My Heart is, …Running Scared

My Happy Place

I love running. I love the freedom, being amongst native bush and birds along the trails, and of course the solitude. And too the camaraderie of running with a like minded bunch of fellow runners.

Reading last month about Winton Rufer suffering a heart attack while riding a Lime scooter has prompted me to share my concerns around my recent diagnosis of heart disease, and to make a call for help.  Despite knowing that a third of the male population in NZ will die from heart disease, I feel strangely alone.

In October last year I was diagnosed with Coronary Artery Disease. Yes, heart disease. A disease that afflicts one third of the population.  Known to be irreversible. Unseen yet chronic.

Where once I just had a risk factor (high LDL cholesterol), now I have irrefutable evidence of thickening and calcification of my coronary arteries. That’s like the seashells we saw on the beach at Christmas. Crunchy underfoot. Not rubbery like the fresh seaweed nearby, nor how I would expect an artery to look and feel.  According to the radiology report I’m in the worst 3% of men. An elite club! Sadly, I’ve always wanted to belong to the running elite.  The specialist I was referred to put me on a treadmill stress test and the results ironically show I am well above-average fitness for my age. Nevertheless, no matter how good the tuning of the engine, if the fuel line gets blocked, it’s game over.

All these tests and statistics somehow serve to dull the fear that I face.  Like the sword of Damocles hanging over my head, the fear of a rupture, a clot, a heart attack or stroke and likely sudden death accompany me, like a secret shadow everywhere I go, and especially when I am running. 

So too the statin and aspirin. Taken daily they allow me to avoid facing the reality of my condition and put a wrapper around the dull ache of fear growing within.  What do these drugs really do?  They don’t treat the cause, and they won’t cure me, not like an antibiotic for infection or chemo for cancer. No, despite the plethora of web ads that promote foods that will clean your arteries (it seems the web has a fascination for cleaning products), once plaque has formed, like the barnacles on the side of an old boat, it is there for good.

When I got the news, I was in a café with my wife and daughter.  We were on our way to the Twelve Apostles, a trip we had been looking forward to for many years.  The sms from the doctor read, “…elevated risk. Please call to make an appointment to discuss”.  I had recently done a calcium score CT scan. Based on my age and LDL cholesterol level (20 years of high LDL – probably an over functioning liver according to my GP), a scan was recommended, and so I duly made an appointment at Auckland Radiology. It was a big machine, a bit like the time travel machine from the sci-fi shows I watched as a kid.  The test was over and done in less than 5 minutes.  What would I do differently if I could go back 20 years?

So, how should I respond?  If I have a tenfold increase in risk of heart attack from a clot forming (travel insurance premiums seem to indicate this), then there is a ten-fold greater chance of me collapsing unconscious while running.  Should I then alter my exercise regime?  Is it foolhardy to go running alone, or for that matter to do any activity alone?  Should I therefore only travel work in places where there would be a person chancing upon me within 60 seconds of me keeling over?  Should I ask a colleague to accompany me to the loo to check that I’m ok?  Maybe I should carry a device that detects that I’ve fallen and am lying unconscious and can call emergency services with my GPS coordinates.

And even if I do run with others, is it fair to push this burden onto them?  That I could fall unconscious at any moment?

I care about my family and want my daughter to grow up with a father (at least until she is 25).  I have a modest life insurance (thankfully) and am generally prudent. My kiwisaver is in the conservative fund.

Yet where does prudence end and irrational fear take over? Where does my belief in providence and faith in my creator end and personal responsibility begin?  Both are important, but would going for a trail run alone be reckless?  Or would it be a celebration of life and the glorious land that we live in?

Statistically, my life could end suddenly any number of ways.  A vein in my brain could rupture. One of the impatient drivers on the Waikato Expressway could lose control trying to jump the queue by overtaking dangerously and collide head on with me as I travel south one morning on my daily commute.  I could be sucker punched by a testosterone fuelled thug as I cross Queen St.  Or I could get bowel cancer or melanoma and die a slow painful death. 

Winton Rufer suffered a close call. He was lucky there was a passer-by who witnessed him collapse, called emergency services and asked another passer-by to help with CPR.  If Rufer had been alone, all would be over.  Interviewed by a reporter while recovering in hospital, Rufer said his Christian faith means he’s not fearful of death. But waking up to see the worry on the faces of his family and friends showed the father-of-two that he wanted to be around longer for them and to keep promoting soccer.  “I’m really lucky to still be alive, and I’m glad I am because I love what I’m doing and am passionate about the game.”

