Welcome to the beginning of my health story. I remember it all starting when I was 14 years old. I was in 8th grade and loved playing video games, specifically Medal of Honor and Need for Speed, in case any of you are familiar with gaming. I was a great student, organized and quiet. My dad would take me hiking and snowboarding on Mt. Hood when the conditions were right. He also made an effort to instill some work ethic in me by having me help him build fences, decks, and move rock and sand for our ongoing home remodeling projects. Other than those physically demanding projects, snowboarding and hiking were the only activities I enjoyed participating in. Starting in middle school, I clearly remember having to run the mile around our track. Boy that was fun! My mile time was over a 10-minute mile. It didn’t feel good in my lungs. It required way too much effort and I felt sick afterward. As far as I was concerned, formal exercise was lame.
Enter in my older sister’s boyfriend Nick. He was a high school wrestler, mountain biker, and snowboarder who grew up hunting, backpacking, and competing in regular wrestling tournaments. He encouraged me to start lifting weights and working out in order to get in better shape for snowboarding, biking, and backpacking which he had also started to take me out on. The first thing we did was grab a wooden closet dowel and attached some water-filled gallon milk jugs to each end to be used as a makeshift barbell. He showed me how to do push-ups, sit-ups, upper and lower body strength exercises including lunges and squats. Once my dad caught wind of this new lifting regimen he took me to his mother’s place and we dug out his old blue and red plastic-covered cement weights hidden in spider webs from the greenhouse and we brought them home. Now there were way more possibilities of exercises and more weights to choose from.
I began experimenting with lifting. How much weight should I use for this body part? Lucky for me, the online web was surging by that point, so I started researching online to learn more about working out. Once my freshman year in high school started so did wrestling practice. I was too exhausted to do any additional activity whatsoever. My coach was an ex-Army Ranger who emphasized conditioning more so than skill development or I was simply too spent to retain anything he demonstrated. I did learn how dark my urine could get during practice from losing so much water!
I experienced my first serious injury in wrestling practice to my left ankle while partnered-up with a senior experienced teammate who threw me down so fast all I remember hearing was a loud pop. That ended my short wrestling career and put me back where I was comfortable, playing video games, although not for long. At home, I picked up my weights again and quickly noticed how strong and conditioned I was! Only a month and a half spent in wrestling and my body and mind and had gone through some significant changes. I was able to run farther without getting out of breath, lift more weight, and perform more repetitions with my bodyweight than I ever had been able to before. “This home set of weights may not be enough”, I exclaimed! So, I ventured into the high school weight room where I met two of my best friends. Weightlifting was where I built up my self-esteem, body awareness, strength, endurance, movement patterns (before I knew what that was), and most importantly, my biceps!
The weight room is where it all went down in my little high school world. Class time was fairly easy, but it was in the weight room where I could get out of all that energy that was pent-up from sitting all day in class and not being able to snowboard or hike during the week. My friend Niko and I hit it off quickly. He was also injured and unable to participate in wrestling which was his main sport other than football. His family was big into sports including his two younger brothers, father (who was in the military, Samoan, and ridiculously strong), and his mother who took photos at every event and encouraged the boys. Niko and I shared our love of video games and weightlifting. We shared a copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book called, The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, which had more than enough to grasp our creativity with sculpting the body, gaining strength, and looking good in 80’s tank tops for the ladies. Arnold also gave me insight into how lifting could change your mind in a positive way. I took one of his sayings, wrote it down, and stuck it on my bathroom mirror so I would see it every day until I could recite it word for word.
“Vision is purpose, and when your purpose is clear so are your life choices. Vision creates faith and faith creates willpower. With faith there is no anxiety, no doubt-just absolute confidence.” – Arnold S.
Sophomore year we experimented with creatine monohydrate, protein powders, and seeing who could eat the most Eggo waffles with ice cream, whip cream, peanut butter, and syrup drenched on top. (My diet has thankfully progressed substantially since then hopefully avoiding my path towards diabetes! My father was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 23 prompting me to have an awareness at a young age that bad things do happen to our health along this journey of life. Apparently, at this stage it hadn’t completely set-in yet.) I remember weighing 145 pounds freshman year and by the end of sophomore year weighed in at 185 pounds. Junior year, my top weight reached 195 pounds, due to the extra water weight from creatine use, which didn’t last long. Once I stopped, I lost 5-10 pounds and that extra edge of recovery and muscular endurance. My routines varied throughout the rest of my high school career between lifting heavy weights most of the school year to doing high endurance training during the summer months. I downloaded a Navy Seal workout that included running, swimming, push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. My dad built a wooden pull-up bar in the garage for me which we both enjoyed. I also had the opportunity to buy a larger weight set for the garage.
