(Oh, hi there. Don’t hate me for my writing absences. Turns out, writing for a living leaves little time for the upkeep of one’s personal blog. Take solace in knowing that quiet on here means writing success is happening elsewhere and also that one of my 2013 goals is to enliven this blog a bit more.)
Look-ie here, we survived another year. Hoorays and happy 2013! I wrote a group resolution-y-type post at the beginning of 2012, and I’m doing it again this year.
Health, as it pertains to sports. Getting it. Keeping it. Embracing the pants off it. Squeezing it so tight it almost-but-not-quite pops. Not giving it away to anyone, any run, any activity, any mountain, any sunset, any workout, anytime, ever. A health that makes you freaking unstoppable, that enables you to do whatever the fork you wanna’ do.
This topic has been on my mind for a while, so long that I’m beginning with brutal honesty: Everyone should be healthy.
Let me say it more clearly:
EVERYONE SHOULD BE HEALTHY.
Sorry ’bout that. I got a little excited there. It’s just that I think our health is farking important enough for big and bold.
There are some sad exceptions to this rule. Like the folks who accidentally fall on their faces and break body parts. And cancers and other diseases that spontaneously swoop out of nowhere and mess your whole world right up. That sh%t happens, is largely out of our control. I’m talking about overuse injuries, overtraining syndromes, hormone dysfunction, and the other crap we athletes do unto ourselves.
Does me saying “everyone should be healthy” in read-me-now letters make you feel awkward? Make you seethe in defense of your health or lack thereof? Make you wanna’ duck and cover because you’ve struggled with being a healthy athlete? Are you unhealthy now?
If so, you’re not alone. It’s basically every athlete at some time in their athletic-ing lives. It’s been me. Three times, actually, as my noggin is pretty dense. I’ve been forced to take significant amounts of time away from my sports on three occasions because of overuse injuries and general body mistreatment/life mismanagement. My acts of self-inflected idiocy were a stress fracture in 2005 from running, plantar fasciitis in 2009 from running, and a multifaceted back injury in 2010.
The third time was the farking charm. I know, right? Like I said, dense. It was when I realized that being there sucks dirty, dusty, hot-as-sh$t donkey balls. And by “there” I mean that ugly place where injured athletes hang out for months or years or sometimes the rest of their lives, distraught because they can’t do what they love.
I’m never going there again. And I don’t want you to, either. No one wants to taste donkey manhood, or be unable to do the things they love.
So, are you ready to get serious? If you’re not prepared to look yourself or your sport-y loved ones in the eyes and ask some big questions that might hurt a little, I suggest you click away post haste.
In December, I was riding in the car with my buddy Matt Hart. We were driving home from Zion National Park where, with some other friends, we’d just run from one side of the park to the other. Fifty fu7king miles and 12 hours in all. Human powered, using just our legs and hearts and lungs. Sometimes laughing, sometimes running in silence and awe and reverie for red rocks and towering sandstone. I digress a little, sorry. But being healthy enough to do this kind of crap anytime I want to is pretty much my life goal now, so I get a little wound up in the personal sanctity of it all.
Anyway, Matt’s an endurance-sports coach and a baller multi-sport athlete. He says to me, “This applies to any sport, cycling, running, baseball, whatever. The men and women at the top are terribly imbalanced. Some are so messed up that they can’t stay for long, and some manage to stick around a while. Everyone up there has an expiration date and chances are it’s sooner than they’d like.”
What he meant was that the best athletes in any sport are a little physically screwed up as a result of pushing themselves so-dang hard. What a rickety fence to ride, no? Pushing for the sake of sport–being stronger, fitter, faster, better able to do whatever it is you love–inherently sounds like the sweetest thing on this gosh-danged planet. And it is! But what about the repercussions of pushing just a little too much and decreasing your shelf life because of it? This precarious balancing act isn’t just for elites at the top of sports; everyone who spends a lot of time moving their body is subject to certain topple-overs.
Doing your beloved sport today is equal in value to being able to do it tomorrow, five years from now, when you’re old and gray, or on whatever time scale you imagine yourself doing it. Can anyone argue against that? I can’t even justify it for the best of every sport. No one wants to be forced to quit doing what they love because their body won’t tolerate it. We wanna’ do it until the cows come home or we’re sent off on some dazzling funeral pyre or however we imagine the end of our sport days.
On New Year’s Day, I ran this race called the New Year’s Revolution Run. It took place at the Utah Olympic Oval’s indoor, four-lane track. The race had winners, the man and woman who completed the most laps in the five-hour race time limit. But the race director offered other goals–half marathon and marathon medals–and encouraged people to run as long or as little as they wanted.
The whole set-up was idyllic. You wear a chip on your ankle that counts your laps for you (No math required.). You have access to an aid station, a bathroom, and your own stuff every lap (Sh&ting in the woods? Not today!). You get to chat and watch hundreds of other people do their thing (People watching, my favorite!). You wear shorts and t-shirt (This means a lot in Utah, in winter.). You have no pressure of a far-off finish line (You see the thing every lap.). You just run your little heart out until you don’t want to anymore.
There was this woman, I could tell by the way she set her gaze that she was in for the long haul. For the first three hours, she kept a solid, even keel. Somewhere after the three-hour mark, she began taking walk breaks. And then I began to notice a hitch in her giddy-up. Then I saw her holding her left hip, and stopping to stretch it. By the end of the race, her gait was deformed and she was in obvious pain. Yet she continued on until the race director stood at the edge of the track and told us the race was over.
