Monday, September 28, 2015

Marked by Life

Can you see all that I've done, all that I am? Just look at the marks life has left...

Before she noticed the sun's signature on me...

Last spring, after an amazing day playing on Coronado Island with my brother's family, we crammed ourselves into a rented Prius to head back to the hotel for dinner. Happy to be with my family, I sat in the backseat between the kids and felt the warmth of their sun-tanned bodies against me. Emory, my niece, picked her nose and wiped it on my leg. Nolan yelled with excitement and told Em that friends don't wipe their snot on other friends. I giggled and left the boogers there.

We drove slowly, through mid-day traffic, across the bridge towards downtown. Em and I laughed at the wind blowing our hair all crazy this way and that. I tried to fix my hair as Em watched me. Then she said something that surprised me. She said, "Aunt Jaala, why do you have a mustache?"

I thought, "Oh shit. Why do I?"

But instead of saying that, I asked her what she meant.

Emory said, "...your skin, it is darker by your lip, it looks like a mustache...and a beard!"

A little taken aback, I considered my answer carefully.

I thought about how I could explain to young Emory that although I'm a little self-conscious about my skin, it shouldn't matter that much.

I said, "Em, this is not a mustache, it is called sun spots. When people get older, sun tans go crazy and sometimes go darker in some places than in other places. Because I am always outside playing in the sun and enjoying nature, the sun leaves its mark on my face. This mustache is part of me, it shows where I have been."

Emory thought about the answer.

Then she said, "I like your mustache, Aunt Jaala."

And my happy heart melted a little.

Though this is a sort of superficial interaction about flaws and what we make of them, lately it got me thinking about flaws and weaknesses on a deeper level.

There are moments in each of our lives when we realize our flaws and weaknesses, and decide to do one of two thing: We either deny them or accept them. In denying the flaw or weakness, time waits for another opportunity to present this thing we have denied, and the Universe waits for the time we can accept the lesson it offers. In accepting the flaw or weakness, we learn a lesson; hopefully it enriches our character and we become better at life. We evolve, we reflect, we move forward.

This year has been tough and enlightening; I've experienced things that I never envisioned I would, but I try to take each experience in stride.

Though it wasn't so serious at all, Emory's comment about my skin was the tip of the iceberg, a moment for me to see that outer beauty in life, something me and so many women are obsessed with, is fleeting. We grasp tightly this form of beauty and sometimes forget that the beauty is in the flaws, the ones that we never intended to acquire.

What do the spots on my face mean?

Well, to me my skin reflects my life.

It shows that I live life hard and fast and appreciatively. I throw myself at life (with not enough sunscreen apparently) and I expect it to throw itself back at me.

I fuck up.

I get selfish and greedy.

But I always try to learn from my own flaws, from my mistakes, from my self-indulgence.

This year has stripped me bare and maybe added some spots to my aging face. But I accept each one of those spots as a mark of experience; of living. I know that these outer indications of a life lived are attached to my inner self. A growing, thriving, ever-changing light lives within me. Maybe it is just trying to get out via my face? I don't know, but I'm willing to accept whatever the reason is that I change and become more weathered each day. It is an honor to be marked by life.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Coming out of the Night, choosing to Fight

Reflection of the smoked out sun; Murphys, CA

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever Gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

We all brought our own demons into the night. Some of us feared getting lost in the moonless, starless expanse of the forest, some of us were already lost in the dark when we arrived.

The Endeavor Team Challenge was more than halfway over when we set out on the "night land navigation" course into the actual night. Smoke from the Butte Fire blotted all light from the sky and filled our lungs with pieces of everything that had burnt before that moment. As we headed out onto the course, compass and maps in hand, I thought, "Maybe I'm breathing pieces of exploded stars?!"

I probably should have been thinking about pace counts instead, but off we went.

Moving through space with zero illumination and a dim headlamp is challenging enough. Add a treacherous jeep track filled with loose boulders, air thick with smoke and dust, and the skill of navigating and you have quite a task on your hands. Thank God for smart friends! My partner Paige is a navigatress (queen of navigation); finding points, for her, seemed second nature so we were able to find the mandatory points assigned to us, plus a couple more.

While Paige was focused on navigating, my mind was wandering in and out of lucidity, battling with itself to think about the terrain and my pace count, to trying to ward off dreamy dreamland thoughts. Since I wasn't superbly amazing at warding off fantasy land, the dreamy dreamland thoughts often filled my head. Every so often, our head lamps would illuminate large black spiders (about the size of our palms) resting on the trail. At that point, the deep black skin of the spider would remind me of the darkness of the night, which would in turn remind me to recite the first stanza of "Invictus," a poem by William Ernest Henley, that we were tasked to memorize and repeat upon command (we had not yet been required to recite the poem).

Whenever I saw those spiders, I'd say: "Out of the night that covers me..." and mess up the rest of the stanza with my own lines: "Black as..." that giant spider on the ground...holy crap, that thing is huge...I hope it doesn't jump...or crawl into my mouth while I'm sleeping...I should not step on that spider!