In college, my training stayed about the same for the first year until right before my first summer off. I was hired on a wildland forest firefighting crew and heard from my good friend Billy (who did it the first summer out of high school in 2006) that I better prepare my endurance, hiking with a heavy backpack on in leather wildland boots, and be ready for some hard work! Immediately, I began running 5-6 miles 3 days per week, doing more push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, and core work, and bought some boots to break in. I was attending Oregon State University in Corvallis at the time, so I hiked the steepest hill I could find, which was Mary’s Peak at around 4800′. One late afternoon following class, I put my boots on with a heavy pack around my shoulders and took off with my friend Kenny who was also preparing for his first wildland season in California. We both experienced our worst heel blisters ever! Our tender tissue was rubbed raw from brand new stiff leather boots ascending significant incline for the first time. We apparently had some toughening up to go through or we were in for a summer of pain.
Spending time in the woods with a group of 20 outdoorsmen and women proofed to be one of the experiences that dramatically shaped me into who I am as a person today. It took me out of my comfort zone of classrooms, campus life, suburbia, and gyms and threw me into steep mountainsides that were full of white smoke it made me tear-up, rafting rivers and drinking cheap beer laughing so hard my jaw hurt for days, and being around older guys who had experienced more of life than I had. These guys had been on large fires, small lightning fires, used chain saws, flew helicopters, surfed in Costa Rica, fished any river they could because they loved the act, drank frequently, and new how to eat! I learned how to cook tri-tip steak marinated in Blue Moon Belgian Wheat beer. I learned how to use a chainsaw at all angles to clear a brush trail for fires. I also learned how to push through levels of physical, emotional, and mental suffering. During my first 2-week assignment, I experienced loneliness, isolation, exhaustion, and extreme boredom. Being away from home and working long hours was starting to get to me. One day, while sitting in a field of ash and scorched trees, I suddenly felt at peace. I let go of any expectation of control over where I would be next. A sense of calm came over me and I knew I would be ok. The feeling of living and working out of a backpack was incredible. It was a life-lesson in minimalism and I loved it! It felt so free to be able to move about the forest without a thought about whether I had everything I needed. I knew I was taken care of and that this was an experience that I would never forget. It gave me perspective on the comfortable amenities and lifestyle I had taken for granted all the years before.
Returning back to college was a shock. It was difficult assimilating back into a schedule of sitting in the classroom and sitting at my desk at home studying. I continued to work out in order to stay sane, but there was a nagging current running in the background that I wouldn’t be able to sustain a lifestyle comprised of stressful work in addition to hours and hours of sitting. I continued to do well academically until I experienced my second D ever on an engineering test, and I knew something had to change. I wasn’t excited about what I was learning. I knew there was a way to help people, be active, and enjoy my day-to-day life without sacrificing my health. I experimented with different majors as most college kids do and found myself back in Portland living with friends after my second summer of wildland in 2008. I tried my hand in the criminal justice program for about a week and a half then dropped out. “I’ve had enough of school”, I told my dad on the phone. He had been so patient over the last two years hearing me out and offering encouragement when it came to choosing a field to study and work in. I remember hearing his worried tone behind his acceptance of my decision to leave school. Coming from a man who went to college later in life while raising two kids and working a full-time job, I knew he was worried about my choice to postpone my education. He knew that later could only mean more time and money invested while potentially trying to multitask with life’s demands. As many of you know, humans are not very adept at multitasking. Quality will drop in one category of life in the long-run.
