Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Vision Quest

I have put off making this announcement(even though my wife hinted at it in a previous post) because I was awaiting my cardiologist's formal approval. Just last Thursday (Jan. 27), I performed a stress echo for Dr. Scott Sample at Billings Clnic. A stress echo is a test where they look at my heart during and after a near max effort on the treadmill. Dr. Sample was looking at my gradient to see whether it was normal. Without going into the medical details, the test is to assure that I am not at any risk for a electrical misfire that could kill me during exercise. The result was good, my heart gradient was completely normal. The baseline image of my heart was also looking good. So, I have been cleared to do whatever I want to athletically!

Which brings me to my vision quest. Some of you might know of the movie Vision Quest, a 1985 film staring Matthew Modine. Loudine Swain (Modine) takes on the seemingly impossible task of coming down in weight and wrestling the undefeated wrestler from a rival school, "the Shute". His Indian friend calls it his "vision quest." I love the scene where the Shute is training by walking up the stadium stairs with a giant log across his back! Of course, in the end, Swain beats the Shute in the final scene and Swain gets the good looking girl to boot.

My vision quest started last year as I started training for triathlon again seriously. I set some ambitious goals to be at the top of my age group when I turned 50. I thought that I would use 2010 (when I was 48, racing as a 49-year-old) as a lead up to the year 2011 (when I am 49, racing as a 50-year-old). Everything was going according to plan. I had done pretty good in some early races last year including winning my age group at the Rev 3 Olympic distance race in Knoxville.

Then there was a fateful call from Dr. Laura Ford (my cardiologist at the time) in late May of last year. I was at the gym working when she said with a crack in her voice that the news was not good. You can't imagine how news like that goes through you. It was like a knife. It was made worse since I had already been knocked down with one open heart surgery in 2008 and an infection that nearly killed me a year later. I was on a plane the next day to go through that hell once again.

This time the surgery was much more serious, Dr. Patrick McCarthy (my surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago) would tell me later that, when he opened me up, "It was a disaster." I had severe vegetation (infection) all over my replacement cow valve and a huge aneurysm on my aortic root. I received a homograph (human) valve replacement and was on the heart lunge machine for nearly 4 hrs in open heart surgery. Later, my new Cardiologist, Dr.Sample, who had been studying my case, said that they didn't think I was coming back from Chicago. You may recall that Actor John Ritter and, more recently, ambassador Holbrooke died from aortic aneurism ruptures. I am very lucky this did not happen to me.

As I recovered in the hospital for 2 weeks, I was pissed. I had just had enough of being knocked down. I had serious doubts as to whether I could have the strength and the will to fight back again. But as the hospital shrink came into my room and started telling me that I needed psychological help to deal with my situation, I got even angrier! I don't need that help! I don't want any help. I was also a bear to my mom and dad and others (sorry about that) -- I was just very bitter. Then Baby Cale (4 months old) came into my room and smiled at me and laid on my chest. It was then that I found the will and the strength to take one day at a time and fight back to strength once again.

This past year has had many ups and downs and getting back to strength has been even harder than the past episodes, real hard! I was pretty sure that I would not be competitive anymore and would concentrate on other things. I picked up the guitar, I enrolled in Grad school. But it was still nagging me that I had set these goals and I didn't see them through. You see I have always been that way. I set a goal and I try like hell to achieve it. So a month or so ago I sat down with Sarah and we discussed the idea of giving those goals one more shot. I was honest with her and said that I wouldn't try it if I didn't meet a few criteria. First, I would need to reach certain performance markers in training. Second, she would have to be able to put up with the strain it place on our lives (more on that later)and third that the doctors would give me clearance to safely give this a go.

We also discussed why I felt that I had to prove myself through triathlon. My explanation to this question was that Triathlon is what I know best. To be honest, I would rather take on something else, but I know how to do this sport and I have been successful in the past. But there was more, I also want to do some greater good with this quest as well (more on that later).

All three of these points where a yes as of last Thursday. So I am off on this journey. I have some trepidation for sure. To be competitive with what I have in my heart now is a long shot for sure. It's certainly no slam dunk. A long shot to say the least. I am motivated and have my edge back somewhat! The goals, which I hasten to even talk about are simple:

1. Qualify for Kona at St.Croix or Buffalo Springs in May/June 2011 - this has never been done before with what has been done to my heart. Part of my quest is to do so without any special treatment or gifting of a spot.

2. If I get to Kona in October 2011, then podium (finish among the top 5 in my age group).

3. Podium at USAT National Age Group Championships in Vermont in August 2011.

Along the way, I will be participating in other events including:

Pub run 1/2 marathon
Grizzly Triathlon
Powerman Alabama
State TT championships
regional oly championships in Utah
Bozeman 1/2 ironman
Dakota 50 mtn bike race

So there it is. The journey has begun. I toed the starting line at local races in two of the last three weeks. First, I raced in Nordic skiing in the Senior Olympics at bohart ranch in a 5-km skate ski race.

warming up for the senior olympics 5k skate ski

I medaled with a bronze and felt ok with my performance there. Then, last Sunday, I won my age group at the USAT Rocky Mountain Regional Winter Triathlon Championships at Homestake Lodge near Butte, MT. called the Powderhound This involved a 5-km run, 8-km bike and 5-km Nordic ski. Again, I was pleased with my performance although I was pretty conservative (this race has killed me in the past).

