn follows the Quinn rules of “Playment plans!” This means after every bit of harness work we break out a toy and reward her with play. She is eager and energetic while I’m thinking about my own lunch (see hobbit comment from above!)

1:00 p.m.  Back to the computer for more work. I’ll spare you the details save that Apple’s info release is followed via Twitter feed on my iPhone. This makes my work a little distracted but 2020 Vision Quest usually involves 10 hours of work for me during the day. We interrupted to confirm the consult with Mom’s medical team and plan her return trip home on Friday afternoon.

4:00 p.m.  Feed, water and relieve the Autumn after a play session entirely intended to break me away from work mode. A burst of home chores to precede Tracy’s arrival and set the stage for our various discussions of the evening. While Tracy will have her own run training evening plans, I must research the weekend’s hike of Mt. Chocorua, a potential first-time yoga class on Friday, our “Iso-Abs” workout for tonight and the plan for our Peak Potential Dinner and Auction meeting on Sunday.

Autumn lies on top of Randy, pinning him to the floor.
Autumn shows Randy the price for lying down on the job!

Usually around 100 new emails will arrive during the day, requiring me to sort and respond as appropriate for the scheduling and planning of school and corporate presentations as well as general charity management. All this and it’s voting day here in our home city of Nashua, NH. Tired, well be careful lying down as there’s plenty ahead with an impending Autumn season… as well as an exuberant Dog Guide who needs to ensure I know the price of lying down on the job!

You want real updates on any of those topics? That would take an entire blog post for each and the days ahead will no doubt include such so stay connected to us in all the ways possible and thanks for coming along with me today!

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