Not Dead, but Could Have Been
I wanted to get up and walk it off, but something told me I wouldn’t be able to do that as I tried to pull my leg back underneath myself. Lying in the dirt, the reality of what was happening was setting in and I was in the worst pain of my life. As these things go, the pain worsened as my adrenaline wore off and not even rounds of Morphine, Fentanyl, or Dilaudid could ease it. Thankfully, round 2 of Ketamine finally did. Being in the “k-hole,” I couldn’t understand what was going on around me, and for a time, even though everyone was speaking to me in a foreign language; at least I wasn’t hurting so badly. That was the case until I had to position myself for the x-rays and nearly passed out from the pain. I learned at that moment that such a thing is possible.
The short version of the rest of the story is that I had completely fractured my right femur at the head of the bone; surgery was set to take place a day later. Muscles were cut, my femur placed in traction, and a 40-centimeter titanium rod was shoved through the bone after which a smaller rod was driven into my ball joint. It was all screwed together with some other space-age titanium hardware. Later that night, I would blackout when the nurse forced me out of bed. Falling backward in slow motion, I asked myself if I had lived a good life and was happy with the answer. I then looked at my daughter as everything went black.
One week later, after being accidentally overdosed on pain meds, continuing to bleed internally, having two blood infusions and an allergic reaction to one of those transfusions, as well a couple of other minor scares, I was on my way home. I wasn’t sure what was to come, but I was determined to “get back” some version of normal life as well as my fitness. Three months into my attempt to “get back,” I was hit by a car while I was off to the side of the road helping my wife adjust her rear brake. That accident agitated my broken femur and resulted in a tear to the labrum in my right shoulder. Needless to say, the end of 2020 was a difficult year, though I feel odd admitting that until then, I was thriving amidst a pandemic.
The pandemic had found me in the best form of my life. Well into my forties, I had been working hard to improve my form. My power was great, my weight was exactly where I wanted it to be, and I was happy with where my fitness was and then one day, it was bleeding away inside me. It has been 16 months since my injury and though I continue to work to get back to that same form, it has eluded me.
Recently, I read about a well-known professional cyclist who also sustained a fractured femur and was back racing at the highest level within a matter of months. This was admittedly disheartening. Though last June, I competed as part of a team in a 24-hour mountain bike race and had a surprisingly good result, I have been carrying an extra 8 kilos and pushing far fewer watts. I guess I could be consistent and that counts for something in a 24-hour team race. Recently, I also began competing in cyclocross again. Perhaps, I shouldn’t say “competing,” but rather, paying money to ride my single-speed bike in circles while trying not to get lapped. Yes, I’m out there, but I have a long way to go before I don’t get lapped. In both of the races I’ve finished, generally during lap 2, I begin to question if I even should be racing ‘cross because it’s exactly the opposite of a 24-hour team race. Thoughts like “I could say I flatted” or “it’s just not my day” repeat again and again until lap 3 when the thoughts fade and I’m able to settle into whatever rhythm my body and mind will afford me.
As a tenured mental health therapist, I have some understanding of the psychological challenges people face after an injury. I am not a sports psychologist or a coach, but I have helped people overcome struggles after an injury or accident. I am not a nurse or a doctor and I can’t tell you exactly all that’s happening with my body, but I can tell you that though I broke my leg, my knee has given me more difficulty than my femur. I can’t tell you other things about my body, but I have some idea what’s happening in my mind. Rule number one for mental health professionals is that we don’t diagnose ourselves or those close to us. I’m going to break that rule though and say that I suffered an acute stress reaction, later complicated by another, both of which then developed into a minor case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Thankfully, it’s been a few months since I’ve “flashed back” to hitting the bump in the dirt that cantilevered my femur, the feeling of the bone giving way, the impact of the car hitting me, or some other random moment, but the effects still linger. Though I’m far more functional today, I vacillate wildly between moments of extreme motivation and mental fatigue and between a strong drive to move forward and fear of being unable to. The physical limitations I experience today are minor, but they don’t feel that way in my head. Save for the scarring I’ve shown but few people, others are completely unable to see my external challenges as I’ve walked unassisted over almost a year now, and of course, they are also unable to see what’s happening internally, but it is those challenges which are most real to me.
