Monday, March 19, 2018

whether or not I should

In life right now, everything is being measured in tiny increments.  I recently passed four months post-surgery.  I've been exercising again for eleven weeks.  My long run has gotten five to ten minutes longer each week, last Tuesday I graduated from the pink 2-pound dumbbell to the blue 3-pound dumbbell in PT-prescribed bicep curls.  My shoulder can tolerate fifteen more minutes on the trainer, I can unload the dishwasher, chop cucumbers (but not sweet potatoes), open windows, walk two dogs.  To be in this place actually feels quite sweet; I have a phenomenal amount of appreciation for the small wins.  I'm not thinking about when I can next race an ironman, I'm thinking about whether or not I can run ten miles next Sunday and how fucking happy I'll be to see that final mile flip over on the watch.
After almost every huge race I've done, I've taken some time off.  What that has meant in the past is a few days or maybe weeks spent noshing on the oh-so-trite cupcakes of the world, dropping any training to an hour a day or less, gaining four or five pounds and then all too soon, jumping back into the fast lane (or the slowest) in the pool and getting ready for yet another round of smashfests.  When I got injured in 2016, I took some time off, but actually really not that much, because I was unable to resist constantly testing the waters, and then as soon as my body gave me the green light I signed up to do an ironman five weeks later.  It took me over a month to dig myself out of that hole.  Showing a rare glimpse of good sense, I decided not to do IMAZ two months later and instead registered for IMNZ, which was, but is hopefully not, my last ironman.  
In retrospect, I see it clearly.  I was an athlete with an incredible work ethic that had never raced even close to my hopeful-potential.  I never skipped sessions, I never admitted that I was tired, there was always another reserve I could find in order to not let whoever was unlucky enough to be coaching me at the moment, down.  Digging deep was not a problem I had.  And as a coach, I would also likely struggle to hold back an athlete who appeared healthy & strong & was so constantly nipping at the reins to be set free.

The flip side was that I never raced well.  Not really, not even close to what regularly showed up in training sessions.  At some point, as a coach and athlete both, we need to ask why.  Certainly I attributed a great deal of it to my mental weaknesses over the years, and worked hard to strengthen those muscles as well.  But I also gravitated towards coaches that I knew would let me run on a loose leash, dole out the high volume and the Twitter-worthy smashfests that I bitched about with no small amount of pride at what my body could do.  What you seek is seeking you - right?
At some point last spring, I noticed that I wasn't sleeping.  I couldn't fall asleep because my heart was pounding, or I'd wake up at 3am to toss and turn, so I added a bunch of natural crap into my late-evening routine that was enough to let me drop off and most of the time, stay there.  I remember fretting at my husband that I was going to end up in rehab, concerned that valerian tea and melatonin were a slippery slope (as we OCD type-A worrywarts do).  Night sweats showed up, bad ones, enough that we were running the air conditioning when it was 40 degrees out and I'd sleepwalk into a dry tee-shirt in the middle of the night.  My hair started falling out, but I was swimming a lot more and it was easy to attribute that to latex swim caps, ponytail holders, my ever-increasing age.  I gained a few pounds - not many - but with how "well" I was eating and how much I was training, the scale really should have been going the other direction.  My anxiety shot through the roof; I distinctly remember climbing out of the pool mid-session one Tuesday morning to go sit in a stall in the locker room and sob as quietly as I could into a gym towel, I can't I can't I can't.  And then composing myself, calmly tossing the towel into the bin, walking down the stairs and slipping back into the water.  I managed somehow to swing between emotionally volatile (which should have been the biggest warning sign) and completely shut down.  I couldn't put into words what was wrong.  As injuries started to pop up I lost my coping mechanisms in training, which only kept the spiral going until finally, at the end of June, I crashed.  Everything let go at once; instant free fall, the sudden stop.

