Why I Tri-ed


June 16, 2012 by Darlene McC

I am chin deep in 63 degree water, trying to tread and catch my breath at the same time.  Am I nervous?  No, I’m not nervous. I’m mildly terrified!  I’m waiting for a buzzer that’s going to blare in a few moments and then I’m going to swim, then bike, then run to prove… to prove what?  And to whom?

The announcer calls: 1 minute till the start of wave 4.

Wait!!  Why am I doing this again!?  Why did I come all the way up from NYC to Schylerville, NY to beat myself up on a Sunday morning?  Why worry my mom and freak myself out?

30 seconds till the start of wave 4

I inch closer to the person at the line, unsure how far back to keep so he won’t kick me in the face when he starts to swim.  There’s a woman right behind me, maybe she doesn’t realize how tall I am and that I’m likely to crack her nose if I lay out wrong.  “You don’t have to do this,” the freaked out voice in my head that’s causing the tightness in my chest whimpers, “no one will blame you if you drop out.”

“Yes, I do have to do this.”  There is a powerful voice in my head that sounds like my own voice and feels like me: my Amazon voice.  “If I don’t even try I’ll never forgive myself.  You’re here to prove to yourself that you can.”


The horn blares and the water churns with the kicking of dozens of people all around me.  No lap pool can train you for this!  I try to relax and get into a long stroke the way my swim coach taught me, but there’s just no way!  Every time I put my face in the water I suck in ice-cold, upstate Hudson.  I worry about the PCBs they’re dredging, I worry about my kick being off, I worry about the guy in front of me breaking my nose and me breaking the nose of the woman behind me.  I can’t breathe and the burning in my chest drowns out all of my worries with its urgency.

“What the hell did you get yourself into!” the freaked out voice screams… and I can’t hear what the Amazon voice is telling me.  I’m overwhelmed with numb toes, the taste of Hudson in my throat, the panicked screams that I can’t do this, and the churning of the other racers.

What the hell did I get myself into?

Thanksgiving Day, 2003

I should’ve known I was in trouble as I reached for the salt on Thanksgiving, 2003 .  What’d just happened wasn’t “normal”, was it?  …it didn’t feel right, but it didn’t exactly “hurt” either…

I was 19, a sophomore at UAlbany, and spending the spare time of the fall semester with the Women’s Rugby team.  If you’ve never seen a rugby game, picture football without the pads.  I was #1 tackle on the team and my Amazon voice let out a warrior yell with every good, clean hit.  But my left shoulder often ached for days after a game.  My hips clicked when I ran.  Both were odd and annoying, yet they didn’t exactly hurt.

As a three-season high school athlete I’d spent much of my adolescence on one athletic field or another; but I never got far without knee braces and two taped ankles.  My basketball coach was once quoted in the local paper saying “she plays with two bad knees, two bad ankles, and a girl hanging from either arm.”  So what’s a little soreness?  Sports are supposed to hurt; and if there was something really wrong with me no one would let me play, right?  My parents and coaches would know if my ankles and knees were so “bad” that I shouldn’t be on the court.

And so on a certain Turkey Thursday at my Uncle Paul’s house in upstate New York I was surrounded by my extremely extroverted and extra tough family.  Almost all of us have tattoos, a few have Harleys and we’ve all had multiple broken bones and concussions.  This same uncle once had me walk on a broken leg because he didn’t believe me that it hurt, and earlier that summer my brother survived a bull riding accident.

In the middle of the mashed potatoes and gravy passing I reached for the salt shaker and felt a slipping in my left shoulder, heard a weird ‘pop’, and my arm drooped a little bit with weakness, flopping on the table like a fish.  I gasped and jerked, completely startled; and with another ‘pop’ my arm felt fine again, as if whatever had slipped out was back in place.  Looking around the table no one else had noticed.  Everyone was laughing and chatting… no one had seen it and it didn’t hurt…

Weird.  But I’m in a house full of people who once teased me for having an allergic reaction to a bee sting (they felt bad later when they realized my throat had begun to close… really!  They did!)  It sounds rather insensitive, I know; but that’s just who they are.  I wasn’t about to voice this out-right… but when I tried to explain it to my mom later she just told me to ice it and take some ibuprofen.