What did I decide to do with my time if I wasn’t in school? What many 21-year-olds would do, party! My level of partying actually stayed about the same through my early college career typically at one day per week. My gym attendance did increase however at the local 24-hour fitness to the point of daily doubles. I would hit the cardio machines and weights in the morning to then go back and swim laps in the evening. I spent the afternoon exploring careers online browsing military websites and salary websites to see what strikes a cord. I really enjoyed working out, swimming laps, and using my body. One day, I visited the local library to browse. I did enjoy learning, just hadn’t connected the dots yet. That night, I came home with at least 8 books on health topics ranging from nutrition to calisthenics. I read through them all within a matter of 2 days and went back for more. Something had clicked. If I was willing to spend my free time learning about all of these health topics why hadn’t I explored health fields? I jumped online to see what Portland State had to offer. I knew I had limited time to get enrolled, figure out a plan, and get back on track if I wanted to keep my financial aid and regain my lost academic momentum. I already had completed an associate’s degree worth of credit in core science, math, and general classes. I met with an advisor and re-enrolled for Winter term at both PSU and PCC in order to save money and time. I was back on track to finishing my 4-year degree in 4 years!
That December was the lowest of lows for my health. Without the structure of school or a job, I worked out too much, drank too much, ate too many refined carbohydrates, and lived in a party house with high school friends who were not conducive to healthy living. My room at the time had an exterior wall with my mattress placed against it. After coming down with a cold that lasted for two weeks, I picked up my mattress to change my sheets and found black mold covering it! The doctor said that I had pneumonia and I had to take antibiotics. I vividly remember calling my mom while lying in bed in agony feeling so depleted and lifeless telling her that I was worried about not being able to breathe while sleeping. That moment sealed the deal. My life had to change and my health would be at the center.
My schooling was back in session. I had a path. I loved my anatomy, exercise science, and philosophy classes. I still tended to over-train looking back now but was not drinking nearly as much. I experienced my first official nutrition course, which involved cutting out dairy, which for me was milk and cheese, for two weeks, then adding it back to log how we felt. I felt so good not ingesting dairy and had extreme bloating and diarrhea when adding it back in. I still consumed a high-grain, bread, meat, eggs, and fruit diet, but I was improving slowly and hey, what do you expect for spending $75 per week for food!
During the spring of 2009, I was applying for the third year of forest firefighting. I was reaching out to hotshot crews that take on 1-2 students per season who can only work about 3 months instead of their typical 5-6 month seasons. They are more elite than type 2 hand crews and get more challenging assignments. I knew I was ready for the challenge and was motivated to work harder, travel more, and make more money in order to put it towards my student loans. I went for a training hike in the Columbia River Gorge on a cloudy wet day and rolled my ankle trail running down Nick Eaton Ridge toward Herman Creek. I knew it was bad enough that a season on a hotshot crew might not be realistic anymore. This was the second injury I had sustained without receiving physical therapy.
A few weeks later, my dad asked if I would be around for the summer. He mentioned needing some help remodeling the house I lived in through middle school and high school. His goal was to hire me so I could work on projects during the day while he was at his job, then we could attack more difficult labor-intensive jobs when he arrived home and on the weekends. His timeline was to fully complete the house by the middle of August in order to sell it at the hopeful peak of the market. As many of you know, 2008 was the crash of the housing market, so any profit we could gain from our quality remodel work and the fact that Tualatin was a desirable location, we’d take it. I spent my days learning and performing tasks such as insulation, drywall, fence building, tile cutting and grouting, landscaping, cabinetry, and appliance installation. After an 8-10 hour day, I would meet Niko at the same 24-hour gym to hit the weights! This was about to become the next level of lifting that I had ever experienced.
Niko and I were learning more about fitness, especially in the high-intensity realm. We hadn’t yet tried CrossFit as it was only getting started around our area, but we hit the weights hard! My record for back squatting 225 lbs was 22 times. Niko hit it 25 repetitions. My deadlift got up to 375 lbs for my one rep max. I couldn’t budge the 405 lbs that Niko got up. His short and stocky Samoan frame was ideal for lifting heavy weights. And with his wrestling background, his muscular endurance was incredible too. My bench hit 275 lbs for reps of 2 and Niko was around 305 lbs at the time. This is where I experienced my first upper body injury. After lifting a heavy bench and back day, we super-setted core work with push-ups. I was smoked. Great session. I was ready to leave. I thought we were done for the day, but Niko had the great idea to hit some lighter bench press again! I tried 135 lbs and got to rep 7 or 8 and snap. I felt a sharp bee sting and pull in my left pec region. Again, no physical therapy, no knowledge of what to do. Our friend Colin lifted with us 2 weeks later and had a feel and suggested I had possibly torn my pec major muscle. He had spent the past 3 years in the competitive powerlifting arena and was ridiculously strong! His best back squat was slightly over 1000 lbs! Anyways, I shrugged it off, but this was the first injury that seemed to cling on for dear life. I remember having to avoid certain lifts, like bench press, in order to keep it from hurting.
