Growing Together in 2019 - Year in Review

As we enter into a new decade, I look back at my personal tradition of reflecting on the past 12 months in long form, as well as the last 10 years since I started this exercise, to see how I’ve grown.  A common trend in recent years is that I have noticed that the events of every year that passes tends to exceed my goals and expectations of the year before, even when I seem to be approaching a ceiling of noteworthy life experiences.  The effect of this observation is that I have gained a fair bit of confidence when planning future goals and am not afraid to dream big and take calculated risks.  This is tempered by the sense of humility I have nurtured to be able to let go of the attachment to certain goals that might not work out due to other areas of life requiring a higher priority (Ain’t nobody got time for FOMO!!!).  More often than not, these other areas end up becoming the most fulfilling aspects of my life and goals tend to shift organically in that direction over time.  2019 is definitely no exception to any of these observations and trends and I invite you to read on if you have a few extra minutes to hear about the details.  As a new father, I certainly have come to appreciate that you need to make the most efficient use of your time and reading this entire review may not be realistic for everyone.  If that is the case, just scroll through and check out the pictures along the way.  Enjoy!

 

Christie and I rang in the new year at home after attending a London Knights game (Tickets courtesy of Start.ca from a contest Christie won on Instagram).  We were trying to keep things low-key since Christie was 8 months pregnant at the time.  Even while trying to be take it easy, we were both quite busy.  Christie had finished her nursing degree in December and was preparing to write the NCLEX exam in order to become a Registered Nurse.  I was staying fairly busy between supply teaching and working as a massage therapist at Skye Health.  We still managed to make time in the opening week of 2019 to participate in the first of several planned Happy Trails races for 2019, the Stride Inside 6-hour track race.  Christie walked for most of the 6 hours and completed about 17 km while 35 weeks pregnant!  I had not been running much after the Oil Creek 100 in October and so I was quite pleased with covering a little over 58km in the same time.  My pace really dropped off after a quick start and it was a great reminder that training makes a big difference as you run for longer.  I had made the goal of running the Ottawa Marathon in under 3 hours in May as a motivator to keep up my training as we welcomed our son Henry into the world, but my strategy failed to live up to my intention as I’ll get into later on.

 

As many parents know, having kids changes your lives entirely and despite several false starts (probably due to stress) in early January with the race and preparing for the licensing exam, Henry decided to stay inside a little while longer past his due date, February 2nd.  While we eagerly awaited his arrival, I was offered an amazing opportunity to be a full-time technology teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Secondary School starting February 4th.  It was a no-brainer for our growing family to accept the job, which came with a sizable (for us) regular paycheck and great benefits.  I was excited for my long-term career goal to finally become manifested, but I’ll admit that I was quite overwhelmed with the timing.  For the first week on the job, I was on edge, both waiting for a call from Christie indicating a baby was on the way, and also just trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing as a teacher when they hadn’t even got my email set up yet.  I am deeply grateful for all the support from my colleagues at STA that helped me out and made me feel welcome, and especially to the principal, Dan Howard, who made me feel supported when I had to take several days off when Henry was eventually born on February 13th.  

After spending an extra 10 days inside the womb, the doctors at LHSC convinced us to have Christie be induced in the evening of February 12th.  We had been preparing to possibly birth Henry at home with our midwife, but because he was so late, we ended up having to start off in the hospital.  With Henry’s birth being the only one I had personally attended and witnessed, I thought it went pretty well overall, but apparently it was actually quite a roller coaster ride by typical standards.  I had been mentally preparing for the event for many months and the experience I had with ultramarathons was certainly helpful to have but not entirely transferable. 

Since we needed a little help with some exogenous oxytocin through IV to get things moving along, we had to monitor Henry’s heart rate continuously and we saw that he was not handling the contractions very well.  They had to turn down the rate of oxytocin as a result and by the early morning hours, the OB had convinced Christie to get an epidural (which she was hoping to avoid) in case we ended up in the operating room.  Sure enough, a few hours later, we were being told that they didn’t think Henry would be able to tolerate being pushed through the birth canal after all the work throughout the night with the contractions; we were going to go for a C-section once the new doctors came on after their shift change.  We were really hoping to do things naturally, but getting Henry out safely is the most important thing so we accepted the situation and waited for the new team to be ready for us. 

