What it would mean to go “Pro” in the sport of triathlon and remembering the WHY

Rather than writing a recap on how Ironman 70.3 Coeur D’Alene went (this past weekend), I’ve had a much more prominent thinking pattern around a bigger picture issue that needs addressing.

A few weeks ago, at a local Bend coffee shop, I had an unexpected conversation with a friend of mine that resonated with me deeply. It was enough of an impactful dialogue to shake up and revisit one of the more prominent mindsets that currently exists in my brain today.

 

IMG_2427

Team Larsen at Ironman 70.3 Coeur D’Alene

 

I recently put up a post on Facebook that mentioned what my goals are, athletically speaking. It was the first time that I verbalized in a public setting that I hope to go “pro” in triathlon rather than maintaining the vague and obscure mentions of “chasing a childhood dream.” Also within that post, I mentioned that I’m very self-conscious with my age, given the athletic pursuits. There is a negative voice that plays in my head that is telling me that I’m too old to pursue any type of elite athletic endeavor. In this case, the term “elite” means going pro in triathlons.

When I made the switch from ultrarunning to triathlons last year I put the goal together, with the guidance of my coach Mike, to try to shoot for at least a “low-level pro” status. Without his blessing and backing, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to set forth on such an ambitious endeavor, given where I was coming from (digging out of a propensity to abuse drugs and alcohol). Furthermore, in the first year of triathlons, I had a couple of key people, who know what the hell they’re talking about because they’ve done it, encourage me that I wasn’t too old to give it a try. All of those sentiments really helped to fuel the cause.

Back at the coffee shop, after bantering back and forth a bit, one of the questions my friend asked was: WHY do you want to go pro? Intuitively, I thought that I knew the answer, but I couldn’t put it to words. In a way, my friend had stumped me. In many ways some of the same answers to his question applied like, “to live the life of a professional endurance athlete,” “to chase down a childhood dream,” and, of course, “cause it’d be fucking cool to make it to that point.” However, after thorough investigation and contemplation, the real reason became a little more clear.

Enter the “Golden Circle.” In our initial conversation, after I couldn’t clearly express my WHY, my friend brought up Simon Sinek’s methodology to identifying, expressing, and living your WHY. A week or so later, we sat down again and worked through an exercise, with the Golden Circle in mind, to drill down into my core so that I could express, in my own words, the real WHY.  Ironically the exercise ended up transcending the athletic endeavors and shifted the focus to living life as a whole.

0N4A0776.jpg

After exploring things from a few different angles we began to wrap everything together to build a statement of truth around my revamped WHY. The things in my being that I always seem to forget are the events in my life that led up to my decision to pursue this dream. First, five-plus years ago I was a burned-out alcoholic and drug addict with a tendency to live in a constant blackout, on the edge of killing myself, who decided to get sober. Second, after I had some time in sobriety, came the day I cut ties with the corporate world and walked away from a solid paycheck and my life in hotel management. There would be absolutely zero chance that if those two things hadn’t happened that I wouldn’t be where I am today.

My friend at the coffee shop asked: “Do you really, actually, understand the effect you are having on people when you share your story above and beyond the athletic piece?” It seems not, because I tend to forget the fact that I am still immersed in the process of changing, literally everything. To this very day, I still get asked the question: “how do you do it?” Perhaps, I should ask this to myself from time to time.

After a few moments of contemplation I was able to start verbalizing my revamped WHY: “So, Spence, WHY do you do what you do?” Simply put, I want to inspire people to have the courage to rise above their demons and make a change in their own life by seeing how far I go can with endurance athletics. I want people to see that it is possible for someone, anyone, to truly make a significant lifestyle change despite the challenges and obstacles that one faces in life.  If I’m doing it, there is no reason others cannot do the same.

Yes, I still want to achieve a  “pro card” status in triathlons, I still want to get faster, and I still want to compete at a high level. But now, I understand that these are just steps in the process, not the end goal.  Even after these steps are actualized, life continues, and I will still have the opportunity to keep the inspiration for others going, perhaps in a different light. For me, today, life is much more about just “going pro.”  It’s about relentless forward progress to live day to day and be at peace with what life serves us.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Let me know your WHY, and even more, how did you get to the point where you truly understood that WHY?

 

Standard

“Appetite for Attention” and “What Other People Think of Me is None of My Business.”

A little while ago I received a review on Amazon for my memoir, Appetite for Addiction, that simply said “Appetite for Attention,” implying that I was simply seeking attention by writing this book.  If I honestly wanted the goal of releasing Appetite to be to get more attention then I simply would’ve called the book Appetite for Attention.  At this point in my life, I don’t have any reason to be deceptive.   I’ve proudly laid everything out on the table.  That being said, the review still got under my skin.