Practicing land navigation sans nighttime...and spiders...and fire smoke

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloodied, but unbowed.

After hours and hours and hours of walking among dust, smoke, spiders, mutes (aka Tim and Grant), and through silent moments that went on for longer than the time that accompanied them, we finished the night navigation task. It was three in the morning, and both Paige and I were sleepy enough not to be completely in control of our capacities. Of course, this was the moment we were asked to recite "Invictus" from memory. We were told that until we could recite the poem perfectly, we would not be able to rest.

Though I didn't know the second stanza completely, we had been practicing the poem all day so I knew enough to help Paige through this part.

Earlier in the day, Paige mentioned that the poem was taking on meaning as we went over it more. I agreed with her; though I already had it written on the wall in my kitchen (REALLY!) it was taking on meaning out there in the woods as we repeated it over the course of the day.

Listening to Paige recite those words, in the middle of the darkest night I had ever seen, I thought that this poem is a metaphor for this event, and our lives, of course.

Though we were beaten down at that hour, we were still moving forward...we recited the poem and accomplished the task.

Though I've been beaten down at times, more recently than ever before, I've fought and continue to move forward.

Rhythmically and deliberately, Paige said the third stanza:

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

Though I was listening to her, I was inside of myself, telling myself that there would be so much more after this night; so much more to experience, do, and see in life and that I should not forget this pain, but appreciate it and move through it; I should not forget this moment, in this place, because this is right where I was, and am, supposed to be.

The event was not yet over; but it was time to sleep...

We woke to a smokey, quiet morning.

Our final task was upon us.

Paige and I grabbed our bricks (we were each given one to carry throughout the event) and water bottles and got ready for our final movement.

It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,

Ambling through the forest, scrambling up rocks, swimming across Lake Alpine, Paige and I caught up to our friends, Chris and Leilani. As we all walked through the forest, Chris and I talked about what it means to accomplish something in this type of racing. He mentioned that as long as you are giving it your all, as long as you finish and at that point know that you had nothing more to give, that you tried your best and enjoyed the experience, then you have won and should be happy.

This, I know is true:

At Endeavor Team Challenge, and in life, those of us that gave our all, and give it everyday, are right.

I am the master of my fate,

Whatever situation I find myself in, I have a choice to make. Whichever decision I take, whether to fight, and work, and help, and give 100%, or to ignore what needs to be done and be weak, is up to me. I can choose to be lost; I can choose to crawl into the darkness and let it consume me. But I won't. I choose to fight.

I am the captain of my soul.

Leilani, Chris, Jaala, Kent, Tim, Grant, Paige; people who choose to give 100%.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Universal Conspiracy: Afghanistan, Selection, and a little Fate?

No I did not have a camera in the bathroom during Selection. I returned a few days later to take this picture.

On September 12, 2001, I sat in a field at University of New Mexico and thought about my life. I wondered if I was headed in the right direction and if what I would do later down the road would have an impact on the world, and help prevent 9/11 from occurring again. I felt an extreme sadness and confusion about what had just happened, but what was clear to me on that day was that somehow I had to learn more about Afghanistan. Someday I would go there.

Ten years later, after a lot of living, I went to Afghanistan to teach. The twisty turning road of my life took me to many different countries as a teacher; I went through highs and lows with sports; was married and divorced; and eventually had forgotten about my earlier need to see and live in Afghanistan. When I was offered a fellowship there, however, all of those feelings resurfaced.

I wondered, "Will I die there?"

It turns out that most of my family and friends thought of that too.

A few days before I left for Kabul, my friend Nick asked: "Jaala, are you ready to die teaching in Afghanistan?"

I took a few seconds to consider this question and said, "Yes. I am." 

He asked me to explain.

I told him that ten years ago I knew that I would go to Afghanistan someday to learn about the place and to teach. I knew that I would be such a small piece in the larger picture of what was happening in the world with regards to the war and the fighting and the danger of the place. But I was willing to go there because it was right to me. Not only would teaching affect maybe one person and make a small change, but my heart had called me there years ago, so I would listen.

In the book The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho says, "When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny."

Ironically, it took me about a week to accept the job.


I went, I lived, I thrived, I saw, I taught, I learned...and I returned many more times.

My life changed in a multitude of ways before, during, and after my time in country. I'm still not sure If I have uncovered all of the lessons therein. I'm still learning day by day what being in that place means to me, and what it means for my future. Even though I am not there anymore, pieces of me remain.

My friends have grown, changed, gotten more education, expanded their families, and I've gotten to see it all happen. My Afghan "sister" becomes more beautiful everyday; I want to hug her and tell her I love her, because part of her spirit lives in me.

And now friends that were lost have been found again, and live in me here in the states in the strangest of ways. Just when I need them the most, little signs appear showing me that their love follows me on my journey through life. 

