First Summit: The Story of 10 Mile Rock

2011 was one of the greatest years of my life. I learned a lot about life changes, and I’d like to share some insight that I hope will help my friends make 2012 one of the best years possible. I want to share the story of 10 Mile Rock, aka “the first summit.”

Don’t allow other people to define you;
you have the ultimate power to define who and what you are. 

Most of my long-time friends know my personal history/story. Some of my new friends may not. So, a brief history is needed to understand where I’m coming from. For most of my life I was fairly fit, with a few periods where I was lax. When I was 36 years old, I was sucker punched by Parkinson’s disease. Although I kept a positive outlook on life, my physical health progressively deteriorated over the course of eight years.  A multitude of meds helped with the symptoms of PD but, combined with a lack of exercise (all my energy went into fighting PD), caused all sorts of other problems. Weight gain and associated health problems only compounded the original problem. Into this toxic mixture, add the stressors of being forced to retire from a great job and the psychological impact of being labeled or thought of as “less than able.”  I desperately wanted to be whole again, but couldn’t seem to find the light at the end of the tunnel.

Then, my Alive Day happened. Most often, the term, “Alive Day,” is used by those in the military who survived a horrible event that left them with catastrophic injuries, but alive. In general, it can mean the day that one comes to a fork in life’s road – one path leads to death, the other to a new life. My Alive Day was September 22, 2010. That day, I began the process of not only reclaiming the life I had before PD and the associated problems, but a better life that included all of the lessons learned from eight long years of struggle.  Late at night on the fourth floor of a hospital ward, I literally took the first steps toward “the first summit,” although I didn't quite understand the concept at the time.

Learn to embrace the suck. 

My journey didn’t start at the bottom of the hill … it started at the bottom of a large hole at the bottom of the hill that took years to dig. A few days after those first steps in the hospital, on weak legs, underdeveloped from years of little use, I took a walk without the aid of the cane that had become part of me. Three quarters of a mile around a lake trail near my home took an hour to complete. It sucked. I kept repeating to myself a phrase that I once heard my older son (a Marine Corps veteran of OIF and OEF) say about doing something that he didn’t enjoy but had to do nonetheless – “embrace the suck.”

Learning to embrace the suck not only applied to making my body do things it hadn’t done in a long, long time, but also to lifelong habits regarding nutrition. Hello, “paleo diet.” It’s not really a diet, per se, but rather a guideline. Lean meats, fruit, veggies, little to no grains – whole, fresh foods without preservatives. Most folks accustomed to eating all their meals from a box, a can or a Styrofoam container may think of it as the “hippie living on an organic farm diet.”

I went back to the lake trail day after day for a week, adding a little distance each day. Just going in circles without a destination doesn’t suit me very well. I’m a goal-oriented guy. I had been so focused on the next step in front of me that I had noticed very little of my surroundings while on the trail. I finally stopped to take stock of my progress when I noticed a very large rock outcropping on the other side of the lake. I had walked past it a few times, but hadn’t really noticed it. It was the only natural part along the shore of a man-made lake. So large that it couldn’t be moved by the machinery that had cleared the valley and built the dam for the lake. I made my way to the other side of the lake to have a closer look.

When I came to the rock, I started to climb up on it for a better view of the lake and surroundings, but before I took the first step, I stopped. Men had cut trees and moved tons of dirt and smaller rocks to make this lake, but had been unable to move this large rock. I didn’t deserve to stand on this rock – not yet, anyway. There it was – the first goal – the first summit.

10 Mile Rock

Set goals that are significantly beyond your immediate grasp. 

Standing there looking at the rock, I decided that I would not stand on top of the rock until I reached the goal of walking 10 miles in one day. Thus, the rock became known to me as “10 Mile Rock.” Now, those ¾ mile laps around the lake trail had some purpose. I was going to achieve the goal or die trying. I began to wake each day excited about doing laps around the lake trail, adding distance each day. I kept record of every step I took, and the miles started adding up. Not only did each step benefit me physically, it allowed uninterrupted time to think – and, I had a lot to think about.

Find a reason for whatever you’re doing that benefits someone else.
Doing something for others is a stronger driving force than doing it just for yourself. 

During the same period of time that I was embarking on my quest for the first summit, my older son was on the other side of the world pounding the ground as well. The main difference between my journey and his – as a Marine Corps infantryman in Afghanistan, each step he took could be his last. As the number of casualties grew, so did my fear that I would never see my son again. However, as strong as that fear was, the belief that I would see him again was stronger. Not only did I want to reach the first summit for my own benefit, I wanted to be ready for his homecoming, ready to go wherever he needed me to go with him. More about that later …

Reaching milestones became addictive; three miles in one day, then five miles, then eight miles. On January 4, 2011, three months after making the first lap around the lake, my younger son signed a contract joining the Marine Corps Delayed Entry Program. That day, driven by feelings of pride for both my sons’ willingness to serve their country and the burden of debt and gratitude for the sacrifices made by my son’s brother Marines in Afghanistan, I decided that it was time to reach the first summit. For three hours and 16 minutes, I put one foot in front of the other. The thought of quitting never entered my mind, regardless of the struggle. At the end of the ten miles, I reached the first summit. I finally stood on top of 10 Mile Rock.

The view from the first summit enabled me to see the next summit - using my personal journey to help others.  I had an idea that day; why not use the miles I logged in an effort to provide assistance for wounded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan? I gathered support for the effort from friends and family raising donations based on the number of miles I walked. Others joined and logged miles of their own. Three months and 255 hard miles later, we gathered around the lake and 10 Mile Rock to honor the fallen and in support of the wounded. The result - $5,700 was raised and donated to the Wounded Warrior Project. We reached the summit and brought several others along with us.