…I should’ve known then…

Spring 2004 – Graduation 2006

By the spring of 2004 I was having trouble walking in the $2 Old Navy sandals that everyone wore everywhere.  My left knee hurt all the time, my left foot ached, and my hips were still clicking; except now they clicked all the time instead of only when I ran.  The knee drove me crazy enough to seek help, so I visited my first Orthopedist, Dr. Bruce Dick.

Dr. Dick noted my flat feet and diagnosed a collapsed arch in my left foot.  He told me I needed $300 orthotics and a $75 knee brace; when I asked him about the shoulder he prescribed a summer of physical therapy (no x-ray or MRI… just PT… Great!).  That’s a lot for a college student working at Victoria’s Secret and with no parental support, so I went with the knee brace and a shoe insert I saw on an info-mercial… but the shoulder hurt all the time still, so I sucked it up and went to Physical Therapy for the third time since I was 15.

That summer was hard.  I felt gross and had a crappy job; but I tried to buck up for my awesome boyfriend on what was supposed to be our magical summer working at the same theatre.  He proposed, I said ‘yes’, and we started planning for our future.  Short bouts of sadness kicked in when I would try to understand why he would want to deal with the ‘burden’ of my medical problems; but he said he loved me and I believed him…but I hurt almost all the time.

That summer I drowned the pain with Taco Bell and Parliament lights.  When I think back now on the amount of grade Dmeat, wine, and cigarettes I consumed I want to vomit.  The Amazon voice was having trouble cutting through the noise. In the fall I tried to play rugby again, but I’d lost my power.  After 2 concussions and 5 stitches in my left hand in 4 weeks I called it quits on rugby and focused on my real passion at the time.

I was an acting major at the University at Albany in the spring of my senior year playing Helena in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  There are a few scrappy moments in the play, and in the fight rehearsal before the show, the guy playing opposite me missed a beat.  And I fell.  Hard.  Just before my face hit the deck I got my left hand under me and there was a little ‘pop’.  Like so many other little pops in those years, this one would creep up on me in due time.

Fall 2006

My husband (we were married now, yay!) started graduate school in the fall of 2006.  Because I was still trying to freelance, we added me to his insurance through the school, one of the best decisions we would ever make for my health.  He was at Yale and the Yale health plan is all inclusive to students and their dependents.  There are no co-pays; you only pay for medications.

By early spring I couldn’t walk barefoot.  I couldn’t carry a bag on my left shoulder and walking down the street I had to hook my thumb in the strap of my bra because the weight of my left arm made my shoulder ache.  If I wanted to get up in the middle of the night to pee it was a choice between shoes and pain.  And then there was my left wrist: I was having trouble typing or performing any fine motor actions.  Before the fall I was almost completely ambidextrous, meaning I could do anything with either hand.  Now I cradled it to me in pain.  Playing guitar was out of the question.

A side note about my family will help you understand my state of mind; everyone in my family has “bad joints”.  “Bad” knees.  “Bad” ankles.  “Bad” shoulders.  Most of them are overweight; but because we’re so tall we “carry it well” and others see statuesque, athletic people… but those same people think it’s normal to hurt all the time.  I had bought into the idea that pain was weakness – literally.  AT 23 I THOUGHT IT WAS NORMAL TO BE IN PAIN ALL THE TIME.  Looking back I wonder if I was crazy, but it was all so gradual and I thought it was a natural progression.  That some people just have “bad” joints.

I didn’t understand then what chronic pain does to a person psychologically.  I was tired all the time, eating poorly, sleeping badly, and irritable.  I showed all the signs of serious depression.  The stress response in my body, both from pain and sadness, caused cortisol to cue even more fatty deposits; the stress was making me fat, the food was making me fat, and the fat was making me stress and eat more.

I hated everything about my body; the athlete I was in high school was dead and there was no Amazon voice.  Being in a family of overweight women I had promised myself I wouldn’t break 200 lbs before 30:  I topped out just shy of 220 lbs and a size 18.  There were times that I wanted to hurt myself from the depression, but I just ate instead, completely oblivious that there was another way.