Though this was not going to be a story about Selection; the event is woven into the fabric of my life, so what isn't a story about Selection these days?

During Selection in Bozeman, in between the 5 mile run and 12 mile ruck march, I had a chance to use the public bathroom. I ran into the stall, focused and tried to move quickly. When I was doing my thing, I looked up at the door to the bathroom stall and saw lyrics to an old Beatles song, "Blackbird" written there.

At that moment I knew that I would be okay, no matter what happened during the event. To me that song reminded me of a special person in Afghanistan; I had already been singing the lyrics that weekend, and to see it scrolled there on the bathroom wall in the middle of Montana in a public restroom, I knew that I was moving in the right direction.

I'm not sure if I fully understand life yet, but I do know this is for sure: When something is right, when something is meant to be, just like Coelho said later in The Alchemist:

 "... todo o Universo conspira para que você realize seu desejo.
...all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

I desperately want to live a life full of challenges, love, and growth. I want to constantly be moving forward, yet serenely taking in all that this time and space has to offer me. I want to meet the challenges as they come, inspire others to do the same, and have a positive affect on the world.

These days it seems to be that the Universe agrees with my wishes.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Meeting the Challenge: Fields of Flowers and Selection 017

 Calm before the storm; getting ready for the PT test at GoRuck Selection 017
Why am I here?
 Story time; the after party
My buddy, Jason

It was 2003 and I had claimed my very own seat on a city bus in Chengdu, China. I had already won a small battle; this was the first time I wasn't stuck under some sweaty shirtless man's armpit standing pressed against another 100 people trying to see the street from the fogged up windows.

Even before I landed the seat, I was feeling quite proud of myself for being able to read the sign that said this was the bus that would take me home. Though it was headed in the wrong direction, I thought that since the roads in the city ran on a ring system, and I was on the other side of the ring from my house, it didn't really matter which direction the bus was traveling; I'd get there eventually.

I was a bit wrong about this. Careening through Chengdu City on that gray afternoon, just before my usual stop, the bus took a sharp turn off of the main road. I yelled at the driver to stop, but he smiled and had no intention of pulling over. The next stop was 20 minutes away, through rapeseed fields and on the outskirts of the city. I had no control of the outcome; we finally arrived at the city bus depot.

Sitting in the back of the bus crying, not understanding anything anyone was saying, I was literally lost. I had no idea where I was and no idea how to get back to where I was going. The bus driver dragged me off the bus and told me to go away. I stood in a dirt parking lot, wondering what to do...

This is what was on my mind for a moment when I was sitting in a truck, recovering from hypothermia at GoRuck Selection 017. 

Just moments before, I heard someone yelling in my face "Stop f'ing SHIVERING!"

I remember rolling back and forth in the freezing water, doing some inch worms, getting farted on in the face, standing up, pressing my ruck over my head, then...nothing.

Later the cadre would tell me that we were taken out of the water to run around and get warmed up. However at the end of the run, I stumbled in a different direction than the remaining 8 candidates. The cadre chased after me, basically carried me to a truck, then tried to warm me out of my stupor; they wanted me to go back out there and rejoin the welcome party. It was't meant to be. After 45 minutes, I finally was aware of my surroundings.

But by then it was too late. The welcome party raged on and I found myself shivering and eating a chocolate chip cookie in a 100 degree truck cab. I cried.

How did I get there? Where was my ruck? Why were my boots on the dash?

This reminds me of that time on the bus in China...

I looked through the windshield and saw fields of yellow flowers. I was a bit confused as to why I was back in China.

I brought myself back to reality.

The fields of flowers were actually street lights on the other side of the pond in Bozeman, Montana where we were doing our welcome party. Finally, I understood that I was done with Selection 017 and didn't even have a choice. This outcome was out of my control; just as the outcome of that bus ride through Chengdu city was.

After it was all said and done, I reflected on what Selection meant to me, and what I could have learned; this is what I saw:

Though the end came swiftly, the prologue was much more extensive and interesting. Though the result seems sudden and certain, it wasn't a result at all.

This Selection meant more to me than any other event I had ever trained for.

I spent two years honing my body and mind to handle the stresses I would undergo during the 48 hour Selection event. My life changed drastically; I both gained and lost immeasurable things, all of which were necessary to become who I am today.

And so I see that the journey is not over.

Though I took a sharp turn away from what I saw was the initial end point, that turn was out of my control. What lies before me, and the choices I make to deal with it are all up to me. I can be disappointed for not finishing Selection, or I can see this experience as more training to finish the next one.

Will I be at Selection again?

Well, I like to think about a conversation that my good friend Chris Holt and I had about mountaineer George Mallory and why he climbed Mt. Everest multiple times. Mallory said:

"The first question you will ask and that I will try to answer is this: What is the use of climbing Mt. Everest? and my answer must be: it is of no use. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It's no use. So if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go."

