RED-S: A Recovery

Finding my rhythm. (Photo: Trúc Nguyen Allen)

This is a follow-up to a post I wrote one year ago, which can be found here

Most of us remember our 30th birthday. No longer young, yet neither old, the third decade is said to be a period of clarity, bringing heightened self-awareness and confidence. 

For me, it certainly felt like a transition: finishing up five years of graduate school, I was preparing to embrace change. Yet, I was also preoccupied with another deadline – around 30, we stop building bone.

At 26, I went to see my gynecologist, hoping to change my birth control. Feeling healthy and strong, I expected a routine appointment. Yet, over a series of visits, I discovered that, despite no noticeable loss in energy, strength, or weight, my bone density had been silently decreasing for years. It was severe enough that I had osteopenia, a condition in which the body does not make new bone as quickly as it reabsorbs old bone. Were it to continue, I would certainly develop osteoporosis, an irreversible disease in which bones are brittle and fracture easily.

I was diagnosed with relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S), a condition where the body does not take in enough energy to meet the demands placed on it. For women, this results in hormonal imbalances that reduce estrogen, a hormone critical for bone health.

The conversations I had with doctors and specialists remain muffled in my memory. But, the numbers are glass, clear and sharp: In parts of my body, I had 81% of normal bone density; I had around four years (until I turned 30) left to build the bone back. 

I read a number of personal accounts of men and women diagnosed with RED-S, yet, never found a story of recovered bone density loss. It was easy to feel alone in my journey without a timeline, without benchmarks, and without a roadmap. I had to trust that my body would set itself right, if, mentally, I was on its side.

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The Space Between

Returning to Smith. (Photo: Tara Kerzhner)

I was lead down the hallway by a hotel employee. The ceilings were low and the fluorescent light gave off a dull but audible buzz. I looked at my feet, watching the red and yellow circles adorning the carpet disappear and reappear with each step. She stopped at a door with a hazed window and let me in.

The room was dimly lit, with teal linoleum chairs, a grumbling AC, and late Nevadan light penetrating even the darkest of curtains. It was large, meant for meetings or  presentations for an audience. As she told me that I was welcome to use the kitchenette, I considered how comical it was that this woman, who I likely would not ever interact with again, was a critical part of a day I had been planning for years.

I chose a chair and placed it against the most unadorned part of the beige wall. I filled the cup I had brought with water from the kitchenette. I took out a few snacks from my small backpack and placed them neatly near me, just in case I got hungry.  

Three hours later, I closed my laptop and leaned back uncomfortably against my chair. The whine of the AC suddenly grew louder as it started another cycle. For the first time, I heard the footsteps of the guests milling about on the other side of the wall. Doors closing, muffled conversations fading away.

It felt strange being a newly minted Dr. Hodzic alone in this hotel conference room in Nevada. Having attended many defenses during my time in Seattle, I knew the drill: you hope to get Douglass hall, because it is the nicest room, with large windows revealing the vibrant greenery of the botanic gardens. But, you will settle if you have to go to Bloedel. Everyone in your lab brings snacks. You socialize during the 5 minutes you have to breathe after your defense and before your private deliberation with your committee. Then, you throw a party at a house, at a brewery, wherever; all that mattered was that you let go of everything. I craved the same celebration for myself.

In that moment, the air was mute, numb, unsaturated, unpalpable, disappointing.

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Acknowledgments

At the end of May, I successfully completed my PhD. Commonly, the research chapters of a dissertation are written and submitted as manuscripts to academic journals. However, other parts of the text (synthesis, introduction, etc.) mostly go unread except by the committee.

In an effort to give a proper and more public expression of gratitude to those whose help and support I was fortunate enough to receive, I decided to share my acknowledgments page here.

The final stage of a PhD—communicating the answers to my research questions—was, not, in my opinion, the hard part. The hard part was the beginning: trying to find interesting and different questions to make my doctoral work matter. I struggled with the niche nature of a PhD, fearful of the idea that it would ultimately only serve to make me an expert in a very narrow subject field. I have come to realize that the opposite is true. Over the past four and a half years, I have been tasked with learning what the right questions to ask are and discovering how to best seek out their answers. This is a skill which I will never fully master—one that takes as much creativity as it does knowledge, and which will only serve to enrich and enhance my life.

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Mastery

This was originally written for Gnarly Nutrition

No matter what I did, the heel hook would not stick.

the heel hook on “Gription” v9 at Moe’s Valley; which gave me some trouble

I tried to use different pairs of shoes. I showed up when it was crisp.  I recorded myself to see if there was a difference in my hip position between when I stuck the move and when I did not. I meticulously focused on comparing each potential body position – was it better if my left foot smeared as I pulled with the right heel, or if I used it as a back-flag?

Yet, whether or not my heel-hook would stay on – allowing me to pull with it and reach the final hold of the problem – seemed more related to luck and cosmic forces rather than skill or technique. This bothered me. For days, I walked away frustrated, but also intrigued. What was so mystical about this heel hook that made it so difficult? The grade of the boulder was hard for me, but not novel. Every other move was difficult but consistently repeatable.