When the new doctor came in to check things out, we were told that there was another mom that needed the OR more urgently and since Henry was more stable at the time, we would have to wait awhile longer to get him out.  Luck would have it that after we got bumped from the OR once more, Christie had dilated enough that the doctors gave her the green light to try pushing and maybe avoid surgery.  I am so incredibly proud of how strong and brave Christie was and she did an amazing job throughout.  Henry was born at 12:28pm on Feb. 13th, weighing 7lbs and 5oz and measuring 21.5 inches long.  He had the cord wrapped around his neck twice on the way out, which would explain the heart rate decelerations during the contractions earlier (and maybe his ongoing fascination with most electrical cords he sees to this day).  My memory of events may not be exact, due to the sleep deprivation and adrenalin, but it will be remembered as one of the greatest days of my life.  We didn’t spend long at the hospital since our midwife would come to our place the following day to check in on us and Henry.  I believe we made it home around 11pm that same day (in a blizzard). 

The first few days (and maybe weeks) with Henry were a bit of a blur to recall.  Breastfeeding was not going well, despite trying everything we could to help improve production and let-down, and so after a few days, we were advised to start supplementing with formula (Another thing we wanted to avoid).  We soon found out that part of the problem was that Christie had developed an infection post-partum, and that was using up a lot of her body’s resources to heal.  The acute healing process ended up taking her several weeks rather than a few days and sapped much more energy than was normally expected.  With all of that going on, breastfeeding eventually became more than we could handle, and with heavy hearts, we decided to take a break from pumping and trying to get Henry to latch on after about 5 weeks.  We were both beyond worn out. 

 

Between supporting Christie’s healing, helping with Henry as much as I could and still seeing a handful of clients a week at Skye, I was barely able to keep my head above water with my new job at school.  I was taking things one day at a time and hoped the March break would give me a chance to get organized and catch up with lesson planning.  It wouldn’t have been as much work if I had taught those same classes before and had more materials prepared in advance.  The reality was I was working just one day ahead and maybe had a rough plan for the week, but that was the best I could do at the time.  As an attempt to take the edge off and try to maintain some social connections, we were pleased to be able to attend both the annual St. Patty’s day party at long-time friend John Brennan’s place AND my cousin Nick’s Stag and Doe in Woodstock.  We felt like it was important for us to still get out and do some things despite what we were dealing with at home and at work.

With so much going on, trying to keep up just a part-time practice at Skye was quickly becoming impossible.  I decided it was best to give notice to my clients that after the end of March, I would no longer be offering massage therapy.  It was very hard for me to leave a job I loved so much and was just at a point where I had built up a steady clientele, but I had to do what was needed for my family and my own health. 

 

With my life clearly feeling overwhelmed, the chance to run as a pace bunny again for the Around the Bay 30k Road Race was a quite welcome interruption, even without having trained much in the weeks leading up to it.  I knew that a baby might have that effect on training and so in December and January, I worked very hard on getting into the best possible physical/mental shape, just as a way to buffer the expected exhaustion.  I didn’t take into account the duties of full-time teaching however, which was, by far, my biggest stressor.  Spending time with Henry actually helped to ease that stress, even at times when he was crying in the middle of the night and would not go to sleep (still happens some days even now).  Suffice it to say, it felt great to return to Hamilton for my 11th time running this race since 2005.  Christie even surprised me by bringing Henry to see me finish (I had taken a bus to the race with the local Runner’s Choice group).  It was also a great pleasure to see my friend Valerie at the finish line.  She now lives in Hamilton and had also just had her first baby around the same time as Henry was born. 

