Playing My Cards

Robert L. Wanamaker

There’s days when seemingly everything hurts in my body.  Every joint aches.  I bend over, getting set to pick up the log, my hands ache; the pain continues up my arms to my shoulders.  I ignore this pain, get my back tight, my lats tighten up; I dip down and pull the log onto my lap, ignoring the burst of pain in my hips.  I take a deep breath, focus on a big belly of air, set my lats one more time, and explode up, sending the log flying up to land on my chest, nearly knocking me over backwards.

All this takes only a couple seconds.  It’s going to be a good day, despite the pain.

 I push through, and complete another training session.  I know I’ll feel better afterwards, and I’ve come to accept that not all training sessions will be stellar.  Gains get measured in months and years with this body.
Locking out a 725 deadlift.

I was competing as a Master Heavyweight at Oil Regions Strongest Man in 2010.  I decided to try to pull 725 for my third attempt on max DL, despite not needing a third attempt to win the event.  I’m dumb that way, it’s one of my strengths.

I made the pull.  It took, according to the announcer, a full 10 seconds from start to finish.  The crowd was frenzied.

I swear everybody who saw that lift remembers it a couple years later.

I competed at the Oil Region again in 2012; this time, with no real training.  My coach, Mike Tuchscherer, and I agreed that I needed to get a competition under my belt, and that we would treat it as a training session.  As is the case with strongman competitions, you run into friends; catching up with a friend via email after the comp, I mentioned having limited time; of course, he asked me why I felt there was this time constraint.
There’s no easy way to answer that question.  I try to be very straightforward, and unemotional, but behind the keyboard, I’m pretty emotional as I’m typing the answer.  Some days, the answer weighs heavily upon me.

I have a disease called Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis.  This disease, in my case, is extremely advanced.  On the one hand, it’s simple:  all my connective tissue is turning to bone.  It’s hit my ankles, hips, and spine hard.  Some days, I really notice how hard it is to get moving.  Other days, things seem to tear apart in my body for no reason.

Giving a talk at a Practical Strength seminar.

When I talk in a group setting about training with this disease, I like to relate a couple quick stories.  The first story goes back to 1992, when I learned how to deadlift for the first time.  I started with 95lbs; within 8 weeks, I pulled 500 from the floor.  I didn’t think too much about it, and over the years, drifted away from training, spending more time with work and other things.  I never did pull much over 500 as a young man.

In 2005, I realized that my body was not happy with my choices.  I was not happy with my choices.  I decided, for my 45th birthday, to give myself a huge present:  I would restructure my life to make training a priority.  At that time, I had intermittent back and hip pain, and sometimes had trouble walking.
I was also morbidly obese.  I weighed over 350lbs, with a 54″ waist.  I thought that most of my pain, stiffness, and problems were just side effects of obesity.

So, I started to work out.  I hiked regularly, and revived my home gym.  But I had a lot of pain, and had major problems moving.  I went to a doctor, and he told me there was nothing wrong with me, so I kept trying to lift, but getting nowhere.

I ended up seeing a chiropractor, who actually listened to me, and examined me and ordered X-rays.  I was diagnosed with DISH in 2006.

I trained hard, and smart, doing whatever it took.  By the beginning of 2007, I had deadlifted 500lbs again.  By the end of 2007, I had lost about 100lbs.  By mid-2008, I took first place in the Master’s Class at the first strongman competition I entered.

It took me a lot of work and 2-1/2 years, but I had reached a goal.


Somewhere along my journey, I realized that I’m blessed:  I could have lived out the rest of my life being unhappy, not reaching any kind of physical goals, had this disease not interrupted me, and forced me to realize what was important, and who I am.  My time may well be limited, but, as the song goes, at least I’m enjoying the ride.


Back to the disease:  based on the buildup of bone we see on the anterior spinal ligaments in the thoracic region, spreading down into the lumbar region, various doctors guessed in 2011, that I probably had about 7  good years left.  Good, of course, being relative:  my ankles really don’t work, which means that my hips have to work harder with each step I take.  Which may, or may not, encourage the disease to target my hips.

There’s no cure.  Standard medical advice is to basically become a couch potato, and avoid any activity which can stress the spine. 

Think about that that last sentence, focusing on the part about stressing the spine.  Now, think about your typical strongman training session.

Nobody really knows much about this disease.  I think the stats are something like 5% of people 75 and older will be stricken by this disease, and it will be diagnosed secondarily, as it causes other symptoms like nerve impingements.  Only 1/2 of 1 percent of the population from age 50 to 70 will be diagnosed; nobody under the age of 50 is diagnosed.