January 2007

Thank all that is good for my husband. Off a passing comment I made one night, “Damn, it sucks getting old.  I hate that this will only get worse,” he replied that he didn’t hurt and he’s that pretty sure most people don’t.

It dawned upon me like a bell ringing… other people aren’t always in pain.  Pain is not normal.  Your body should not hurt like this every day.  It was a wake up call.  One of those moments that, once you’re on the other side of it, you wonder how you could have been such a fool before.  I don’t have to hurt like this.  I shouldn’t hurt like this.

John, my husband, convinced me to go to the doctor to ask about why I hurt.  It’s difficult now to remember all the details of being diagnosed, but someone finally put the dots together: I presented with all the signs of having Ehler-Danlos Syndrome Hypermobility Type and having managed it very poorly.  There was a reason I was like this; and when there’s a reason, there is a way.

March 2007

There are two Johns that saved my life.  One is my husband John, the other is John Dalenger at Yale Health Center.  I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to thank John D for what he gave me.  He taught me, right off the bat, that the most important thing you can do for a person in pain is listen.  He never once made me feel like a hypochondriac and he believed me when I said I was in that much pain.  It felt for the first time like someone understood and they could help.  Years later, as a personal trainer, I often think of him when working with someone who feels helpless.

It’s difficult for me now to break down all the details of this period… I do know that in 1 month I had over 20 plates of x-ray done, 2 MRIs, went to 2 Physical Therapists (because I fired the first one), and saw John D almost every week.  The titles of the injuries tick off each site of pain: a collapsed left arch, floating left patella and weak ACLs, subluxating left hip,  mis-aligned right SI, torn TFC in the left wrist, bursitis in multiple joints, the glenoid fossa of my left shoulder is naturally too large, TMJ, a host of gastro-intestinal problems, and disturbed sleep.  I was on a restricted diet for weeks at a time when I started bleeding from my colon.

Fortunately John D didn’t believe in the idea that cutting means fixing and only prescribed surgery for the worst of it.  For 2.5 months my left hand was virtually useless while the wrist healed, but after PT it got better.  With proper orthotics my legs started working better and I could rehab my hip and knees.  I learned that if I slept certain ways the inflammation would subside and with it the pain.  John D gave me hope; and with hope my desires grew.

In high school my best friend Ben and I used to rock climb AIR, the Albany Indoor Rock gym.  One of my friends at Yale was a big-wall climber from out west and wanted to taste some Connecticut rock; but I couldn’t with the bum paw.  After the wrist surgery I asked my shoulder physical therapist when she thought I’d be able to try climbing.  She told me I’d be lucky if I could pick up my kids in a few years… so I fired her.  The wrist therapist said she couldn’t consult on shoulders and I was tired of people telling me things I couldn’t do, so as soon as John D said it was okay to try I went to the rock gym, found the easiest route I could, and I climbed till I got stronger.

and then I tried something harder…and I got stronger…

and then I tried something a little bit harder than that… and I got stronger…

and then I tried something a little bit harder than that… and I got stronger…

I began to map my body’s’ pain.  As the most desperately broken things were repaired I started feeling smaller aches and pains.  John D explained a process known as “unmasking”; just like you can’t hear people talking under a blaring horn sometimes you can’t feel aches under other screaming pains.  We stripped away the layers of what was horrible dysfunction and revealed mild discomfort below it.

I began to practice yoga again for the first time since the wrist accident.  I started to lose weight.  At the gym I rode the recumbent bike because my hip couldn’t handle the downward shearing force of gravity on the upright bike.  With taped up ankles and wrists and thick old-lady shoes I tried to play volleyball again and joined a league at Yale.  It was working!  I was getting better!

Graduation – Memorial Day, 2009

John graduated with his MFA from Yale in 2009 and we moved to NYC.  He was teaching at City Tech in Brooklyn and I was pursuing my great dream of being an actress.  We continued to climb when we could and worked to acclimate to our new environment.  My weight loss plateaued as I focused on other things and I was living carefully.  I knew I’d never play rugby again; but what if I fell down a flight of stairs?  What if I tripped and my hip slipped again?  What about jerking on the subway?  And I never, never, never ran.  Climbing would have to do it.  I climbed with my husband and he kept me safe.