As I began, despite knowing that a third of the male population in NZ will die from heart disease, I feel alone.  Are you a runner in my situation? Can you identify with the fears I express?

I want to know dear reader how you who are fit, enjoy the outdoors and solitary pursuits deal with the sword of Damocles over your head.  How do you deal with the aspirin, the daily statin and side effects?   How do you deal with the fear of having a sudden heart attack more than 2 minutes away from help?

When I shared my concerns recently with my GP, he wasn’t able to offer much advice. Though he did say that I would likely feel chest pain or angina as a warning sign. Should I avoid ever being alone, make sure I carry a phone wherever I go (and make sure I stay within coverage)?

Or should I carry my life lightly with palms upheld?  Not with a sense of recklessness, but with a sense of gratitude, and with a heightened urgency to live wholly, to love through the pain barrier, to look up in wonder more often, even if it means going up a bush track to get a good view.

Paul Kalanithi in his bestseller “When Breath becomes Air”, writes that he would never talk life expectancy with his patients.  “How long do I have doc?” “Long enough to live well.”  I know that statistically my life expectancy has dropped.  Does this mean I will have fewer years to fill with new experiences? Or on the other hand more years to live focussed on what is truly important – my family, my growing sense of purpose and calling, and leaving a legacy of good in my community.

Whatever, and however I answer these questions, one thing I am certain of, I don’t want to face these questions alone.

Tui song

The whiteness of the screen is blinding. It stares back at me with a steely, unfeeling gaze masked only by years of grime and smudging.  Through thin lips it rasps, “Make my day”.  I avert my gaze momentarily, only to hear the growl of a mangy black dog from beneath my window, “You’re wasting your time”. Its droopy eye looks up at me as it circles, limping slightly as it tries to find a new spot to keep cool out of the sun.

“It’s all been said before”, the neighbour’s ginger cat whines, jumping up onto the fence under the feijoa, eyeing the dark brown thrush on the upper branches. “Who’s going to read all your amateurish drivel?”, squawks the thrush keeping one eye on the cat, and another on the nectar filled flowers.  “It’s too hard, you have no natural talent”, this time my own voice channelling a lazy bone who’d rather be reading the well-crafted work of Martin Edmond or Ashleigh Young.  “You’re just looking for praise and adulation”, Lowly Worm whispers, its head poking from out of the pages of a long-forgotten Richard Scarry picture book sitting in my living room bookshelf.

So, this time, what drives me to persevere?  What could compel me to answer back to this menagerie of voices, to defy their discordant chorus and to continue?  Why do I bother to endure the painful accusations and the lost tv and reading time?  The ignominy of posting (I dare not use the word publish) an article on my WordPress site or on my Facebook page and not receiving a single like, let alone a comment or share fills me with fear. Fear of the mangy dog with the droopy eye growling, “I told you so”. And fear of the realisation that I’d wasted a whole day or two on writing a piece when I could instead have water blasted my fence or trained for a half-marathon.  But almost as if in a parallel refrain, an alto voice, is it a Tui? in counterpoint to the chorus outside, speaks a subtler fear, “what if you don’t write?”

I try to shield my ears from the voices of fear and restore the ‘why’ that has compelled me for so many years. A why that every New Year I restate using the coloured pencils from my daughter’s art box, vivid resolutions framed on 200gsm art paper, the wild arms of a mind map stretch out as if trying to escape from the page. A why that remains clear, yet somehow perpetually out of reach. I look out across the bay from my bedroom window, with binoculars I can almost touch the cool silvery water, its magic drawing me, pulling me out onto the water – yet with the binoculars back on the shelf, the water remains merely an ephemeral vision, lost in the distance.

My why is buried deep, drowned out by the cacophony of voices and struggles to escape from my lips.  Except that there is yet an even smaller quieter voice, perhaps it is the Tui again with a new voice, like the one who comes out after a rainstorm in the early morning and sings the most beautiful song. This smaller voice, almost imperceptible above the squawking thrush, the mewling cat and the barking dog, this voice, almost imperceptibly says, “don’t give up”.  It sings a faint but tuneful song, and the words I can just make out are, “you may have a gift. How will you know if you don’t try?”.  “How will your friends be encouraged if you don’t start?  Does it matter how many likes or shares you get?  This isn’t a game or competition like Britain’s Got Talent.”