Another review read:

(1 out of 5 stars) A Hard No

This book is a poorly written personal account of an arrogant and entitled young man who sees himself as a victim, in spite of having every opportunity in life to exceed. He glamorizes his small town Oregon party scenes regaling readers with incessant hookups, alcoholism, and excessive drug use. Written below the third-grade reading level, this book fails to introduce multiple perspectives or demonstrate any knowledge of literary structure or style.

Based on the fact the other people who have left reviews share names with people in the book, it seems my review is the only one not written by a friend. – Melissa

Initially, I wanted to react to this review, mostly because of the “third-grade reading level” comment.   However, “Melissa” might have a Ph.D. in writing for all I know, and her perspective could very well be different than mine.  That said, for a short second, I still considered offering an immature and unproductive reply of  “*#&@ off.”

Certainly, I’m not naive to the fact that I have cast myself into the realm of public opinion, consequentially opening myself up to criticism.  Once I published Appetite I knew that negative reviews would come simply because not everyone is going to like the story for their own respective reasons.  Today, I respect that.  There are plenty of books that I’ve read in the past that turned out to be something that I wasn’t expecting, written poorly, or just plain boring.  Also, I’ve come to realize that some people just want to be negative for whatever reason.  Internet trolls are everywhere.  I can get that way too, especially when I’m sitting in self-judgment.  During those times I can silently become a bit of an asshole.  But, don’t we all?  Not lost on me is that fact that some people are just not going to like my book!  And that is OK.

Opening myself up and sharing my vulnerabilities took a leap of faith.  Wholeheartedly I wrote Appetite for two reasons.  One, to help me understand my evolution to becoming an addict and two, to help other people understand that they are not alone in their own individual struggles.  With those two cornerstones of intent I felt confident in releasing an unabridged and transparent story that to this day, I am still very proud of.  However, because this is my story and I still have levels of vulnerability, yeah, I’m going to fucking take criticism personally sometimes.  Especially when I’m in a state of anger, tiredness, or loneliness.

Hand in hand with the need for constant reassurance, negative self-talk has been something I’ve dealt with for decades.  Without a doubt, after hearing negative reviews I revert back into old behavior patterns and think that I’m no good, unlikeable, etc, etc, etc.  Obsessive-compulsive thinking can lead me into a dark hole that’s steeped in self-doubt.  This, however, can be a chance for me to continue to learn that all of the shit I tell myself sometimes can be an illusion, a fabrication of thoughts that comes from a story that I tell myself, about myself, for no other reason than I’m just used to telling myself this.  Being in recovery, I learn that these character defects can be addressed with time and patience.  From the time I released Appetite until now, one year later, I can say that the bullshit I tell myself doesn’t affect me as much as it used to.  It’s progress, not perfection.  That being said, I still have a long way to go.

Another adage that I adhere to is “what other people think of me is none of my business.”  Sometimes, this can tug at some pretty deeply rooted insecurities that are the crux of my addictive nature.  However, these past feelings and resentments stem from intuitions that are as old as I’ve been alive.  Again, it’s consistent learning that’s going to help me cope with these insecurities and character defects.

This whole journey that I’m on is about consistent self-discovery.  Through writing Appetite, to being in recovery, every day I’m presented with opportunities that allow me to be a better person, not only to others but to myself.  It’s my responsibility to follow through on steps that will lead to an easier and softer way of living.

Today, I can take criticism as it comes and not become as overwhelmed with it as I have in the past.  When I’m presented with the challenge of negative feedback I take it as a learning opportunity, as well as a gut-check, to check in with myself about what really matters to me in this world to me:  being candid, transparent, honest, and real. I think that’s a pretty cool way to approach life.

Standard

Celebrating Five Years of Sobriety

Sober date: 2/11/14.  Five years ago today I woke up after a three day, rampant and self-destructive solo binge on whiskey and IPA’s.  On the morning of February 11th, 2014, I felt both emotionally and spiritually bankrupt, physically destroyed, and mentally taxed at a level I had never witnessed in myself.  Something needed to drastically change.  On that morning I decided that I finally needed to address my long-lasting issues with drugs and alcohol.   Gratefully, today I get the opportunity to celebrate five years of continuous sobriety.

A couple of weeks ago I was on a training ride.  It was cold, 38 degrees, windy, and beginning to rain. I still had another hour left to go before the end of the workout.  Normally, training in this kind of weather isn’t the smartest idea, mostly because you can catch a cold while riding in these conditions.  However, I had motivation oozing through my veins brought on by the fact that this current situation is nothing compared to the challenges and hardships I’ve faced in the past.  Bring on the rain!  Without hesitating once to return to the car an hour early when the rain started I was reminded that in many regards, I am just lucky to be alive.  I should’ve been found dead in a ditch somewhere a myriad of times because of my transgressions while being caught up in the perils of addiction to drugs and alcohol.

