Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Kicking RA's Ass Part 3: Rolling Right Over RA

Today's post is part 3 of a 3 part series by guest poster Mike Mahaffey - about his journey as a BJJ competitor struggling with a chronic and sometimes debilitating disease, rheumatoid arthritis.

Part 1 can be read here and Part 2 can be read here.

I started training with the tournament in mind just after the first of the year.

All BJJ tournament matches start on the feet, rather than on the knees as one might in training, so I started working with the judo coach at our gym on a takedown I could use that would be least likely to hurt my damaged knee.

A competitor can win a match by scoring points for particular positions, so I started to up the intensity of my rolling, and started keeping track of “points” in my training matches.

Some people see the martial arts in everything. - the Stick Chick
A match can also be won by submitting your opponent, making them “tap” to a joint lock or choke. At the brown belt level, there are a great variety of submissions available to use, many more than at the blue belt level when I competed last. Leg locks in particular are allowed starting at brown belt.

So I started to work these into my game, as well as the defenses to them. I added at least one day of training to my regimen, at 6:00 AM, since my wife’s evening work schedule meant I had to be home alone with our kids on certain nights. I slowly felt more and more ready to compete, and my skillset was noticeably growing. 

But my RA still limited me more than I would have liked. I was training BJJ about 5 days per week, but it would have been beneficial to add some cardio workouts into the mix as well in order to ensure that I would have enough gas in the tank for the intensity of competition.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the energy for this due to RA pain and fatigue, so on my non-BJJ days I prioritized rest and recuperation.

In January I contracted a sinus infection that lasted over a month and took two rounds of antibiotics to get rid of. Due to this, I had to miss a Remicade infusion, which I normally get every six weeks to help keep the inflammation of RA under control (Remicade can make respiratory infections much more severe, and is dangerous to take while on antibiotics). Thus my symptoms were uncontrolled for a large portion of my training camp, making training more painful, and true rest difficult to achieve. But I was determined to do the best I could, and as tournament day approached I put my head down and pushed forward…

IBJJF Chicago Open Arena

I walked into the nearly empty arena at Chicago State University with my coach and teammates at about 8AM on April 2, 2016. The black and beige mats were laid out in a 2x5 grid pattern, making 10 rings, for 10 pairs of competitors to face off at one time.

My hands and feet ached, as usual in the mornings, but I didn’t care. I was in Chicago, looking at these empty mats, with the blue and gold IBJJF banner hung above them at the far end of the arena, grinning from ear to ear.

Today was my day. Win or lose, I was about to step onto those mats and give it my all. I had prepared for this day for 16 weeks, and I was as ready as I was going to be.

My division (brown belt, heavy weight males, ages 40-45) was not scheduled to start until 2:20 PM. We had arrived early because one of our teammates was scheduled to compete at 9:30 AM. Although the tournament was designed as a single-elimination event, I knew I had at least three matches ahead of me for the day. There were only three of us in my division, meaning we would compete against each other in a round-robin fashion, guaranteeing two matches each. This would put all three of us on the podium, win or lose. Those who made the podium are able to register for the open-weight division, which started for me at 6:00 PM. I had every intention of registering for this, as I wanted to have as many matches at this tournament as I could.

As I wandered around the arena with my teammates prior to the start of the event, I looked for the warm-up mats that I had assumed would be there. There were none – other than the matted area for competition, the rest of the venue had concrete flooring. This meant that when I wasn’t in the stands watching my teammates, I would be standing on concrete floors in my flip-flops, trying to keep my muscles warm and limber for competition. I was sure this would guarantee extra joint pain for me, and I was not wrong. 

The day dragged on, and I tried to stay loose and get my body ready for the competition to come. The Chicago Open brings competitors from all over the globe, and the level of competition was high. I was not sure who I was going to face, and what their skill level was like, but I was determined to do my best.

My division was called to the bullpen at around 1:30 PM. I filed into the gated area and milled around with dozens of other competitors of all ranks, weights, and ages. In the course of waiting I ended up meeting the two other competitors in my division. They were both friendly, and we chatted a little prior to our matches. Unlike me, they were both experienced competitors – one had even won silver at the IBJJF Pan-American Championships in California two weeks prior. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t make me a little nervous. But anything can happen on the competition mats, and I tried to focus as our division started and we were led by an official onto the competition floor.

