My journey to Carstenzs Pyramid

Early into the summer of 2011 I came across a picture of a double amputee (one leg above the knee and one leg below the knee) on his attempt to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. I found the image incredibly inspiring and realized that I suddenly had the urge to climb my own mountain. I never considered mountain climbing before, but then again, I had never considered most other things that I’ve done in my life and have done well. So, from that moment on I set out to find my way to and up a mountain. How does one do that? after all, I had no idea where or who to turn to for research or guidance so I decided to do what most of us do these days to find an answer and that is Google. For several weeks I entered random searches on “mountain climbing”, “amputee mountain climbing”, “wounded warrior mountain climbing,” so on and so fourth. Since I wasn’t real sure what I should be looking for, I chose not to settle for the first site I come across. I did however, come across one website that was consistently popping up on my searches and it was the website of Tim Wayne Medvets and The Heroes Project. He was the first person I emailed and as luck would have it, he was the only person I had to reach out to as Tim called me a day later. Tim’s vision for his organization was to take 7 injured veterans and for each of them to climb one of the 7 summits of the world.

Usually, when I meet/speak with someone in a business setting I try to remain professional and somewhat reserved. But, for some reason, I was feeling extra cocky the first day that I spoke with Tim . So, when we discussed the possibility of The Heroes Project taking me on one of their climbs I proclaimed, “I want a mountain and I need a real challenge, nothing easy, I want to be tested.” I said it as though I were interviewing Tim, Luckily, it worked in my favor. Tim called me just a few days later and informed me that I was chosen by the board as a climber and he added that it was my arrogance that he liked. I later found out that there was a plan to take a veteran with a visual impairment to Carstenzs Pyramid in Indonesia because it is one of the most technically challenging of the 7 summits. It is not to say that being blind would make it an easy climb, in fact it would be very difficult, but, at the time that was the plan for the climb. Tim liked the idea of pushing the limits and when he mentioned taking me, a double amputee, he was told it was a bad idea. One of the many things Tim and I have in common is that when we are told that we can’t do something we have to prove that it can be done. Tim felt as though I was the perfect candidate to take on Carstenzs Pyramid and that is how my journey to the mountain began.

From the moment I made the decision to pursue this goal, I knew that I had to step up my training. The time I spent at the gym was good enough for the races I entered but for such an intense climb I needed to get to the next level. I have always loved fitness and pushing myself in the gym but, I always knew that having someone train me, push me and challenge me would elevate me to that next level. A few years earlier, I had met Sean Dickson, a Special Forces Soldier that had become the owner and trainer at Combat Fitness Training Facility in Hoover, AL. Sean is a fierce competitor who knows how to push others. Whether someone is just looking to get into better shape, compete or in my case, climb a mountain in a way that has never been done before, Sean is able to design that perfect plan. Like a scientist splitting atoms, Sean is an expert in his field and takes every training session extremely seriously.For that reason, I decided to join CFTF and have Sean train me.

I still knew that I needed more than just more strength and endurance training, I needed to spend time tied to a rope, hanging off the sides of rocks to simulate my mountain. Luckily, I found First Avenue Rocks in Birmingham, the only rock climbing gym in the area. I decided to stop by the facility one day, the minute I walked in,I was greeted by a man named Joe Ortega. I began to explain to him all about my up coming trip, that I needed someone to help me quickly and safely learn to climb and more importantly, do it for free because I did not have the funds to pay for the training. It turned out that Joe- the owner, was once a medic in the Army and his father was a Veteran that served in the 101st just like I did. Joe had no problem telling me,”We’ll do it!” I was very excited with how well everything was coming together. Joe began taking me to climb in places I never knew existed in Alabama, and helped me become a decent climber. The last piece of the puzzle was Biotech Limb and Brace which as always are dedicated to making sure my legs are able to handle my intense training and ready for my climb. Biotech has also become a very critical sponsor helping me purchase some of my expensive climbing gear.

We are set to climb this November and I cannot wait. I want this climb now, more than I could’ve ever imagined. I want it for myself, to inspire others, specifically for anyone that has been told they couldn’t do something. But, something deeper is at the heart of my climb. A close friend of mine, Ethan Biggers, whom I served in Iraq with both in 2003 and again in 2005 was shot 2 months after I was injured and was in a coma when he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. Where I was recovering. I became close with his wonderful family and was crushed a year later when I got the phone call with the news that he had passed away. When his sister Liza heard I was going to climb a mountain she called their brother Matt and told him of my upcoming trip. Matt made a plaque in Ethan’s memory and asked me to place it atop Carstenzs Pyramid, it has now become the ultimate reason for pushing myself daily.
I don’t want to climb this difficult mountain, I need to climb this mountain. I know when I reach the summit it will be emotional, after all a lot is being poured into this climb. Not only by myself in training, but by my sponsors who believe in me, the memory of Ethan and all those incredible men that I served with and who are not here with us anymore, those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice. I can’t and I won’t let those men down, I believe that nothing pushes the human body more than that. All that is left to do before the climb is to train like a machine!