The words of an old prayer come to mind (was it the Tui again?).  The 12th century ascetic monk, St Francis, penned a prayer which begins, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace..”  As I reflect, I consider that perhaps my value in this world is not measured by how many likes I get on a blog post.  Thinking of St Francis, I perhaps should consider myself more as an instrument, or conduit, of what someone else (most certainly more profoundly) has already said.

The song from the Tui is stronger now.  The more I listen to his song, the stronger it gets.  Perhaps I too like the Tui have a song, I’m not sure.  And even if hidden deep under piles of mud, I need to let this song fight its way to the surface.  And perhaps even if only one person is encouraged, that’s all that matters.  And even if this one person is me, just me, then that might too be enough.  That might make all the effort worthwhile.   I won’t know if I don’t try.

Steal Like an Artist – Serendipity

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I popped in to my neighbourhood library the other day to return some books.  Wandering around briefly and spied this small volume by Austin Kleon on a display shelf. Pretty catchy title I thought.  (I’d recommend it to any budding creatives.)

One of the pithy pieces of wisdom that caught my attention was the author’s advice to copy the work of your hero.  But don’t just copy it to pass it off, copy it to see the world through his eyes.

For some time now, I have been researching and reflecting on the world that Jesus saw, the world through Jesus’ eyes.  Yes he is one of my heroes, along with the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King.

In particular, I have wanted to understand what Jesus read, and how he understood what he was reading.  This question has taken me on a long journey, a journey I will relate in more detail at another time.

As I read the comment by Kleon, I felt a deep affirmation, a wondrous sense that I am on the right track. Serendipitous perhaps.

Getting Started – Again

The beginning of a new year, and a brand new notebook (1B5 school exercise book). Filled in the title of my writing project then wrote the first page of notes. Great start I thought!

Later that evening i grabbed a bunch of notebooks from my shelf and noticed one of these notebooks was the same brand notebook, with the same project name – dated 2012.

Well at least my determination for this project is still the same!

I plan to continue.

Downhill from the Big Fish’s Eye

Friday morning dawned, and I was so nervous. Won’t they laugh at me in my fluorescent yellow and clunky MTB… the endless tape had been playing a while.  the updated weather on my Android phone showed 2 degrees C – fear again struck through me – visions of having my fingers chopped off with a hacksaw from frostbite eeek.
Well I made it to the meeting place by 6, and nobody there – again fear – oh no I’ve been left behind! We left by 6.20 and headed off into the still dawn air (probably was 7 degrees C – not so bad).  First rays of sun as we crossed the bridge over into Wairakei, little traffic – it felt we had the whole road to ourselves for a while.
Taupo is apprx 400m above Hamilton, so I happily thought of many downhills and few uphills. hahaha!
Hills blended into each other, we marvelled at the young calves near their mothers, and Aidee even saw some young donkeys. Before long we were enjoying the view down onto Karapiro – the cool of the lake came up to greet us and we gained new energy on into Cambridge.
Arriving at Boys High we were greeted with a magnificent haka, and later several of the team were moved to tears with a spiritual and inspired piece of guitar playing by a truly gifted student.  Several spoke honestly about their struggle with depression and we share more laughter and some tears with the gathered guests from both Boys and Girls High.
The next day onwards to Auckland. The day started gray and we enjoyed the rolling hills throough Gordonton before tackling SH1. Fortunately we had an inspired guide who led us along the almost untrafficked road west of Huntly to Rangiriri, where we enjoyed a totally carefree 40 minutes of blissful riding.  Up the Bombays in the noon heat – what a challenge – finally!  Then after a well earned lunch down the other side through the most picturesque scenery of the entire trip. Liek out of the set of a movie set in the English countriside.  I shared with Miana who was riding with me that we must drink it all in, as before we knew it, we hit the main road again and back to two lanes of cars and trucks.
Thanks to Carlton and the guys leading, I learned some new roads and cycle paths even in my own backyard!  A testimony to being open to new things always!
Back home now after two fantastic days on the road with Aidee, Hugh, Ritchie, Tamara and the team.  Great, honest and sincere conversations on the road with other riders. There is something about being out in the open air, working hard, (staying upright even!) that allows for a deeper honesty and more sincere connection.
It has been absolutely wonderful to meet so many incredible people all heading in the same direction, gutsing it out – and yet enjoying (almost) every moment of it. Thanks guys so much for letting me ride with you from Taupo (the Eye of the Big Fish) to Auckland. I’ve seen & learned so many things these two days; like connecting warmly with strangers; appreciating the rich Waikato scenery passing by in slow motion, looking down the valley & seeing a thick blanket of fog over Atiamuri – surreal.  We allow everything to happen so quickly these days – it is such a joy and pleasure to slow down (well except for the odd hill after Tirau which we screamed down). I’m left with, “Be the Change…”, and you guys are living it out day by day, pedal by pedal.
“Be the change you want to see in the world”. Most of us know this quote from Ghandi.  Another more personal angle, spoken by the rabbi Jesus is, “Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them”.
I felt a bit down the day after.  So, what now? What is the next big project?  I need to quickly get my legs back into shape, so that I can be ready for the …[next event on the calendar].  “Slow down my friend..” I hear a small voice telling me, “You don’t need to spend yourself on big projects and big events to live with purpose; redemption won’t come through ticking boxes; be still and rest in the knowledge that you are good, and that is enough. You have enough, you are sufficient”.
Deep stuff. Counterintuitive. Counter to every single ad we see on the tv, facebook and newspaper. Counter to all that we are taught. But so true.
If I have enough, then I can give. I can give my time, my care. I can smile and wave at a stranger, and oddly, I’m more filled by giving than not.  I can slow down, consume less, pause.. and yet be richer, more content… more human even.
It was a long two days, and I don’t feel the right to talk about the effort considering the 9 on the team who have been cycling for the past 16 days. Yet I feel that my experience is something of a peep through a keyhole into something magical yet very intense and very real.
thanks again guys.
Friday 26 and Sat 27th October 2012

