Travis Macy, the Eco-Challenge and the unknown of Alzheimer’s
I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Travis Macy but we shared a common bond on the afternoon when I happened to interview him.
Those familiar with Macy’s appearance on the Eco-Challenge know his dad, Mark, competed even after being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. My father has been diagnosed with the same, although his has progressed rapidly this year since I placed him in assisted living in January. In fact, a few hours before Travis and I chatted, I moved my dad into a memory care unit.
As we started the call Travis adopted the role as teammate against this awful disease, rather than an interviewee. He could not have been kinder as we shared updates on how our respective fathers were faring.
“We have to laugh at the same jokes over again,” he says. “As you know, there's just so much uncertainty. You don't know how a person is going to be and you do not know what timeframe. But I believe if someone can remain content, and be happy with certain relationships, I think that's pretty big.”
Grief. Anger. Denial.
He is right, of course. But that doesn’t make the journey any easier.
“It’s terrible. For me, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” he recalls. “I went through all the stages of grief, anger or sadness or denial or all kinds of stuff. It further manifested in some anxiety and depression for me. Thankfully, I have a very strong family and I have a great team. I have no worries about seeking therapy and professional support. And that has definitely helped me.”
It’s part of the circle of life, Travis points out. One day the child will become the caregiver.
“This came much earlier than expected,” he says. “Receiving the diagnosis wasn't a surprise by any means because we had been seeing changes and symptoms for some time. I immediately jumped ahead to future hypotheticals. Whether it's long-term care, finance or trust, or all of these things that you read about it, learn about it.”
There is a lot to learn about such planning, complicated by the general unknowns of how fast or slow the disease will take over. Staying present is how the Macys are approaching it.
“I realized we have to do some planning for the future, but we also have to be present and play to the strengths,” he says. “That's kind of been what we've decided on as a family, is just a strengths-based approach. Where the challenges and deficits are supported, but you're still doing what you can to live fully and keep those strengths going, even though they may shift over time.”
As the sands of time are ticking down for loved ones, it’s important to emphasize the life left in our years, not the years left in our lives. The Macys took heart in that by participating in the Eco-Challenge as part of Team Endure, now available on Amazon Prime. That demonstrates their lifelong commitment to adventure.
“He’s hanging in pretty good,” says Travis about his dad’s current health. “Definitely more day-to-day challenges. More support needed, mostly from my mom, and also from friends and their team itself. But he's fit and active and loves getting outside, especially with his buddies. It's not the same, but he still can, go out and kind of run, kind of hike. Although the altitudes and the downhills are slower and balance is tough.”
Alzheimer’s wraps itself around its victims, sometimes taking away memories bit by bit. Other times, the changes are more drastic and sudden. There is no set linear pattern, making it even tougher for families and caregivers.
For Mark, the cognitive changes started out with forgetting numbers, directions and other detailed information. Now any numbers pose a significant challenge.
“Basically it seems his eyes are functioning, but the signal getting to the brain is messed up or lost somewhere in the brain,” Travis explains. “When he was first diagnosed some of the testing basically said, ‘You can't drive anymore, because your eyes won't see the person or the red light.’ Initially that was the biggest worry – not being able to drive.”
Now Alzheimer’s has taken even basic reading and writing from Mark. “He kind of sees words and they're just jumping around all over the place, and can't write.”
Victory at the starting line
Originally, Travis and Mark were going to be on different teams in the Eco-Challenge. But with the diagnosis in hand, they decided to join forces. Team Endure not only had to deal with the weather, course and obstacles, they also had to assist Mark along the journey.
“I realized personally that I really wanted to race with dad,” Travis says. “That's my why. It's not the competition, but to do it with him. And furthermore, it'll probably be a better fit.”
It’s hard to understand what Mark remembers from the Fiji adventure but Travis will hold those memories for a long time.
“It meant the world to all of us,” he says. “There was a lot of uncertainty: Can we do the race? But if we could get there, to the starting line, that's a big win and anything else is a bonus.”
The physical challenges of paddling, hiking, biking and more were, of course, easier for Travis and the other two teammates, Shane Sigle and Danelle Ballengee.
“Our goal was just being present and enjoying it and we all did that,” Travis says. “As you see in the footage, it was easier for us than it was for dad. Just simply based on age and Alzheimer's. But for us the pace generally was relaxed enough that it was fun. And we were appreciating things, we're telling stories and telling jokes and just taking it in and having deep conversations.”
There were some times during the race where it was clear that Mark was struggling with some cognitive issues. Travis shares that there were other instances such as nighttime disorientation that didn’t make the cut on the TV show.