I have been diligent in my training, getting at least 10-14 hrs in a week. I would say that my swimming is my best sport right now with the running and biking coming up slowly.

Sarah and I swinging on our bridger lift chair swing(Chloe the photographer)

Like I said before, this quest is going to strain our lives quite a bit. I hate to talk about getting the support from your family because I know from experience that this is half baked. It sounds good to say my family really supports me in this, and it probably makes you feel better about being away from them while training. But I know that triathlon at the top level is a really selfish, self absorbed sport that takes a ton of time and resources away from the ones you love. I get that and I am guilty more than most. This is why I am trying to parley this experience into helping others. To inspire folks that have been knocked down to get back up and to educate heart patients who are experiencing the ups and downs of rehab. I hope to be working with the American Heart Association to give motivational speaking engagements as well as other organizations in an effort to help people cope with the hardship that heart disease causes. I also want to be a voice for organ donation, I am hopeful that I can find out the names of my donors and help get everyone I know and more to become an organ donor; they save lives. I think it would be so very cool to tell the family of my donor that their loved one's heart made it to the finish of the Ironman!

Cale almost walking

I have already talked with a number of athletes who have had valve replacement surgery or have been diagnosed with a bicuspid aortic valve. Many of them want to know how I came to get the type of surgery I did and what they can expect coming out of it. In fact, I had a nice correspondence with Torbjorn Sindballe the other day. Torbjorn placed third in the Hawaii Ironman in 2007 and was known as an uber biker. He was also born with a Bicuspid aortic valve. In 2008 he felt wrong at the Wildflower race and shortly there after retired from the sport. Like me, his heart was getting larger and it would have been dangerous for him to continue racing. He told me that he has moved on and only exercises for recreation now. He told me that he had difficulty dealing with not being an elite athlete anymore at first but was content now in his new life of parenting and teaching others. Of course I am certainly not the athlete that Torgjorn Sindballe was and at his level only a tiny drop in performance prevents him from competing as a pro. In retrospect, I too might well have made a better choice to put off the surgery and laid lower back in 2007. I may have put off the need for heart surgery the first time. But what's done is done. And, like Torbjorn, I too want to get to that content place without the need to be competitive and spend more time with my kids. I probably would not have even attempted this if my kids where not real young (5 yrs and 1 yr. I know that parenting only gets more intense when they get older and more involved in activities.

I certainly am going to need a lot of help through this journey and there is a lot in motion to help me on my quest. The medical bills for the past few years,and all the costs of doing the sport of triathlon at this level is very costly. Sarah has been very helpful on this part of the puzzle. I will be announcing some of this support as it gets finalized. There is a wide range of media interest in this story as well and I will be posting media clips as they are finished. In fact, Q2(channel 5) here in Billings will be running a story on my quest next week. You can also read a full accounting of the events leading up to my quest by viewing Jay's story in the important documents section of this blog.

In the meantime bring on the Shute!



  1. As a wrestling coach, I loved your Vision Quest! I'm with you Jay and I'm excited because I see at least 2 races on your schedule where I'll be there with you (regional oly in Utah and the USAT nationals in Vermont!). I will NOT be in Kona, but I've been there twice thanks to you! I'm with you all the way!

  2. You will do great Jay because your mind is set and it is powerful!! Hugs to you and your family.
    Love, Margot

  3. You will always be the same Jay that I have now known for 20 years!! Allow for the changes, you get many different lives in one when you do!! So glad to know you, and continue to hear about your exciting (ha!) life. love, lisa

  4. Good for you Jay!!! I am so impressed by your competitive spirit. All the best to you!!


  5. Jay, Very inspirational. Sounds like your spirits are up and I am glad to see that. I look foward to kicking your ass in PowerMan Alabama!!!! and helping your reach your Vision quest!!!

    Just kidding of course !!!

  6. JAY, you have my reflection on training and competition....."don't UNDER-DO it"!
    wrecks and nancy roe

  7. Jay,
    Welcome to the 50+ a.g.'s. Like you said it's still no slam dunk. You've got my 1000% support, man! Stay safe, and kick ass!
    Come down and do the FLA 70.3 with me. Your 15 below zero training will come in handy for this race.
    Mike Fogassey

  8. Excellent! I'm rooting for you and hope to see you at Grizzly this spring.

    To your continued health and training Jay.


  9. It has been many years since our paths have crossed...Not sure if you remember me from the Sports Club and trying to help me learn how to SWIM and strengthen my KNEE... you don't know but YOU have helped me in so many ways... ESPECIALLY THIS YEAR!Follow the link below and now your will know MY story... I applaud you and am routing for you! I will now keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers along MINE and my MOM"s JOURNEY... Its a LONG road but you WILL do it and you CAN!!! just believe you CAN!!! xoxoxxo