On Yer Bike – Why I’m here

A small village (yes it was called a village when I lived there) called Rukuhia, near Hamilton was the place where I grew up and where wonderful memories of childhood took root.

My reason for this site? The short answer is that I want to promote life in all its fullness.
Though I wouldn’t call myself a cyclist, I have always enjoyed cycling. As a teenager, I rode Hamilton to Whangamata a couple of times.  Once I joined a group of kids and we rode from West of Huntly down to Urenui, West of Taumaranui along the coast – it took a week, and we stayed in school halls mostly on the way.  It was and still is one of the highlights of my growing years. When I saw the article in Western Leader about Ride Out of the Blue it stirred an incredible desire within me to recapture a passion from my youth and to bring that energy back into the present.  Most of all, I want to shout out from the roof tops, the wonder of our beautiful country, the joy of being outside, out of the comforts of home and office, embracing the ‘high sky, wide land’ that is all around me but I seldom get to enjoy.

People ask me, “What is the best way to get active?”  To start, set your alarm clock, get out of the house and no matter rain or shine go for a walk for 20 minutes.
A long run in the Waitakeres is a great way to relax.  Playing games and having laughs with my 2yo daughter is pretty special too.
What is the most recent lesson I have learned? ‘Slow down, pause, look up and wonder.’

What are the main lesson you’ve learned in life? There is more to life than what you have been taught.

What is your motto? “Give to Live”.
My favourite school motto is “Enter to learn, leave to serve” – Matangi school.

The best way to show support for someone is… Listen, listen some more, give the quiet confidence that there is hope, yes you can do it.
What is the greatest thing anyone has ever given you? My wife gives me her trust, every day. Trust is one of the most wonder-full things we can know.

What is the greatest thing you have ever given anyone? Maybe I could say that I give my daughter Sophia as much time as I can, every morning; and I (try) to give the best part of my time & energy to my wife every day.

Favourite food: My wife’s lamb stew made with bits of bacon added, (and a glass of Penfolds Koonunga Hill!); a close second would be her vegetable soup with lamb shank.

Favourite drink: does banana smoothie count? James from Sierra downstairs makes a heavenly smoothie.

Music/band: Bruce Cockburn, Dave Dobbyn, Don Maglashan, Luke Hurley, and of course U2.

Any words of wisdom: There is more to life than what you have been taught, yet life only happens today. Keep searching, but as you go, plant flowers along the way and bring hope & goodness to the people nearby.

3 Good Things even when a bit discouraged

I feel a bit discouraged this morning. Not enough sleep and tired from many hours on the bike, yet still not nearly enough miles logged.

