Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Angel’s Rest revisited

I visited my old friend, Angel’s Rest, again last weekend.  No longer was this a training hike, no longer rehab, Angel’s Rest was now needed therapy for a damaged body and man looking to fight back.

It had been almost 2½ years since my last hike, the first dating back to 2011.  I hiked this trail often while preparing to climb Mt. Rainier.  A moderate climb of 1,450’ in 2.4 miles, back then it took me 50 minutes to make it up to the plateau overlooking the Columbia River and descend.  With a 50# pack on my bag, or my daughter in a carrier, Angel’s Rest was a great kick-start to tougher climbs ahead.  My strength, balance, and coordination were at a peak for my June climb of Rainier that year, though balance issues are always a concern with me.  Those balance issues resurfaced while on Rainier, then again later in the month with a fall that broke my lower leg.

Injury, MS-issues, hospitalizations, and recovery made for a long winter.  In February of 2012, I shared my triumphant return to Angel’s Rest.  This time the hike was slower (1 hour and 50 minutes, sans pack), but my resolve to Never Stop… Never Quit… was stronger than ever.  I left the last story with this challenge:

My balance may continue to get worse, but not without one hell of a fight from me!
Good luck on this fight, MS.  You’ll need it!

My MS had quite a bit of luck that winter… and the next.  Trying to hike wasn’t even a consideration; the priorities instead were on walking, speaking, and using my hand and arm.  Everyday tasks became difficult, but I never could shake off that desire to stand atop Angel’s Rest and overlook the Gorge once again.  I tried in June of last year.  “How hard could it really be?”  That was my thought as Brie and I started out.  Not even a ½ mile in and my MS answered that question; my body would go no further.  Angel’s Rest would not signal ‘my return’.  Not yet, at least.

Finally, after far too long, I once again stood on the overlook of Angel’s Rest!  How I got there this time is a completely different story.  My struggle used to be a tale of getting knocked down, fighting to get back up, and defiantly standing strong in the face of MS.  I can’t do that anymore.  With my family and friends, however, I learned new ways to get back up and fight.  Together we can still defiantly stand strong.

There is a constant focus to find the needed formulae of exercise, stretching, diet, and rest.  It is a challenge to understand and predict every environmental/mental/physical/social factor that will have an impact on my MS.  Regardless of how strong my body is there are times when my legs and arm just don’t work.  MS is not muscular, it’s neurologic.  Conditioning my muscles when my nerves won’t control them is always a challenge.  So I spend time in the gym training in ways that I can, using elliptical cross-trainers and recumbent stationary bikes.  Balance and coordination are less of a concern with these machines; they give my body the chance to safely gain the strength needed.

Even still, balance and coordination would be needed to hike.  The only way I could fully train for Angel’s Rest, and qualify my ability to hike, was by actually hiking.  I started small… very small… 16 lb. Jack Russell small.  Neighborhood walks with Monte! grew in duration and distance.  Quickly, I graduated to fast-paced treks along the Portland waterfront.  The 50’ elevation gains across the bridges were more than enough to challenge me for a while.  I stepped up to my first hike a few months ago: Multnomah Falls and her 700’ elevation gain.  When I finally reached the point where I could hike that paved trail two times in succession, I was ready to battle Angel’s Rest!

The week before the hike, Brie and I were discussing how I felt ready for Angel’s Rest.  I asked her if she thought I was physically improving or just better at handling my disability.  Before she replied I already knew the answer.  The fact is that my disability has progressed; I am just better at working with it now.  Managing and understanding environmental/mental/physical/social factors are as essential in managing my MS as exercise, stretching, diet, and rest.  As any world-class athlete will agree, these are neither new discoveries nor are they unique to MS.  It took a while to sink in, but this understanding has opened up so many doors for me in my new world.

I woke up on Saturday unsure of what I could take on.  As months of physical and mental preparation were over, it was now up to how I felt.  OK.  On my tracking scale, that’s a 4.  Not as good as Good (5) but better than Better (3).  It’s part of my quasi-scientific self-evaluations every day (see Tracking my MS).  I was hoping for more function in my leg, but that was what I had so there was no sense fretting over it!

Sue, Peter, and Mark joined me for the hike.  Starting out early in the morning, two things became clear as we departed the trailhead that morning:

  • On the trail, there was no hiding my disability.  Early into the hike, as my leg and arm struggled to maintain coordination and balance, every step was a reminder to me that this is not as easy as it was in the past.  I felt and looked….well, like a disabled man trying to hike a trail!  I should be used to it by now but there is still a part of me that tries to put off ‘looking disabled’ as much as I can in my daily life.  I’m sure that the charade plays out better in my mind then in reality most times.  At Angel’s Rest, however, I was keenly aware that every slow step looked as difficult as it felt.  That’s just reality.  I convinced myself to get over trying to hide the obvious and focus on what I am able to accomplish and improve!
  • There is no way I can do this alone.  Past hiking in the Gorge was a peaceful time for me to be alone with my thoughts and my music.  That’s not the case anymore.  I needed Sue, Peter, and Mark there with me.  Three friends from Portland who came to hike for no other reason than to support me.  Often they were there for just motivation, conversation, great pictures or camaraderie.  Other times it was to help lift my numb foot climbing up the rock shelf, grab onto me when I stumbled, lift me up when I fell, or wait every time my body needed to pause before working again.

So I put my trust in my friends and once again enjoyed my favorite view in the Gorge!  Two hours into the hike we finally reached the Angel’s Rest overlook.  Even before our much needed high-fives, photo ops, and social media updates, we paused to take in the view.  It was worth every struggle to have those moments on the Rest with my friends.  Reflecting on the gravity of the moment, I expressed my thanks and love to these three heroes.  With the understanding that my MS has worsened in the last few years, I had to admit there is a chance this may be the last season I am able to do this.  With a motivational “phooey,” Sue just talked about how she was looking forward to hiking next year!  Rather than letting my emotion overtake me, I just stopped talking….

After a short rest, we headed back down.  This is usually the faster direction on a trail but downhill mixes poorly with my balance and coordination.  Finally, 2½ hours later, we arrived at the trailhead once again!  Angel’s Rest has gone from a 50-minute ruck carrying training hike to a 4½ hour struggle with my body.  My balance has indeed continued to worsen… but not without one hell of a fight from me!  I’m better at falling these days; I’ve had a lot of practice.  For the day I was only unable to ‘gracefully’ convert one stumble into an awkward abrupt sit-down, opting instead for a downhill fall.  Even then, I had the wherewithal to pull back my arms, protect my wrists, and tuck my chin in so that I landed on the softest spot possible….my head!  Three days later, my bruises are just coming into full bloom; well-earned reminders of what I accomplished.

I spent the last 2½ years hoping to stand atop Angel’s Rest again someday.  It was always one of my goals as I tried to treat and arrest further debilitation, regain lost functions, and learns ways to offset the existing damage of my MS.  Saturday’s hike was one of the most difficult events I have ever faced in this new world of mine.  It was, to date, my greatest victory.  All the time, my mind was repeatedly flooded with the same thoughts:

  • How can I improve my body to hike stronger, faster, and safer next year?
    With the incredible support I have from my family and friends, finding new ways should never be a problem…
  • What’s next to accomplish?
    I will answer that one next weekend on the roads for BikeMS with Team Amulet!  

It will never stop...nor will we
It will never quit...nor will we
This is why we hike!
This is why we ride!
This is why we FIGHT!

Kevin Byrne - Portland, OR

Thank you, Peter!
Thank you, Mark!
Thank you, Sue!
My heroes…

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