 

With Henry taking up most of our time, we didn’t get up to too much through April beyond family gatherings for Easter.  We also had to start planning for where we would be moving to once we ran out of space in our 1-bedroom apartment.  We had been in communication with my Aunt Divera through the winter and into the spring regarding a mutually beneficial plan to renovate her house in Strathroy (that used to belong to my grandmother).  In exchange for us taking care of getting all the work done, we would be able live there for a few years with quite favourable rent.  The project would require a great deal of time, which would present a challenge for us, but with our other options were not nearly as great, we went ahead anyways.  I was really putting all my eggs into this one basket in the hope that it would all work out.  We were quite relieved to get the official stamp of approval from my aunt and a budget for materials in late spring, as we didn’t really have much of an alternative plan for where we would live much longer.  More on this later…

 

Henry was growing so fast and by May, our new routines were starting to become the new normal.  We still kept our annual Victoria Day family tradition of running the Watford Road Race.  I, once again, ran with my nephew Cameron, and Christie pushed Henry in the stroller.  Christie and Henry almost beat Uncle Fred, who has completed the race more than anyone else in our family! It is really important for us to continue being active, not just for ourselves, but now to be a role model for Henry.  We also find that he really enjoys being outside going for walks and now runs with me (in the jogging stroller gifted to me by my friend, Glenn) and we hope that he continues to like those types of activities as he grows. 

I went into the Ottawa Marathon weekend, in late May, with an open mind, knowing that my goal of going sub-3hours was not very realistic, but I would try my best anyways.  It was a long drive up with Henry, and our Air BnB ended up being a bit of a dive, certainly an exceptional experience compared to the other amazing places we have stayed before.  And I thought I packed heavy for races before having a baby. WOW!!!  The car was FULL, and mostly of baby things. 

On race day, I had a hearty breakfast before Christie & Henry walked down to the start with me.  It was only about a 15minute walk from where we were staying.  It was exciting to be in such a big race again and this time I would actually be racing for a personal best on the course.  I had run the marathon in 2008 and 2009, however both times I was pacing friends.  I started out running around the right pace for a 3-hour marathon and hoped I could keep it up.  I tried my best to hold on to the pace, but shortly after 25km, I started to drop off.  Partly due to the heat but mainly just lack of longer runs in training.  I managed to finish with a 3:13:36” which I was still really proud of under the circumstances. 

 

As Henry was growing so quickly, we decided we better have a “baby shower” for family and friends to come and meet Henry.  We were able to squeeze it in on a Saturday in early June and the event was graciously hosted by my mom in Strathroy.  Months earlier, we decided to postpone a baby shower that was scheduled while Christie was still pregnant because we had too much going on.  After he was born, it didn’t seem like we would have much free time anytime within the next couple of years, so we went ahead with it anyway.  It was really important to us to have the opportunity for our loved ones to come and see Henry and were happy to see so many people come out to support us as new parents.

 

As I managed to make it to the end of my first semester teaching full-time, complete with many doubts along the way, I was preparing to have an even busier summer.  I knew beforehand how important the summer is for teachers to unwind and get ready for the year ahead, but now I have felt the effects of burnout myself, having had a couple classes that were a really tough to manage.  There was no unwinding going on for me as I would not only be responsible for the entire home renovations, but also taking an online course for 6 weeks that I needed for school. And if that wasn’t enough, I would be intermittently disabled due to my arthritis flaring up (more on that in a bit). 

Once school was officially over, I expected to only spend a week or two finishing all the demolition necessary at the house in Strathroy before starting on painting and installing new floors.  By the end of July, I was still working on fixing some pipes and getting the water back on in the house; we were way behind schedule.  I promised Christie that I would have everything done so we could move in on Labour Day weekend, just in time for school to start, but that plan would not become a reality for us. 

Throughout the month of July, we were commuting from London, along with Henry, most days, to work on the house, and my mom would help out with babysitting when we needed it.  In August, we decided it would be best to live at my mom’s temporarily in order to make it easier to finish the work on the house.  This did require moving twice instead of just once but saved us a whole month’s rent as well as a lot of time in the car, which made Henry happier. 