IMG_0007

Peacefully celebrating five years of sobriety

Today, I get to celebrate the astounding fact that I’ve not had one single drink or drug in 1,825 days.  Honestly, it’s fucking amazing that I got to this day.  If you had told me, five years ago, after waking up from a solo three-day binge, while locked in my apartment in Corvallis, that I’d be clean and sober for five years?  I would’ve said that you were nuts.

During the first few years, sobriety birthdays were a big deal (don’t get me wrong, my sober birthday is still the most important holiday for me).  Twice, to celebrate, I ran for twelve straight hours in Corvallis’ McDonald/Dunn Forest, honoring each month the previous year that I had stayed sober.  This year, however, athletic priorities are a little different so there won’t be any insane physical aspect to the day.  My focus this year will be to be around loved ones, head to a recovery meeting to pick up my five-year coin, and maybe include some puzzle time.  I’m finding these days that simplicity has become a standard virtue that I try to consistently practice when my mind doesn’t get in the way.  This virtue would not have meant a thing to me if I hadn’t got sober.

Since leaving Corvallis in May of 2018 I haven’t spent much time around the recovery community.  I think that all of the excitement of returning to Bend led to me being distracted from a consistent focus on many virtues of recovery.  That, however, is not an excuse.  In fact, just the other day, I was reminded that I must always respect the fact that I have a problem with drugs and alcohol.  A good friend of mine introduced me to her acquaintance that is in the grips of her own struggles in sobriety.  This person, for the last five months, has been drunk every single day and has seriously contemplated suicide more than a dozen times.  I reached out to her to offer an ear as someone just to talk to and who would listen to her story, without giving judgments or orders to what she must do.  I’m afraid to say that over the last month she has gone completely silent, a troubling sign considering what I know about the situation.  The trouble, sometimes, in helping other practicing alcoholics, is that until they are absolutely ready to make a change, there isn’t much you can do besides simply keeping your phone on.

Being in recovery means that I’m constantly trying to improve myself as a human being. Lately, my focus has been on relieving myself of the tendency to be in judgment of people, places, things, or situations.  For years I would stew in a pot of judgment, which ultimately led to more self-inflicted abusive behavior.  It used to be that having a negative interaction with even a coffee barista, much less family and friends, would send me into a tailspin.  The energy I expended mentally beating up other people, that I didn’t even know in some cases, used to drive me to excessively imbibe in whatever numbing device I could conjure up at the local 7-11, among many other places.  Today, my judgments towards others are much less prominent for one reason;  I realized that if I’m in judgment of others then I’m ultimately lying in judgment of myself.  This has been an enormously impactful shift in mental and mindful awareness.

Over the weekend here in Bend, OR, the weather was eerily similar to the conditions in Corvallis five years ago when I holed up in my apartment for three days to get one last hurrah of self-induced debauchery.  Lots of snow with limited driving; perfect conditions to sit at home alone with a bottle of whiskey.  Tracey, who is visiting for the weekend, asked me this past Friday night what I was doing five years ago.  I hadn’t thought about that in a while.  Remembering how unmanageable my life was back then struck a chord which is now wrapped in sheer humility.

So, so much has happened since I got sober.  The persistent life-lessons that have been injected into my soul have taught me to live life in a state of gratefulness.  Today, I’m grateful for my life.  I’m grateful for the up’s and down’s that I’ve experienced over the last five years because they’ve shown me what life really looks like without the lens that drugs and alcohol used to provide.  All of that being said, it’s living in the day-to-day that truly keeps me alive because navigating through sobriety is, most certainly, one day at a time.

Thank you to everyone who has followed along with me on this journey.  Here’s to another day of not having to pick up a drink!

Standard

Chasing Down a Childhood Dream: Update

After finishing up a swim this morning at my friend Matt’s master’s class, I mentioned to another friend of mine, who also had just finished up, “fuck this sport is tough!”  I’m ten months into this swimming experiment, and although it’s fun as hell, I feel like I did when I first started cross-country skiing about a year in:  sloppy!  Matt has certainly been a positive influence on my development as a swimmer. In this new sport of mine, there are seemingly endless learning opportunities in terms of technique.  Overall, I’m excited to put together the puzzle of nuances that it takes to get to the next level.  But damn, I can have some challenging days.  That’s OK because it is all a part of the process.