In thinking about all that lies ahead, I'd like to meet the challenge. I'd like to meet it because my heart calls me there, not because of what I'll get when I have reached the goal. So will I be there again?

How can I not?

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Scar Etched by Sand

A Scar Etched by Sand

It happened so quickly.

One second I was face down in the sand, crawling back through the water towards the other candidates telling Cadre Bert “NO WAY, I WILL NOT QUIT!” The next second I was walking towards the dunes, tears mingled with salt water and hiccups of defeat.

GoRuck Selection 015 came to an end for me around 14 hours when I voluntarily withdrew. To most, it may have looked like I quit because I couldn’t drag dead weight through the sand. But to me, there was more to it: years of preparation, life experiences, and reflection were tied up in that moment. 

Before explaining the end though, I’ll have to explain the beginning.

It was seventh grade and I had just injured my elbow arm wrestling. The doctor made a joke that I’d be fine, but I could kiss my career as a Navy SEAL goodbye. Not liking limitations, I asked my swim coach what a Navy SEAL was, and if I could be one. Always encouraging, my coach told me that SEALS were elite warrior swimmers, but that no women had yet become one. I told him I’d have to be the first; he smiled and agreed.

Life unfolded for me in other amazing and challenging ways and I followed the path of competitive swimming and teaching. I travelled all over the United States in my youth racing other water babies and ended up swimming in college. In adulthood, I chose a civilian life over a military one and travelled the world learning and teaching. All the while, I never forgot my athletic ambitions; though I was done with college sports, I believed that my best days were ahead of me.

After college, I taught in China, Micronesia, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and finally Afghanistan. During my sojourns as an expatriate, I lived in simple villages and huge cities. I lived under monarchies, communist regimes, socialist and coalition governments, and chiefdoms; I lived in police states, places at war, and areas that hadn’t seen fighting since World War II.

No matter where I was, I searched for competitions so I could continue to test myself and push my body. However, the places I lived had better ideas. Many times I tried to compete, women were completely barred or when I showed up, an excuse was given as to why I could not be there.

I opened my eyes and learned hard truths, that women were by no means equal to men in most places in the world. During those times, I took everything as a grain of salt, adjusted, and knew that I came from a place where women could be and do anything they pleased. I was thankful that I was born an American and vowed to never take for granted the freedoms I enjoy everyday of my life, because life could be so much worse.

Back in the states, when a friend told me about GoRuck Selection, I immediately wanted to do it. “My standards would be the same as the men?” I asked. “Yes, definitely,” he said. “I get to run and hike and do stuff in the water all night?” I asked. “Yep,” He said. My friend tried to warn me that I should probably do a “Light” first to see what GoRuck was all about. I told him that anything with the word “light” in it was not for me. 

After reading all of the Selection after action reviews and basically anything that was ever written about Selection, I knew it was for me. I admired the cadre for their service to my country and the finishers for their determination. I wanted to be a part of that group of people whom I respected. 

Before I actually entered, I thought about this endeavor deeply. Why was I doing it? If not to make amazing friends and hear their stories, it was to test myself and feel alive. I wasn’t afraid of the physical tasks at hand. I was afraid that by not doing Selection I would never know all of the people tied up in it; I would never know if I could have finished. How would I ever know what could break me if I never was in a situation where I might be broken? I figured the cadre were professionals so they would do their best to teach me this lesson.

In the end they did.

But it was not the end yet.

During our 12-mile ruck march, a blood moon rose over the Atlantic as I quick-stepped to the song in my head. My steady breath mingled with the waves knocking on the shore; run, walk, run, walk, runwalkrun, runrunrunrunwalk. Though I had practiced this many times before, still I doubted my speed and forced myself to run, crunching shells, dodging waves, and passing others, knowing that this was just the end of the beginning. I was in the zone and barely noticed when I ran upon green lights and the cadre lining the beach.

We had finished the PT test.

After that, our “welcome” was warm.

This is what it looked like:

During the “party,” this is what I was thinking:

Keep going. You are strong enough. You trained for this. Whose legs are those? Keep going. Nothing they say can stop me. I’m the girl who chose the baritone saxophone in sixth grade because it had the biggest case. I’m not afraid. Holy shit, I’m afraid. They have weaknesses too. Whoever has his foot on my pack has no weaknesses. Keep going. I can do any of this all night, forever. Put me back in the water. Keep going. There are shells in my ears. Keep going. Get me out of the water. Keep going. Life could be so much worse. I like this sand. He has nice feet. Keep going. Am I ripping his armpit hair out? Run! Keep going.

Then something unexpected happened…
I couldn’t keep going.

When I came to a task that was a bit too difficult, and the cadre said something that really got into my head, I stopped to think. I forgot to tell myself that I was good enough, and that I should just keep going. I forgot that life could be worse, and that this was an opportunity to test myself. At that moment I let my mind wander to the philosophical side of things; I lost focus. By the time I was done thinking, I had uttered the words I never thought I’d say, “I’m done.” The end had come.