I never talked about the Coeur d'Alene 70.3 because it was immediately lost in a sea of MRIs and neurologists and stress fractures, but I was there.  I completed the distance, barely, I'm not even sure how or definitely not why I finished.  I had raced Santa Rosa in early May, a few days after my neck locked up for the very first time.  It didn't go that well.  I had a decent swim but a rough crash shortly prior to the race has me skittish and riding like a weenie even before my aerobars collapsed and then I ran as hard as I could for an underwhelming result.  I was puzzled by it.  I thought that I was fit to race a lot better than I had, but I couldn't get my heart rate or pace up on the run.  I chalked it up to cobwebs and early season and maybe a little bit of a fueling issue and let it go.  
Training was a mess between the two races.  Some days I could swim just fine, more days I'd stomp back into the locker room after 800 yards with a buzzing, vibrating, numb arm and hand, a spasming neck, a frozen shoulder.  I was struggling with a really horrific saddle sore situation which meant I was trapped in saddle-testing hell and often needed to take 4-5 days away from the bike simply to let the bleeding stop.  Running was just okay.  Not great, not horrible, a lot slower than I had been running through the winter but it was something I could do.  And in between training sessions I was beginning the every-other-day-another-doctor trend that filled up the rest of 2017.  I was frustrated and angry that there was no fix - simple or otherwise - to the pile of injuries I was carting around, but I refused to give up and shut it all down.  I was beyond stubborn, I was trying to prove that I was tough enough.  It's the death of most of us.
I had quite a few athletes racing in Coeur d'Alene and seeing them was very definitely the best thing that could have happened.  It was balm on my ragged little soul to be out of Boulder, in a place where the air felt clean and clear, to be around people that I cared about & actually cared for me, and by the time the race started, I thought I was okay.  
I knew the swim would be slow because of how cautiously I was moving through the water, trying to protect whatever was going on in my shoulder.  I rode by feel as my training hadn't been anywhere near what I needed to support a strong effort, and I made it until about 25 miles into the bike before I completely fucking gave up.  I don't care.  I don't care.  I don't care.  It's all that was going through my head, alone out on that damn highway as I pedaled along, pushing maybe as many as 80 watts at times.  All I could think about was that my stupid triathlon heart was broken, my spirit was broken, and I couldn't bring myself to give a single shit about the sport, not anymore.  I planned to get off my bike at the turnaround and beg SAG to bring me back to town but no one was there.

I never actually decided to start the run.  I felt completely detached from what was happening around me, on some sort of crazy auto-pilot.  I walked most of it, convincing myself at every turn that I only needed to make it to the next aid station and then I would stop, and if the race hadn't been full of my much-tougher-than-me athletes busting ass, I'm sure I would not have finished.  My post-race notes say: emotional rock bottom today.  I don't want to experience this ever again.

Hindsight, of course, is everything.  Any armchair triathlon coach certified by creating their own instagram account can see what had happened; the 10,000 foot view makes it easy.  I was tired, too tired, deeply tired, all the time, and it destroyed me.  And if I've said it once I've said it a thousand times (clearly I'm ready for motherhood here)(no that was not a hint), the universe throws pillows and then it throws rocks and then it drops a motherfucking piano on your head.  STOP IT.  Stop what you are doing, right now.  I don't blame anyone but myself.  I can see my own potential in the data, coaches see it and get excited by it, and then I feel motivated by their feedback and focus, and both of us push together as hard as we can.  More than once now, we've been so focused on whether or not I could, that neither of us paused for a second and asked if really, I should.  
The next nine months of my personal life as an athlete had nothing to do with training, fitness, triathlon, racing, strength, watts, pace, none of it.  People have asked a few times if it's torture to be coaching while I am so injured, but the opposite is true.  It has been healing.  And going through this experience has most certainly made me a better coach, not just in the math and the data and the science, but in considering the whole athlete, in evaluating how everyone has limits in a different place and making sure that we are careful to only approach them in a controlled way and at the appropriate times.  That might sound boring, but in a world right now where social media presents an ever-increasing scroll of athletes run out of sport by burnout - often fueled by a coach greedy to authenticate themselves with the swift results borne of overtraining - I think that patience is how we create not only longevity but also joy.  That's why we're here, correct?  I know that's why I am here, and why I hope to return.  Because of moments like this.  
When I started exercising again at the beginning of January - and I am careful here to say exercising, not training - I started out at literally the smallest of small.  I got on the elliptical (ugh, but it was a helpful bridge), my first run was 20 minutes of walking and running mixed together, and I did my PT exercises every day.  Very little of it involved actual sweating, and all of it felt hard.  Heavy.  My body has changed a lot over the last year, and it feels unfamiliar to me to be moving it around, and I am ashamed about what it has become.  I had - and still have - a ton of restrictions on what I was allowed to do.  Tolerances, pain levels, discomfort during and after, and it meant that any sort of schedule was dictated 100% by how I was healing.  I think I "ran" a grand total of 10 miles that first week, and it's likely that at least half of it was walking.
At some point last fall, I joined the Strava situation, and I let all my runs go into it as I started to build this new house of mine in fitness.  Not because I want to brag about my easy pace or because I want a collection of little yellow crowns or because I give a flying fuck what anyone else thinks about my exercise, but because I wanted a place to be public and real about my process.  I was running 12 and 13 minute miles, I was doing a lot of walking to keep my heart rate low, and it requires the absence of ego, especially when you can't short-circuit the process with a shitload of bike volume.  I tell new athletes that it usually takes 4-6 weeks to start seeing the work of heart rate training; I'm starting week 12 and I just saw the first little budge two days ago.  Yeah.  That was one hell of a hole I was in.