Psychological and physical fitnesses wax and wane. We all have good and bad days, weeks, months, and years. Sometimes, getting and staying fit is easier because life allows for it and at other times it’s all we can do sneak in 45-minutes on the trainer or a quick 5k run. I’ve sustained several injuries before, but nothing like this. Unlike the physicality of my once-fractured scapula, I feel like my psyche was fractured by this last injury. I find myself riding not just cautiously, but overly so. I find myself thinking I’m descending too fast but later on watching a video or reviewing my ride recap and realizing I wasn’t going fast at all. Perhaps you’ve endured some injury and perhaps this feels familiar?
We all have setbacks, even the pros, but the rigors of recovery as a cycling enthusiast seem…different. Like most of us, I have a full-time job. Unlike the pro I mentioned above, I have been unable to spend hours a day focusing on my recovery nor do I have a recovery coach. Like the pros, I am fortunate enough to own a machine that allows me to safely ride indoors and unlike the pros, I don’t have the pressure to “get back” from my sponsors. But the thing is, even though I’m just another average person, I want to “get back.” I don’t know where “back” is or what it looks like, but I’ve desperately wanted to be there. I’ve been able to “get back” by just getting back on the bike at least 3 times before, but this go around, it feels different. That difference means being more intentional this time around and while I have little idea of what will ultimately work and what will be most helpful as I continue to recover, I’ll share with you all a few things that have been helping so far.
I Found a Healthcare Professional That Speaks My Language
Two months ago, I received a random email stating that I could get an appointment with Dr. Max Testa. I have a loose affiliation with a local athletic organization that has a relationship with Dr. Testa and though I’ve seen a lot of other docs and physical therapists, I figured talking to a doc who has worked with World Tour athletes could be helpful and was it ever! Ironically, I tried getting to get an appointment with Dr. Testa several years ago for an unrelated issue and was unable to get in, yet 36-hours after making an appointment call, I was sitting in the waiting area of the Intermountain LiveWell Clinic in Park City, unsure of what I was in for. Driving down the canyon a couple of hours later, I was glad I made the call. Thankfully, through all of this, I have had insurance and it was taken at the clinic. Much to my surprise, Dr. Testa spent a full hour with me, listening to my challenges and ultimately giving me some subtly different – yet very important – exercises that addressed my continued knee and lower-back issues. It was supremely helpful to be able to talk to someone who understood the terms “threshold” and “tempo,” who understood the mechanics of injuries and the chain of undesirable side-effects they create on the bike, and who had worked with dozens of riders whose livelihoods were dependent on his advice. Since my visit, my physical pain has greatly decreased which has had a positive impact on my desire to get on the trainer for a difficult session or spend some time pounding the pavement. Spending some time working with someone who could understand my observations about my body, rather than focusing on what they thought they knew about my injury, has been quite helpful. Feeling understood helped me feel confident in the interventions Dr. Testa offered and that his interventions have significantly improved my issues has cemented my desire to work with a professional that understands the unique physical demands of cycling.
I’m Creating and Consuming Data
Recording rides is something many of us do, though, for some, it’s a polarizing issue. I happen to be one of those folks that have been recording at least my ride and heart rate data for over a decade and in the past few years, I have added power meters to the mix. I know in the fall of 2016, I was the fastest I’ve ever been on the bike, and then a year later was in great overall form as a runner and a swimmer. In 2020, just before my injury, I was on track to exceed my 2018 fitness and planned to race my first Xterra that fall. Of course, what the pandemic didn’t kill in that goal, my broken femur did.