I mentioned I was diagnosed in 2006, at age 45 – and the disease was already extremely advanced.  I was diagnosed by a chiropractor, who I went to see because I was having trouble squatting, and the doctor I had gone to see told me nothing was wrong with me.  The chiropractor looked at me, tried to move me, and announced:  “Dude, something is seriously wrong with your back.  It’s like a brick wall here.  It doesn’t move.  At all.  I won’t treat you until we get x-rays to see what’s going on.”

So, we got x-rays.  I remember on May 6, 2006 (some dates never leave you), I had my second visit with the chiropractor.  As soon as I got into the exam room, I could tell something was wrong; he was visibly upset.  We went over the diagnosis of DISH, easily seen in the x-rays:  my anterior spinal ligaments are huge, coated with excess bone, looking like somebody poured layers and layers of candle wax on my spine.  As he put it, not good news.

We knew that I couldn’t receive traditional chiropractic manipulations:  one aspect of the disease is that the spine itself becomes weakened, to the point where people with advanced cases of DISH have their spines spontaneously fracture from moving the wrong way.

This chiropractor is an ART practitioner:  if you didn’t know, ART stands for Active Release Technique.  Google it and learn.

As part of my evaluation, we made a video of me doing basic movements, like raising my arms over my head.  That video was reviewed by Dr. Leahy, the founder of ART – who, in his review, stated that I was a lost cause, and that nothing could help me.

The chiropractor told me all this, talked with me about what he knew of my disease, and how there was no good prognosis.  He also told me that he felt, despite the bad prognosis, that he could help me.

Over 5 years of twice-weekly visits, I actually got to a point where I could move somewhat normally, at least normally enough to do strongman.  This was not an easy five years:  those twice weekly visits, at $100 a pop, were paid for out of pocket.   Such is life.  It’s never simple.

I remember milestones along the way, like the first time I was able to retract my shoulder blades, even a fraction of an inch.  Oh, my, I was so impressed and so happy that I could finally do this; it opened up a whole new way for me to approach pressing.


I’ve learned to live with complexity: I remember, in the fall of 2009, I was doing trap bar deads, with a moderate weight, and something popped in my left shoulder, and within a few minutes I had extreme pain in my back.  I drove to the ER, and immediately had my thoracic spine x-rayed:  everybody was concerned that my spine had fractured.  I remember the radiologist on duty seeing my x-ray, and asking me what I was doing when this happened.  I told her I was training, and doing a deadlift variation with 520lbs.

She looked at me, and looked back at my x-ray, and said “My son is a bodybuilder.  He lifts weights all the time. He can’t deadlift 520lbs.  Your spine…your spine is so twisted, so damaged.   How can you pick up so much weight?”

This complexity throws doctors, I’ve found.  I’ve always struggled with my left calf cramping up.  Over the years, I’ve suffered from extremely painful plantar fasciitis – I remember the day it started.  I had competed, and had no problems during the comp.  My wife and I drove home, and when I stepped out of the SUV, it was like somebody drove a spike through my left heel.

The pain stayed with me so long, and was so crippling, that I was seriously thinking about having my foot amputated.  I tried many, many pain medicines with no luck.  Cortisone injections?  No help.  Nothing seemed to give me relief.

Then suddenly, one day while training the axle press, something seemed to pop behind my left knee.  I was unable to put any weight on the left leg, but the pain in my heel was gone.  Fair trade – actually, more than fair.  I was quite thankful, as I hobbled around on crutches, that I was no longer carrying that particular pain.
Fast forwarding a bit, I started to have a lot of pain in my low back.  I went to a doctor, she pulled my history, and immediately ordered thoracic x-rays.  I got the x-rays, of course, and was reviewing them with her, and my low back was going into severe spasms.  She was convinced that it was really my thoracic spine, and ordered a DEXA bone density scan.

I left her office, in terrible pain, my low back spasming, pain radiating into my left leg.  I never got that DEXA scan, and I never went back to see her.   She was missing the point, the complexity of my case baffling her.



There’s a couple things important to me:  strongman is right up there, but my Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies are at the top of the list, and I love nothing more than hiking with them in the dead of winter.

It was January of 2011, and I was hiking in a fresh snow, when I knew that I was in trouble.  I was having a lot of problems moving my left leg; there was a lot of pain, and it took all my effort to walk.  It was cold out; there was a biting wind, it was snowing.

I was stripped down to a shirt, with sweat dripping from my torso, as it took me over 20 minutes to cover 100 yards.  It was that hard to move the left leg.

