Another View

A trophy and atrophy…at first glance these words are nearly identical, but rub your eyes, grab your readers, take another look and you will see that just a little gap completely changes the meaning. One symbolizes glory, triumph, champions, celebration. The other, withering uselessness.

I am feeling a tinge of the latter these days.

Yesterday marked the end of the 50th running of the Texas Water Safari, an ultra endurance race that many of you know I competed in successfully in 2010. Now just two years later, a seemingly small gap of time, I am benched with a bad ankle feeling out of shape, out of commission and out of the game.

You may recall that over Memorial Day weekend I had a freakishly random incident with a push pole that busted my ankle. The doctor in Austin said it wasn’t broken but merely a bone contusion and prescribed moist heat packs and exercise including the stationary bike. One tour on the stationary bike produced more and more swelling plus more bruising and discoloration down into my toes. Frustration.

Meanwhile we have been at home in Alabama this week, eagerly watching every detail of the Texas Water Safari unfold online. Facebook, twitter, discussion boards, the spot tracker page…I had no fewer than six tabs open on the laptop at any given moment. Sunday morning I awoke before six and devoured any update I could find. After one full night on the river, there were many dramatic reports. My friends Max and Mike who have two Safari finishes under their belt were out of the race after breaking their boat in two! I couldn’t believe my eyes.

hell in a bucket

They were having a great race, well ahead of previous years, feeling great when BAM! In the blink of an eye they hit a submerged tree trunk and they were done. Thankfully without injury.

Other updates…the first ever racer to compete in the race on a standup paddleboard was defying all odds and was still in the race. A solo female racer crashed within earshot of her support team in the night and was out. A seasoned team of paddlers with 33 finishes among them were out after hitting a tree and getting gravel inside the composite material of the boat. And word came that one team had sounded the emergency button on their spot tracker, leading to a racer being evacuated from the river.

It seemed “The Worlds Toughest Boat Race” was living up to its reputation as always.

I missed my Safari friends. I missed being a part of the race. I missed being in good enough shape to compete. I missed my ankle not hurting.

My ankle had devolved so badly in the two weeks since the Push Pole Incident that the pain was becoming unbearable. Thank heavens The Professor took the initiative Sunday afternoon to ring his orthopedic friend who agreed to see me first thing Monday morning.

Another doctor, another set of xrays, another set of eyes, another view. Turns out my ankle has been broken this entire time.

Broken! A pretty long fracture on the outside bone just above my ankle. At first I was actually relieved because it validated how badly it had been hurting, and confirmed the gnawing sense that something was wrong. But relief quickly melted into the blues as I settled into the notion of several weeks in a boot and several days on crutches. Elevate elevate elevate, ice ice ice. This is my new life.

Ugh. No long walks here in Mobile with Little Chick. No daytrips to the beach. And my Montana trip next week? No hiking. No rowing. No trailering the boat (which I love doing.) No wade fishing.

My wings have been clipped. My social life curtailed. Exercise is kaput. Which means I am sure to become a massive lethargic cow by the time the boot comes off.

Monday was spent learning to navigate the numerous tangles of Velcro straps on this ugly boot and realizing that I actually will be getting a cardio and strength workout…on crutches. Crutches are basically an annuity program for orthopedic surgeons as they are sure to cause subsequent accidents and more injuries.

We spent the day tracking the boats in the Safari and following latest updates. The racer that had been evacuated was still in intensive care, the update on the website had an ominous tone about it. But never in my wildest dreams would I have expected the next twist. About 4pm Monday afternoon the gimp and the girl (myself Little Chick) were baking in the kitchen when my phone beeped. It was my race partner Phil and the message read:

“Brad Ellis of boat 22 died of low sodium.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was such a suckerpunch. To be clear, I did not know Brad Ellis personally, but the news of a death in the Safari felt personal to me, as I am sure it did for anyone in this race community which is really more like a family. I have come to learn Brad was 30 years old, from Dripping Springs TX and an avid outdoorsman. This was his first attempt at the TWS, his partner finished once before. He trained hard, was well prepared, had taken electrolyte pills and was generally revered as a kind, funny, soulful guy.

I’m not a journalist so I don’t really feel appropriate recounting every detail that has been reported on his death in the race. More information has emerged with the autopsy and harrowing details from interviews from racers, some of whom are friends of mine. I am a blogger, so all I can share is my individual take on this situation. Bottom line, I could not ache more for Brad Ellis’ family as well as his partner who no doubt will struggle with the trauma of that night on the river for a long time to come. It’s clear he and other paddlers acted heroically.

