Monday, June 16, 2014

New Life, Slow Return to Running, and Bumps in the Road

It has now been one year, five months, and one week since my first back surgery. Two days later was the second one. In my last post, I discussed the surgery itself and the few months afterwards. My recovery continues well. For many months, I felt changes and shifts in my lower back as the bone grew and the fusion took. I went to see my surgeon every few months. Usually, he took X-Rays to check the status. That ends up being a lot of X-Rays. With my family history, extra radiation is not a good thing. So, once it was clear the repair was going well, he stopped the X-Rays and went by how I felt, which was somewhere between very good and mind-blowingly excellent. I had suffered with severe pain for so long, that the total lack of it seemed to give a sensation of just the opposite – a good feeling, kind of like a nice morning stretch. I had a hard time believing the surgery was that successful. My surgeon seemed a bit surprised, too, but in a way that showed it was the result he intended, and therefore he was not too very surprised. At least that is what he wanted me to believe. Before the surgery, I would not have expected this, and he prepared me for a different result. I can perfectly understand that. In any case, I remain pain free to this day. I had a bout of moderate pain, brought on by not paying attention getting in and out of small cars. I bent where I do not bend anymore. A course of steroids ended that. I just have to remember I am not exactly the person I was before.

At surgery plus 13 months, I visited my surgeon for the last time. He told me the fusion took and he was done with everything he could do. He sent me off to what would be for most people a “normal” life. I knew I would test his work beyond what would be considered “normal,” especially for someone my age. He knew that, too. I was so ready to get into shape and get back to my ultrarunning adventures. Of course, I had not waited until that point to start. But, I had to be careful and not push too hard, for fear of ruining all that good work. Now would be the time I could commit and go for it. I was registered for the Napa Valley Marathon and the Nanny Goat 24 hour Run. I was excited.

I do not know what really happened. I did not make it to Napa, and then I had to defer my entry to the Nanny Goat. I had not yet reached even 30 miles per week, and my long run had been 6 miles. I am still struggling and not finding my way back.

Well, actually I do know that a lot of things happened. But, I am not clear on why I am not getting going. I was lethargic on my runs. I did not feel the happiness of being on the road as I had. I don’t like cold weather, and it was plenty cold. I felt weak. Hills were real trouble. My neighborhood is full of hills, steep hills. None of this would have slowed me before. I would have taken it as more of a challenge to get myself in order and get with the program. I felt lazy. I napped a lot.

Then came the gut punch at work. The project I am working on is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). It is a NASA program that is a Boeing 747SP jetliner with a 2.5 meter telescope fitted into the fuselage. It flies at altitudes above most commercial aircraft (up to 45,000 feet), which carries the telescope and science instrument above 99% of the atmospheric water vapor. At infrared wavelengths, this is required to be able to see celestial regions whose light would otherwise be blocked by the water vapor. This is a unique observatory. Nothing else like it exists. The lifetime of the program was to be 20 years from the time we reached full operational capability.

SOFIA in New Zealand July 2013

Full operational capability (FOC) is the rough equivalent of a spacecraft launch followed by an in orbit checkout phase – a major milestone for any project. Ours was a long time coming. We hit that milestone in March 2014. Two weeks later, the President’s 2015 budget was released. SOFIA was to be effectively canceled.

It was like getting sucker punched and then kicked in the stomach. We had given a huge amount to make FOC happen, and we did it in style – ahead of schedule and under budget. Now we were told it did not matter. We would be shut down before we could even prove what we could do. It made no sense. This was a political move to show spending would be reduced, basically without regard to what or why the cuts would be made.

It made me sick.

I had planned for twenty more years. Now it looked like my team and myself would be on the street in a few months. Our German partners in the program were pissed off, to say the least. NASA, it appeared, was pulling out of a long-term agreement with no warning and after considerable investment by the German taxpayer.

Observing aboard SOFIA. The science instrument and cabin side of the telescope visible full aft. Left side are the telescope operators, right are the instrument operators, mission director, and science flight planner.

There was some hope. It became clear to us in the management team that NASA was not responsible for this cut. It seemed they were as surprised as we were. At least that is what our Headquarters insiders seemed to indicate. But, they work for the President, so they had to treat this budget as an action to them. To save the program, it would require both the Senate and the House of Representatives to agree that SOFIA should not be canceled, and to make their own budgets with it restored. Our government currently is not the model of compromise, action, and agreement that we would like it to be, so this seemed like a long shot. The company I work for is contracted to NASA for science operations of SOFIA. They put on a full frontal lobbying effort. I traveled to Washington D.C. as did others in my management team, to make sure certain NASA advisory committees and others were able and willing to support us. With a huge amount of uncertainty for everyone involved, this would take several long months to know anything.

A problem for me is I have been through events like this before. Four times prior, I had been working on NASA projects that were canceled. Twice this came just as I had started with the new job. As I was depositing my boxes in my new office, I was told to not bother unpacking. This was after a long and difficult relocation. Amazingly, and with a lot of effort, each time we were reinstated after months of stress and uncertainty.

But, this time was different. This cancelation simply made no sense. It is hard to argue against something that is not logical or reasonable to start with. There had been no peer reviews, not hint of a problem. It just happened. I was not sure how to feel. Should I start looking for another job just 1.5 years after starting this one, or should I hang in and join the fight? I decided to join the fight.