I decided to try a new chiropractor, and also to reach out to a powerlifting buddy who is a physical therapist.  My buddy and I talked for an hour, and he referred me to a neurosurgeon.   I followed through with the new chiropractor as well.

On 2/2/2011, I decided to have decompression therapy for my lumbar spine at L5-S1 and L4-L5.  The chiropractor, and the radiologist he used for the MRI, both agreed that the discs were herniated, and that this was causing a nerve impingement. 

I know that was the date, because I’m looking at the payment screen for the loan I took out for $8,000.00 to pay for the treatment.  That’s another thing I’ve learned to juggle:  while I have excellent medical insurance, and I’m thankful I have it (along with the $750 monthly premiums), it doesn’t cover all services, and it didn’t cover decompression therapy.

Of course, in the interest of complexity, the neurosurgeon, as well as my buddy, who also read my MRI, and other doctors in the neurosurgery department, disagreed.  They felt the impingement was not caused by disc herniation, but by stenosis.  After all, my body is producing excess bone.

It’s a tough call to make, when it’s $8,000 of your own cash.  I consulted with a neutral third party, and finally decided it was only money, and had the decompression therapy.  I got immediate relief, although there was a rough spot in the treatment when my spine rebelled, and I was in such immense pain that it took every ounce of my strength along with controlled, paced breathing, to make it through without breaking down completely in the treatment room.

My wife has told me that she will never witness another treatment session, that she can’t stand to see me in that much pain.

But, in the longer run, I got relief, and was able to resume walking with my dogs and doing chores around the house.  So, success.


I’ve learned how to measure progress in terms of months and years with this disease.  While I still suffer from that pinched nerve, it’s not nearly as bad as it was.  The left leg has definitely been weaker, and we adjusted my training to try to bring it up to speed.

Torn Hamstring.

That’s why I competed recently with no specific training; I’ve been unable to really crank up the intensity.  As it was, on the final event of the day, stones, I tore my left hamstring – probably because of the pinched nerve.  But I’ll never know for sure.

Now, I have something more to rehab.

I’m still seeing that same neurosurgeon, and still get PT advice from my powerlifting buddy as needed.  The neurosurgeon allows me to largely call my own shots; as he puts it “You have five years left.  You want to spend them tossing around rocks, and hiking in the Arctic, well, that’s your call.  My job is to give you whatever relief I can so that you’re successful in those endeavors.”

Progress comes slowly.  I take the time to review my training logs, to remind myself that back in 2007, I was unable to pick up a 220lb Atlas Stone.  I’m now able to get 310lbs to 50″.  Progress comes slowly, but I do my best to acknowledge it.

Meanwhile, the disease marches on; comparing x-rays from 2010 to 2008, it’s easy to see how the spinal ligaments are becoming more and more layered with bone.  The layering is spreading down to the lumbar region.  We haven’t taken any c-spine pictures to see how it’s progressing upward; honestly, I’m not sure I want to know.  Every time I see the neurosurgeon,  the cute little medical assistant asks me if I have any problems swallowing or breathing; the question is asked and answered briefly, matter-of-factly, but we both know what’s coming someday.

So, one of a couple things will happen.  The ossification will continue to build up in the thoracic region, and this can ultimately impinge upon the heart.  The other alternative is that it continues to spread throughout my body, impinging on nerves, and reducing my mobility, or making it hard to swallow and breathe.

All these things could well happen.  Whatever the case, it looks like my time for being mobile is limited.
In the meantime, I’ve competed a handful of times, and I’ve done pretty well.  I can usually hold my own in the Masters Class.  I truly believe that we manufacture our own destiny – I could have listened to standard medical advice, and not tried to do strongman, and just did the couch potato thing instead.

Here’s my secret:  every time I train, every time I compete, I feel better.  There’s a psychological element at play, to be sure.  We’re supposed to love our bodies; that’s something that I think is impossible for me to do.  I hate everything about my body, I hate that I have problems moving, I hate the pain, I hate the disfigurement of my hunchback, I hate knowing that I probably won’t live to 60.

But every time I train, I cheat death, and I cheat my body.  Just a little bit.  I make it perform.  I make it move.  I make it do something that many healthy people will never do.

There’s also a physical element.  By moving heavy weight, I force myself to be mobile, and I encourage my body’s muscles to take some load off the spine.  I always physically feel better when I train; perhaps it’s placebo, but, if so, I’ll take it.

Some days are better than others, and we all must play the hand we’re dealt.  The choice is up to each one of us.

Choose wisely, and be well.

*You can read Bob’s experiences and approach to training on his blog, The Thinking Strongman.

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