Living Imbalanced

Confessions of a broken athlete

Physically, I’ve had a lot go wrong over the past couple of years. As an aspiring runner and endurance athlete, I push myself in my training, and the last few months have pushed back, hard.

This has resulted in a slew of minor injuries which have chained together; as one thing was resolved, a new problem would pop up like clockwork. I recognize that this is not coincidental or just bad luck; these injuries are all connected and as one area bothers me I would compensate unconsciously for it, and this has lead directly to the next issue.

Case in point — a few years ago I tore my calf muscle pretty badly. I was doing a light recovery run at lunchtime after a weekend hiking Bryce Canyon in Utah when I hit a small hill and heard an audible “pop” as my calf muscle seized completely on me. I was in agony, and slowly limped back to work, where I immediately consulted “Dr. Google”to determine what had happened (I did follow this up with an actual doctor’s visit to confirm and get a plan for recovery). There it was on the page: “A common injury among middle-aged weekend warriors”. Wow. Talk about adding insult to injury.

While the calf eventually healed, it remained very tight on uphill runs and was prone to cramping on longer events. Fast forward six months or so and I started having problems from an inflamed Achilles tendon in the same leg. Eventually this faded and disappeared, only to have Plantar Fasciitis next rear its ugly head in the attached foot, which also lead to an inflamed Flexor tendon when I pushed through it at a race. For anyone remotely familiar with anatomy, it’s clear that all of these injuries are connected and nearly inevitable one from the other.

Too much mileage, too much weight and poor running mechanics have conspired together, resulting in osteoarthritis in both knees. If those weren’t bad enough, add a bum shoulder to the mix.

It turns out that 45 year old men weighing in at 200+ lbs probably shouldn’t kip. And if they do, their first time kipping shouldn’t be a toes-to-bar ladder workout. I was praised for my form at the time, only to find out an hour or two later that I couldn’t lift a cup of coffee. An MRI sometime later confirmed a full tear in the supraspinatus tendon and a longitudinal tear in the biceps tendon; in layman’s terms, my shoulder was FUBAR’d.

Several months later, I was able to regain full range of motion and strength to the point where I could do full range dead-hang pull-ups… then along came the Spartan World Championship at Lake Tahoe in October and the new Ape Hanger obstacle. Hello inflammation, my old friend. This was followed closely by two other major races with loads of hanging and swinging obstacles — the OCR World Championships in Canada and World’s Toughest Mudder in Las Vegas. While I don’t think either of them caused significant new damage, they definitely didn’t help the healing process either. Now I’m back at square one and just had a second MRI to check for new damage and make a tough decision on whether to opt for a surgical fix which will put me out of commission for a year.

The shoulder has been particularly frustrating as it prevents me from focusing on lifting or rock climbing and has even ruled out swimming as a cross-training activity to keep up my cardio while I can’t run. My yoga practice has become less about progression and more about playing with the edges of my pain, although I do think it’s been slowly helping to restore range of motion.

These injuries aren’t trivial, and it’s likely that surgical intervention will be necessary; if not now then at some point in the future. Even with that option and a stubborn will to make it so, there’s a reasonable chance that some of these joints will never be as strong as they once were.

At the same time, I am trying to remain grateful that I have 4 limbs that function, that I remain mobile and am otherwise in good health. It could always be worse, and my little pity party seems to alternate between totally justified and me just being a big baby.

These injuries have left me literally and metaphorically imbalanced. I am now struggling to heal, rebuild, and re-balance while fighting against FOMO (fear of missing out) watching my friends participate in events and races that I desperately want to be doing.

As much as the the physical side of things is a challenge, the tougher battle is mental. Running and working out are therapy to me. Sweating is my stress relief valve and the basis for many of my social interactions. Taking forced breaks and being unable to follow my workout routine is a font of frustration. It is making my temper shorter and increasing feelings of loneliness and isolation as I spend more time away from my active friends and out of my main circles.

When I was younger, I used to hold think that the mind and the body were only tenuously connected. That you could have a healthy and brilliant mind in a body that was weak and unhealthy. It took many years and a lot of personal experience to adopt a more holistic view and recognize how massively interconnected these systems are.

Physical activity releases a cascade of endorphins that have been shown to alter mood, alleviating anxiety and depression, and even reducing cognitive decline as protection against Alzheimer’s Disease.

There’s a vicious circle at play here. It doesn’t look precisely like the one above because I’m still fighting to maintain conditioning through alternate activities, but if truth be told, it’s far closer than I’d like to admit. My frustration and boredom lead to impatient attempts to push past my current limitations, which inevitably lead to pain and inflammation and feeds back into my frustration and anger at not being able to do things that have previously defined me.

Clearly, I haven’t figured out how to bust out of the circle yet, but surrendering to my injuries and choosing a path of inactivity is unacceptable. “Can’t” has always been a word that pisses me off, and I refuse to absolve myself that easily.

Some injuries are temporary and result in an athlete coming back stronger and more determined than they were before. Others can be career-ending as the cost to play exceeds what you’re willing to pay on a daily or monthly basis. Still others can fundamentally change how you view yourself and your activities. I remain hopeful that things are still in the first category, but really only time will tell.

I am currently imbalanced in all respects, and having to live with it even as I strive to recover and possibly even redefine what that balance looks like. While it’s been frustrating to deal with, this period has its own lessons that I’m attempting to absorb; lessons that deal with patience, forgiving myself, and changing my frame of reference.

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