No matter what, I have a skilled and dedicated team to worry about. I care about them. We had a new staff member start the day we got the news. I think I felt worse than he did. At least he did not have to relocate himself and a family across the country like many of the team had. My job now was to be the optimist, to give the team hope, to keep us going through a difficult spring of observing flights. There was every good reason for everyone to just give up and bail out. Not only did the project need to do the best we could, we needed that team to stay with us. But, it was not all about the project. I really did feel like we could make it through this, somehow. I wanted the team to feel some hope, and certainly, as little stress as possible. I kept a hopeful face on, and took the team’s stress onto myself.

It was a difficult time - A really very difficult time.

My fitness suffered. I was even more tired all of the time. The weight I had lost went back on. I found it impossible to get a regular running program going. This was compounded with the difficulties I had found just getting going otherwise. I ran when I could and when I felt well enough to do so. I felt like I was going backwards. I was. I started power walking – the way I got across Death Valley with my bad back. It was something. It was not what I wanted.

I was miserable. I felt emotionally and physically shot. I napped excessively. I ate too much and not well. I was off track in so many ways. I was stuck. I wondered if I wanted to be a runner at all, much less an ultra runner. My very identity was in crisis.

At this point it might be worth mentioning that no matter what side of this issue you might fall politically, it still involves people, many very dedicated people, some of whom have given their career to see SOFIA fly and make astronomical history. There are engineers, designers, telescope operators, flight planners, pilots, safety techs, instrument operators, managers, mission directors, ground support, and many more. Getting any highly advanced NASA project like this into operation takes years of hard, dedicated effort. As the project goes from development to operational phase, the intensity of work is at its highest. Nothing seems to work right, systems fail, routine seems like a pipe dream, and management insists all is well and we keep pushing. That is where we were, and there was light at the end of the tunnel when we got word of the President’s budget. What! Why?

What has been happening on Capital Hill has been nothing short of remarkable. There was complete bipartisan agreement that SOFIA should continue. The House of Representatives voted to restore SOFIA, at a reduced amount, but it was a strong statement. The Senate has been proceeding with a budget that would fully restore SOFIA and provide NASA astrophysics with an enhancement over that of the President’s budget. So, things are looking good, though Congress and the President must finish the budget process before it is a done deal. My team and the rest of the staff are settling into a less excited and uncertain state. But, what of next year, or the next? Because of the way our country does budgeting, we cannot know for certain. Every year we will wait with pained anticipation of what the President’s and Congress’ proposed budgets will bring.

Dawn breaking as seen from the stratosphere.

What all of this meant for my running was nothing but bad. I was having a hard enough time. This just seemed to be a nail in the coffin. Walking into work was like stepping into a blast furnace of stress. I could not show that it was getting to me. I had to do everything I could to look relaxed and confident. I had to set the tone. That was the most important thing I could do. I have to believe it paid off.

Everything came together in a way I could not have expected, or planned. When we needed it the most, SOFIA came together. Flights went off as planned, systems operated properly, the science instruments gave few problems, and the team – many of whom work for me – preformed flawlessly. We flew many VIPs during this time, including congressional staffers and others. We flew our Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors, high school teachers from all around the country in a special program, who saw a great preforming observatory and team. It was exciting to be a part of it, and to see it happening.

Where I am now is hopeful for my running. The weather has warmed. SOFIA will be leaving for Germany for maintenance throughout the summer. I will have time and most of my work stress will have passed. I just need to do it, right?

What could go wrong? Frankly, I am still worried that there are issues beyond my control that might get in the way. Have I suffered some nerve damage that is impacting my running? It is possible, maybe even likely. I can’t tell for sure. I am overweight. I must take care of that. I must eat better, and less. I cannot stress eat anymore. It has to stop. Although an imaging test about ten years ago showed I had no arterial build-up, zero, zip, nada, my life has been one challenge after another for much of the time since. Could I have some new heart disease developing? I doubt it, but it would explain why I might not have the energy I think I should have, and the ability to get back to running like I think I should. I will consult my doctor on that one. I think I might be looking for excuses, because that just seems so unlikely.

I can accept nerve damage. I can even accept heart disease, though I would be pissed off about it. I cannot accept that I am too old, too lazy, too out of sorts to run.

I am a runner. I have been for 40 years. Running has taken me places I would otherwise never have gone. It is who I am and how I define myself. Oh, I am an astrophysicist and that took some doing, too. Maybe I will write some other time about how that happened to a near high school drop out and motor head. But, it is being a runner that makes me a better person, a more interesting person, a far happier and contented person. Running is my safe place, my motivational place, my church, my home. I cannot see a future life without running.

Yet, as noted earlier, I have asked myself if I still want to do it. To get back to where I want to be, it will be hard – harder than ever before. I am out of shape, overweight by not a little bit, and I am older. I am at an age where it does matter. Many people stop running long before they get to my age. Most think starting at this point is too hard, too much effort, maybe not even possible. I am sure that is true for many, perhaps most. Yet, there are plenty who continue into their senior years just fine. There are also many who only find running in their senior years. Age is not an excuse. It is another challenge to master, for sure, but not a full stop barrier. Not if I do not let it be.

So, here I am – old, fat, and maybe a little bit broken. Cool. What more motivation to get out on the road do I need? I have things to fix, physically and emotionally. I have a life to live, adventures to have, and miles to go before I lay down for that long sleep. I will get back out there. I will run if I can, walk if I must. It is just that simple.

Damn. It is so cool to be a runner!


"Badwater" Bill
Acton, CA