Thankfully, Colin had invited me and Niko over to his place for a kettlebell and sledgehammer workout. I had never seen or heard of a kettlebell before but was intrigued. He had a 70-pound iron mass of weight with a handle sitting by a tire and did what looked like effortless swinging of this weight in front and over his body using hip and core power. He then grabbed the sledgehammer and pounded a rubber tire quickly with fast bursts from his core. We took turns with each movement and I was hooked. With only 3 rounds of swings, my grip, core, hips, and cardiovascular system were screaming at me to stop, stop, stop!! Thanks to Colin I had some variety to add to my lifting routine without aggravating my pec injury.
As the summer of 2009 came to an end, my dad and I finished the house remodel within our desired time frame and successfully sold it. I began a full credit load at PSU and was leaning toward personal training as a job for after graduation. Portland State was opening up a new rec center at the beginning of 2010, so I got a job as a fitness center staff member part-time and continued my coursework through the winter. During the two-week winter break, I spent most of it playing ping-pong and cramming in studying for my personal training certification. I chose to obtain my certification through the American Council on Exercise because they offered a student discount and it seemed like a reasonable amount of material to cram for in two weeks. They also had a vast array of continuing education programs that were appealing to me.
Spring of 2010 came quickly and I had a lot of credits to make-up if I wanted to graduate in time. I used my job at the rec center for my internship for personal training and had a credit load of 25 credits. I also met another friend Yassine while sharing time in several exercise science classes together. We hit it off and he opened up my eyes to the trail running world. We would spend our time in between class running in the hills of Forest Park, enjoying the mud, fresh air, and movement. During that spring, I had completed my first half marathon on the trails of Forest Park, did two more half marathons, one in Vernonia, and one in Sunriver both with Colin, and leaned up to a 170-pound frame. I felt very conditioned but also over-trained as I continued to get sick often. Throat colds and sinus infections kept my mental sanity haywire, especially trying to complete 25 credit hours per week. I toughed it out and finished my Bachelor of Science Degree in Exercise Science! I had put some much effort into finishing and so much time was spent at the rec center, I didn’t want to stay there for work, so I left. I didn’t have any work lined up but knew I needed to leave the academic/student life setting and explore the outside world.
I did some work for my dad around his new house in Scappoose, which needed a lot of love. It was a peaceful setting full of tall douglas fir trees, a creek winding in the back, and the smell of cedar decking. It was wonderful spending my days outside cutting firewood, painting walls, sanding decks (that was actually a miserable task), and eating dinner with my dad before heading back to stay in Portland. I was still enjoying kettlebell workouts in the backyard of a shared living space in SW Portland off of Terwilliger Blvd and trail running in Forest Park. During one KB workout, a rib came out and I couldn’t breathe without pain. I had just started to shadow a physical therapist in Portland as I knew I wanted to help people with my job and wanted to learn more about what PT’s do. He was the first person to ever do any hands-on work on me. He laid me down on the table on top of his clenched fist and manipulated my rib back in place. I was impressed and very curious about how he knew what to do. I continued researching what it took to be a physical therapist and the additional schooling and requirements seemed very competitive. However, I wasn’t ready for more schooling at this point in my life.
As summer came to an end, my dad’s place needed less attention and I found some construction labor work through the winter. Being very grateful of the skills I had learned from my dad remodeling the house, but also physically tired of labor work and mentally unchallenged, I started to look for other work. I continued shadowing different professionals including personal trainers and PT’s until I landed a supposed-to-be part-time physical therapy aide position which day-one turned into a full-time aide and front office position. It was an eye-opening and very enjoyable experience. I learned about rehab protocols, yoga postures that were good for lower back pain, arch strengthening for the feet, and stretching techniques for runners. During this time, I met my wife Renee. We shared the same passions for the outdoors, movement, and adventure. Renee had a dream of backpacking after college as she was just finishing up her Bachelor’s degree in public health in the spring of 2011. We researched places that grabbed our interests and were budget friendly and chose Central America. At the time, her parents were in the construction phase of opening a wellness studio in Gresham, called Epidavros Center for Wellbeing. They offered to include is in the center if we were interested and prepared a separate room for us to use for personal training services. This was my first introduction to business 101.
