A Recipe for Survival

by Ryan Blom | July 10, 2019

If you lift weights, you should understand the stress/recovery/adaptation process. Your body will go through it whether you understand it or not. Squats and deadlifts don’t cause you to get big and strong, recovering from them does. However, your muscles aren’t the only thing that is changing and adapting; it’s all of you – physically, mentally and emotionally. Starting Strength changed me and made me “harder to kill” (The Red T-shirt).

I’m a 35 year old pig farmer by trade. I bought my own farm in 2012. The same year the Midwest experienced the worst drought in several decades, and southwestern Minnesota wasn’t any different. Pigs eat lots of corn no matter the price, and in my first year of business I went horribly in debt. I was a mess. I was stressed out all the time. I would have fits of anxiety. My heart would race, and I would get light-headed. Other times, I was depressed. I found various ways of dealing with it, mostly drinking. I was getting tired of working, and at 5’8”; I was a fat 210 lbs. I wanted to change the way that I dealt with stress and get in “better shape.”

I needed a challenge, so I picked the Naval Special Warfare Physical Training Guide that applicants use to work up to the SEAL/(BUD/S) physical screening test. It consisted of long runs, short timed runs, and sprints. Other days had sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups, and still other days had a variety of swimming workouts. The program kicked my butt, and I couldn’t keep up with the scheduled workouts. Why should I? I wasn’t 18 anymore.

Thankfully, the weather changed. Winter was setting in. I couldn’t swim anymore at the local outdoor pool, and I wasn’t about to run in the snow. I remembered my high school days, and how I liked to bench press and use the machines. Also, I was a regular listener of Brett McKay’s podcast “Art of Manliness.” I had heard his podcast with Rip and watched the instructional videos. I didn’t even know it was possible to put the bar on my back and squat with it. I desperately wanted to start lifting, but there were a few hurdles.

Southwest Minnesota didn’t have any public gyms. My old high school didn’t even have a squat rack. My business had been turning around, but my wife and Chief Financial Officer was reluctant to drop money on a rack, bar and weights. We compromised. I went to the local blacksmith, and stamped out the uprights from the plans in the back of the blue book. Then I took all the metal home and welded it myself. We bought a B&R 1.0 bar from Rogue, and weights from a local exercise outfitter.

Remember, it’s Minnesota: I’m not going to lift in subzero temps in my unheated shop, but the rack couldn’t be set up in our living room or basement at its original height. I took it back outside and cut it down to size. It didn’t matter because I’m not that tall.

By this time, I had read through the blue book twice, and was listening to and reading everything from the website and forum. My wife and I began lifting. Each training session, I would tape every warm-up and every set, comparing them to the pictures in the book. It was a long process, but we started to add weight. If something didn’t feel right, I’d go back to the books. Soon enough, we were lifting more weight than we thought our old house’s floor joists could handle. It was spring now, and out to the garage we went.

We lifted hard for a year with the usual breaks for life events. In October of 2016, I decided to participate in the Spring Challenge in Omaha, NE. I printed the ticket and stapled it to the wall next to the rack. Looking at the ticket made me push hard all winter. I was using the Texas Method for my squats and the press. For my deadlift, I tried to implement power snatches and stiff-leg deadlifts in my rotation. I planned backward from the meet date with a short taper at the end. The Saturday before the meet, I did a test meet with singlet which went just as I was hoping. Going into the meet, I felt strong.

blom squatting in ussf competition

April 1, 2017 at the Spring Challenge, I squatted 460 lbs which was a 45 lb PR. I pressed 201lbs which was my goal, and I deadlifted 410. I think I had more in my deadlift, but I wasn’t very confident in my form. I had contacted Phil Meggers SSC in Omaha before the meet and asked him if he would look at my deadlift form the day after the competition. The thrill of competing was exciting and motivating. I decided I was going to squat 500 lbs at the next spring meet.

blom locks out a press in ussf competition

My summer training wasn’t that impressive, I felt tired all the time. I was working between 70-80 hours per week, and lifting 3 days a week. As I said earlier, I’m a pig farmer. I own a very small operation by today’s standards with only 400 sows. We raised to market about 7500 head a year. It was all my wife and I could do to keep up with the work seven days a week with minimal chores on Sunday.

After the harvest ended in November, I knuckled down and started pushing towards my goals. I wanted a 500 lb squat, a 225 lb press and a 460 lb deadlift. On January 31, 2018 I squatted 410x3x2, and I knew I was on my way to my squat goal. Late at night, on March 11, I was with a friend who was new to lifting. I was warming up my deadlift and on my 3rd rep at 315 I felt my low back shift. I dropped the bar. It hurt bad for an hour, but before I went to bed that night I felt better. All that week, it nagged me. Twice more that week I lifted light. But I was busy, and I wanted to short circuit the healing process, so I went to the chiropractor.