Once my course was over (which I barely got through) I was 100% focused on getting the house done.  I knew once school started again, time would be scarce.  As it turned out, the month at my mom’s turned into a little over 2 months by the time we were finally ready to move in to the new place.   We are still unpacking some things now, but it is feeling more like home with each passing week.  I am very proud of the work we did and feel truly grateful that we get to live in the same house that I made so many fond memories in when I was a kid at my grandma’s place, especially around the holidays. 

 

I had big hopes of keeping running high on the priority list while being a new dad, and I am humbled that I even managed to get the 5 races in that I did this year.  A couple races that I registered for and later revoked my spot were the Tally in the Valley 24-hour and the FoxTail 100-mile, both Happy Trails races.  I had been chosen to be an ambassador for their brand for 2019 and wanted to do as many of their races as I could, chiefly because they are really well organized, a lot of fun and they usually have some unique twist to them to make them more interesting than many other races.  I did manage to make it to the inaugural Rugged Raccoon night trail run in May as well as running the Sunburn Solstice race in June, with Christie doing the ¼ Solstice.  It was a really cool format where the race starts at sunrise and finishes at sunset, running as many 4km loops as you can in that time.  The ½, ¼ and 1/8th races started progressively throughout the day and all finished at sunset.  My mom came out to watch Henry while Christie was running later in the day.  It was awesome to be able to see my little guy every time I came in from a loop.  I think I managed to complete 96km that day, despite taking some longer breaks during the afternoon. 

To try and fit in more running in the summer just didn’t work out due to everything else I had on my plate, not to mention my arthritis being more active.  Somehow, I managed to create even more stress for myself in the summer months than when I was teaching.  Of course, we did make sure to have a little fun here and there, most notably, while attending the weddings of my cousins, Nicholas (and Courtney) in August, then Helene (and Steve) in September.  Christie’s sister Danielle also got married in August at a small ceremony at their home in Milton, which we were also in attendance for. 

One race I decided to do once more regardless of my available time was That Dam Hill in Springbank Park in London, ON.  I had done the race several times in the past.  The Race Director, Dave Carver, had tragically passed away earlier in the year.  I had become closer with Dave in the last couple years and even though he was still a bit of a mystery to me, I considered him a friend and wanted to run in his honour.  TDH would host the 24-Hour Canadian Championships in 2019 and so I thought I would give it my very best and maybe, somehow, I could pull off a great performance and win!  I started out feeling pretty good and maintained a great pace throughout the day.  Later on, I was able to share several laps with my brother-in-law, Kamil, once he started the 12-hour night event (His first race since high school!!!).  He often talks a big talk, and I might have prodded his ego a bit prior to persuading him to sign up for the race.  I was so proud of his accomplishments of testing his own physical and mental boundaries, eventually completing 58km by morning.

Even with all my optimism, the metaphorical wheels started to come off for me after about 135km.  I would walk several laps before taking a long break that I would not get back up from after about 18 hours.  My final count was 152km, which was longer than a couple years earlier when I was worn out after running Eastern States 100, but far from my best of 180km at that race in 2015.  I still hope to someday throw down 200km on that loop.  I know it’s possible if I’m in better shape. 

 

Something that was new this past year was my increased involvement with the Arthritis Society of Canada.  I have been part of their Ambassador program for a few years now, but that hasn’t really meant much up until recently.  Early in the year, a short video was released as part of an education and awareness campaign about arthritis that I was featured in.  It took over a year to be produced after it was filmed and I’m not quite sure what the strategy was, but it didn’t end up getting much traction on YouTube.  It’s only a few minutes long and is a great look at how two complete strangers can share such vulnerable parts of themselves because of the way they are connected through the disease.  Click here to watch the video!

More recently, I was selected as one of 4 people nationwide to be the face of the Arthritis Society’s year-end fundraising campaign.  They invited me to a photo shoot at the Westside studio in Toronto with Matt Barnes, a top Canadian portrait photographer.  My picture went up on billboards across the country this holiday season and across social media. 

Click here to see the ads!