Two weeks later, there is a scar on my hand, etched by sand. Though there are other scratches and bruises that linger, they will go away and only these lessons, and most likely the scar, will remain…

I learned that if I give my 100%, it may not be good enough for someone else. This is true in physical events and in life. No matter what we do, it may not be good enough for someone. The choices we make, however, should have reason and behind that reason there must be a drive to follow thorough, carry on, and keep going. 

When I look at the scar on my hand, I remember the lessons I learned at Selection 015 that I could never have taught myself. I thank the cadre, selection finishers, and the candidates for helping me become a better person. Know that I am not done yet; know that I will keep going, and know that the scar on my hand is the shape of Montana.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

That is not Palestine; That is not Israel...THIS is!

This is Ramallah, Palestine; 2010
This is Jerusalem; 2010
This is Jerusalem; 2010
This is Ramallah, Palestine; 2010
This is Tel Aviv, Israel; 2010
This is Ramallah, Palestine; 2010
This is Hebron, Palestine; 2010

Today I walked into the coffee shop to buy my morning cup and glanced at the front page of the New York Times. I saw a picture that at first, looked pretty. With my terrible eyesight, I saw a few kids on a beach. It could have been any beach...the white sand looked rocky and the water was glistening. It was uncrowded and serene.

"That is nice" I thought.

Then I got closer. I noticed that the child laying upon the sand was dead. His legs were splayed about his body in an unnatural way. Behind him, a man was carrying another dead child, looking at someone or something I could not see.

I instantly knew this had to be Gaza. I felt like throwing up; I felt like yelling to the other customers, "Can you believe this!?" I wanted to shout, THAT IS NOT PALESTINE! THAT IS NOT ISRAEL! But it is. It is the abhorrent reality today. The murder of innocent children, the constant fighting; an eye for an eye. That is what is happening now.

Instead of shouting at strangers, I cried a little and headed to school. When I got there, I showed the picture to students. The reaction from the teens whom I teach ranged from sadness to confusion. One 17 year old Chinese girl said, "It sounds like a terrible argument and someone should tell them to stop." Yes child, I agree.

The situation is complex, the history is deep, everyone has a good reason why they believe this or that...but I think we can all agree that children dying over the matter is too much. Can't we all decide to lose a battle, or to concede something so no one else has to die needlessly?

This morning I I wanted to talk to all of my friends in Palestine and Israel and tell them to keep living their meaningful lives, and not to give in to this violence. I want them to know that although this is the reality right now, I know THAT IS NOT PALESTINE and THAT IS NOT ISRAEL...My friends and their families are better than what is being portrayed. They all live meaningful and purposeful lives and do not condone this violence. To all of them, I send my love.

