“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Man, he really wants an arm workout.
When I’m riding on my handcycle on a given day and not competing, I sometimes wonder what people think I’m doing. I get all kinds of facial expressions. I have boiled it down to a few choice guesses as to what people might be thinking.
My favorite is this: the confused stare.
I think the confused stare is thinking, ‘Man, he really wants an arm workout.’
‘There’s a million ways to work out your arms. Maybe he just really wants a tan too.’
And then today of all days, it happened.
While I was taking a break on my ride, this older gentleman started up a conversation and asked if I do this to work out my arms.
I wanted to say yes and go with it. You know I would have done that with a completely straight face. But I didn’t. I explained that I’m paralyzed from the waist down, etc, etc.
My gopro just happened to capture it all:
3 Years Today
Today is the 3-year anniversary of my injury. No milkshake commemoration like year 2. No chicken fried steak commemoration like year 1. I’ve been off the wagon in both diet and workout since the last IRONMAN 70.3 flame out, so I’ve exhausted my appetite for gluttony.
I am about to embark on back to back to back weekend riding/racing for the rest of September including the Giants Race, Nautica Malibu Triathlon, and BORP Revolution Ride. So I’ve got a lot to focus on and that’s fine.
Last month I rode the hill I crashed on, as I plan to do every year, during the Marin Century ride and that sparked off a lot of introspect as to what was it that drove me to rebound so quickly back into my life and not spiral into the depths of despair like many do and many others expected me to do.
I believe it’s the fluidity of my perception of who I am. My identity.
I have actually spent a lot of my life thinking about my identity and taking a proactive, ownership role in who I believe I am. I spoke about it, in part, a year ago at an event for Filipino-American college students.
I say ‘in part’ because my mixed ethnicity is only one dimension of who I am. But it kicked off the awareness for me at a young age because I looked far more Filipino in grade school and was raised primarily by a single, white Mom. You can watch the speech I gave for more about that.
But that led to a lot of awareness and understanding of how others perceive me. Somewhere around the end of high school and the beginning of college, I realized I could shape that perception and began to experiment.
And that experimentation continued deep into my twenties.
I tried on corporate life, I tried on entrepreneurship, I tried on real estate investing, I tried on teaching, I tried on speaking, I tried on living in the big city, I tried on living in the big city on the East Coast, I tried on triathlon, I tried on open water swimming, I tried on dating women an earlier version of me would have shamed me for, I tried on dog ownership – the list goes on and on.
What I learned was that none of those things are my identity.
My identity is something far more core.
It’s composed of values and priorities.
It’s refined and discovered by me trying on the list of stuff above.
And Then, The Accident
And then, the shit hit the fan. I broke my back and added titanium rods and screws, wheelchair, rehab, transfers, constant neuropathic pain, catheters, bowel programs, erectile dysfunction, standing frames, hand controls for driving, being 4 feet tall and looking up at the world, amongst many other spinal cord injury-related things to the list I’ve tried on.
When my accident first happened, I was very quick to reconcile that this injury and the growing list of aforementioned atrocities do not change who I am.
… if I don’t let them.
I believe I have a choice. I get to decide who shows up in the ICU, in the rehab hospital, in the wheelchair, and in my life.
I wrote about my intentionally-crafted and battle-tested values and priorities awhile ago in another blog and you can read that at this link.
My point is that I have come to believe I get to decide what my identity is.
In many cases, people who suffer spinal cord injuries have a really hard time coping with their new circumstances. I understand why and I believe that’s perfectly okay to have happen.
I’ve seen that for many of those people, it’s a crisis of identity. They believe their identity is in the motorcycle they just crashed, in the arborist job that they had when they fell from that tree, in the club dancer they were before they were hit by a drunk driver, in the military uniform they wore before that IED went off.
The truth is, their identity is in their values. The value of riding free, wind in the hair; of working hard and making things beautiful and safe; in having a good time; in the being the warrior who is brave and willing to protect others.
And the application of that identity can be applied to anything.
It’s a matter of being willing to be adaptable and roll with the punches.
Spinal cord injury is a masterclass in being adaptable.
Yo Soy Un Lider
My accountability partner, Lili, and I have been in some form of holding each other to account since 2005. One mantra that’s come out of our partnership is this Spanish: ‘Yo soy un lider.’
I am a leader.
One interpretation of this mantra is this:
Based on how I lead my life, others will follow.
If all I ‘lead’ with is complaining about how hard it is to live in a wheelchair and lament all the atrocities I mentioned before (and side note to acknowledge: it IS difficult and real and painful) then people will follow and say, ‘I couldn’t imagine. It must be so hard. Poor baby.’
And so goes my life.