For just about a year (starting in March of 2018) I’ve been training full-time as a triathlete because of a desire to find out my true potential as an endurance athlete.  This whole dream and pursuit started back when I was fifteen racing Junior 2’s on the New England cross-country skiing circuit in 1995.  It was then that I shifted my hero’s focus from baseball legends, Mark McGwire and Bo Jackson, to the Olympians on the cross-country skiing circuit, Bjorn Daehlie and Vegard Ulvang, both powerhouse Norwegian skiers in the 1990’s.  For some reason, there was nothing cooler than watching Bjorn and Silvio Fauner (Italy) sprint it out in the 1994 Men’s 4 x 10-kilometer Olympic relay.  I was heartbroken when Italy edged Norway out for the win.

 

screen shot 2019-01-28 at 10.53.24 am

Silvio Fauner (Italy) edges out Bjorn Daehlie (Norway) for the win in the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, Men’s 4 x 10-kilometer relay

 

 

screen shot 2019-01-28 at 10.57.27 am

My all-time sports hero, Vegard Ulvang (Norway)

 

Today, when I mean training full-time, I mean full-time, much like someone who goes into work for a typical forty hour work week.  Luckily, I’ve built such an enormous endurance base over the years through cross-country skiing, road cycling, ultra-running, and now triathlons, that I’m afforded the chance to train at a high level, a level I’ve never been able to sustain, until now.  Plus, being sober, I do not have the distractions of drugs and alcohol to get in my way.   That being said is the addictive behavior still prevalent?  Sure it is, but it’s now being directed in a positive and productive way…chasing down a childhood dream.  From an unhealthy perspective, I feel like I was lucky back in 2017 to train above my means and too hard so that now I can appropriately assess how my body feels on any given day, and listen to any alarming warning signs.  In a way, I’ve spent the last twenty-four years preparing for being where I am right now, in pursuit of my unshakeable passion.  I feel like I am finally able to put together all of the lessons I’ve learned along the way to create my own personal masterpiece over the next several years.

So, what does a typical day look like?  Let’s take today for example. For the most part, over the last ten months, this is a pretty typical day (not including days off from training which mean a whole lot of lounging around, eating, stretching, and foam rolling)

  • 5AM –  Alarm/coffee/snack/journal
  • 6:45AM – Master’s swim class (90 minutes)
  • 8:45AM – Breakfast
  • 9:00AM – Novo Veritas work/Rise Fitness client scheduling
  • 10:00AM – Nap with Emery
  • 11:00AM – Lunch/ couch time to get legs elevated
  • 1:00PM – Ride (2.5 hours)
  • 4:00PM – Stretch
  • 4:30PM – Call with a coaching client
  • 5:00PM – Client training at Rise Fitness
  • 6:30PM – Dinner
  • 7:00PM – Facetime with Tracey
  • 7:30PM – Journal/meditation/read
  • 8:30PM – Light’s out

 

img_9773

Preparing for nap time with Emery

 

For the first several months of this process, I had a tough time with feeling like I should be doing more with myself, feeling guilty that I wasn’t adhering to the typical work schedule I had kept for over a decade in the corporate world.  It was the “should” game, and I just had to be persistent on reminding myself that life today isn’t typical in the sense that I’m punching the proverbial clock every day to get a standard paycheck for two weeks.  Luckily through the wisdom of Mike Larsen (my coach, Larsen Performance Coaching) and the advice from a few other athletes I know, I was able to shift my mindset to understand that it takes, more or less, my current schedule of what I’m doing to reach my goals.  Now, I do not struggle with the “should be” concept at all, as I’m all in.

 

img_7744

Larsen giving some last minute words of wisdom at the 2018 Best in the West duathlon

 

Another challenge during my transition over to triathlons was to wonder how all the training was going to come together.  Sure, there were days before I started racing multi-sport when I’d just be living in uncertainty about what any outcome would look like, from a racing perspective.  Then, about eight months in, I witnessed first hand how all of the hard work was to pay off.  In November 2018, I traveled to Los Cabos, MX, to try my first Half-Ironman.  Without any real expectations, I ended up placing third in my age group (35-39) and qualified for the 2019 70.3 Ironman World Championships.  Completely stunned by the result, I began to understand how this new sport of mine was going to work.  That day was a turning point because now, I get it.

Also in Cabo, I had an unexpected chance meeting with now, two good friends of mine, Kennett and Adelaide, both professional triathletes, and tremendous people.  One thing I had not had a whole lot of up to that point, other than from Larsen, was a chance to pick the brains of triathletes who had made it to the level that I was shooting for.  Being able to talk to them about what living the lifestyle of a professional was like, I was able to better understand what I needed to do to make my dream come true.  Being completely new and green to triathlons their advice was invaluable for me to hear.