 This is Hebron, Palestine; 2008

This is East Jerusalem; 2010

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Becoming T-Rex Hunters

The end was in sight; the last few hours of our GoRuck Challenge was upon us. As we bear crawled towards the water in synchronization, then did push-ups and 8-count burpees in the sand, we knew a few things: 
1. It was morning, so our class had made it at least 10 hours through the night
2. We were back on the beach and our start point was about a mile and a half away
3. The event would probably get harder before it was over
By then we were thinking and moving like a team though; we all understood that we could take whatever would be thrown at us because we were a unit.
But we didn't start like that.
Ten hours before we found ourselves crawling on the beach as one, we were a bunch of individuals, crowded under the hazy streetlights east of the Santa Barbara pier. 
Illuminated by the light of the full moon, our cadre had us line up so he could check our bricks. The first lesson learned was a quick one: pay attention to detail. If you hadn't read the event instructions thoroughly, you wouldn't have known that you should have written your name and phone number on your bricks. Those who had not followed instructions immediately went for a swim.
Since we were not allowed to wear watches, there is no way to know how long our "welcome party," the first physical training (PT) session, lasted. It looked like this: water, sand, rolling, push-ups, sand. We were a strong, but stupid class.  We got "stupid prizes" because we played "stupid games," i.e. we weren't working as a team or using our brains.
A stupid game looks like this: Rolling to the left when we should be rolling to the right. Rolling too many times. Crushing the person next to you when rolling over. It took us a couple of hours to figure out how to roll properly. It took us almost as long to figure out how to low crawl efficiently. Lesson number two was not easy to figure out: work as a team.
Sandy and wet, we set off into the night on multiple missions. Though each mission was difficult on its own, things started getting really interesting when we found ourselves back in the crisp Pacific Ocean for another PT session. Already cold and sandy, it felt nice to rinse off during those exercises. However, the nice feeling was fleeting.
For the next long chunk of time, we had to first bear crawl, then backwards crab walk up the Mesa staircase; a set of about 250 stairs. This would not be our last "stupid prize."
After the stairs, our night slowed down in time, but sped up in effort. We found a giant log (I estimate it was 300-400 pounds) and had to carry it as a team a few miles. We started down Mesa Lane carrying the log on our shoulders. No one was communicating well, and we kept on shuffling into each other. We were 16 people speaking 16 different languages going 16 different ways. It was a mess.
By the time we got out of the neighborhood, our cadre knew we needed a talking to. He told us that we looked like a bunch of kindergarteners and we had better get it together. After our pep talk, we decided to carry the log with straps. This proved to be about 100 times easier than shouldering the log. We also counted cadence and were able to walk together. Devising a system of switching sides also helped us immensely. Though we missed our time hack by about 45 minutes, we ended the log-carrying portion as a team.
There would be many other challenges set before us as the night went on. We'd get lost in a canyon, narrowly avoiding falling off of hills and running into cacti. We would pick up a large PVC pipe, fill it with water and carry it for miles. We'd have "casualties" and have to carry team members for miles. We'd walk with our packs over our heads and without a shoe. We'd get more "stupid prizes."
Back on the beach, we could see the pier in the distance. We had just finished another PT session in the ocean, and we were getting what would be our last mission. We'd have to make it back to the pier with five "casualties" and the empty PVC pipe. With 16 people, four of them women, and two people (at least) carrying the PVC, a bunch of people would have to step up and carry more bags and each other.
As we made our way down the beach, everyone did their part and more. Some of the women ended up carrying bags and men (at the same time), others carried three bags and flags; others carried a couple of bags and the PVC.
After we crossed under the pier (the finish?), we had no rest and went straight back into the water for another PT session. It could have lasted five minutes or five hours, but when it came to an end, we all knew. Facing south towards the Channel Islands, the pier to our left, we were told to turn around.
Standing in the water, the American Flag over his shoulder, waving in the wind, Cadre Mickey shared some words with us. Though I can't remember everything that was said, I do remember the feeling I had: sheer pride and happiness. I was proud of who I knew Cadre Mickey was, a warrior and a leader, proud to be part of a group of hard-working people, proud to be standing on the shore of my home country, among friends.
When it was all said and done, our Cadre said it best: "You started off as a group of individuals…but in the end…in the END, you were a team of napalm-pissing, t-rex-hunting, bad-ass mother f'ers. I'm proud of you all."

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Endeavor Team Challenge: The Decision and Prepartion

I'm the sort of person that sees videos of, and reads books about Olympians, Navy Seals, Base Jumping, Army Ranger challenges, people fishing in 100 foot seas, climbing Mt. Everest, surfing giant waves, Special Forces training, scuba diving caves, riding bikes thousands of kilometers, running hundreds of miles through deserts, lifting insane amounts of weight, and performing any other type of physical or mental challenge and I say, "I want to do that!"

Some people may think that wanting to do risky things is crazy, but all of my life I have been compelled to push my physical limits. I find pleasure in testing my body, in seeing just how far I can go. Setting a challenging goal, working to get there, then rising to the occasion is rewarding; being a sportswoman makes me feel alive and happy.

Usually the barrier to doing things like jumping from planes, reaching the summit of Mt. Everest, or diving in caves is lack of money, or a life choice (I became a teacher, not a member of the military or a professional athlete/water woman). However, when the opportunity arose for me to compete in the Endeavor Team Challenge, none of those barriers existed. I immediately recruited a partner and entered the race. This would be my first ever endurance race; a 30+ hour challenge over 45 miles in the high Sierras.

After deciding to do the Endeavor Team Challenge, my partner, Mike Harding, and I had about four months to prepare for the race.

How do you prepare for a race that consists of so many skills? The simple answer is that my life up to that point had already prepared me for the race. The events in the race would cover running, hiking, swimming, kayaking, mountaineering, obstacle courses, strength events, and mental challenges; all things that both Mike and I had done at some point in our lives.

For the months leading up to the event, I continued to train CrossFit four times a week, lift weights three times a week, do a long, weighted hike at least once a week, run intervals twice a week, and mix swimming, rowing, rock climbing, and skills work (like tying knots) into my program here and there.

Preparation became a key component in the success that Mike and I would have when the race came around. Because we did hikes together frequently, Mike and I encountered most of the problems that many people would have to face during the actual race. Some of those problems were fueling and foot care. Though caloric intake and feet don't seem to be at the top of the list for training for an endurance race, eating the wrong food or not taking care of feet could very well take us out of the race.

During our first 20-mile test hike, both Mike and I got blisters on our feet, suffered stomach problems, and became dehydrated; not the scenario that we were hoping for! By the end of the hike, I could barely walk because my feet had become so painful; I had blisters on the balls of both feet and on the tip of one toe. Besides the blisters, my stomach was bloated and tender from all of the power gels, bars, and other sugar-laden food I had consumed.