The news rattled me all day Monday and well into the night. I am having trouble reconciling how an event so special to me, an event that changed my life for the better, brought me new lifelong friends, bonded me closer to my husband, stretched my character and recharted my creativity and writing…how the same event changed another’s family’s life so tragically.

Love and hate are just two horns on the same goat, I know the adage. But I am having trouble coming to terms with it this week.

I will say this. The news of this young man’s passing instantly put a new lens on my silly ankle situation. I clicked into a new perspective and realized how small my challenge is. And my blessings were magnified right before my eyes. I have a husband taking wonderful care of me and helping me parent Little Chick. And I have Little Chick to help me with cooking and have fun baking and to watch movies all day long. I still get to go to Montana where my husband, dad, and friends can easily row and help me catch fish.

A little space, a small gap, a blink of an eye, a breath of a moment, sometimes that’s all it takes to take another look and see how the meaning of things can change.

The race went on. Winners were to Seadrift on Sunday middle of the night, early Monday morning. Next wave of competitors rolled in through Monday and Tuesday. I saw friends reach the finish line and felt relief with each update. I had my list of boat numbers on a notepad and checked on them every few hours.

The one providing more and more suspense was friend C.J. Hall. According to the spot tracker he and his partner were making one checkpoint after the next with little time to spare.

I first met CJ on a bay training run back in the spring of 2010. He had volunteered to help with logistics and run safety boat in the bay. Before we launched he offered to take a few nervous paddlers, myself included, over to someone’s bathroom on the property. I rode in the open back of his pickup and since I was the only female, was allowed to use the latrine first. Then I had the chance to hang out with CJ while the other guys took their turns in the bathroom.

We had a successful training run on the bay that day and sang our guts out to thwart the boredom of endless paddling. At the end, CJ joked that “I shouldn’t quit my day job to become a singer any time soon.”

Several weeks later when the race was delayed and I found myself without a race partner, CJ called me and offered to do the race with me. He had not successfully completed the Safari and had not been training for this particular race but felt bad for me and offered to be my partner. I could not have been more touched. I ended up racing with Phil, but never forgot CJ’s generosity of spirit and felt a surge of comfort to see him during the race volunteering at places like the Ottine Dam portage and the seawall near the finish.

CJ was competing this year with a partner and they were chasing checkpoint cutoffs the whole time. By Monday, there was a collective intrigue online and among Safari friends to cheer and root for CJ, a guy with no Safari patch who still loved the race so much he volunteered year after year to be a part of it. But this year, the 50th anniversary, he was back in it.

And he was still in it Monday morning, chugging to the Saltwater Barrier to beat the 8am cutoff. I was hounding the Safari social media guy for updates. I was hitting refresh like a maniac. News came shortly after 8am, of the eight boats trying to reach the Saltwater Barrier checkpoint in time, only one made it: CJ. He arrived at 7:49 with only 11 minutes to spare.

Whew! Cheers shouted out within our house. Little Chick was screaming for CJ, I was too. The Professor cheered from his office as I texted him updates. Then the next reality for CJ…the finish line. He had five hours to make it down the delta of the Guadalupe River and across the bay to the finish line by 1pm. Ah! This was better than any reality television.

Everyone was rooting for CJ online. People wanted updates. After the pall on this community for a couple of days, it garnered everyone together, not to ignore the tragedy of Brad’s passing, but to survive it. The Safari needed this. In an unspoken way, we all needed CJ to make it.

I was about to vomit it was so nerve-wracking.

Little Chick and I baked and cooked and hit refresh non stop. He was in the bay. He was rounding the corner. Across the barge canal. And then the update came. HE MADE IT! He made it! He would get his patch! He and his partner pulled their boat across the finish line under the flags flying at half mast in Seadrift. So touching.

Brad Ellis and CJ Hall..I shed a tear over both this week.

CJ and his partner finished in 95th place at 12:27pm, setting a record for the longest time ever to complete the Texas Water Safari. And perhaps one of the more meaningful finishes to so many. Because as my grandfather used to say, “Easter always follows Good Friday.”

It’s been an emotional week on many fronts. Yes, the muscles in my leg are already beginning to go soft in this boot. But it’s so clear that the more important muscle we should never let atrophy is the heart. We need to have both our compassion and our passion tested, rested and ready at all times. So on the 50th anniversary of the Texas Water Safari, from my propped up vantage point in Mobile Alabama, I’d like to give a virtual trophy to Brad Ellis and CJ Hall. Because heartache and hope are never far apart.

Congratulations to CJ. Condolences to the Ellis family. Our thoughts and prayers will be with you always. Especially on the second Saturday of June.


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