Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

We all progress through life with a distinct, individual collection of memories. They are permanent, unwavering, and unforgettable. In many ways, they define the person we are and the person we are to become. They’re dominated by the people closest to us, those we respect, and occasionally by individuals we’re less fond of. So often we look to these ingrained moments for inspiration to undertake the challenges we face in our lives. Here’s the story of my greatest contributor.

My father carried me through childhood and adolescence and then bundled me into adulthood (along with a few kicks up the ass). He was and still is my hero. Without reeling off his resume, he was an intelligent, straightforward, articulate man rising to the top of his profession. However, two things above all defined him—his running and his wholehearted dedication to his family. I’ll start with the running.

As far back as I can remember, he would return from work, get changed into his running gear, and head out the door. It was almost as if it was an extension to his day at work. Food and a night of relaxation always came after. I know now that running was his release. Each and every step was his way of winding down and putting aside the stresses and strains of management and switching his mindset to ‘father and husband mode.’ This was time to himself, and he needed this as much as each and every one of us requires our training time in the gym or with our chosen sports team. To an outsider, it may seem like a hobby, an optional extra in day to day living. Not to him. It was so much more than that. It kept him sane in a world of deadlines, targets, and a home life dominated by twins (boy and girl). His running highlighted his passion, drive, and determination that he applied to all aspects of his life.

At the age of 10, his mother passed away. At the time, he was living with his father, older brother, and younger sister in a deprived part of Gateshead in northeast England. It was decided by his father that he would leave school at 16 in order to find work to support the family financially and, in doing so, aid in his brother’s goal of a place at university. He didn’t let this difficult situation, which had become a necessity, dictate the direction his life would take. What seemed like a disadvantage to his future ultimately proved the making of him. At the age of 28, he became the youngest regional higher manager for a leading gas company. He quite simply refused to be “a product of his environment.” (See Matt Kroczaleski’s article entitled "Choices" on T-nation.) He worked over 40 years in order to provide for his family. Toward the end of his career, he turned down several promotion opportunities requiring a move to another part of the country. Instead, he chose to remain centered where my sister and I were comfortable and settled in school. Once again, he had foregone his own ambitions for those around him.

On a personal level, he was instrumental in encouraging me in my sporting activities. From the age of ten upward, I can hardly remember a weekend when we weren’t in the car going to some event. I remember times when we’d be at an individual tournament hundreds of miles away on a Saturday before rushing back for a team match day on Sunday. This continued all the way through school. Together we did some serious miles from nationals on the other side of the country to a five-minute trip just down the road to our local school rivals. This is just another example on a long list of personal sacrifices that he made. We joked that he was my personal chauffeur. In reality, he was my biggest fan.

At the age of 60, he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. For those who aren’t aware, Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease of the brain associated with reduced cognitive ability. ‘Early onset’ refers to those individuals diagnosed under the age of 65. It is often mistakenly thought to be a natural part of growing old. It isn't. Initial stages can be mild with the sufferer simply struggling with short-term memory loss. The progression of the disease is essentially random and eventually requires full-time care of that individual by family and friends or in a professional care home setting. In the latter stages, individuals are incapable of looking after themselves on a daily basis.. Some lose the ability to communicate while all lose memory and cognitive capabilities. Alzheimer’s is one of a number of cognitive diseases that is commonly known as dementia.

Although at the present moment the disease is in the relatively mild stages for my father, we know there will be challenges ahead. His running is becoming less frequent now, but the dedication to his family I know will never be lost. This was highlighted to me around two months ago. It was squat day in my garage gym consisting of some triples, and I was having one of those days. Every rep was a grinder. Nothing felt smooth or solid. I was just looking to get in, do what I needed to do, and then get out of there.

I’d just finished my first working set when there was a knock on the garage door. It was him. “Just interested to see how you’re doing,” he said. He took a seat in the corner, said very little, and just watched me prepare for the next set. The next set went like this—the first rep was OK, a bit of a grinder but good for three I thought. On the second, it was painfully slow coming out of the hole. I heard shouts of “Get up there,” “Go on, you can do that.” I almost thought he was going to jump under the bar and show me how it’s done. In that moment, he was so pumped up, and I was the one with the barbell on my back fighting to get out of the hole. The last rep flew up. With that, he thanked me for letting him watch and wandered back inside. I didn’t have the balls to say it there and then, so I’ll say it here instead. The encouragement and support you gave me over the years is the biggest gift you could have ever given me. You’ve played one of the biggest parts in shaping my self-confidence and determination to succeed and, in so doing, be the best I can be in everything I do. That moment in the garage produced an overwhelming realization of pride in being your son. Thank you.