Her demise was sad. So badly I wanted to tell her, “It’s okay to stop. You’ve run a real long way today already.” I mean absolutely no offense to her specifically, as she’s just a recent, real-life example. But why did she take a really nice long run and turn it into an injury she’s probably working through as I type this? Why have I done the EXACT SAME THING? Why do we take our sports too far?
That’s an exceedingly complex question, as exemplified by the fact we athletes just keep getting injured. If psychologists had already figured this crap out, we’d not have passels of burned out, washed up, chronically injured folks in every. single. gosh-darn. sport.
If you’re someone who is or has pushed themselves into sport-injury trouble, ask yourself why you have done or do that. No, I mean it. Go ahead and do it. I’ll be here when you’re done.
Oh, you’re too shy to look inside your soul right now? That’s okay. While you work up the gumption, let me tell you about why I got obscenely injured:
1. Stress fracture. I developed pain in my right tibia about two months before my goal road marathon and just kept running on it, reasoning that I didn’t want to lose my fitness and that I’d heal whatever was wrong with me after I ran a marathon PR. I dropped at mile 17-ish of the race due to overwhelming lower-leg pain, a stress fracture that took four months to heal.
2. Plantar fasciitis. I was training for the Marathon des Sables, and developed right foot pain about four months before the race. Again, I trained and raced through it. I finished the race–actually felt not a smidge of pain during the race itself–but it took many months to recuperate once I acquiesced.
3. Back injury. I was working a job that required lots of hours at a desk and a long car commute. This gobbled up my time to stretch and do cross training, though I continued to run a lot even though I knew I should probably cut back in light of other life stresses and imbalances. Over about nine months, my back grew more painful until one day its tight tissues impinged upon a nerve that relegated me to horizontal for two days. That biomechanical disarray is still not 100% unwound now, more than two-and-a-half years later.
Right? It’s obscene. The stupid sh$t I talked myself into for the sake of training and racing. I would be mortified to admit all this–especially the part about me making the same dam* mistake three times–except that something so good came out of this hodgepodge of idiocy: I learned that ImemymememymeImemememe was instigating my own demise.
It hit me like a ton of bricks as I lay on my couch waiting for my back muscles to loosen their grip on that unfortunate nerve. In pursuit of personal records and performances, I allowed myself to become grossly injured. There was no alien who crept in and banged on my leg in the middle of the night with a sword. And no god performed a miracle of meanness on me. It was all me. Tragic that. Simple that.
I said there would be some messyhardtolookat stuff here. Now it’s really time for you to ask yourself the same question. You might have avoided it the first time I encouraged you to do so, but I just aired all my dirty laundry. Your turn!
Why have you or do you allow yourself to do a sport until you’re too hurt to do your sport? Are you running from something else in your life? Do you value the sport part of you more than your other qualities, skills, and hobbies? Are you running from food issues? Relationship issues? Is there a nasty secret in your past that you want to separate yourself from some more? Are you compulsive? Do you not know when to say when? Do you just love your sport so much than you don’t know what else to do with yourself? What say you?
*big, fatty, loud, chirping crickets*
Now what? You’ve looked about as deep inside as you can. It might have hurt a little or a lot. You might have just had a come-to-hayzeus moment of some sort. Whatthefork are you supposed to do with all that juiced-up emotion?
This is the easy part. Put it to productive use. Use it to re-capture the feeling–I know you’ve had it–of your impeccable, indestructible health. Allow this to become momentum for heading in that blinding, brilliant direction. I imagine this to be like putting, just for a little while, a lightning bug in a glass jar. Harness and hold close something that is magic, powerful.
The journey back to health might be long. My back is not 100% healed from an injury that manifested two-and-a-half years ago. I know, it sucks. I’ve cried much. I’ve declined dozens of runs or other adventures that I knew would work against the long-term healing process. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on physical and alternative healing therapies and learned to do a lot of them on my own. Forever health isn’t achieved overnight, but you must be willing to commit to the process.
But now I am as close to forever health as I have ever been. I can run my little heart out, carry a heavy backpack a long way, do yoga headstands, and ride a bike very far. I am healthy enough to do all this today and for the future as far off as I have the capacity to imagine.
In case you’re not there yet–willing to join me in a place of awesome health or to do the work to get there–let me share one last story. It was the summer of 2010, and I was on fastpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada with my friend Bekah. Almost all of that trip was perfect: cloudless days and clear, cold nights; a friend who makes me feel strong and loved; a route that curled through some of the mountain range’s best highlands; thousands of calories of tasty food every day; and a perfect distance to feel challenged.
There was one thing that was so very wrong, though. My back hurt for the whole stinkin’ trip. And the labor of movement caused the pain to radiate into other areas of my body. So vivid is my memory of taking a rest break on Koip Pass at something like 12,000 feet altitude. There was incredible beauty there, everywhere. I knew it intellectually, could see it visually, but I couldn’t feel it in my soul. My back pain disallowed me from connecting with that wilderness.
What a loss. What a waste. Don’t be me, or don’t find yourself in an equivalent, painful situation.
I haven’t been back to Koip Pass since I’ve been healthy. But the next time I go back to that very tall and breathless place, I’m taking my forever health.