I considered changing my beta, using the more typical left heel hook that would be harder to reach for my short frame, yet, once established, easier to move off of. There was a chance that if I committed to the left outro, the time invested in the new method would lead to a quicker tick than if I kept trudging forward with my beta.

But I was stubborn.

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Living in Fear

“It was as if, because of the very strangeness of my heritage and the worlds I straddled, I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some imaginary beast, confined to a fragile habitat, unsure of where I belonged. And I sensed, without fully understanding why or how, that unless I could stitch my life together and situate myself along some firm axis, I might end up in some basic way living my life alone.”

Barack Obama, A Promised Land

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break

William Shakespeare

For my parents , with immense gratitude


I do not know where the courage came from when I walked into my advisor’s office on a gray December afternoon. 

With five words I released what demons had been haunting me for the last year, as I moved apathetically through a Ph.D. program.

“I can’t do this anymore.”

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Projecting 101

To the reader: Gnarly Nutrition asked me to write an article about tactics for projecting that could be applied to all sports What follows is my full-length article that is more geared to climbing, a condensed version can be found on Gnarly’s blog.

“Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.

Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian
Myself setting up on the crux move of “Deep Blue” (13b, 1300ft), a brilliant route on Washington’s Mt. Baring. In September, I was supported by Matt Carroll on belay, and many others with logistics, as I tried and succeeded with a no-fall ascent. Photo by Nathan Hadley.


I once existed most beautifully between the moment when I pulled onto a particular rock climb and the moment in which, for the only time, I did not fall off.


It was my first real climbing project and I was enraptured by what it was giving me. The process altered  the view of my own possibilities, lengthened  the horizon upon which I now gaze. 

Still, when the dust of my eventual success settled,  my priorities were left in a harsh light for me to examine.  Due to my neglect, a good relationship that brought me joy stagnated and ultimately failed. While I nurtured an incredibly enriching and life-long friendship with my climbing partner, I strayed away from others and lost valuable work and life experiences.

It was simple, in the end, to realize that the positive outcome was so rewarding because it was never guaranteed. It’s a rule true in any field — the larger the investment and risk, the greater the payoff. For me, this payoff came in the form of strong and profound feelings of flow, a direct result from how much the route demanded of me. Throughout the process, I discovered great enthusiasm and devotion. In essence, I liked the way it made me climb, and, despite what I later viewed as sacrifices, liked the way it made me live. 

Equally, when you strip away the nuances of a sport — of running your fastest, lifting your heaviest, or climbing your hardest — you will be left with what makes a project incredibly difficult, and incredibly special.

When you try, there is always an inherent risk that your aspirations may not align with your abilities or your opportunities. You will, consequently, expose yourself to failure and vulnerability. When it doesn’t work out, the ensuing sting can weave its way straight to your core, a part of which is normally guarded during the pursuit of goals in which success is highly likely. 

Though I have never regretted a project, I have become more intelligent about respecting their complexity.  Each and every time, I learn that the mental approach I take  before I pull onto the wall is as important as the climbing itself.

The advice presented here is geared towards the rarer, large projects which demand a significant investment of time and sacrifice, but are useful for a project of any type.

So, you want to project…

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Reeflay

 “In that case, I have one more question for you” a fellow Rifle climber posed to me after I accepted his offer to give me beta for a route. He was lounging comfortably in a lawn chair at the Bauhaus wall on a sultry July afternoon, a spliff in one hand and a laser-pointer in the other.

“Would you like beta given via conversation or via laser?”

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Voodoo

“Nothing changes really about love”
Alice Munro

Photo by Reed Johnson

I received a piece of advice recently, from a surprising source.

“Do what it is you need to do”

For days, the words tumbled in my mind like a pebble stuck in my shoe, persistently yet softly reminding me of their presence.

Each word is simple, common and monosyllabic. Yet, they are arranged in such a way to express an idea that is worth enough to be profoundly unclear upon first reflection; to understand it, I had to sit with it.

But, as I considered the simple beauty in that, most of my attention was focused elsewhere.

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The Rona Run

Life here shows itself in far-gone gestures and traces, always one step ahead of me. I have never seen the mountain lion I decided was male and affectionately named Igor, but often find his fresh tracks. In the evening, what I believe must be a dignified owl – its hoot so deep and melancholic – makes itself known, but never seen. The bounding antelope undulate  and meld with the distant heat-waves. Even the fighter-jet pilots frequently fly over this area are visibly untraceable as they send a shivering whistle that can be heard for miles.

The presence of field mice, though, has been confirmed, as they unfortunately found a way into my van. I dubbed them (all four of them) Henry, after the affable husband of the protagonist in one of my favorite books, Olive Kitteridge, who dies. I have been reading a lot, lately.

After briefly considering them as pets, I ultimately provided four suppers for the local owl. His hoot seemed to liven up a bit and I felt better about Henry the third, who set the trap but did not actually die. I found him next to it, hyperventilating and only slowly responsive.

I took him outside and laid him like bait on the gravel. My heart filled with lead and sank as he looked up at me, perhaps confused as to why it was suddenly so much colder. I closed the door of my van and went to bed.

In the morning, Henry the third had disappeared.


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