My Weekend at the RKC

weekend constant companions

Today is a new day, and instead of focusing on what isn’t working (most of me), I am going to write about my experience at the RKC in Minnesota just two weeks ago (it seems like two years ago at this point).

For those who don’t know, RKC stands for Russian Kettlebell Challenge, and the weekend certification is an intense three day immersion into technique and proving that one is “worthy” of the title “RKC Instructor.”  It is not for wimps.

Kettlebells have been around for hundreds of years in Russia, but are relatively new to the scene here in the US. They were brought here by the Evil Russian, Pavel Tsatsouline, a former Soviet Special Forces physical training instructor.  He is known now as the modern King of Kettlebells, and it is his methodology that is taught by “official RKC’s.”  Since bringing the kettlebell to this country, Pavel’s proteges are found on the Secret Service, Counter Assault Team, among US Navy SEALS and Force Recon Marines.  And then, there’s Julie.

Now you may wonder, why would a 50-year-old woman with cystic fibrosis want to be in the company of men and women who are either hard core trainers or athletes or counter-terrorism experts?  Kidding on that last one…

Yeah…I wondered that, too.  Especially at the meet and greet that happened the night before it all began.  I was there by myself, of course (who would accompany me to this?).  I stood in the room looking around at the healthy, muscular men, all many many years younger than I, and the equally healthy and fit, excited young women…I was looking for some older faces.  Please God, don’t let me be the only old person AND the only half-assed lung person.

Don’t get me wrong.  People were friendly.  Everyone was incredibly friendly to me.  Not just friendly, but reassuring me that I wasn’t crazy to be there (oh, what they didn’t know).  Many, many older people come to these certifications, they assured me, and some even came just to meet a personal goal, like me, rather than to be over-prepared for their upcoming SEAL training.

Needless to say, I went to bed with just a mild bit of trepidation.  Would I pass?  Pass…hell, would I live through this?

When I say, “pass,” what I mean is to meet all of the requirements of the weekend.  This is not just to pass the dreaded “snatch test,” (A snatch is a move where the bell is brought -with one hand-from between the legs to over the head with a strait arm in one fluid motion. My challenge was to snatch a 12 kg kettlebell 100 times in 5 minutes, switching arms as needed.  BTW–12 Kg = 26 lbs).  Just FYI, if I were to go to the garage right now and try to snatch my 12 kg bell for reps, I might get in 3 or 4 before I had to stop and gasp for air).  The snatch test is what everyone fears.  It sucks.  Seriously…even for healthy people.  It is a test of muscular endurance and aerobic capacity for which one must train for months in advance.  It’s also a test of sheer will, and the ability to endure pain.

But wait, that’s not all.  In addition to the snatch test, women must do the arm hang for 15 seconds (cake), and a woman of my size has to show perfect technique in the double kettlebell  (52 lbs) swing, double clean, double squat, double press, and the  single snatch…all for five consecutive reps. In addition, one must show perfect technique on an unusual exercise with an equally unusual name, the Turkish Get-Up.  None of these were cake.  Instructors were very picky about perfect form…for good reason–if they were to send people out to teach with sloppy form, the whole RKC brand would be harmed.  Form is everything…it prevents injury and promotes safety.  Nobody passes without perfect form.

But even that is not all that is necessary to pass.  The hardest thing required is that you actually have to get through each day of grueling practice, random “punishments” for the whole group if someone messes up by wearing the wrong shoes or sitting with a flexed spine.  I’m serious…they are very serious.  The first of such punishments come early on Day One, when we had to walk around the block carrying our snatch test bell.  This is way harder than it looks. Here we go, with yours truly leading the pack:

yep, that's me in front

And finally, there were “workouts” scattered throughout each day.  Each were short, only 10 to 20 minutes, but can you spell i-n-t-e-n-s-e?  I’m  blanking on most of them…I’m sure my brain is trying to spare me the memories.

Another requirement for passage was to demonstrate on the last day that we were capable of teaching what we had learned to bussed in “victims.”  These were volunteers from the community who “wanted” (read: they were bribed by great discount prices on Dragon Door products) to learn from newbie instructors about the latest greatest exercise craze.  We each got a victim to teach for 45 minutes, and then to workout for 10 minutes.  I had a great guy who already knew a fair amount.  I got lucky.