She adjusted me on Friday afternoon. By that night, I was in howling pain. I couldn’t sit, stand or lay without pain. I called her first thing on Monday morning, and told her I needed to be fixed again because something wasn’t right. Same result, I had more pain. I switched chiropractors, went to the doctor, and had an x-ray. I was told it would take 4-6 weeks for this to resolve. And my back pain continued for a month and a half. Unable to get relief, I went in for an MRI on May 3.

At this point, I was laying on my right side in the back of my van on the way there because I couldn’t be in any other position for fear of more pain. Even the walk into the MRI office was perilous and painful. The radiologist sent me to the emergency room right after the scan. In the ER, after more scans and pain killers, I was told two pieces of information that would change my life forever.

First, I had a collapsed L4 vertebra and needed emergency surgery to save my spinal cord. Sometime between my x-rays and now, the vertebra had been smashed flat like a pancake. Second, my L4 had only recently collapsed because it was inundated with cancer. Now, I had cancer and a broken back.

The doctors told me that I had Stage 4 Clear Cell Renal Cell Carcinoma, and it had been growing in me for a very long time. My left kidney had a mass on it the size of a cantaloupe. There was cancer in my lungs, liver and on my spine at the T10-T11 junction. My low back had been making room for the cancer growing on my L4 by shifting out of alignment, and the lifting injury was a signal that my back wasn’t the way it should be.

The day I hurt my back I weighed 224 lbs, and the day I got to the hospital in July I weighed 158 lbs. I’d lost 66 lbs. It is a testament to how strong my bones had become that it took the cancer that long to break down the bone material. What could have happened if I had only weighed 180lbs of “dad bod” going in? Would I have survived if I didn’t have additional stores muscle and fat?

blom - hardware and weight loss

In the end, I needed four surgeries. Three to fix my spine with rods, screws and a strut, and to remove my kidney. The fourth to remove a tumor further up my spine inside the spinal sheath. After that fourth surgery, the doctor tested my reflexes. I could tell if he was pinching my left baby toe, but I couldn’t move either leg. I could feel him pulling the hair on my right leg, but I couldn’t feel hot or cold. I had lost most sensation below my ribs. The worst realization happened when I spent a week in the Rehabilitation center learning how to live life from a wheelchair.

My cancer worsened in my liver for a couple of months, and it looked as though I might not be long for this world. However, after switching treatments, my cancer was retreating. With my prognosis improving, I set to work on my strength. I tried physical therapy for a while, but it was mostly a joke. I quit going. I didn’t need their help because I had learned through Starting Strength how to make myself strong.

blom getting back under the bar - bench press

I set to work on benching. Also, I started pressing with a 5 lb bar while seated in my wheelchair. I added 5 lbs each time I trained. My arms and back got stronger. Muscles that had been cut through grew tough again. It became easier for me to transfer to bed, my wheelchair or the toilet. It was easier to get myself in and out of the house. People said my color improved. I felt better. As my spinal cord healed from being compressed, the sensation started to return to my legs. Unfortunately, the sensations weren’t all good. The spinal compression caused me to have a lot of neuropathic pain in different areas from my waist down. The mental and emotional training I learned by lifting heavy weights helped me manage my pain.

blom training the press from his wheelchair

Life started to return to my legs. I tested my leg muscle function by trying to move my legs in different directions. Pull my femur back, hamstrings: check. Pull my femur forward, hip flexors: check. Leg abductors and adductors: check. Kick lower leg out: no. My quads were not unresponsive, but they were so weak that they couldn’t work against gravity. I started training all these muscle groups by moving them as best I could and increasing the number of movements each day.

For my quads, I had my wife hold my leg straight up in the air while I laid on the bench. Then she would slowly lower my foot letting my leg bend at the knee. We did this movement five times for multiple sets while I tried to resist the downward movement. After the second session of “eccentric resistance” I had the most beautiful sensation of soreness in my quads. I cried. If they could feel sore then there must be something there to work with. Now that I had some control of all of the major muscle groups, I had the hope of being able to walk again.

ryan works on dips in the power rack

However, walking isn’t my only problem. It is a difficult thing to be told you have terminal cancer. Learning how to control my fear when squatting heavy, and learning how to deal with soreness have helped me to be strong mentally and emotionally. It would have been easy for me to fall apart, and give up. Except quitting isn’t what I learned when I lifted. I would think about the next heavy squat session all week, but I didn’t run away from it. I put my shoes and knee sleeves on. I cinched up my belt. I stepped under the loaded bar, and walked it out. In that moment, I could quit, but that doesn’t align with my goals. So I let my knees and hips break; committing myself to the lift. The same is true of my life.  I wake each morning and engage with my family. I’ve taken to being Mr. Mom while my wife works. I get down on my hands and knees to work in our garden. I’ve committed to be a husband and father, and I’m not about to give up.

ryan blom and his family

Rip’s voice from one of his podcasts rings through my head every time I worry about the future.

“You can’t be dying if you’re growing!”

Starting Strength was the reason I got big and strong. My strength, size and faith were the reason I survived a season of life that may have killed a lesser person, and those attributes will be the reason for my survival. The lessons I learned from Starting Strength, and the process of stress, recovery, and adaptation will be how I keep up the fight against cancer.

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