In March of 2010 I took a new job and there made a friend I’ll call GC.  GC may or may not read this, I’m honestly not sure.  Some friends stick with you the whole journey and some friends bring you needed information and then depart; I don’t know at the moment which kind of friend GC is, but though we don’t talk much anymore I know that GC is essential to this story and gave me many gifts, so I’m including this small chapter.

GC is the kind of person that rides hard.  The kind that lives for thrills and doses of adrenaline.  I saw in GC what I had seen in myself in high school: a natural athlete who knows how it feels to push and be pushed.  Someone who hears their own version of the Amazon voice.  I wanted desperately for GC to think I was cool and badass even more than I wanted to protect what I perceived as ‘delicate’ joints.  So I started to join GC on adventures: we climbed, we surfed, we skated, we camped, we snowboarded… and we ran.  Over the next 9 months I morphed from frail and fragile and afraid to big and bold and badass.  As I ripped down the mountains of Vermont I heard the Amazon voice howling once again and felt the rush I had missed so much.  I started Urban Amazon to document my adventures and I ran my first 5k.  I got a concussion on my birthday and recovered like a normal person.  I was BACK, BABY!

This caused an awakening in me.  I was no longer battling the harsh depression of being broken; and the desperate need for performance and attention was gone, along with the gratification I once got from acting.  I was spending my time training for 5ks and studying kung fu; watching Biggest Loser re-runs, I would cry, knowing what it took to change your life and wanting to help other people on their journey.  When I decided to give up acting to become a personal trainer it was really fucking hard.  That story of transition is for another post, but the decision to make the change and knowing that my body could handle it are so relevant.

Hudson Crossing Triathlon – June 10, 2012

If I could run a 5k, what else is out there?  I can snowboard and surf, but I probably could’ve done that before because they have a variable difficulty, just like climbing.  What was out there that I could never do?

In high school I’d watched a documentary about the 2001 Iron Man on television and thought it was impossible because I could never run that far on my “bad” knees.  Now, 11 years later, maybe not an Iron Man… but what about a sprint?

Swim – 8:46am

What the hell did I get myself into?

I struggle to stroke and I think about quitting.  All morning I’ve been receiving text messages and emails from friends, family, readers, and clients – they all believe in me.  So, if I fuck up or can’t really do this that means that many more people will know about it.

I don’t have to do this.  No one is making me do this.

“I am”, the Amazon voice booms over all the static, steady and sure voice in my head.  “I am making you do this for you.  Nut up or shut up; you’re just going for a swim.”

…and then a bike… and then a run.  But my head is clear.  The whining of the weaker voice is gone and I’m just left with my breath and my kick.

I’d put myself to the back of the wave believing I would be one of the slower competitors, but all around me there are too many people because they aren’t as fast as I’d thought they’d be.  I’m in a heat consisting of middle aged people and the Athena and Clydesdale weight divisions, a special class of entrants who weigh more than the average person, and I’m holding my own with them.  We’re the 4th heat, so we all have numbers beginning with 4s.  I’m 402, and for the whole race I’ll watch out for other “400’s”; silently cheering the other big girls and boys out there with me.

Once I get away from the churning of so many bodies, I can start to pace out.  500 meters is farther than I thought it was and my heart is hammering; but I’m doing it.  The water is no longer cold, but I’m getting tired and a groin pull from earlier in the week is messing with my kick…. but I’m doing it.  And the left shoulder is holding up.  The sun dapples through the maples on the eastern side of the banks… and I’m doing it.  With every stroke and kick I am pulling myself closer to my bike and the next leg of the race.  Little flecks of doubt keep creeping up, but they aren’t an excuse to stop, so I don’t.

I reach the bank and stand up, cool water running down off me.  I jog barefoot to the transition; the bike awaits.

Bike – 8:57

My transition sucked.  A few guys saw a few too many details of my anatomy as I struggled with bike pants and towel… we’ll leave it at that.