Finally…the last requirement…the “graduate workout.”  If you don’t complete it, you don’t pass.  It can take you all day if you need it, but you and your kettlebell (now your best friend) make your way up and back a huge field, stopping to swing and snatch away.  It took 40 minutes.  It was cold…I swear I saw snow (May 1, in St. Paul, MN).  I couldn’t feel my feet.  But when I completed that last swing, I was the happiest girl in Minnesota.  Heck, I wasn’t even the last one to finish!

Following the Grad Workout, we all waited with baited breath for our one-on-one meeting with our team instructors, for overall evaluation and the final decision…pass or “you’re fired!” (not really, if you don’t pass, you get a chance to work on your flaws and send in a video of you correctly performing the required exercise).  About 30% don’t pass.  These are athletes!  Seriously.

So, long story short:  Here is the evidence that I gave it my all:


This is after Day One.  I read somewhere that we did about a thousand swings on Friday.  I didn’t count, but I would believe it.  After I took this picture, I ordered room service because I literally could not move from the chair.  The bummer was that I could not sleep, 1) because I was on California time, and 2) I went into the weekend thinking the snatch test was on Day One.  Turns out they moved it to Day Three…so I was still nervous about whether I could do it…even more so actually, because I knew that by Sunday I might not be standing.

The morning of Day Two, I got out of bed with nary a single silent muscle fiber.  They were all screaming at me.  It reminded me of the day after the first day of basketball practice when I was in high school…only worse because I don’t believe I was fifty years old back then.  It didn’t help that I had to get up an hour early to do my treatment.  Yes…I did them all … except one.

Day Two went from 8 am to 7:30 pm.  Yes it did.  There was a 45 minute break for lunch and scattered water breaks through the day.  Also scattered through the day were more workouts, and more punishments.  Is this what military boot camp feels like? Learn and practice, all day, the clean, the press, the front squat, the snatch.  A favorite workout of mine this day (not) was called the “breathing ladder.”  Basically, it consisted of swinging the kettlebell for a given number of reps and then only resting for as long as it took to take a given number of breaths.  The reps increased, as did the number of breaths allowed, until we were all dying (not really). The purpose was to teach you how to slow down your breathing when stressed and breathe from the diaphragm.  A laudable goal, yet I don’t recommend this for anyone with a lung disease.  I did it, but the whole time I was wondering if I was about to desaturate right there on the floor.  I collapsed in the bathtub that night, wondering why the Holiday Inn bathrooms didn’t have those little strings you could pull for help, like they have in hospitals and assisted living centers.  I had only myself to blame.  No sleep again, but this time it was due to Prom night, and the collection of very drunk women who wanted to party in my hallway at 3am.  They were actually yelling.  I hope I never acted like that.

Day Three was there before I knew it.  I woke up determined to tape my hands in a way that would protect them from inevitable tearing during the snatch test.  I had read about this technique, and had brought with me all the requisite medical equipment.  I was a doctor, dammit.  I could help myself out a little.  Here is my beautiful tape job, done while inhaling salt (this is tricky, if you think about the number of hands required to 1) get taped, 2) do the taping, and 3) hold a nebulizer).

Do you realize how long this took?

So when the day starts, we all gather in our teams, and our Team Leader, Andrea Chang, says, “I need to see all hands.”  I hold mine up, proudly.  She looks at me and says, “Take it off, I have to see the skin.”  What?  I was chagrined. My masterpiece…in the garbage.  Apparently, they needed to see intact skin before the testing was to commence.  If anyone had an open wound, they had to be taped.  This is where you might say…but you were taped, Julie.  Yes…  It didn’t help that when she looked at my hands, she said, “You don’t need tape…you’re good.”  Ha!  Good… At this point of the weekend, I was not good.  My lungs were GREAT, but everything else hurt like hell.

Go lungs.  And they did.  The tests came, and went.  Technique tests were a bit nerve-wracking, because you know they are watching every single hair on your head, every angle, every point of contact with the ground, every joint position.  It was more of a mental test than physical.  But, then came the moment of truth.  I run outside to do the snatch test…remember, 100 in 5 minutes.  I had done this once before, so I had a modicum of confidence.  Yet, this had been before my most recent bout of pneumonia, so it was a very tiny modicum.  I really didn’t know if I could.  I remember thinking as I bent down to get set up to start, (and I know this sounds corny, but it’s true), Kathy…Tom…I’m doing this for you guys, too.  And I started.  I don’t remember it really.  What I remember is that with 10 seconds left, I had to go ALL OUT to get the 100th done.  But, I did…there was no way I was going to end up with 97, or 98, or,God forbid, 99. And then I seriously sucked air for many, many minutes.