Much to my surprise, my arthritis had been in remission for the most part from the summer of 2018 all the way until the end of June 2019.  Normally, my flare-ups have coincided with significant changes in my life, such as moving or a new job, but it wasn’t until the week of exams in June that my joints were under attack by my own body once again.  I wonder if the stress of being so busy from February to June kicked my immune function down a couple notches and prevented flare-ups, a similar effect as if I took a steroid like prednisone.  It was quite easily one of the most intense flares I have ever experienced.  I actually had to use my cane for a couple days, including for the STA graduation.  After a few days of intense pain, I also developed a fever and decided to take some prednisone to calm things down.  The flare was reduced but the residual effects were still intermittent through December.  That meant that the renovations that we had scheduled for July and August were done while still battling sore and achy joints; some days were better than others. 

I feel like sharing my story might offer some reassurance to people that struggle with arthritis.  I can set an example that it is possible to still have goals of being able to do challenging things, as long as you listen to your body.  I also think it’s important to let other people know about how arthritis can affect people that are young and otherwise healthy too.  There’s a lot of misunderstandings about what arthritis is and who can suffer from it because there’s so many different types.  Most people hear “arthritis” and immediately think of older people with worn out joints or former athletes that suffered injuries in the past.  The type that I have, called Ankylosing Spondylitis, is similar to Rheumatoid Arthritis in that it is an auto-immune condition that can occur in younger and healthy people too.  It typically will go through periods of being flared up and then sometimes into remission.  When it’s bad, I have trouble walking, or just getting up from sitting or lying down.  When it’s not active, I have no problem running a marathon or even 12 hours or more.  It’s the strangest thing to experience. 

My doctors have certainly highlighted my case as being somewhat of an outlier, especially with the addition of another auto-immune condition consisting of periodic fevers that I’ve experienced for the last few years now.  Personally, I find my health to be one of the most interesting things which drives me to want to learn so much more about how our bodies work and what we can do to influence their functioning.  I’d rather be an interesting case that makes my doctors think than to just have some common condition that is solved with a pill.  As strange as it sounds, having arthritis has actually made me a much better therapist and overall, I feel like a more grounded and empathetic person than I was before.   Some of the things I have discovered through learning about auto-immune illnesses include the benefits of cold exposure, special breathing exercises as well as practices like fasting that have a broad range of applications for improving health if done properly. 

 

The last couple months has been filled with a lot of contemplation over the future, both short and long term.  As I started another school semester, I thought that I’d have a better handle on things, but after a couple months, I’d come to realize I still had just as much stress as before and I didn’t feel much more prepared.  I was not feeling great about my job and it was eating me up inside.  At the same time, Christie got hired on with the OBCU at London Health Sciences Centre, which is her dream job.  She started her training in November and she has been super busy ever since. 

We had started bringing Henry to daycare at STA in September for 3 days each week.  It was great to have him around other kids and to give us a little bit more time to get some things done but he was lacking a solid routine and we were having a really rough time with getting him to sleep well.  Once Christie started back to work, we knew that we would need to change something so that Henry would have a more consistent schedule and be calmer during bedtime and eating.  With all that pressure building, we thought it would be best for me to take a couple months as a parental leave to be with Henry full-time while taking him out of day care to save some money.  In hindsight, this has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.  I feel like I’ve had some space now to process what my longer-term goals are and what is best for our family.  Much to my own surprise, I don’t think I want to teach full-time (at least not for now), and I really miss doing massage therapy. 

Once my leave is over, I hope to go back to part-time supply work and slowly start to treat some RMT clients again in Strathroy.  It will provide us with a lot more flexibility, and between Christie and I, we will be able to raise Henry more ourselves and save on daycare, at least for now.  Even just considering giving up a decent, steady salary with benefits is an incredibly challenging thing to do, but also is ignoring a bunch of billboards across the country with your face on them that say you want to spend more time with your son while you’re still physically able to. 