But if I lead with a smile – the same smile from before my accident. If I lead with the same values of challenge, endurance, and growth that I learned from triathlon and apply that to rehab, living with a disability, and now paratriathlon; then people have said, ‘Wow that’s amazing! Go get it. How can I support you?’
And so goes my life.
¿Eres un líder? // Are you a leader?
PS – I had to have something to eat to commemorate after I started writing about it. I ordered in Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls this year because I’m addicted…and they were nommed five paragraphs ago.
An Ask: support my ride for the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP)
One of the first things I was anxious to do, after getting out of rehab, was get back out on the road and cycling. I was pointed to BORP in Berkeley where I could ride their handcycles while mine was on order and being built. Their crew there and other riders were an immediate support group for the goal I had to do a triathlon before the one-year anniversary of my accident.
They allowed me to borrow a handcycle for 4-hour indoor ride and for my first triathlon in Oakland.
They enabled my goals and I could not have done it without their support. I’ve met countless others in the Bay Area who also benefit from there opportunities to participate in a variety of sports.
Will you support BORP? (imagine my doe eyes) I’m riding my handcycle with a team during their annual Revolution Ride on Sept 22. Every bit helps kids and adults have the opportunities I’ve had after a catastrophic life event.
Even better: come ride with us. If you’re a cyclist then join the team. I’d love to have as many people there as possible riding with me.
Here’s the link, do $25. Or $50. Every part gets me to my goal and gets people in my circumstances back into life.
BORP is a 501c3 non-profit, so contributions are tax-dedutible.
In 2015, before my crash, I was in a training program towards my first Half IRONMAN and we quickly bonded as a group.
We met up Tuesdays and Thursdays at dawn to ride out of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, up Hawk Hill, down the backside to the YMCA, out to Rodeo Beach, and then back.
If you’re a cyclist in San Francisco, you know this ride really well. And you post pictures of the sunrise. And you get really grateful to live in such a cool place.
But if you’re us .. you take it to the next level. You give yourselves a name, you make it a club, make it semi-exclusive (meaning when people would ask we say yes), and then start talking about making cycling kits for no real reason except you really love how funny it is.
There is another group in our neighborhood of cyclists who would pass most of us on those morning climbs. They are called Fat Cake. We decided to call our team …
While I was in rehab we designed a logo and cycling kit. It was purple, pink, accented in sprinkles, and said ‘Fresh and Tasty’ across the butt.
Marin Century | Metric Century Distance
The Marin Century Ride goes up and over and back down the hill I crashed on two years ago. With the support of Team Chubby Donut, I ride in the Marin Century and we ride together down Lucas Valley Road from Big Rock to commemorate the occasion.
The Marin Century happens every year about a month before the anniversary of my crash and a couple of weeks before my birthday. So it’s a very introspect time.
Team Chubby Donut wanted to do the 60-mile metric century route of the ride this year. Last year Peter and I did the easy 25 mile route.
3,500 feet of climbing
The distance was fine. I’ve done 60 miles in my handcycle before.
But what intimidated me was the climbing. 3,600 ft of climb, which is 1,000 more than I’ve ever climbed before. But I told the team .. if you’re willing to rock the hills at 3.3 mph with me, then I’m down.
And rock 3.3 mph we did. Until the last hill, Red Hill Rd in Petaluma. Different things started to strain, the road got narrow and curvy, the heat of the day pounded on my chest and face, and I took a bunch of breaks. That’s where I hit about 3,000 ft of climbing and thought this could be where we have a support vehicle pick me up.
But I hadn’t descended my hill on Lucas Valley Road.
So I got really present. Take breaks if needed. Take fuel. Go a little more and a little more. Keep cranking. Don’t tell me you think we’re near the top, Peter.
And what comes after a climb? A descent. I got to take a rest while traveling upwards of 35mph with my butt 6 inches off the ground. In the video, it’s towards the end where you see Paul catching up with me on a long road.
After that was only one more climb that mattered. The climb to Big Rock and then down the other side where I crashed. Ironically that climb, while not nearly as difficult, was made easier by a deep, involved conversation with Sarah and Peter.
We paused for a break at the top and to turn on all our GoPros. And then we went down the hill:
Nothing has power except that which you give it
A mentor once said to me, ‘Nothing has power except that which you give it.’
I recently met someone who doesn’t ride places they crashed. They give power to those places.
I decided that that hill is just a hill. There’s nothing inherently evil about it. The hill didn’t do anything to me, it was just there. It was there long before me and will be there long after me. So decided not to give any power to this hill.
The guide for this ride says about this descent: “This hill dislikes males age 25–39 (yes, you guys crash here).” I have a secret to not crash like I did: go slow.