I was up first, against the competitor who had won silver in California. We shook the referee’s hand, shook each other’s hand, and on the referee’s command, started our match.

Mike in the blue gi.
As I had practiced for weeks, I assumed a low stance, keeping my elbows close to my body, and began grip fighting. In seconds I had secured the grip I wanted – right hand on his lapel, left on his opposite sleeve. I immediately stepped closer to him and hooked my right foot onto his left inner thigh, initiating the sacrifice throw that was to start my game plan. Unfortunately, I didn’t step close enough to his hips, and as I dropped back onto the mat, he gripped my pants and almost immediately passed my legs and secured his cross body position on top of me.

He as strong, fast, and technical. I did my best to keep my arms close and protect my neck, but in less than a minute he had gripped both my lapels near my neck and was applying a collar choke while he secured my hips and kept me from escaping. I held out for as long as I could, hoping I could defend and his grip would weaken and he would transition to something else. But as I felt the blood supply to my brain diminishing, I had to tap so I didn’t pass out. 

I had lost my first match, but to me it didn’t matter. I had one more in my division, and I had already met my goal – I had competed in an international IBJJF tournament. I found myself not upset that I had lost (although winning would have been nicer), but feeling relieved that the first match was done. I now knew what competing in the IBJJF felt like, so I could focus on doing even better in my subsequent matches.

My other matches (four total – two in my division, and two in the open weight division), were a variation on my first.

All of the athletes I competed against were top-notch, with tournament experience from all over the United States. I never quite hit the sacrifice throw I had trained, although each time I tweaked my technique to make it better.

The more matches I had, despite losing, the calmer I felt.

I was able to escape several submission attempts before being finished each match, and was able to improve my position in subsequent matches in ways I did not in my first. By the time I competed in the open weight division at 6PM, my head was fully in the game, even if my skill and experience did not match that of my opponents. And given that there were only three competitors in each of my divisions, I was able to experience the podium with them as a third place medalist, something I would not have been able to do in a larger division.

Overall, my experience was wonderful. I did what I set out to do, even if I did not win. I made new friends of my fellow competitors, and have connected on Facebook with each of the gentlemen I faced on the mats that day. They were all supportive and kind, and were all gracious winners.

I disclosed to them that this was my first competition in five years, disclosed that RA is the reason I have been away from competition for so long, and thanked them for being part of my experience. One of them trains at a famous gym in Chicago, as an instructor of a close friend of mine who had moved to the city in the past few years. I already have plans to visit my friend and train with my previous opponent later this Spring.

Despite how much fun I had, and how wonderful it felt to get my competitive juices flowing again, there were some hard lessons for me to learn about doing this level of competition while facing a chronic illness.

The day after the tournament, my wife and I took our children to the Museum of Science and Industry. After standing on concrete all day, my body was not ready for that much walking. Adrenaline had gotten me through the event, but I had slept fitfully due to pain that night, and being on my feet at the museum was agony. I was exhausted and in pain from an RA flare, and I had not scheduled adequate recovery time after the competition

My wife encouraged me to use a wheelchair, as I could not be on my feet for more than a few minutes at a time, but I was too stubborn, and missed out on some of the museum while my family wandered around without me. Next time (and there WILL be a next time), I will need to dedicate the whole next day to rest and recuperation, and stay an extra night in Chicago for fun with my family after I have recovered.

Overall, this experience was well worth it. I proved to myself that I could do it, and stay relatively healthy and uninjured. I proved to myself that I can still push past my preconceived limits, and that RA will not define me as a competitor. But I also learned to respect my body, and that despite what I want, my body has its breaking point and needs more care than it did prior to RA. I’ve been flaring for the past week since the event, and I am sure it was precipitated by the exertion and standing on concrete for hours.

Either way, until I am too crippled to train, there WILL be more tournaments for me in the future. Win or lose, I am not letting RA take this from me without a fight.

Missed earlier installments of this series?  Read part one here and part two here.



Mike Mahaffey is a 43 year old married father of two from Lansing, MI. He has been training martial arts since he was a teenager, and holds a first degree black belt in TaeKwonDo ChungDoKwan, a 6th degree black belt in Pukang Tang Soo Do, and a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He currently trains and teaches at Magic Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Martial Arts Center in East Lansing, MI.