Three miles into the bike leg is a serious hill climb. I woke up at 3am anxious about this damn hill and I’m nearly there.  I flashback to the days where all I could handle was a recumbent bike and feel a twinge of fear.  I check in with my left hip: no pain.  I’m afraid of this hill a little, and the Amazon voice calls to me: “This hill is fucking MINE.  I bought it.  I OWN this hill!  These other bikers can rent it, they can lease it, but It. Is. MINE.” – and with every great stroke of my legs I’m passing people who have given up and walked it.  It’s almost easy and I smile and laugh as I relish every quad-burning stroke.

“Pace yourself” that fearful voice squeaks at the top, so I slow to catch my breath… but after another mile I’m confident that I’m going too easy so I start kicking.  With each person I pick off the once-reckless part of me screams in exaltation.  YOU ARE DOING IT!

I hit a stretch of winding road through two cow pastures that is so much like the acreage I grew up in I could swear that I’m home… and it hits me: I am here because of John.

I am here because my husband helped me get here.  I am here because he gave me the gift of his boundless love and unending confidence.  He always saw this wild, powerful woman in me.  He knew she was still alive, buried underneath all that pain, even when I thought she was drowned and gone.

I pushed harder.  Really hard.  I finished the bike 10 minutes faster than I’d originally projected and I felt amazing.  Hitting the transition I ripped my helmet from my head and grabbed the bottle of chia water I’d prepped the night before.

A point of detail: I bike in minimalist shoes because I feel like I can ‘connect’ with the bike a little better… thick shoes just feel wrong to me.  I run in orthotics because my running form is a mess.  Running is a little dangerous for me – I had been worried about the run the whole time I trained for this race.  I was plagued with injuries all spring and it really affected my training… hip, back, knees.  If I was going to get hurt this was going to be it; and my goal was just to finish.  I felt so good after the bike and my first transition was so bad that I took a huge risk: I didn’t change my shoes.

I was going to run.  3.1 miles.  In flat shoes.  Without orthotics.

Run – 9:41am

I know I’m taking a risk.  I know it’s a stupid risk; but I want to try any way.  I know, on some level, I’m risking not hitting my goal of finishing; but a deeper voice is telling me that it’s going to be okay.  As a trainer I have studied biomechanics and running and I’ve been doing feet rehab so I can eventually live entirely orthotic-free; but I’ve never gone more than a mile in my minimalist shoes and definitely not after swimming and biking… but still I don’t stop to change my shoes.  My legs feel great and I know I can do this.

So me and my water and my flat shoes set out.  I start off slow in case I really do have to go back; but I feel fine.  My parents (all three of them including my awesome step-father) are lined up around the start of the run and I high five each of them and say “I love you” as I run past.

“I love you”…

“I love you”…

“I love you”…

It feels like I have to, just in case something happens to me… that’s sounds stupid now. Like it was all going too well. I’m so grateful that they’re even there, but I’m still not sure that I can really do this…

I fall into pace, trying to relax while simultaneously remembering everything I ever learned about running mechanics.  Up ahead of me there is a guy in a red racing suit who keeps walking and I want to pass him so fucking bad because I refuse to be beaten by someone who stopped.  The Amazon voice tells me “then go kick his ass.”  “But what if I break myself trying?” I fret.  “Do you hurt right now?”  the voice inquires.

No.  I don’t.  I don’t really hurt at all… so I pick him off.  And then another.  And another.  I start to push to run people down, especially those in my wave, the 400’s.  They started with me and I want to finish before them… I don’t just want to finish any more.  I want to finish well.

Around mile 2 I start to feel the twinge of pain in my right foot.  I hone in on exactly where it’s coming from: mid arch.  My arch is collapsing.  I’m striking too hard because I’m tired and my arch is flexing too much; arches are supposed to flex but not fall, and mine is falling a little too far with every step.  I try to drive my knees forward more and shorten my stride, but it only helps a little.  Pain and I are old friends and he has come to pace me through the last of my run.  I’m so tired and I don’t want him here.  This is my moment for myself and he’s ice-picking his way into it via my right plantar fascia.

