Get Back on the Horse
It’s said that the day you are born is the day you start dying. But it’s equally true that the day you start dying is the day you start living.
Now before you roll your eyes at me going all Stoner Philosophy on you, I meant that literally. Every time you expose your body to a stimulus, that stimulus has an effect. Pushing your muscles past their usual load will cause them to grow. We are vaccinated against disease by exposure to that very disease. The things that threaten our organism are the same things that cause it to strengthen, to improve, to become more capable and resilient.
The healing process begins the instant after an injury occurs. Blood flow is increased to the surrounding area. Your body shotguns chemicals into your bloodstream to temporarily ward off pain and increase strength and alertness. The injured area swells to help prevent movement that could cause further damage. Specialized cells of your immune system rush to the scene, cleaning up debris and fighting infection. Other cells begin the task of replacing and remodeling the damaged tissue.
We tend to think of healing from an injury as a purely physical process. It’s an annoyance and an inconvenience; something that must be waited out or worked around. We focus on physical therapy protocols, adapting exercises, even healing nutrition. We assemble teams of doctors, surgeons, physical therapists, and coaches to get our bodies back to working order as quickly as possible. All of this chaos is viewed as an aberration from our normal routine, something that is keeping us from doing what we’d rather be doing.
If that’s your mindset when you get injured, you’re missing something. Coach Holder says injury can be a gift, and he’s right. It can be the stimulus for new growth that would never have occurred otherwise. If you focus the same intention and intensity on your rehabilitation as you do on the rest of your training, you have the opportunity to come out of rehab stronger, more balanced, and hopefully smarter.
But recovering from injury is more than physical. You aren’t fully healed until you’re back on the horse that threw you.
One of my first loves. [Photo courtesy of Pete Hitzeman]
An Unexpected Fall
A year ago, I suffered one of the most traumatic injuries of my (so-called) athletic career, on one of the easiest mountain bike rides I’ve ever attended. It wasn’t a training ride, or a skill session, or a time trial. I was helping guide a Friday social ride for new mountain bikers at the local beginner trail system. I had sat in the back of the group for most of the ride to make sure nobody got lost. As we entered the third section of trail, it was my turn to be up front, so I put a few enthusiastic strokes through the cranks and started to get into the rhythm of the first few turns.
And then I was on the ground. I have crashed on a mountain bike a lot of times, and very rarely have I not had the time to think, yep, I’m about to crash. This time, I was riding, and then I was hitting the ground. It was that sudden.
I heard my collarbone crunch with the impact. I thought the sound was my helmet breaking from hitting the ground or a tree. Then I sat up, and my right shoulder wasn’t moving very well. Reaching up with my left hand, I felt the bone poking at the skin. Nothing hurt yet, and the crash had happened too fast to get scared, so my reaction when the rest of the group gaped at me was simply, “Hey guys. I think I just broke my collarbone.”
Masking Fear With Determination
That was on a Friday. I had surgery the following Wednesday to plate the four pieces of my clavicle back together. The next Monday, I was back in the gym, working with my coach (who is also a physical therapist) to create a plan to keep me as fit as possible while the bone healed around the repair.
This is where I got scared. I had worked harder than ever through the previous winter, and had been rewarded with the strongest spring I’ve ever had. I was setting PRs everywhere. I was stronger, faster, and leaner than I had ever been, and was just getting into the meat of the training program for my first marathon. Not training in June and July would make my chances of a good race in October very difficult, which was bad enough. But I was more terrified of losing the progress I had already made.
Those fears were mostly unfounded. My coach is a genius, and worked intensively with me to preserve strength wherever possible, and even improve in some areas. I did thousands of reps of every variation of lunge you’ve ever heard of. I put my road bike back on the trainer (a heinous crime in the summer) and used it for interval workouts. Two weeks after surgery, I was gingerly riding on the road again. Two weeks after that, I was able to run again. At six weeks post-op, I turned in a 5k within two minutes of my previous PR. Two weeks after that, I was able to pull 95 percent of my deadlift PR.
Suffice to say, my recovery went well.
Still, time was short until my marathon, and I was having problems building up the mileage on my abbreviated schedule. My summer of crap luck continued. I was attacked by wasps while mowing my lawn; I burned the sole of my right foot stepping on a hot coal; I got moved to night shift at work. I had another crash, this time on my road bike, that left a deep bruise on my left hip and jammed my left wrist. Each of these little bumps took precious days out of my already cramped training schedule.
The smart thing might have been to take a step back, maybe race the half marathon instead of the full, and take what my body could give me. Instead, I set my jaw, built up my mileage as best I could, and arrived at the start line of my first marathon under-trained, under-rested, and with some nagging overuse injuries. The outcome was inevitable: I had a very good marathon for the first 18 miles, and then the wheels fell off. I struggled across the finish line on nothing but determination, and then had my wife drive my battered body back home.