Sophia was crying when I left for work, “dance with me Daddy”, but I have people waiting for me and I already danced for 15min (felt like the whole morning), and to cap it off our tent of chairs and blankets collapsed in a heap.

Yet I dig deep and look up in wonder to see the three good things that will be enough to bring joy and energy to my day and to my friends and colleagues.

I’m thankful that I’m imbued with creative energy. It’s my choice to let it flow through me or to let it pool up behind a wall of self pity.

I’m thankful that I’m created to do good work. There is so much meaning in those two words. Good, and Work. Where today do we read or hear that work is good!?

Thirdly, and that’s quite enough for today, I am thankful that I’m connected to the source of love. I can choose to be tender and compassionate, I can take time to pause and listen sincerely to my colleague’s concerns, and this is a gift I give not just to him, but to myself. Because I am connected to the source, and not the source, I can have confidence that I will not be drained dry.

I’m thankful for all I have that cannot be taken away, a bit like treasure hidden in heaven maybe!

I’m thankful for the choice I have, to demonstrate both quiet warmth and zestful sparkle – and having made that choice, to be content that that’s enough for today.

Blessings,

Vaughan

Ride Out of the Blue

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Ride out of the Blue has caught my imagination and sparked a strong desire to contribute both to the ride and to the goal of teaching mindfulness in schools.

I did a lot of cycling in my teens and early 20s, but after moving to Singapore in 1989 I focused more on running.

Coming back to NZ in 2009 saw major changes in all aspects of my life. I just got married, my daughter Sophia was born, I changed jobs (to a totally different environment than I’d ever worked), and was challenged by my new (old) culture.  All of these changes and ‘dislocations’ caused a lot of stress, and since then I have been through a lot of painful and bewildering phases.  Reading John Kirwin’s book “All Blacks Don’t Cry” in 2010 I realized that perhaps I was suffering depression. It grates to have to acknowledge this, but this is just my pride reflecting the real social stigma about acknowledging depression as a real and treatable condition.  Being active in sports for all my life, I’ve spent many hours getting sprains and muscle problems sorted out by a physio.  My physio told me the other day, as I complained about my calf injury – that even the best athletes get injured – no matter how much preventive effort they put into their training.  So it is I believe with mental/emotional/spiritual health.  I can accept that depression can happen to the best of us.  Yet even saying this, I do believe that there are things we can do to prevent and reduce the prevalence of this illness.

In today’s world, kids in school face a growing bullying problem, and coupled with this, I reckon kids are being sucked into an ever increasing bunch of video games, iPhone games, facebook popularity contests etc.  These technology traps move at a fast pace and cause unnecessary stress on kids as they are learning to cope with the basics of life.  This is why I believe in and support the ‘mindfulness in schools’ program developed by the Mental Health Foundation, and this is why I support this effort through Ride out of the Blue.

More than this, I support the wider aims of the Core Riders and the MHF, to raise awareness, not just of depression and suicide, but even more importantly of Living Life well.  The core practises that you find on the MHF site: Connect; Give; Keep Learning; Be Active and Take Notice are all practises that I absolutely believe in to my core. We are bombarded daily with messages exhorting us to ‘get more’; ‘enjoy more’; ‘you can have it all’.  But succeeding in any of these will not make me happy or content, and will more than likely lead me down the path to depression and despair.

Cycling has always been a passion of sorts, and I’ve often dreamed of making a long distance trip since I came back to NZ in 2009.  I see the ride out of the blue as a way to very practically live out the five practises.

3 Good Things

from Friday 7 September 2012

This morning Sophia (my 2yo) and I made tunnels in the living room with blankets and towels and lots of clothes pegs.  The laughter and delight of sharing the wonder of this new experience made up for not being able to ride in to work this morning as I had hoped.

Walking to the bus, I took a new route. The bark on a roadside tree caught my attention for its magnificent deep ridges and gnarly twists. Looking up, the blue sky framed the scene so magnificently – for a moment I was peering through a door into another world.

My Android Facebook packed a sad, and I wanted to share my 3 good things, so for the third GT, I reflect on the quiet delight of sharing ‘one to one’ as it were, using traditional email.

Mother Teresa said (to paraphrase) ‘it is the small things we do with great love that count’.  May I also humbly add, ‘it is the small things we notice with great wonder, that count and bring life to our day.’

Have a wonder-filled day.