There will be small-minded people with either underdeveloped imaginations or 
self-esteem issues jeering from the peanut gallery. Stay true to your vision. 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” -- Theodore Roosevelt, "Citizenship in a Republic," Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

Some folks may think, “You walked ten miles … so what?” I know, because I’ve met and/or spoken with a few of them. They should serve to add fuel to the fire that burns within you. Let them think you are crazy for staying the course on your journey to the first summit and every summit that comes thereafter. They’re all about putting limits on others to lift themselves up. Think the guys in the photo below listened to the naysayers?

There will always be another summit to reach.

When you reach a summit, bask in the feeling of exhilaration. Enjoy it and savor it. Then, take a 360 degree look around and upward for the next one. Using the “Set goals that are significantly beyond your immediate grasp” principle, I set my sights on the next summit. Marathon. Run, crawl or walk; I started dreaming about that number. 26.2 miles in one day. Less than six months earlier, I had taken my first steps on this journey, and I was thinking about a marathon? It definitely met the criteria of “beyond my immediate grasp.” That settled it. A brief Google search gave me the first view of the next summit. The Bataan Memorial Death March is marathon-length march through the New Mexico desert. A few hundred run the course, but thousands hike it carrying weighted backpacks. The veterans in the photo above hiked the course in preparation for their Mt. Kilimanjaro climb, so why couldn’t I do it? I bought a backpack and started hiking every hill within five miles of my house. Many people in the area probably thought I was nuts – hiking the streets in overwhelming heat, rain, cold, and sleet/snow lugging a hiking backpack. I didn’t care; I had the next summit to reach.

The plan was to train up to the 26.2 mile distance, culminating with the Bataan Memorial Death March in March 2012. Plans are made to be changed. On a beautiful October day in the Smoky Mountains while training to reach one summit, I found myself standing on top of an unexpected one. I reached the 26.2 miles distance six months ahead of schedule. Let’s take a quick look back: In just a little more than a year, a journey that started with a few tentative steps around a hospital floor had reached the level of hiking the distance of a marathon, carrying a 25 lb weighted backpack, in one day. I have no doubt that I will start and finish the Bataan Memorial march. I’m excited about reaching that summit, then, looking for the next one after that.

Live like you’re cured. 

For a long portion of my journey to better health, I didn’t know what to call it. Living right? Living healthy? Then one day during a discussion with my son, he said, “Dad, you’re acting like you’re cured or something.” Booom! He had hit the nail on the head, describing my new lifestyle in a nut shell. “Live like you’re cured,” has become my motto. Affliction is a mindset that severely limits our potential for greatness. I see people who have all their body parts griping about this malady or minor ache/pain, saying, “I can’t” over and over again. Then, I see double amputees climbing mountains or walking a marathon, and a paraplegic winning handcycle races. Which is living without limitations? Which is afflicted? Which is living like they’re cured?

You are the only one who can make the decision to change your life. 

Earlier, I mentioned that part of my motivation for change was to be able to go wherever my son needed me to go with him once he returned from Afghanistan. All the miles, all the hills, all the trails prepared me to be ready when called upon. He needed me in November 2011, and I was ready. We took a trip to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. He needed a demarcation line, a summit from which to see his future, his military service behind him and the beginning of college life and a civilian career ahead of him. I was physically ready and able to walk beside him toward that summit when the time came, both literally and figuratively. At 9,500 ft AMSL on the Barr Trail leading to Pikes Peak, we found that much sought after summit – the stillness and the total absence of the sights and sounds of civilization that he needed - an experience that I was privileged to share with him.

My son.  Barr Trail.  Colorado Springs, Colorado

I don’t share my story with you for the purpose of a “look at me" moment or an “attaboy.” I’m sharing it with you as an example of what you are capable of doing. If you want to call it a New Year’s resolution, that’s fine by me. I think a better term is, “New Life Commitment.” Think about what you want to accomplish in 2012 in regard to your health. What life events do you want/need to be physically prepared for?  No matter where you’re at right now, you can see tremendous changes if you commit to it, accept no limits, and chase your goals like a man with his hair on fire.

In one year, or 12 months, or 365 days (however you want to measure time), I worked/fought /struggled for and achieved a new life. You can, too. It all starts with the journey to the first summit. Now, get up from the couch and go find your 10 Mile Rock.

Me.  Overlooking the Canyonlands.  Moab, Utah


Since I wrote the First Summit: The Story of 10 Mile Rock post, several friends have shared their thoughts about it with me. I have reread it a few times, and have some additional thoughts in the months since I first posted it that I'd like to share.

  • The main point I wanted to make is that anything is possible, regardless of one's physical challenges. It's not an argument for Humanism - it's much more basic than theology. Our bodies are meant to be used, not used up. Our bodies crave exercise; they are designed to be in motion, to provide for our needs and to take us wherever our hopes and dreams lead us. Our bodies need the best fuel we can put into them - whole foods as free as possible of preservatives and other chemicals.
  • Most importantly, I can't take credit for the change in my life. The credit goes to God. I feel as though I have had a heart transplant and am walking around on two prosthetic legs made of flesh and bone. After eight years of struggling with each step I took, I am both surprised and thankful every morning when I wake and my legs take me wherever I want to go. There's a reason for the long struggle and the renewal that has followed. My heart and legs have purpose now - helping others reach their potential by showing them what's possible in their own lives. 

A parting thought: you're never too young or too old to chase your dreams.  Chasing your dreams is similar to skydiving. It's cool to think about, talk about and dream about all the way up until that brief moment when you're standing in the open door at 14,000 feet and you think, "what am I doing!?" So, what do you do? You jump ... and seconds later realize that you're flying and it's one of the most incredible experiences you've ever had. Here's to chasing dreams.

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