Finally, the key piece to my process is having a coach and mentor on board with my vision to help guide me through workouts, as well as the mental piece of the puzzle, on a day to day basis.  When I got back together with Mike, after spending a couple of years in pursuit of being a self-coached ultra-runner, he did not balk at the ideas I had come up with for a big picture goal.  For me, it took some vulnerability to express those goals with the fear of rejection, which was my own shit stemmed from old habits of persistent negative self-talk.  From day one, he was on board and has not looked back.

Then, I would be remiss to mention the haters.  I feel like people, including the clients Betsy and I (Novo Veritas) work with, who are looking to undergo a big shift in lifestyle, are unfortunately exposed to other people’s negative projections.  It always blows me away when someone wants to change and the people they surround themselves with (friends, family, or casual on-lookers) give their unsolicited negative opinions as to why their respective lifestyle changes won’t work.  I’ve encountered the same thing.  Here are a few things I’ve heard said to me about my pursuit of endurance sports, specifically triathlon:  “You’re never going to be a fast enough runner;”  “You’re too old;”  “You’ll inevitably overtrain;”  “You might be kidding yourself with your goals.”  At first, not surprisingly, hearing these comments pissed me off and I used them to fuel my workouts.  Then, after careful introspection and investigation, it turns out that these comments were mere projections.  Today, if and when I hear another negative comment I simply take whoever said it off my team and out of my circle.  At this point in my life, if anyone casts negativity my way, I simply move on because I just don’t have the energy or the tolerance to deal with bullshit projections based on other people’s personal insecurities.  Bottom line, if you’re also going through a positive shift in lifestyle, it really doesn’t matter what people think of you.  For me, what other people think of me is none of my damn business.

 

IMG_3942.jpg

Betsy and I, the Novo Veritas team

 

Each evening, before bed, I spend time reflecting on the day with my journal, which includes a section on gratitude.  For folks in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, this is a cornerstone in recommended daily habits. One item that consistently makes the top three list is being afforded the ability to train full-time.  I will be forever grateful to have the opportunity to pursue my passion 100%.  Recognizing this fact also allows me to not get caught up in my previously unmanageable and persistent results-oriented mentality.  Today, it’s all about process and “being” in each and every workout.

 

 

 

Standard

The Seduction of the Early Morning Cocktail

A few days ago, on a Sunday, I was at a local coffee shop around 7:30 A.M. tackling some work for the day.  While pounding away at putting together training plans on my computer a guy walked into the shop looking noticeably disheveled, I assumed that he was probably out on the town partying the night before.  Certainly, I still take notice of these things because, well, that’s how I used to roll into coffee shops sometimes.  He approached the counter to make his order and proclaimed: “it’s always happy hour someplace!”  With that, he ordered a beer and proceeded to down it within less than a minute.  Goddamn, I used to love being buzzed in the early morning.

There’s something about pounding cocktails before 9:00 A.M. that is just unmistakably satisfying to me.  In my past life, I always felt devious and rebellious when I drank in the morning, kind of like I was a little kid getting away with not brushing my teeth before going to bed.  This sort of behavior wasn’t necessarily a normal daily routine for me like it was for many people I know in recovery, however, whenever I had the appropriate chance I embraced the opportunity.  

My absolute favorite times getting drunk in the morning revolved around college football games.  Whether I was living in Bend, which meant there would be an early morning drive (and drinking) over to Reser Stadium (home of the Oregon State University Beavers), or living in Corvallis, I loved getting primed up for a day of unadulterated debauchery, either alone or with my friends, by substituting Crown Royal for a coffee (or even better, a coffee with Crown Royal mixed in).  Beaver Football home games became a strategic excuse to exercise my inner-most dubious and deceitful addictive/alcoholic behavior.  

Today, I’m on a plane heading down to Cabo, Mexico, to mix it up at one of the last IRONMAN 70.3’s of the year. I’m sitting across the aisle from a woman who’s already two glasses deep of Chardonnay.  It’s 6:45 A.M. (we took off at 6:10 A.M.) To say that I’m jealous wouldn’t necessarily describe how I’m feeling about it.  However, what she’s up to looks like a freakin good time and in a past life I’d be all over it.