 

The last few mentions of 2019 include the Groot Christmas gathering at my dad’s house on the 21st of December.  Henry and I were in attendance while Christie had to work (Nurses are incredible people, am I right?).  We all were able to go to both my mom’s and Christie’s dad’s family gatherings on Christmas day.  On Boxing day, we hosted Christie’s mom’s family at our house for brunch.  Both of Christie’s sisters were able to join us. Danielle brought her 5-week-old little boy, August; and Nicole, who also had a big year of filled with personal growth was celebrating being sober for over 3 months and counting.  We are very proud of both of them for all that they have been able to accomplish this past year.  It’s a testament that most things worth doing are never easy but are very rewarding in the end. 

On the topic of hard things, I also did manage to squeeze in one more “marathon” before the year was over.  It was designed to be a loosely organized, crappy-hat give-a-way with some optional suffering for those that were willing (Those ultramarathon runners are weird, right?).  The course was a 1km trail loop on the Niagara escarpment that measured closer to 1.4km with significant elevation change.  We were either climbing or on a steep descent.  The “crappy” medals were given out at the start so there wasn’t much of a finish line to speak of.  Runners just wrote their name down on the clipboard hanging from a tree when they decided they were done.  I made the call to stop after 42.5km was covered (Not the prescribed 42 laps), enabling me to drive home, pick up Henry at my mom’s and keep him on his regular bedtime schedule. 

If there’s one thing I can say was a theme in 2019 it’s got to be family.  Our family has grown (and Henry is growing quickly himself!!!) and our lives are now focused on raising this little human so that he can inherit the earth with all the other millennials.  With a focus on family, I have been pondering more and more about the environment and the future of our human family on this planet.  I feel even more motivated than before to try and live in a way that respects nature and is sustainable so that future generations can stand a chance.  It is clear to many people already that our economic and political systems are not in a position to support a massive scale turn-around in the way our species needs to survive on this planet.  It will take extreme measures to avoid a catastrophic future for humans and I hope that Henry will see that we are doing what we can to leave the planet for future generations in the best condition we can.  It is a scary thought to think that the human race might only have a few decades left if the status quo remains much longer, and even with some of the modest changes already taking place, we might only last another 100-200 years. 

Even with that prediction, I am hopeful for the future and aim to try and do what makes me happy in the present and to be of service to others.  I know that within a couple decades, the technology with be available to extend healthy human lifespans far beyond what we think of as normal by today’s standards, and so if we can solve the environmental/economic issues, I plan to be around to see the next century.  The way I see it, retirement will be an antiquated idea by the time I get anywhere close to 60 so I might as well earn a living doing something I love to do now, might like to do for a very long time and help others and the planet while doing it. 

 

It’s always nice to have a carrot or two hanging out in front for the year to come, so in terms of running goals, I’d like to complete those couple races I missed this year that I mentioned earlier, and maybe even set a PB for the 24-hour.  I’m also excited to take a vacation or two with my family and start to show Henry a bit of the world while we still can.  We are planning to spend a few days in Florida in February and just over a week in the Netherlands in June for my family reunion. 

I’m looking for the right opportunities to surface regarding my RMT practice as well as maybe teaching yoga more often again, which still remains a passion of mine. Also, Christie and I have decided to try a year with no alcohol at home for 2020.  We’ve seen what damage alcohol can do to people’s lives and we’re convinced this will be a very positive initiative for us in more ways than one.  I think it’s also a great way for us to support those that we know that deal with addiction.  Overall, we are looking to simplify and streamline our lives moving forward so that we can reduce distractions and continue to do fun and exciting things together while not living beyond our means.

 

I extend my deepest thanks for reading this far and hope this reflection can trigger some dialogue, whether it is about running or arthritis, about family or careers, or the bigger questions of human existence on this planet and extending human lifespans.  Our biggest influence in life is the community we surround ourselves with.  I have noticed that it is far too easy when life gets busy to put your head down, work hard, and forget about the people that support you.  Ultimately, all the hard work in the world is for nothing if you don’t have the people you love around you to share the experiences with. 

 

Wishing you peace, love and health in 2020!

 

 

© Brian Groot 2020