– All images are courtesy of Ellie Marks

Determination at it’s best

About 7 months ago I was sent a personal message on Facebook, that started like this,

“I do not normally send friend requests to people I do not know, however…”

The message continued with this stranger explaining to me that she was born with a genetic bone disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta which causes her bones to fracture easily. This person has endured over 50 fractures to her legs as well as fractures to almost all of the major bones in her body. She spent 16 years in a wheel chair before she decided to start working out at a gym. Through incredible strength and commitment she was able to transition into using crutches. Today, she spends 5 days a week at the gym and thus far has hiked in places like: the Badlands, Virginia, Wyoming, Vermont and New Hampshire. She only weighs about 105 pounds, yet is able to bench press with 40 pound dumbbells and do dips and pull-ups with her own body weight with ease.

The more I read of her message, the more impressed I was by this woman. Here she was reaching out to me because she saw my picture (on a friend’s Facebook page) from a Tough Mudder race I did. Ilene told me that I was an inspiration, but truthfully,  she had it all backwards, her story motivated me with every line that I read. She said a lot of people ask her what is on her “bucket list,” in which she replies, “To be able to run.” With her condition, running is virtually impossible, so Ilene knew she would never be able to compete in a Tough Mudder event. However, she ended her message with a, “what do you think?” My response was short, “I would be honored to do a Tough Mudder with you. We could start at the earliest wave and take as long as we like to finish. You don’t have to run. How does that sound to you? I have thought about this all day. of course, it would be your call if you are interested.” At first, she seemed surprised by my answer but was eager to make it her new goal. That was how Ilene from Connecticut became a very dear friend of mine.

The next step (besides incredible training for Ilene) was for both of us to find the best event for us to compete in and for me to figure out a way to fund the race . I brought the idea to one of my incredible sponsor’s and good friend Eric Eisenberg, the owner of Biotech Limb and Brace in Birmingham AL. Eric agreed without any hesitation to sponsor my trip to race with Ilene. With that, I picked a date, the Mid-Atlantic Tough Mudder in Fredericks MD on September 9th; I got our whole team, Biotech T-shirts to represent an incredible company that has done so much for me over the years and was now allowing Ilene and myself to tackle another one of life’s obstacles and do it in style.

I have no doubt in Ilene’s ability; over the months I have used her ambition to make this dream a reality, an ambition of my own. With her commitment, I have allowed nothing to stand in the way of our race. Tomorrow is finally race day and I must say how proud I am to be part of Ilene’s first Tough Mudder. I chose only the closest of friends to do my first race with, and I was as nervous as she is right now. I know that by Sunday night, she will be ready for another race, and then another, and another. I don’t know why she chose me of all the incredible people that race every day, but I am truly honored that she did. It motivates me to train harder and harder knowing that I may be able to push someone else, even just a little, to eventually conquer a goal.

Update- Upon landing in Baltimore, I was quickly informed that traffic getting to the Tough Mudder event was horrendous. As I traveled out of Baltimore and closer to Frederick, MD the sky grew darker with each mile. The rain began to pour and all I could think was “How cool would it be to race today?” Our race wasn’t to take place until the next day and the forecast called for a 0% chance of rain. The high was going to be 80 degrees, which I thought would be the perfect condition all around for Ilene’s first race. Unfortunately, the weather caused extensive flooding, the field that was used as a parking lot became a large pit of mud. Following the previous day’s traffic problem, it had become obvious that the amount of racers/spectators was more than the local police force had expected. Great weather or not, the decision was made to cancel Sunday’s race. This was supposed to be an exciting race for Ilene and myself but just like that it was gone.

Ilene, her husband Brent and myself realized that although we were upset with the news, we needed to take a step back and reevaluate the situation.Tough Mudder announced that anyone that wasn’t able to participate in Sunday’s race or couldn’t make it Saturday due to traffic would be able to transfer to a race of their choice. So, over a delicious lunch at Cracker Barrel we decided that we were indeed going to return to another Tough Mudder event at a later date. Of course, here we were in Frederick MD with perfect weather finishing up our lunch that included a desert large enough to feed 6 people. Since it was given to us on the house we figured we had to finish it ( it would’ve been rude not to eat it). At that point, our stomachs were full and we decided that a long hike at a nearby state park would be a great way to spend the afternoon. It was no Tough Mudder but it was a great training hike in preparation for our next race. I was able to spend more time with Ilene and her husband and it turned out to be an incredible weekend even without a Tough Mudder race.

I am a firm believer that working out, eating healthy and living a healthy lifestyle is a way of life. If, you are doing any of the above only for a certain race, event or even person other than yourself you are likely setting yourself up for failure. Both Ilene and myself were ultimately ok with the race being canceled because, we weren’t working out and living healthy just for that specific race. In reality, that race was just one goal, one challange, just like the next and the one after that one one will be. This is why today and everyday I choose to Train Like A Machine!

 

 

Special thanks again to Eric Eisenberg and his whole team at Biotech Limb and Brace.