Five weeks into exercising, I ran a 5K, but it was mega cheating as I flew to sea level to support athletes racing a marathon and it appears that the course was maybe a tiny bit short.  It took me two weeks to recover from it and/or the flu so I am yet again about five weeks into consistency.  My weight hasn't yet budged, which is pretty frustrating but also is crossed with the knowledge that there have been a few too many potato chip comfort afternoons & beer tasting evenings with friends.  And also, that my body is still healing months and maybe even years of damage, and now is not the time to stress it out with restriction.  So I wear the same two or three pairs of crops, I bought a new sports bra, I'm eating plenty of food that makes me feel strong and healthy, and I'm trying as hard as I can to just let it roll (to the delight of my husband, who does not mind the boob situation).  

The path has not been, will never be, smooth.  It never is - not for anyone, unless you are a 22-year-old invincible superhero made of rubber.  All my nerve crap flared up in January as soon as I tried to move, and then for a while I was locked in this spiral of insanity where my scapula didn't know how to behave so my rotator cuffs and my traps traded off days of ridiculous spasm, and then my neck freaked out, and then my SI joints decided to hop in the party and slip, slip, slip.  The first month was the hardest, when every day felt like something else was hurting, like goddammit I just want to be healthy and all I'm doing is walking and swooshing the elliptical why won't my fucking body calm down.  But I managed to wait it out, and the ups and downs have gotten a bit flatter.  As I've been able to start developing some actual strength in the gym, I can see and feel my system relaxing.  I know how to build this, I know how to get an athlete out of this place, I've done it many times over the years, and all it takes is patience and time.  I'm finally old enough or maybe just tired enough of being broken to attend to both of those things and if I'm going to make any mistakes here, it's likely that they will be by slowing my own progress due to an overly-cautious approach.  I'm okay with that, right now.
I ran ten miles yesterday.  One of my closest friends and training partners turned out to be rebuilding out of a break that matched my timeline, so we've been running together on Sunday mornings and it fills up my heart that we are together in this right now.  We ran one of my favorite routes, we stopped a dozen times so I could pee and curse at my heart rate monitor and eat snacks when I realized I wanted to throw things.  The last few miles were hard but not in the way that means you are pushing beyond your limits, instead the way that means, your limits are quietly moving forward at this moment so be gentle and be strong.  My heart rate was controlled when it wasn't showing 293 on the watch, my body felt solid and balanced.  Not collapsing, not falling apart, not a mess.  I probably couldn't tally up the number of times in my life that I've unremarkably run ten miles but yesterday was remarkable.  It feels like the sun is shining again, like I'm on the right path, and I have no idea where it's going but I'm happy to be on it.  And that, right now, is enough.  

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

all I know is that I do

Lately, I've been studying success.