Another of my favorite early morning drinking pastimes revolved around airports and airplanes.  Because of the fact that, while traveling, I wasn’t responsible for driving when I arrived at my destination, I would use the opportunity to get hammered.  On countless occasions, my most vivid memories occurring at the Portland (PDX) airport, I’d arrive early for say, a 9 A.M. flight, just to get in some extra drinking time.  I’ve had countless instances where I’d be at an airport bar, watching an early morning NBC Today Show newscast, pounding Coors Light’s with backers of Crown Royal.  Once drunk, I’d put in my headphones and turn on an Armin or Gareth set and walk around the airport imagining myself at a rave or in a Puff Daddy music video.  I loved that feeling.  It was an opportunity to put aside the pervasive negative thought patterns that I was accustomed to believing of myself, and pretend I was someone different.  Looking back, I can see the hilarity in it.  Even today, strictly by way of habit and almost five years sober, while walking down any terminal I always take immediate notice where the Crown Royal bottle sits in every airport bar.  I’m just wired for it.  Is this sensation something I worry about?  In airports am I in danger of a relapse because of all the tantalizing memories I have?  I can’t say for sure but today while walking to my early-morning flight I was able to take notice of said Crown bottle, and laugh, knowing that if I threw a few shots down before my flight, I would wake up, after passing out drunk on a long flight, with a nasty pretzel flavored cotton-mouth  hangover.    

The most damaging and destructive memories I have of devouring early morning cocktails are the instances during my three-day blackout/blowout back in February of 2014, which to this day is still the last time I had a sip of alcohol.  Each morning of that self-induced destructive rampage I’d roll into my local Corvallis 7-11 at 7:00 A.M., the legal time that Oregon sells alcohol in convenience stores each morning, and buy a couple of CAMO XXX 12.8% malt liquor cans for $1.98 a piece to kick my morning off.  From there I classed it up just a bit and progressed to whiskey and coffee, to just whiskey, to IPA’s to top off the day.  My process of drinking that weekend emulated what today can be explained by a stringent training plan.  That weekend, as if a coach had given me an organized and structured drinking plan, I stuck to it without deviation.  Let’s just say I overtrained a bit that weekend.  As I’ve noted before, that was the recipe for my downfall to the bottom of my drinking career.  My hope is that this type of scenario does not happen again.  If it does, well, all of the work I’ve done for myself over the last several years would disappear with the snap of a finger.  Today, it’s just not worth it.  Plus I’ve got a half-Ironman to do this weekend. 

Returning to the flight to Cabo, the woman across the aisle just ordered a fourth glass of Chardonnay.  Even though it’s only 7:15 A.M., I still look at the situation through an old and dusty memory lens to think:  that was me and that was fun.  Luckily, that doesn’t have to be me anymore.

 

Standard

A remedy for the gray: turning the phone off, going off the grid, and heading into Eastern Oregon for a few days of adventure

Eastern Oregon is a rural part of the West. Heading east, out of Bend, OR, there is very little to speak of in terms of the population until you hit Boise, ID, a solid five-hour car ride away. Two hours east of Bend, in Burns, OR, the home of the Highlanders and the former starting QB of the New York Jets, Kellen Clemens, you see the last gas station for miles as you continue into the barren and remote outback.

IMG_5167

The Steens Mountains in the distance

Every year I make a pilgrimage to Eastern Oregon, normally in the fall. It’s my way of regaining key personal perspective and getting peace and quiet. The formula is simple: the phone goes off, no wifi, and I go off the grid for a few days. Last Wednesday when I began my trip, about seventy miles outside of Bend, while driving through the pristine Ochoco National Forest, I had a moment that helped kick me out of busy mindlessness and back into a fleeting reality, one that I’d like to normalize once more. On top of mind were an annoying encounter with an egotistical maniac just a day earlier, a bum shoulder, and a benignly irrelevant memory of something that happened in my life a full decade earlier. The noise was loud and my emotions were following their nonsensical pathway to nowhere. However, the moment I crested the summit of Ochoco pass on Oregon Route 26, and down towards the ranching town of Mitchell, OR, I had a firm revelatory sensation and shouted at myself, “Shut up, Spence!” This moment clicked me over and signaled the beginning of my road trip.

IMG_5187

On the backside of Domingo Pass looking over the vast and open rangeland to the west of the Pueblo Mountains

On Thursday evening I found myself in the remote town of Frenchglen, OR, writing in an old rocking chair on the porch of the National Historic Frenchglen hotel while awaiting the family style dinner that is served every night to the guests. The evening’s menu consisted of pork chops, salad, and potatoes. In the quaint hotel dining room, the smells are reminiscent of how the dining hall at Burke Mountain Academy smelled after our long-tenured cook Harry spent all day preparing a communal meal for the students. The hotel, which used to serve as a lodging house for the cattle industry, has been around since 1923, seemingly forever in this rural nook of land.