Mike wasn't fairing so well either. About halfway through our hike I had run out of water (!) so Mike had to give me some of his, which made both of our intakes wane. Being that it was about 90 degrees outside, we had to consume more, so we quickly ran out of water. With about 5 miles to go, we found a swimming hole, cooled off, and drank some of that water. When we had finished and arrived at the car, we both had the feeling that our first long training hike was quite a disaster! We planned to do the same hike in 5 weeks to try and improve on our performance.

In between our 20 miles test hikes,  my training intensified a bit. I added in shorter, sprint-style hikes in which I'd wear a 20# weight vest and hike at about 90-100% uphill for about 30 minutes. These hikes built my capacity to work at a higher output over an extended period of time. In addition to those sprint hikes, I added a couple of double days during which I would do Olympic lifting or other heavy lifting and a short metabolic conditioning session in the morning, then another metabolic conditioning session at night. On some days I'd swim or row in the morning, either as intervals or as a long, slow distance. One day I put in 13.2 miles on the rower at about 80% effort; another day I swam 24 x 25 meters underwater with 20 seconds rest in between each 25 meter swim. The days were varied, but I was always trying to build my work capacity in some way.

When it was time for our second 20-mile tester, Mike and I were better prepared all the way around. Instead of leaving mid-day in 90 degree heat, we left the parking lot at 6 am in 55 degree heat. We brought an extra 3 liters of water, and had refined our nutrition plan. I wore wool socks and had some "hike goo" on my feet so as to prevent blisters.

As far as nutrition went, for the second test hike my strategy had changed to whole foods with no added sugars or preservatives. Because I normally eat whole foods, I figured that I should stay the same for long events too. For fast sugar (a good balance of glucose and fructose) I brought squeezable "Ella's Organic" baby food (both fruit and vegetable mixes). This was both pure and easy to digest; it took the place of energy goos. For a fat source, I brought squeezable nut butter, mostly macadamia nut butter because I did not want to overload on the PUFAs in almond butter. In addition to the nut butter as a fat source, I also brought squeezable coconut butter and oil. A protein source that was easily digestible was a little harder to figure out, but I settled on making myself meatballs and meatloaf. The recipe was simple as to not upset my stomach: salt, pepper, olive oil, and organic green chiles.

Besides those primary sources of fuel listed above, I also brought along baked green beans, or baked zucchini for an added carbohydrate. As far as electrolytes went, many drinks like Gatorade, nuun tablets, and other energy drinks bug my stomach too (surprise!), so instead of drinking my electrolytes, I took "salt stick" salt capsules. The capsules are composed of magnesium, potassium and sodium, so they take the place of sugary electrolyte drinks. I took one pill every hour.

This hike went better! Mike and I took shorter breaks, didn't get blisters, and avoided dehydration. I also recovered faster and did not feel spent and tired for days following our effort.

After this hike, Mike and I had a few more weeks until the race, so we continued to train various modalities and skills and lift heavy. Some Sundays Mike and I practiced the CrossFit portion of the event since that was one of the few "knowns" in the challenge. Practicing the CrossFit portion gave us the opportunity to see how we would lift the log/railroad tie, and how we would break up reps. It proved to be valuable information when we had to do the challenge at 3 am during the race!

All in all, preparation set us up for an easier race. By no means were we great at everything, but we did not have any doubts going in, that we were weak in any one area.

Four days out from the race, we arrived at altitude (7,000+ feet) to try and adjust before the start. Three days out from the race we were doing sprint repeats, swimming easy, and walking in the hills. Two days out from the race I did a long hill run, some bouldering with Chris, and some swimming. The day before the race I ran and swam again. Because we took a few days to get used to the thin air, come race time we felt no ill-effects due to altitude.

After four months and a life time of training, Mike and I were ready to go!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Truth's Blessing

Would I have ever found out that American spaghetti is terrible had I not taught a class full of Italian girls who made me the best spaghetti of my life? Probably not.

Truth's Blessing
In life, is knowing the terrible, dirty, truth and being sad about it, better than knowing nothing at all?

This afternoon, as I was walking out of my classroom and into the sunny Santa Barbara afternoon, a student stopped me and asked an interesting question. 

Mei Lun, a student from China, asked me, "Teacher, why is it that American education is focused on telling students what is wrong and evil about society?" 

She continued, "In China, we always learned great things about our country. We learned about our long history, our dominance, our great abilities in art and science. We learned about innovative thinkers and artists. We learned about the value of communism and hard work. We were happy at school." 

She added, "Here (in the U.S.), I am afraid for my son to go to school, because I am worried that he will only hear terrible things. He will be afraid of the world instead of excited to be in it. He will become cynical."

After Mei Lun told me her opinion, and asked me that tough question, "Why does the American education system focus on what is wrong with society?" I had to stop and think.

Here is what I said:

"I think that the American education system reflects our culture. In America, we (the people) want to know what the problem is so we can fix it. In the most perfect Democracy, the people have the power to fix their own problems, so this system is reflected in the best educational settings. In China, I think the education system also mirrors the culture. There, the government deals with the problems, the people are not entrusted with that responsibility. So, I think systematically people are told the highlights and the problems are kept secret."