When the Graduate Workout time came later that day, I knew I could do it.  If I could pass the snatch test, I could do anything.  I had a lot of folks cheering me on, by this point.  It felt unbelievable.  I was strong. I was woman.  Did you hear me roar?

The whole thing was surreal.  The feeling of pride that came over me after the last swing was more immense than when I graduated from medical school.  It was the hardest thing I have ever asked my body, and my will, to do.  And I did it as a 50-yr-birthday present to myself.  When times get tough, as they kind of are now, even reading what I have written cheers me up.  I am tough.  I am a fighter.  CF will never win.  I will decide when to go back to my corner.


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Operation Exacerbation

Rule Number One that I hear myself telling people who are bummed out about their illness, whatever it is, is to remember, “there is more right with you than wrong with you.

And that’s true, right?  Think about it, by some miracle you are here on this earth, breathing, most likely able to walk around, enjoy food, listen to good music, pet your dog, watch Survivor…

Why is that?  Because most of the 100 trillion cells in the body, each of which are probably performing thousands of events per second, are actually doing their jobs perfectly well right now.  If not; well, you would not likely be reading this.

Now I’m not preaching here.  I am mostly writing this for my own edification, because I just learned that I am now infected with MRSA in my lungs.  I really can’t convey in words what happened in my consciousness when I learned of this last week.  Maybe you know the feeling that really bad news carries with it.  The sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, the tight chest and throat, the heart racing and the blood draining from seemingly everywhere…  Sh_t!

Then the anger, and the self-pity arrive.  Sh_t (again)!  Why me, why now?  This is a REALLY bad time for this.  I’ve got plans, Universe!

And then, the tears.

So, now I’m officially a CF Pariah.  Gown, glove and mask everyone…here comes Julie.  Man, I’m pissed.  And of course, really what I am is scared.  What does this mean?  Is my CF going to get worse?  Will the freakin IV’s even work this time?

So, I allowed this to go on for a couple of hours.  Then, I was better.  Then, it came back with a full and serious vengeance over several days.  And now, finally, I’ve decided to respond instead of reacting.  Or at least…to try.

The first thing that came to my mind was to write the post I was going to write before the fateful telephone call.  It seemed to me that writing about having a “positive exacerbation” could only be credible if it were to be created during an exacerbation.

So, even though this is a slightly unusual (for me) situation, it is most certainly a “CF adverse event” and just as certainly would be best handled with a positive attitude.

Here are a few things I do to make my three weeks of IV’s…my “home vacation:”

1) First, since I can’t exercise strenuously, I don’t.  I legitimately and compassionately stop pushing myself.  A gentle walk every day that I feel like it is about as hard as I’ll push these days.  After the port goes in and the PICC comes out today, my arms will be free at last, free at last.  So as I feel stronger…I’m back to those kettlebells!  Have I told you about my favorite new exercise?  Something else to post about.

2) I have incredible friends who have been incredibly kind.  I will appreciate them every day, in some way.  By telling them what they mean to me, I will add positive energy to their world and mine.

3) Sometimes it takes a real blow to the illusion of stability to wake me up.  This has been a great one.  I will resolve to appreciate what is good in my life.  The best way I’ve done that in the past is to keep a gratitude journal, and vow to write in it every night three good things that happened that day.

4) I have a post that I have been writing in my head for weeks now about the growing importance of meditation in my life.  I have been trying to figure out how to stress this without sounding like a preacher…hence the silence about meditation.  But it has been SO key for me this last week, that I will write this post.  It will be the next one.  I will pour my soul into it, for both myself and for those two or three readers I have:-).

So if you like this plan, or if you have some suggestions, or if you’d like to share how you deal with your own “operation exacerbation,” please leave a comment!

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mad as hell

Ok, so sometimes it’s hard to be both sick and happy.  I will admit this.  Today, I am going to allow myself exactly the time it takes  to write this post to be less than happy.  So pardon me while I rant.