So that’s it. We went slowly down the curves at the top. After that was a few miles of 25mph straight descent – and that’s the fun part.
People ask me what I feel riding down that hill.
Honestly, I don’t feel much. I think about people who think it’s amazing that I’ll ride this hill again. I wish I could show them how powerful this idea – this tool – can be. This hill as no power except that which I give it. And so I decide to give it none. And life goes on.
Now, what else do I give undo power to?
What do you give power to?
An Ask: support my ride for the Challenged Athletes Foundation
Since then CAF has supported me by sending me to a paratriathlon camp; awarded me grants for coaching and travel to IRONMANs; gotten me entry into the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon twice, the Oceanside 70.3 IRONMAN, the CAF B2B NorCal Ride, the Xmas Coma, and numerous others.
Needless to say, this Foundation enabled my goals in sport which I realize more and more every day how much that meant for my recovery overall from this spinal cord injury and paraplegia.
Will you support CAF? (imagine my doe eyes) I’m riding my handcycle with a team during CAF’s San Diego Triathlon Challenge in October. Every bit helps kids and adults have the opportunities I’ve had after a catastrophic life event.
Even better: come ride with us. If you’re a cyclist then join the team. I’d love to have as many people there as possible riding with me.
Here’s the link, do $25. Or $50. Every part gets me to my goal and gets people back into life.
CAF is a 501c3 non-profit, so contributions are tax-dedutible.
There’s a recent pop-rap song with the line, “I live my life like my blood type: B positive” and I cringe at how dumb that sounds. And I say that as someone who is super positive most of the time.
But what I’ve been feeling isn’t positive and at the same time, I don’t want to rant like a victim to you here. Today I finally broke through my anger with a powerful thought (at least for me in this moment) that I’ll share at the end.
You have Reasons or Results
I wanted to crush my goals this year. I wanted to crush in my races. I wanted to surprise everyone. Instead, I’ve racked up 2 IRONMAN 70.3 DNFs (Did Not Finish) and a flat tire finish at the LA Marathon.
The first DNF at Oceanside, as it turns out, was because the bike shop set up my chain through my rear derailleur the wrong way and it cost me power – which becomes a big deal over 56 miles and 4 hours and 2,800 ft of climbing. Basically, the chain was rubbing across a piece of metal the whole time. I missed the bike cut-off time by 12 minutes. Had I not had the problem with my chain I would have made the cut-off easily.
At the LA Marathon, I popped my front tire while braking on a steep downhill in the first 2 miles of the race. I locked up the brake and the tire skidded across the pavement, burnt a hole in the rubber and it popped. It was so early in the race, and I had every wave of the Marathon coming soon behind me I just figured to keep going as far as I could. I made it 24 more miles to the finish, but much slower than I could have without a flat.
After so much mechanical issues early in my season, I was really ready to have a clean race at Buffalo Springs Lake.
IRONMAN 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake
The IRONMAN 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake in Lubbock, Texas is the Handcycle Division qualifier to go to the 70.3 World Championships and/or full 140.6 IRONMAN World Championships in Kona. While it was a long shot, it was possible with only 5 Handcycle racers racing. My ultimate goal was to experience this course, have a solid swim, and stretch-goal to qualify for 70.3 World Championships.
It was the first time I’d be travelling by plane in a wheelchair … and with a very big handcycle and racing wheelchair and medical supplies in tow. I’m now a life-size action figure with a lot of accessories. I will save the air travel story for later. The great thing is, things went off without a hitch and the airport personnel were awesome at every turn.
The weather forecast was comical going in. It was low 90’s the days leading up to and after the race. But race day was forecast at 103°F.
When we left the hotel at 4 am it was REALLY windy. Turned out the day had 27 mph sustained wind with gusts up to 48 mph. Already things looked incredibly rough.
The water temperature was 74.8°F which is warm. Add to that some good chop and current because of the wind and you have really tough conditions. But used to train in the San Francisco Bay on the regular so I can handle this … right?
Turns out no. I paused about a quarter of the way thru the 1.2 mile swim to regain my heart rate and breathing and neither would cooperate. I kept playing a game with myself to get 30 good strokes in and I can have a quick pause. Nothing worked to calm my body. My left arm started cramping, I was really hot, and I just had to keep telling myself to get ‘home’ to transition and end this nightmare.
I got back to shore where I had to navigate bad pavement in my wheelchair back to my transition area – by rule, I have to push myself. After a decent transition amidst already being frustrated and exhausted, I was off on my favorite and strongest leg = the bike.
And then .. right out of transition was a hill ala Wildflower Tri but maybe a third of the distance. In a handcycle, it’s the same challenge as Wildflower for a regular cyclist. That was followed up by 5 more miles of really rough pebble pavement. Rural Texas uses this pebble pavement that even in our minivan scoping the course we could tell it was a rough road for much of the course.