To the east of Frenchglen lie the Steens Mountain Range, a gorgeous geographic sight. From Frenchglen, the range gradually and unassumingly slopes up to 9000ft from the west, only to drop off two thousand feet within the span of just a mile or two into the Alvord desert to the east, an area akin to Utah’s Bonneville salt flats where numerous car commercials and movies are filmed (think the Area 51 scene in Independence Day). On my trip last year I got my rig drastically stuck in an unsuspectedly damp part of the desert and had to get pulled out by some dude that was trolling for amateur desert-goers like me. My truck had sunk a foot into the desert. The whole ordeal only cost me fifty bucks, a hell of a deal out in the outback.

IMG_5177

The Alvord desert

The pace of life here is seemingly slower and much more casual than the rest of the world. It’s almost like time forgot this land and left it as a distant memory. It’s here that I find it easier to breathe and feel a sense of calm. I really like it here, in fact, I could live here someday.

Perhaps my favorite go-to spot in all of Eastern Oregon are the remote and barren Pueblo Mountains, just south of Fields, OR. A couple of years ago I stumbled across these mountains almost by mistake, thinking there was a trail system to experience. I had caught wind that the Oregon Desert Trail ran through this country. Let’s use the term “trail” loosely, the path is almost unrecognizable in most spots, which nowadays adds to the allure of the area for me. One of the owners of the local diner/grocery store/hotel (which I came to find out was haunted) mentioned to me, as I was face deep in a pile of greasy eggs and bacon, that she did some running up in the Pueblo’s on occasion while preparing to run ultramarathons. Curious about her comment, I implored to learn more. With her recommendation, I sought out a sparingly traveled and un-marked dirt road which led up to Domingo Pass, a scenic lookout over vast miles of rangeland to the south and into northern Nevada. While on top, the goal of my trip, to get back in touch with wilderness, peace, and solitude, was actualized. I had found what I was looking for.

IMG_5181

Early morning while on a run up to Domingo Pass

The West is known for its big sky, open lands, and unique wildlife. Its aura and mystique serve to keep me coming back year after year. Its various mysteries are just as wild as the landscape. Just up the road from Frenchglen is the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a place made famous when Ammon Bundy and his crew of armed militants took hostage a couple of years ago to seek an opportunity to advance their view that the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are constitutionally required to turn over most of the federal public land they manage to the individual states. The case caught the attention of the national media.  In terms of the animal life, on my way down to the area and throughout the trip, I saw a smattering of animals cross the road including elusive pronghorn, frantic coyotes, and the random heifer cow casually crossing the highway minding his business, without regard to oncoming drivers. The beauty of the open range is beholden to the landscape.

On Wednesday, after I turned my phone off on my way out of Bend, I was fully charged with a busy mind and relentless open-ended thoughts. In a way I had let the last couple of weeks, mostly spent in another depressive episode, get the best of me, while tempting to bring me down. Seven years ago I was medically diagnosed with depression, which is different than having bad days every now and then. Over the last couple of years, I find that it’s just about every three months where I am struck with an episode. With time, they seem to get more manageable, however, they still hurt. Being out on the open road, with the relative silence as my backdrop, I felt the episode begin to pass.

When I’m tuned back into the world, surrounded by the noise and bustle of everyday life, my pseudo-ingrained insecurities tend to pop up when I’m not being mindful. Largely through a weekly dose of psychotherapy, my crux of being in recovery as an addict/alcoholic, I’m able to step back and realize the noise that I entrench myself in the day-to-day. Without a sense of awareness, the noise can come from anywhere and everywhere and affect me in profound manners. When I tend to get in patterns of paying close attention to the media, both social and news, I begin to lose my sense of awareness in a sweeping cascade of constant outside stimuli. This is one reason I travel to Eastern Oregon, to purge my sense of being entrenched in things that really, when it comes down to it, just don’t matter to me day to day. I come to this landscape to purge out the noise.

On my journey back to Bend, after being on the road for four days, I reflected as to why this trip was important and what I could take away and re-implement back into my life. The profound notion that sank in was that I have the ability, to a large degree, to control my reactions to the surroundings in which I live. Left unchecked my mind can wander to places that are not productive for me. Perhaps it’s the constant bombardment of noise that helps contribute to depressive episodes. Yes, some of it’s chemical, but I’ve got to believe that part of it has to with my surroundings. Re-integrating myself into the barren Eastern Oregon landscape that I love sure seems like a complementary remedy to help soothe the longevity of an episode.

I look forward to returning to Eastern Oregon soon, for I have a pretty cool idea brewing in my head for a race down there. For now, as I’ve written down on my vision board, I strive to reimplement the sage teachings of that vast remoteness and beauty the landscape lends to me. Plus, I’ve got physical proof of my experience in a collage of photos that I took over the four days to help remind me of why I go in the first place.