As a child growing up, you don’t see the selflessness and sacrifices made by your parents toward your future. Only now can I truly appreciate the measure of the man that is my father. His heart and dedication to those closest to him, in my opinion, was and still is his greatest trait. I only hope to scratch the surface of that attribute when it comes to the people I encounter in my life.

As a family, this disease has taught us all so many lessons. I recently heard a quote that for me encompasses my thoughts and feelings on the situation we share together: “Sickness shows us who we are.” If there is a positive point to find in this challenge we face, it is these five lessons I share with you now.

Lesson 1: Acceptance

Upon diagnosis, my worries and fears bubbled to the surface in anger and frustration. I was mad. It took me some time to realize that anger in this situation wasn't helping anyone. It was a complete waste of energy. In hindsight, I took a few steps backward instead of coming forward to meet the challenge. It’s something I regret. In these circumstances, it doesn’t matter what anybody says or does. Only you can change the way you feel about things. Things change, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. Something I’ve learned with this disease is that you have to pick your battles and then throw everything you have at it. Instead of wasting energy, I decided to put all my efforts toward constructive solutions to problems we faced as a family with the progression of this disease.

Don’t find yourself blinded by the hurdles put in front of your face to the point that the end goal is lost.

Lesson 2: Educate yourself

This point was emphasized to me after a family discussion concerning a friend of my father’s (who also has Alzheimer’s) and his wife. They had decided to move out of their house in order to be closer to the wife’s place of work, as they lived out of town. They believed this would make life easier for all involved. It may seem such a trivial decision, but the consequences of this action to an individual suffering from Alzheimer’s can be catastrophic. Research has found that moving house is associated with a steep and sudden drop off of cognitive abilities of sufferers. The new environment causes confusion and will speed up the process substantially, whereby that individual requires full-time professional care in a nursing or specialized care home. The couple had no idea.

With my father, we're constantly looking for behavioral patterns day to day to ensure that we can anticipate and rectify certain situations where problems such as frustration and confusion are likely to arise. The goal is to identify patterns within the hours of the day where his mood is good and, as a result, his cognitive level of ability is maximized. We observe and record what works and what doesn’t, creating a daily routine. We then communicate our findings at a regular dementia forum community meeting where sufferers, their families, and professional caregivers come together to share their experiences and educate one another in the fight against this disease.

Although the above example is a somewhat specialized and extreme case, the underlying point of ‘doing your homework’ in any given situation is a valid one, in my opinion. You’re reading elitefts™ right now, so there isn't any need to push this point with respect to training. The underlying lesson that really stands out to me from following the articles, logs, and Q&As here on elitefts™ is that the learning process involved with training, academia, and the working environment is always ongoing. Positive progression within each of these areas ultimately rests entirely on our own attitude, effort, and drive. Self-improvement has become something I strive to address in everything I now do whether it be the care of my father or simply issues that arise in my day to day life.

“Stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Lesson 3: Communication

This lesson is applicable to almost all the others. Its interdependence, in my opinion, ensures that it's the most important. Good communication is so readily overlooked, but for many of us, it's a stand out weak point, myself included. I had always struggled when it came to sharing my thoughts with others. I realized my lack of communication was the cause of a number of problems in my life, not just the ones I was creating for myself with the care of my father. I was determined to turn this around. I now hope to make this lesson one of my stand out strengths.

Lesson 4: Build the strongest team possible

The challenges posed by a disease like Alzheimer’s requires the family, friends, and close relatives to come together as a solid, supportive team. It quickly becomes apparent that you aren't just there to support and care for the sufferer. You’re all part of the foundations holding one another together. Unfortunately, a sad fact often observed with a disease like Alzheimer’s is people who were once friends or acquaintances of the sufferer often disappear quickly. Thankfully, we’ve seen very little of this when it comes to my father. Nevertheless, surround yourself with those people who are supporting and immovable through the good and especially the bad. As a family, we’ve found that only those who become ‘part of the furniture’ are strong enough to become part of our foundations.

Surround yourself with those individuals who know their stuff, understand your situation, and can contribute toward positive solutions to the challenges you face.

Lesson 5: Never give up

Never give up, plain and simple. Whether it’s a PR in the gym, stepping on stage, securing a dream job, or fighting a terminal illness, whatever you face or want in life, if it means that much to you, never give up. Throw everything you have at it.

Never give up on something you can’t go a day without thinking about.

Moving forward

The United States and United Kingdom governments recently announced increases in dementia research budgets, bringing them rightfully in line with the economic and family burdens this disease puts on sufferers and their caregivers. At the present moment, there remains no real effective treatment or cure for the disease, but these research announcements are a step in the right direction.

For us, our fight as a family is ongoing, and as this disease progresses, I know the time may come when it’s my turn to carry those around me that I care for the most. Ultimately, however that arises, emotionally or physically, I know I will do it to the best of my ability. After all, I learned from the best.