With plans in place to return from our backpacking trip in Central America to start a personal training business, we prepared for departure. Like with any journey, the planning is just as important as the trip. Renee finished her schooling in June 2011, while I continued working at the clinic and doing extra work for my dad to save money for traveling. Come August, I moved my stuff into her brother’s house where she was living and we took off for 6 weeks of adventure. My first time out of the country and Renee’s third, I was banking on her experience to lead the way. We did a lot of walking, swimming, hiked a steep volcano in Guatemala, lost a good deal of weight, and experienced other cultures than our own. The trip ended in a flash and we were back in Gresham before we knew it. It was time to assimilate back into a culture previously known to us, but strangely foreign after being away for 6 weeks.
I put off any plans of going back to school for physical therapy and Renee and I focused all of our energy into establishing our personal training business called BareFeat Health & Fitness. We focused on providing highly-personalized one-on-one workouts for our clients in about 140 square feet of space in a room with no ventilation. It was awesome! We learned how to set-up a website, how to maintain a schedule, how to market online, how to create and sustain relationships with clients local businesses. Having a business meant that every little detail was up to us. We learned how to make brochures, network at events, and take payment from customers (which is scary for us introverts). We were blessed to have family available and willing to point us in the right direction when it came to getting a small business up and running. Within two weeks, I had my first official client, who I ended up seeing for 3 years. By two years, we experienced a record number of client sessions and record sales. Renee and I had the opportunity to learn high-quality classical yoga from Renee’s stepmother and we began using postures throughout our personal training sessions.
I was fascinated with yoga and how seemingly simple movements could be so tiring yet so effective and strengthening. For the first time, I found my mind slowing down. I hadn’t known my mind was running fast before it slowed down. It’s like how I didn’t know I was lactose intolerant until I took a break from dairy. I started attending about 2 classes per week and cultivated a deep appreciation for slower mindful movement. Looking back over that 3 month period of regular yoga, I can see that my mind had changed. I know my body changed as well. My old injuries didn’t hurt. I was stronger, lighter, and had a spring to my stride. I was more in-tune with my breathing which I had never experienced before. And most noticeably, I didn’t have the urge and requirement to lift weights or workout as much. For almost 10 years, I had built into my life the need to workout to deal with stress, energy management, and restlessness. After months of regular yoga, I experienced a new kind of peace in my mind and body unknown to me before. I also experienced two more injuries from my yoga practice, or should I say, my ego drive to continuously push myself no matter what I do? I pulled my groin and had a minor strain of my rotator cuff trying to do a headstand.
With a growing personal training business, knowledge of yoga, and some experience implementing rehab protocols, I was already looking for the next step in my education so I could continue helping my clients and set myself apart from other trainers. I studied to take the ACE Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist Exam which included a lot of new information about anatomy, movement, and working with special populations. This was the edge I was yearning for! I continued to personal train and worked with Renee’s clients for about two months while she was at the end of her pregnancy as well as during our initial period of parenthood. I was training more hours than I was used to and remember hiking down Ramona Falls one day feeling a sharp and sudden pain in my right foot. I limped and paused to try to stretch it out but it wasn’t yielding. My hiking boots were large, bulky, and restricted my foot from bending. They were a high-quality waterproof hiking boot that was designed more for use in the snow. At the time I knew nothing else but was about to find a whole new world of shoewear. I worked occasionally at a different physical therapy office and the lead therapist said I was suffering from plantar fasciitis. He also took a look at the top of my right knee which was feeling sore and said it was likely suprapatellar bursitis from all of the impact activities I had been involved. I had been performing more plyometrics, running, and hiking while also getting less sleep as a new dad. Something had to change as my body was suffering from one repetitive injury after the next.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my health story as I further my education, dive deeper into my own body, establish self-care routines, and start another business from scratch.
Many challenges await along the path, but where there are challenges there is growth.