I work with athletes and entrepreneurs, two very different sets of people that share a lot of similar qualities.  They tend to be type-A overachievers who are looking for something in the world to push them to their limits.  These may be intellectual or physical or mental limits, but it's the edge they are searching for in business or sport.  And a month or two ago, I got a few emails letting me know that someone had nominated me for a TED talk (thanks, mystery nominator person!).  I applied once four or five years ago, and I didn't make it past the first cut.  I think I struggle with the original idea; as a lifelong educator I am far more qualified to regurgitate the intelligence of others and strain it through into my athletes, clients, students.  I also struggle with the comparison game as well as the intimidation game (but those are topics for another day).  So I spent a few weeks shoveling around in my head the work I've been doing lately in this vein, and I eventually scribbled it all down and submitted it.  I got an email a few days later letting me know that I had made it to the next round.
I ran a training camp in Boulder this last weekend, so I slotted in about twenty minutes for naval-gazing to share some of this with my athletes.  It came down to two separate ideas - personal responsibility and compassion.  We're in a technological world right now where we are watching the erosion of civility, I think Brene Brown said that or maybe she just re-tweeted it.  But social media is also creating a huge lack of personal responsibility in our culture.  Printed text has always added an additional challenge for tone, but still, how quick are we to say, I guess you can't take a joke when we should be saying, I'm sorry?  How often have you seen it play out in the comments, watched someone irrationally burn a relationship to the ground instead of accepting responsibility for their own mistakes or giving other people the same sort of grace?  I am definitely not perfect; I have made plenty of mistakes in my life but as I've gotten older, I know that I have learned to judge others less after working through so many of my own wrongs.  And in the frame of the athletic experience, it is easy to directly link this kind of personal responsibility with success.  The athlete that always has an excuse for why a workout didn't get done, why s/he wasn't prepared, why s/he didn't follow the plan, why the world is an evil villain conspiring against our poor hero(ine) who couldn't possibly fit in the run/finish the swim/get to the gym - that athlete is an unsuccessful athlete, every time.  Because that athlete can't simply say, I should have done better.  It was me.  I'm certainly not implying that we should beat ourselves senseless at every imperfection in life or training - sometimes it's true that good God it was just a thirty minute run let it go - but we should be able to acknowledge that what is happening to us is a result of our own choices.  The athlete that looks inwards first - the one who takes responsibility for the decisions that we all make every single day and then creates internal accountability, that athlete that is not a victim.  That athlete is in the driver's seat of their own personal school bus, no matter how many squirrels it may run over and wrong turns it may take.  And that is an athlete that will reach their goals.
Alongside of that goes compassion.  And when we talk about compassion, we aren't talking about, aw you poor baby let me give you a hug and a cookie.  We are talking about real compassion, the kind where instead of fobbing yourself off, instead of blaming traffic or the barking dog that kept you awake, you can look in the mirror and say, hey Katie, you are not getting the job done right now.  When you aren't afraid to address the tough issues, to work the weaknesses, to give yourself enough grace to try and fail, to fall flat on your face - that's real compassion.  Compassion isn't saying, it's okay, it's too hard, don't even try, just go find your pink sweatpants and an easier task.  Compassion is being okay with the tough conversation and facing the struggle, whatever it may be.  In my world over here, my job is to give a safe place to do so and I'm not going to flip out and fire you/end our relationship/stop coaching you when you fail.  Rather, I'm expecting you to stumble and I'm letting you know that I'll be here to help you sort it all out.  Because you will learn from it, and you will acknowledge your mistakes, and try again, and that is how you will find your success.

These aren't really original ideas, and I'm sure that's why I wasn't one of the finalists chosen to speak (that and my complete inability to talk within a set time limit).  I felt bummed - rejection always stings, no matter how expected - and I told exactly one person about it and that was going to be that.