“Number one, we just wanted to make sure that we're safe,” he says. “That was always the top priority and never did I feel that something was becoming unsafe or that we should proceed up and tell him. But, when you saw, when we actually dropped out, we decided what's coming up next with this canyon area is not safe for us to do right now. So we didn't attempt it. And we knew exactly what that was because they had done that section in the previous race. So we knew what was coming.”
Ballengee came into the race with some knowledge about Alzheimer’s, thanks to supporting a neighbor who has the disease.
“She was just an incredible teammate and friend,” Travis says. “Watching her, just walking along and talking with dad. Often it was just having a conversation and talking about his old court cases, old races and family stories. That would help him stay dialed in instead of, ‘Hey guys, where are we going now?’ Or, ‘What are we doing out here?’”
The entire team worked together to support Mark.
“We chipped in to make sure that dad's eating and drinking and wearing the right clothes and sunscreen and all that,” Travis says. “It wasn't that big of a deal. That's what teammates and family members do to help each other.”
‘Swampland of despair’
The Eco-Challenge experience was definitely an education for Travis.
“I learned my dad is even more resilient, positive and motivated to help other people than I ever knew,” he says. “For my entire life, he is just been top of the list in all of those categories to me. But those things have just continued to flourish. And man, he's still is telling people, ’Hang in there and do your best and keep digging and keep trying,’ and all that kind of message. And he's doing it himself.”
Then I posed the same question to Travis, “What did you learn about yourself during, or even after, the Eco-Challenge?”
After a brief pause, he replied, “Oh man … I think you may be able to relate to this: like the psychologist, Carl Jung talks about the sort of swampland of despair and how hard it is. And that it forces growth. And it's true. I just realized that I'm ready to take on that new role. And to be OK with it. Yes, there's still sadness. It's sadness, some moments of deep despair and longing and all that kind of stuff. But overall just more acceptance and empowerment for what's to come ahead. And to maybe be a little more OK with uncertainty.”
‘Life is not over’
Alzheimer’s and other serious diseases start with a diagnosis but afterward the journey is often undefined and varied. As Travis helps plot the course for the family, he offers advice to others who are trying to navigate previously uncharted waters.
“I think the message is: Life is not over. And that you really can, you could do things to make a difference. You can help the person. I would say the big thing is just stay engaged. I talked with a good friend who's a doctor who works with a lot of elderly people. I had tons of anxiety going into this race: Should we do this? Is this a good idea? What are the risks? He told me, ‘Travis, when people have an injury or a diagnosis, especially later in life, the ones who stay engaged, they're the ones who do best.’"
The Macys did the Leadville Race Series Vertical Challenge this summer. Mark struggled with the technology but not the terrain.
“That was perfect, because going up and down hills is what he loves to do,” Travis says. “He put in over 100,000 feet of vertical gain over the course of eight weeks.”
Usually when I interview athletes when the conversation comes to the future, it’s filled with big goals, bucket-list races and epic adventures. When confronted with a loved one’s battle with a debilitating disease, there is a different perspective on the future.
Travis is optimistic that his team – including Mark either as spectator or as part of support crew – will get to go to EcoChallenge 2021. And our goal this time is hopefully dad can go, be a spectator and hang out, and maybe help with the support crew. It’s all part of the treatment plan that focuses on remaining active.
"Hang tough, keep making the most of life, even if it changes,” Travis recommends. “As related to running, that's been a huge piece of our treatment and something we believe is really helping dad. We think that decline is absolutely slowed by physical fitness and continued exercise. My suggestion is to keep people going outside and being physically active.”
Travis and I know full well that regardless of activity level, Alzheimer’s won’t disappear. It’s a time when memories will be made for the sons as they transition to a more supportive role in the circle of life.
“I talked about the shifting of roles, a son becoming comfortable with supporting his father,” he says. “And his father becoming comfortable with accepting support. Both of those things are very natural. Humans have done it forever. But it doesn't mean that it's easy, and especially when it happens earlier than you expect. And for me, the race played a big role in facilitating that. It was in many ways a cathartic rite of passage.”
Name: Travis Macy
Hometown: Salida, Colo.
Number of years running: 24
How many miles a week do you typically run: 40
Point of pride: I keep running fun.
Favorite race distance: Ultra running, adventure racing, ski mountaineering.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Espresso.
Favorite piece of gear: Lube for chafing.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: NPR's Up First podcast (not exactly inspirational, but I learn enough to make it through the day).
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: It's all good mental training.
Where can other runners connect or follow you: • Website: travismacy.com • Twitter and Instagram: @travismacy