The aforementioned wind was blowing North by Northwest so for the first 10 miles of the primarily North/South course I didn’t notice the wind because it was at my back. But then the course turned South into the wind and my average speed went from 18mph to 10mph. It was like staring down a flat road but cranking like you’re on a climb, which it was mentally frustrating. Especially as the day went on and it got hotter and hotter.
The last 10 miles were again just a mental game of letting go of what I expected to do and just doing whatever it takes to get ‘home’. I was really disappointed. I thought I had already missed the swim cut off with a time of 10 minutes worse than my prior 70.3 in Oceanside. I was going longer on the handcycle than I had in Oceanside which had nearly double the elevation.
I was fighting a headache because my headrest sits above my back axle and it takes every bump or crappy road vibration and drives it directly into my head. Most of the time it’s occasional and that’s fine. But the consistency of the pebble roads took its toll in this race. I literally had to take my head off the headrest to be able to focus on the road clearly.
Once I got ‘home’ into transition I decided I was done. My tank was on empty and with the temperatures and climbs in the run, I didn’t think I’d make it. I decided not to go all the way to failure on course.
In the end, only 2 of the 5 of us hand-cyclists made it to the finish line. Turns out, my swim time did NOT disqualify me. If I had only finished, I could have punched a ticket to a World Championships (WC). But even as I sat there in transition doing the math, I decided I wasn’t ready to go. I don’t want to go just to go. And the couple of months between now and the 70.3 WC I was going to improve enough to not be flailing again on the next stage.
And so goes my full season and first races. A marathon back-of-the-pack finish and 2 DNFs at 70.3 IRONMAN.
I wanted to be the one that surprised people. I wanted to have solid performances to talk about and not this shit I’m writing right now.
expectation is the root of all evil
They say money is the root of all evil.
I say expectation is the root of all evil.
I believe most frustration and disappointment comes from when we get attached to an expected outcome, and then we don’t get it. Usually, the frustration is biggest when it’s from a person. It’s exponentially bigger when the expectation is of ourselves.
I’m my prime example and I’m no better at handling it for being the wiser.
A Week Later
As I mentioned, in the beginning, I had a thought today that melted away all my frustration and disappointment. Here was that thought process:
“I’m ready to just quit. I don’t have to do this.”
“Actually… I get to do this.”
“There are so many people struggling with bigger things than this.”
“I get to do this because there is a tribe behind me who supports me every step of the way regardless of the outcome.”
“And I couldn’t do this without them.”
Which is completely true. I put out a crowdfund to a small group about a month prior to the race because I realized I didn’t have all the funds to travel to this race with all my gear. They put up $2,000 in a week.
I hated asking. Until some of the comments that came with contributions:
“By the way, Rob, you aren’t racing for you…you’re racing for all of us.”
“Keep it up and don’t hesitate to let us know how we can help support you brother!”
“You are an incredible human being Rob. Keep at those goals! We love you.”
Add to that some contributions of time from some specific people:
My friend Kristin and her daughter, Cayla, got me to and from the airport at home at VERY inconvenient hours. They also helped me with race chair training on weekends.
My cousins, the Loefflers, took time from their busy schedule with two young kids during weekend mornings and took me to the lake to swim open water. Daniel also helped do the heavy lifting on a number of occasions and sought out phantom studs in my ceiling.
There’s my competitors in the race: Evan and Daniel. Both Evan and Daniel gave me pointers on training, nutrition, but most importantly travelling with all this gear. I was intimidated at first, to be honest. But I reached out anyway. I find in triathlon, there’s a ton of camaraderie amongst ‘competitors’ that makes me appreciate this sport more.
Coach Matt Hurley at Purplepatch Fitness, who laid out the plan to be fit and fresh on race day and kept my head in the game!
And certainly saving the best for last here: John. Who I know I’m not the only one who’s benefitted from his generosity with his time, flew with me from Denver to Texas. He’s the best friend/sherpa in the business and I REALLY could not have done many of my races without him.
This may seem like a redundant theme in my race recaps this year.
So be it.
I’ve found that surrounding myself with great people is one of the few things that really matter in life.
I’ve found that getting over myself and my ego and asking for support gets me what I need and also allows others to give, and they’re ready to do it.
Focusing out and gratitude are powerful elixirs for self-pity.
I wasn’t ready to publish this blog on a positive note until the positivity was genuine, not some platitude of the right things to say. I knew I was there when I was wiping my eye as I wrote.
“The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”
// Eden Phillpotts
English author, poet and dramatist
1862 – 1960