Proof of my busted collarbone. [Photo courtesy of Pete Hitzeman]
A New Outlook
The penalty for my training transgressions in the second half of last year was that I had to spend almost three months hardly training at all. I tried to get back at it in November, and ran a 15k that left me hobbling for weeks. Finally, I got the message, and took most of December and January completely off, only training sporadically in the gym.
All that time off meant starting almost completely from scratch for 2016, and with a new mindset. Gone were the big, scary goals that had driven my training for the previous four years. They had been replaced by a single idea: get healthy. All I wanted out of this year was to get back to the levels of performance I had attained before my shattered collarbone threw me into a tailspin the year before. And I wanted to do it smarter, because I had come to understand that the number of times I could ask my body to put out more than it was capable of was dwindling.
The first target was running. I dipped my toes back in with little two-mile shuffles around the neighborhood. They felt awful. It was like my legs had forgotten how to do this “running” thing. But over a few weeks, my legs and lungs started to come back. By April, I was getting close to being back on form, and proved it by eking out a PR in my comeback half marathon.
But I still wasn’t all the way back. I was still scared.
Work had taken me to the Carolinas, home to some of the best mountain bike trails on the planet, and I was riding none of them. My bikes felt foreign to me, and while I had put a few miles on my road bike since my accidents, I had ridden on dirt exactly twice. Both times, I rode like a newborn giraffe, awkward, stiff, and wide-eyed.
Letting Go of Apprehension
There isn’t a training plan for overcoming fear. There are no programming tips or apps for your phone that can heal the damage that happens inside your head when a freak accident breaks your body and turns your life upside down.
Part of my problem was that there wasn’t an error I could point to that caused my crash. I wasn’t attacking the trail, I wasn’t in a race, I wasn’t riding a section that was above my skill set. I hadn’t even been going fast. My front tire simply crossed a smooth, wet stone and flew out from under me. I had ridden across that very stone dozens of times before without incident. There was nothing to anticipate, no area of fitness or skill to improve. It was just a mistake.
Mine was a unique brand of fear: I wasn’t afraid of the crash, or the pain, or even the surgery. I was afraid of making a mistake that would have me starting all over again, again. I was afraid of having to do all that horrible, uncomfortable comeback work just to get to where I already am, instead of making strides toward where I want to be.
So this spring, while I dutifully put in the hours to get my running back to where it was, I eyed my bikes in my apartment with something between trepidation and longing. My mountain bike, especially, had become a stranger to me.
Me, post marathon. My smile is one of relief, not of pride. [Photo courtesy of Pete Hitzeman]
Testing the Waters
But mountain biking was the sport that got me into training in the first place, and first loves never really die. So I started easing back in, the same way I’d introduce a brand new rider. A new rider isn’t learning if they’re scared, and won’t come back unless they’re having fun. So it was time to do fun and easy. I took a few rides on jeep trails. I drove to a local mountain bike park and putzed around, walking over anything that made me the least bit nervous, and promising not to get mad at myself for doing so. I even allowed myself a mental crutch, putting new wheels and tires on my bike to inspire more confidence in its traction.
Finally, I found what might be the only beginner singletrack trail in all of North Carolina. A few weeks ago, I drove up there for the express purpose of riding the beginner trail until I was riding, not just trying not to crash. It didn’t work that day, so I went again. By my third trip, I was finding a little mojo again, even taking a few easy jumps and riding sections I would have walked a month ago.
I’m not all the way back yet. I’ve never been a particularly brave rider, but I know what it’s like when my riding is on form. I’m not at that point, but I’m on my way. The healing process continues.
Fight Your Fears
What I’ve learned from all this is that the healing process sometimes isn’t over when the stitches come out, or when your physical therapist clears you to go nuts in the gym again. Just as bones continue to heal for years after they’re broken, it can take a long time before you are mentally back in the game at the point you were.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you treat your injury as the physical and mental setback that it is, and address both aspects of the injury, you have much less to fear. My mistake in the months after my crash was that I didn’t have a plan for my mind, only one for my body. Once I recognized that, allowed myself to acknowledge that I was still scared, and came up with a plan to address it, I could make progress again.
This winter, I will likely have surgery again to remove the plate and screws from my collarbone. There will be another period of rehabilitation after that, but it no longer scares me. The experience of overcoming my injuries from last year has taught me that they are nothing to fear. While my body may always carry the scars, and my mind will never forget the crash, I know now to plan for both sides of my recovery.
Are you ready to face your fears?