I’m getting tense and it’s not helping.  As my gait continues to wear thin I can hear the huffs and puffs of someone coming up to overtake me.  “Great… one of the 400’s is going to overtake me,” the whiny bitch mumbles, “You win, Pain.”  But the gentleman coming up on my left is not a 400; he’s a 500, from the senior citizen group.  He’s pounding with a well-gaited stride and a lightning-quick turn over.  “We’re almost there, dear. You’re doing great!  Keep it up!”  he says as he rides by on swift soles.  And it doesn’t feel like pander; he says it so easily and sweetly that I genuinely believe it is for me.  I am dear to him.  I am doing great and I can do this.

“Pain,” yes, I am speaking to pain in my mind at this moment and I know I am ridiculous, “you are not welcome here.  This is my race.  I own it.  Get the fuck off my moment!”  Amazon voice is proud of me, I can feel it.

In the last year I have learned enough about neuroplasticity and pain to know that your body can shut pain off when it needs to.  That’s why soldiers who are shot in battle are able to carry their friends to safety and childbirth doesn’t cause most women to pass out.  I turn in on myself and connect with that map of pain I had built with John Dalenger’s help back at Yale and I shut that fucker out.

I clear the tree line, and as I round the bend the announcer calls my name

“Here comes 402, Darlene McCullough.  This is her first triathlon and she’s overcome a connective tissue disorder to be here today.”

Most people there probably have no idea what that means; but it chokes me up for a second.  I round the next bend and there my father is calling my name.  He screams that he knows I can do it and tells me to kick.  I try to kick, but there’s almost nothing left in the tank.  A big, blue, inflatable arch opens before me and the most beautiful word I can think of at the moment is stenciled at the top in white letters.  “FINISH”

And I do.

My mom catches me in a hug and I beg to sit down, praying I won’t throw up on her.  Tears start streaming down my face and sobs emit from my throat as she presses a cell phone into my hand.  My husband is away for work and couldn’t make it, but she had him on speed dial so he could be part of it.

My mom asks me why I’m crying and, between sobs, I blurt out “I didn’t think I could really do that.” On the phone, John tells me he always knew I could do it.  I cry harder; even my step dad tears up.

My time: 9 years, 93 minutes.


Thank you to Ann Quintero for her awesome editing skills and support mashing out this giant blog post.

12 thoughts on “Why I Tri-ed

  1. Norma Lee Chartoff says:

    Beautifully written! Bravo Bravo to you!!!!! (I too have lived with an “undiagnosed (until recently) chronic pain condition” since I was 13, so I can relate all too well.) I hope this also brings more attention to Ehler-Danlos….and I think it is great that your career path as shifted in such a positive way to help others. Nothing, nothing, is better than exercise and moving. Good stuff.

    • UrbanAmazon says:

      Norma, I’m sorry to hear you lived without knowledge for so long – for me it felt like I was crazy sometimes & maybe just a wuss. You’re right about movement; whether you believe in a great designer or the process of evolution, our bodies were made to move. Use it or lose it is truth; you just have to use it the ‘right’ way if you’re a bit broken 😉

  2. Dyani says:

    Darlene! You are fabulous! I had no idea that you struggled through so much pain with your body. Congratulations on your first tri, and thanks so much for sharing your story!


  3. paul campbell says:

    Dar, As the original “What does not kill us makes us stronger” person reads this tears run down my face.When you kids were little I wanted you to be tough,tougher than anyone else.Nobody was going to mess with my family. Hell we can hurt ourselves way more than anyone can hurt us.Its awesome to see you overcome all of the obstacles that life has put in your way.And as my own little amazon gets bigger I find myself wanting her to be like you(I know I said it) strong ,independent,and a survivor. I love you, skunkle paul

    • UrbanAmazon says:

      Finally giving in and responding to this one… at first I really couldn’t tell if you were teasing my sentimental tone (I’m pretty sure you’re not… right?). I’m really touched by this response, probably more than anyone else’s. Not just because you’re a figure in the story, but also because of who you are to me. As a primary male role model you were always tough, and I think this might be the 3rd time in my life I can remember hearing that you love me (though I guess I always knew that you did).

      More significantly, hearing that you’d want Mac to me like me is the highest complement I think a parent can give another person. Thank you. I love you, too.

  4. paul campbell says:

    P.S. I did not know your leg was broken you tend to have a flair for the dramatic.

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