But as I kept mulling this all over in my busy bee brain, I realized that if I'm going to constantly criticize social media for being nothing but a glowing highlight reel of perfect abs and six minute miles, then I had sure as shit better put my own failures out there.  I know that when I look around me, the people in my life that impress me the most, the ones that I am inspired by (despite my hatred of how overused that word has become), are not the ones that either stroll easily into success or spend a great deal of time putting up a smokescreen to the world that creates a false illusion of success.  And there, finally, went the lightbulb - that is why I've been avoiding this space for so many months, why I haven't been using my tiny little corner of word vomit to work out my shit.  Because I've been afraid to share the fact that I have failed.  Certainly, "not blogging for a while" is not an international sign of distress.  But I've got a dozen two-paragraph drafts saved, and that's not like me, to not barf up everything that is going on, complete with too many adjectives and not nearly enough content slashed to the editing room floor.  I think it's because I wanted so badly for this surgery to be a magical happy ending where I woke up healthy and lost three pounds a week eating cupcakes and drinking beer all the while rolling 350 watts at 130 heart rate and vacuuming the house with my right arm.  And (shockingly enough) it wasn't.  
When I woke up from surgery, all of my nerve pain was gone.  Five weeks later, the nerve pain in my hand was back.  The surgeon is confident that I needed the three repairs that were done (labrum, labrum, bicep tenodesis) regardless of what's happening further down the chain from my shoulder, but it's still there.  More than a few times I've thought it's been gone and then it pops right back up again, as if it knows that I've declared somewhere on the internet that it has been banished for good.  And I'm frustrated and upset and really fucking pissed off when I let myself think about it, which is not very often, which is probably unhealthy in a number of ways.  Failure.

I gained a lot of weight last year, and the next person that tells me that I look the same is getting unfollowed on Instagram (as I have recently learned that THIS is the single most hurtful thing you can do to a person in 2018).  I have gained twenty pounds and lost all of my muscles and no one hesitates to tell me how fantastic my boobs are which means - guess what asshole? - I don't look the same.  And this is not the failure so much as how on January 1, when we got back from Mexico, I swore that I was going to find my good habits in the kitchen again (this is why I have a major beef with intuitive eating - people probably should not be living on potato chips and conversation hearts for extended periods of time).  I found them, for a little while, and then I let traveling be an excuse and pain be an excuse and the flu be an excuse and now it's six weeks later and I haven't burned off any of these boobs back down into the sidewalk.  I want it, but not badly enough, not yet.  Failure.

I sent in PhD applications, and oh my god NO I am not going to stop coaching, I'll probably never stop coaching, but I do think that just sitting here on my ass telling people they aren't bonking, they're dehydrated, is probably not a sustainable business model.  One school nearby plus three other scary schools, and if you don't know anything about PhD acceptance rates then I don't want to horrify you but the really good programs are around 2% or so.  So I haven't really told anyone that I applied because if or when I get rejected by all four universities then I don't have to answer a bunch of embarrassing questions about why I'm too stupid for Stanford.  Let's not talk about the potential to fail at all, let's just slap another sunset on the Instagram and pretend all is perfect and rosy, right?
I got cleared about a month ago to get back in the pool and do some kicking and single arm whatever and you'd think that I would have gone straight from the doctor's office to the locker room but I didn't.  I didn't want to.  There's something muddy in there about how if I can't swim in a real way, if I can't be the powerful athlete that I used to be (at least in the water) then I don't want to be in the water at all, and that's immature and short-sighted and a host of other things that all boil down to fear, but actually, failure.  I'm afraid that I won't ever be strong again, that there is no swimming - which means no triathlon - in my future again, and it may be irrational but it is very, very real.  And I didn't miss the water at all, I didn't even think about it until I spent all weekend on deck working with athletes one-on-one, explaining how flip-turns work and repeatedly trying to demonstrate stroke using my recovering arm, and then it just created this deep and immeasurable sense of sadness and loss.  Complaining, whining, I hate it when other people do it and I hate it even more when I do it so I am trying my hardest not to, especially over things that are a direct result of choices that I have made.  But as good as recovery is going, as hard as I am working to heal, I am sad.  I'm exhausted from so much toughening up and staying strong and fighting and busting ass so I can walk a towel up the wall with my fingers.  I miss my life.  And I am exhausted from my life.  Saying that, in a way, is my failure, because I want to be the person who is doing everything to move forward and not wallowing on where I was, but it's juxtaposed right next to being the person who wants to be raw, and authentic, and real.  The truth is that a lot of it IS going well, a lot of things ARE headed in the right direction, and I'm thrilled about all of those great things, but I'm not going to pretend that the last fourteen weeks have been a perfect pain-free yellow brick road.  
Success comes from things we don't always understand.  Athletes, entrepreneurs, they say it all the time, I don't know WHY I want this so badly, all I know is that I do.  I've spent the past several months convincing myself that maybe I don't need to do an ironman ever again.  Nine is a lot (as my physical therapist tells me as often as she can); maybe nine is enough.  I'll start my PhD, I'll work on my run, take on more athletes, maybe just exercise for health, I'll dig into some research, I'm mentoring a few coaches, we're going to move, there are plenty of amazing things in life to distract myself from the hole where ironman used to be, and that's really been mostly okay.  I've done a really great job on not thinking about it at all, because then I don't miss it, and I've been focusing on all the good stuff around and ahead of me instead of what has been lost.  