While it is a little depressing to look at my data from those years and know that I’m well away from beating any personal record I set back then, it does give me a measure of where I stand. More importantly, it gives me a measure of my progress. Slow as it’s been, I am getting better. I’m getting better because I have some measure of what I can do versus what I think I can do. Further, because I’m tracking my food, I was able to figure out that my plant-based proteins often came with too much fat, which wasn’t helping in my effort to get back to a reasonable-to-me weight. Sure, that extra fat lets me ride forever, but the fact that I wasn’t losing much weight despite a significant uptick in planned workouts and training, was seriously demotivating. Had I not begun tracking my food closely, likely, I wouldn’t have identified this issue. Many of us fall into dietary patterns that work during one timeframe of life but aren’t so good for others. Once I made a few simple adjustments (read: stopped devouring nuts), I began to see my body reacting as it has in times past. I adopted a plant-based diet in 2017 and frankly, didn’t anticipate what this “downtime” meant for my waistline. Despite the numerous athletic benefits I’ve received from my dietary change, it did mean that I had to re-learn my dietary balance during periods of inactivity. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of Luddite to tech fanatic, knowing how changes in your routines impact your performance seems to be a necessary part of “getting back.”
I’m Broadening My Horizons
Pedal Damnit is the trademarked phrase of a small mountain bike manufacturer and also has been my mantra for the last 15 years. Much to the chagrin of some of my cycling friends, in 2015 I began running and in 2017 I took up swimming to train for a Sprint Triathlon and to add some spice to my leg-centric preferences. I also worked with two different weight trainers in years past and can say whole-heartedly that my overall fitness benefitted from regular resistance training and a varied cardio regimen. The benefits of weight and impact training are well-known to most of us these days, but even with that knowledge, I default to a bike ride as my preferred way of getting after it.
As much as I do love getting out on the bike, I also know that the mantras of “pace damnit” and “paddle damnit” have served me incredibly well. With this in mind, I’m also re-discovering the mantra of “push damnit” as I begin coming back around to the benefits of resistance and impact training. Whether it’s picking up heavy things only to put them back down again or popping up off a mat during some plyometric gyration, I know that broadening my exercise horizons will also be a necessary part of “getting back.”
I’m Being Focused and Flexible
My years of experience as a therapist have taught me two very important lessons: plans without a plan of action are just plans and plans of action rarely ever go according to plan. I’ll wait for you to read that again. I can sit around dreaming of the optimal bike, the new brakes I need for one of my steeds, or the latest 12-Speed mountain bike group and know that none of those upgrades matter if I don’t do the work and we all know, the rubber needs to meet the road at some point. The process of taking all those hopes, dreams, wishes, and challenges and formulating a plan of action is a necessary task that many athletes know and understand, and having a regimen is critical to success. Over the years, I would plan and often push through difficulties to finish the workout and hit the mark. Sometimes that was for the best and sometimes that effort backfired.
As an aging athlete, I am becoming all-too-familiar with the challenges of slower recovery times and longer warmups. I’m aware of the increased muscular endurance I’ve earned and that it has come at expense of top-end power. These realities are often in conflict with my goals and only recently, have I begun to understand the importance of being flexible not only in my regimen but in my goals. Knowing when not to push through a difficult workout is just as important as knowing when to do so. Listening to my body, rather than my calendar, has become an important consideration in what I end up doing each day; accepting the challenges injury has created – coupled with aging – means that I am re-evaluating what I want to do next season and what I can expect to achieve. This isn’t a matter of lowering expectations but changing them. If my long-term goal of “supreme old man strength” is to ever come to fruition, it will happen because I plan, re-plan, and adjust my tasks and expectations even long after “getting back.”
I’m Being Gentle With Myself
Years ago, I had a friend who told me that I was too hard on myself and that I needed to show myself some clemency. I don’t know what it was about how she said it, but it stuck. Like many people, I am my own worst enemy. My sense of not being enough, not doing enough, not working hard enough, and not (insert verb here) enough is often the best sense I have, but it does not serve me well. In recent times, I have discovered that the sense of not being enough is severely demotivating in its own way; not because I don’t see the point in trying, but because it keeps me focused on what once was versus what I now want. Intentionally doing nothing for a few minutes each day helps me reset my focus on the future, rather than ruminating about the past, and reminds me that what “was” no longer exists anywhere but in my memory. Those pressures to be or do enough were created by me alone and therefore, I am free to relieve that pressure. I am free to accept whatever “getting back” ultimately results, it’s not going to be what I think it means today. In short, I’m coming to accept that once again finding what was is not actually what I want. Having shifted that focus, I’m thinking less and less about “getting back” and far more about “getting there.”