Though this is a pretty simple analysis of two models of education, I think it conveys what, idealistically happens in both countries. Since I am not an expert in the Chinese system of education, I'll add to my thoughts on the American education system (the unbroken version).

First, I think that the best schools and teachers in the American education system do not focus on what is bad and wrong with society, but they focus on the truth, and what students can do to make our society better. 

In my classes, I tell students about issues that are important and eminent. I want students to know what troubles they will face, what issues are pressing, and what needs fixing in society. But I do not stop at educating students about problems. After I present these problems, I often try to go a step further and let students know what they can do to improve society. I want students to know that problems exist, and that they have the ability to create solutions and foster change.

Second, I think that in an ideal classroom/ educational setting, it is the responsibility of the educator to show students that life is not always perfect, and that they should have the skills needed to deal with a sour situation. 

The reason why social studies and humanities classes teach about terrible things is because people need to know that these things happen so that they can stop them from happening. Educating people about the ills in society makes them part of those ills, for better or worse, and they must choose to do something (or not do something) about those things. The beauty in education is knowing what is going on in the world, and choosing what you want to do about it. 

Third, I'd like to think that by educating students about abhorrent occurrences, they will prevent them from happening in the future. 

Students are entitled to know what is going wrong, and what has gone wrong before in this world so that they can learn from those things and not repeat them.

Though Mei Lun is long gone (I won't see her again until Wednesday), I want to tell her this:  

I hope that students have teachers who explain sad and difficult situations with thoughtfulness and courage. I hope that teachers do not shelter students from reality, but give them tools to deal with it, and then to make it better. I hope that students realize that truth is scary and sad, that the world is difficult, but that knowing this is true and knowing that reality is changeable, is a blessing.

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Sunday, July 08, 2012

Ever Changed

Ever Changed
This morning I awoke to the call to prayer at 3:45 am and a dusty stream of light filling my room. The birds were chirping as the mullah sang, "Allah u AKBAR," into the mosque's loudspeaker. I thought, "how does that mosque always have electricity for that loudspeaker when most buildings around here have no power at all?" As I sat up in bed on my final morning in Kabul, and yearned for the cool California coastal air, I realized that Afghanistan has changed me forever.
Leaving the country this time, I understand that over the past two years, I have grown and experienced life in a way that makes it impossible not to be deeply affected by the things I have experienced, the things I have seen, the people I have met, and the things that I now know.
Splitting time between my country, America, and my second home, Afghanistan, has constantly reminded me of the beauty and luck that life holds. I didn't choose to be American, yet I was born into the privileged life that is mine. I am eternally blessed to be an American, to be a free roaming, freethinking, wild spirit and to be able to choose my own life, my own path, my own love, and my own home. I am blessed to wake up each day to a stable, war-free, clean-aired, organically farmed, absolutely beautiful country where I can drive myself anywhere I choose. I was born into a culture that accepts I am an independent dreamer, a woman who has no limits. I can do and be anything that I want to because I am an American.
After living here, I know that I will never be the same.
I will never take for granted those that love me. During my first year here I was lucky enough to meet Chris, my love. I was not looking for him, but I met him among the dust and concrete of his military base; we were both lifting weights. He is my match; my dream partner and I will never forget how he changed his own life to be with me.
Throughout my time here, my father and Cheril, my mother, brother and Aubrey, sister, Julie, Kat and Matt, Steph and Mike, Donny, Anne, Colin, and countless others continued to stay in contact with me; they never let me forget that my home is in America, that my life in America was waiting for me to return, and that I had a network of amazing family and friends who I could always count on. I will always love each and every one of them for their dedication and support.
Though my body will never be the same, though I come away from my time here having a much weaker immune system due to the constant exposure to unclean water, food, and air, I have never felt spiritually stronger. Though I know that I may get sick more easily, and that it will take time for me to regain the total health that I enjoy in the states, I would never trade my experiences here for that which I have gained. In giving up a tad of physical health, I have gained the mental strength to always be honest and true to what I believe in. I am tougher and more determined to be the best person that I can be, to take advantage of all that I have access to because I know that there are people far less fortunate than I am that will NEVER be able to live the life that I do.
I will also never forget the amazing people that I have met here. My friends here have taught me that even though life may be hard, even though life may look hopeless and desolate, there are people, and places to love in Afghanistan, there is the hope for a better future. Even in the most dire circumstances, Yosuf, Hadi, Nasir and their families, Parwiz, Ehsan, Rabia and her family, all of my friends at Eggers, Steve and Tara, Noor, Aisha, Sohaila, Muzhgan, Mustafa, and Aziza and many others have shown me that making the most of life, and continuing to fight for what you believe in is important.
There are countless realizations I have had, countless lessons I have learned, but now I must catch my flight to Dubai. Today, I leave this place behind and move on knowing that I will never be the same.