Sometimes having CF sucks.  There is no better way to say it.  This is one of those times.  Two weeks after pulling my IV from a three week course of antibiotics, I found myself in the Emergency Department with a fever and chest pain.   Bad chest pain…the kind that, when you have CF, you know is not going to end well.

Sure enough, the chest film shows an infiltrate and I need another course of meds.  So yes, at some point, I will get to “it’s a good thing there are antibiotics,” but right now, not so much.

Ok, enough.  I’m done ranting.

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“D” is for: Decide what you will think and how you will act

One of the most influential books I ever read was Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” So much can be gleaned from this masterpiece, but one of my favorite lines has to do with the “choice” of what and how to think.  As Frankl writes from the concentration camp in which he was a prisoner, “Everything can be taken from a man but …the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Indeed, everything was taken from him and his fellow prisoners as they lived through unthinkable suffering at the hands of the Nazis.  And yet, his choice was to not only live through the experience with grace and dignity, but to describe an entirely unique therapeutic method of finding meaning and a reason to live.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but perhaps it can be useful to compare living with a severe chronic disease with living in a concentration camp…at least this might work with the chronic diseases that are not self imposed, that cause pain and suffering, and that end in death.  Extrapolating Frankl’s quote to chronic diseases such as these would be something like, “Every part of health can be taken from a person except the choice of how he/she will respond to the situation.”

Yesterday, I had an “opportunity” to try out this tip.  As many of you probably know, the experience of going in for “routine” pulmonary function testing can be quite anxiety provoking for someone with CF.   It’s just a number…a measly “percentage of predicted”…. but that FEV1 result (the volume of air you can blow out in one second) carries with it amazing psychological power.  It’s no wonder, really.  Doctors use it to gauge how much of your lung tissue is still useful.  A sudden drop will land you in the hospital faster than you can say “pseudomonas.”  Transplantation becomes a dinner table topic when it drops to around 30%.  The progressive nature of CF dictates that it doesn’t improve much really (unless it drops acutely due to an infection that is then  treated successfully).  Over the long haul…it only drops.  We all just pray that it drops VERY slowly.  We worry about it.  Some lose sleep over it.  The kicker is that we have virtually no control over how well we do.

So yesterday, as part of a clinical trial I am volunteering for, I went in to Stanford for my baseline exam, and of course, spirometry was done.  I was a bit nervous about it, because the previous time I had been tested, I did so well that I didn’t believe it (see previous post).  My hope was that I would do as well this time, but deep down, I didn’t believe I would.  I would then have to accept that the previous measurement was a fluke (and I really didn’t grow a new lung in 90 days).

My nervousness turned out to be justified.  In fact, I was a good 25% below that previous unbelievable number.  Worse, I was 10% below the baseline I had been at for years.  The maddening part is that I had no idea why my numbers were down.  Not being artificially high, I could handle.  10% down made no sense.  I didn’t feel sick.  I had been coughing a bit more…but not that much.  I was bummed, and my research nurse friends knew it.  It was all I could do not to cry right then and there.

Driving home, I had a tiny epiphany.   I had already started this post.  In fact, I was stuck at comparing disease to concentration camps.  Suddenly, I knew that the “universe” had just presented me with a way to finish my article.  I realized I needed to “decide” how to think about this new development, and what to do about it.

Guess what I decided to do?  That’s right.  I went directly to the gym.  I did not pass GO.   I did not collect $200.  I hopped on a treadmill and ran intervals.  I proved to myself that a number was a number, and what mattered was how I felt.  And I felt great on that treadmill!  Then I lifted weights.  Then I decided that for the rest of the day, I wasn’t going to think about it…period.  And I didn’t.  I got busy working on a project and busied myself doing what I love to do.

The next day, when I was calm enough to be rational, I came up with a plan.  I will have to repeat my PFT’s next week when I go in for my quarterly appointment, so I’m not going to overreact.  If my numbers are truly down as much as it appears, I will talk to my doctor and get his input.  Maybe I will need some sort of intervention, maybe not.  What I do know is that I need to go back to the P90X program (or something equally intense).  It seemed to work before, so this would be a good chance to recreate my previous success.

What I will not do is panic and let fear cloud my decision making.  The worse case scenario is that I have a new baseline. If this is the case, I will choose to respond rationally.

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