IMG_5220

On top an un-named peak in the Pueblo Mountains

Standard

Dude, what’s up with all of the negative self-talk​? Doesn’t it get old?

A good buddy of mine just finished my memoir, Appetite for Addiction. His feedback was incredibly insightful, timely, and profound.  The main comment of his that stuck in my head was: “hey dude, I hope you’re able to move on from all of the negative self-talk you’ve suffered through over the last several years.”  He had a very valid point.

Another good friend of mine is in the midst of battling alcoholism and cannot put the bottle down.  I can relate to where he is.  The physical scenes he describes for me is very reminiscent of how I used to be.  Constantly drunk, depressed, in a state of withdrawal, and in some regards, utter despair.  And, I hear the relentless negative self-talk in his voice, just as I had experienced.

IMG_8085

Moments before speaking at Roundabout Books last month in Bend, OR, pondering my approach as to how I would address the audience.

Why does it have to be that some people, including myself (when I’m not in a mindful state), treat themselves like assholes?  In the past, I would constantly feed myself with never-ending negative self-talk.  I’ll never have a chance with that girl; I’ll never be a good athlete; I’ll never be worthy of love.  Those self-inflicted comments were a huge part of the reason that I drank all of the time.  When I was properly imbibed all of my insecurities would vanish the minute a shot of whiskey went down the hatch.  The negative self-talk would turn into impenetrable self-praise.  I could date that girl; I could win that race; I could have the world.  That was all good but when you take away the alcohol I went right back to beating the shit out of myself with verbal vomit that promoted the fact that I was, indeed, worthless, depressed, and lonely.

I was an expert at playing the comparison game, always wanting what other people had. I had good buddies with tons of money, nice cars, nice houses, great families, and seemingly no problems. I was jealous, envious of their lives, always fuming at the fact that I didn’t have what they had.  The jealousy drove me mad.  It was persistent enough that the only cure for me was to drink, heavily.  The minute I had a buzz most of those comparisons went away for the most part.  When I drank I felt invincible, which led me to fabricate a narrative in my head that I was better than, fitter than, and worthy of every bit of success that was coming my way (somehow I became omniscient when I drank, can anyone relate?).  Then, when the party was finally over, and the booze was taken away, the comparisons and the negative self-talk became demons that I was not ready to fight.

Getting sober is so much more than just not drinking.  Sure, not drinking is the first step, but the self-examination that lies ahead (in my experience) is just as profound as the courage it takes to put the bottle down.  When I resigned from my corporate gig in 2015, more than a year into sobriety, I launched myself into a new lifestyle that required a certain amount of self-governance. At first, it was exciting, but as time wore on and the negative self-talk persisted, I began to question my choice and motives.  I didn’t realize the comfort that having a fulltime job and consistent paycheck gave to me.  Even though I was pursuing several long-term projects (running a business, writing a book, chasing athletic dreams) it took me a couple of years to get comfortable with the fact that the negative self-talk was the primary culprit to my hesitations.  Luckily, I am thankful those hesitations have disappeared for the most part, because, quite frankly, I’m all-fucking-in on my endeavors 100%.

So where does this negative self-talk come from?  As much of an asshole as I was prone to be to myself, it had to come from somewhere.  My childhood?  Depressive tendencies?  How about this option:  the shit we tell ourselves is largely an illusion, a fabrication of bullshit narratives stuck in our heads about who we should be (please avoid the “should” game if you can, it can be a waste of energy) and what we think of ourselves. C’mon, I used to tell myself I was worthless!  Not one person in my life has EVER said that to me, so where is it coming from?  It comes from the mind, and largely, the mind is pretty damn good at creating illusions, as well as baseless, non-factual assumptions of who we are.  So, the next time you find yourself steeped in negative self-talk, think about where it ACTUALLY came from.  You might just find, as I did, that the majority of it is based on a mere illusion.  Can it be that simple?  I think so, it may just take a while to get to a place where you can accept that fact.  I hate to see people suffer when their suffering is created by non-factual information.

Sure, I’m human and I still go through self-doubt sometimes, but for the most part, it’s compartmentalized into a place where I can properly assess where the doubt is coming from.  That particular approach took some time to develop.  The good news, today, is that I can recognize in an instant when any negativity pops into my head.  For me, when self-doubt rears it’s ugly head the trick is, at first, to quite simply breathe and gain a clear assessment of the situation at hand.  And when I come to the conclusion that it’s based on an illusion?  I can tell it to piss off and I move on with my day.

Thanks for reading!  I would love to hear your feedback on how you approach negative self-talk.  Do you listen?  Can you push it aside? Everyone’s got a unique personal journey and it would be interesting to hear other people’s takes on the subject.

Standard