But here's the thing.  And it's the damnedest thing.  This weekend Julie Emmerman, an incredible clinical sports psychologist, came into training camp to do an interactive session with my athletes.  One of the first questions she asked was about where athletes feel outside of their comfort zones, and someone shared that his moment is when he is waiting to get in the water at the start of an ironman, in his wetsuit, super stressed out about whether or not he can finish.  I said to him offhandedly, that's my favorite moment.  I let myself think about it for a minute, and the dam - my heart - broke.  Ironman is my favorite day, and in those last few minutes before it starts, when the anticipation is so sweet and everyone is smiling and jittery about what we are all about to do and my heart is pounding with the sheer joy of how lucky I am to be there, that's my comfort zone.  I don't know WHY I want this so badly, all I know is that I do.  
It is true that my history with ironman seems to be rich with far more failure than success, it's true that I am neither genetically nor pharmaceutically gifted enough to be a rockstar at this distance, but it's also the one place in my life where I've never been too afraid to try.  I race ironman because, for whatever reason, it brings me so much fucking happiness.  It's a place where I can look for the best in who I am, and I realized this weekend that I've spent the last few months distracting myself with coping mechanisms as a way to avoid facing the fact that I might never stand on that line again.  I might never sing Kelly Clarkson in my head while trying to sneak in under an hour in the swim, I might never again eat five Bobo's bars in five hours or slam a coke in a portapotty with one hand while applying more chamois cream with the other, I might not get the chance to throw another piece of triathlon detritus at my husband as I zing by at 25mph, I might be done self-adjusting my SI joint on the ground in T2 before I head out the door searching for something as simple as nine minute miles.  And I didn't even realize that what I was doing was trying to find another way forward into joy because I was afraid that if I tried to return to triathlon, I would fail. But the person I want to be isn't afraid to try, to put it all out there in the world, big and ugly and pushing the spandex to its absolute limits, falling down the stairs in the dark and slipping on the pool deck and tripping over nothing at the finish line.  Maybe I'll fail, maybe life will take me sharply in another direction, maybe the universe has other plans for me now.  But also - you know? maybe? - not.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

in good spirits

For some reason, it makes people laugh to hear that I went swimming the morning I had surgery.
First of all, have you met me?  I didn't have to be at the hospital until 6:30am and the pool opens at 5:00am so in my head, the math was simple.  I was in the water at 5:04 and swam every last little second until I had to get out.  I ripped through the shower and showed up to check in with my hair still dripping and uncombed, my swimsuit clipped to my bag and a monster set of goggle eyes.  It is good that some things will never change.

Swimming - triathlon - is not about the obsession.  None of sport is for me, that is not my why.  It's not about burning calories, or getting faster, or selfies, or being able to flash an asshole number of watts on the Strava.  (Maybe a little bit, on the selfies).  It is an honest and deep passion for the art of movement.  Swimming is my meditation, it is a safe space, where I work out angst and anger and sorrow and joy.  The dive into the water, the rhythm of the breath, the still-dark sky when I push off and roll to my back, the quiet, dependable strokes, the hour I spend enveloped by peace.  And I knew that I was going to lose it for months due to rehab and recovery - although this time, thankfully, by choice - so it is logical that it is how I spent my last hour with two arms in 2017.

It's a bit weird how quickly surgery happens when you consider the months of recovery.  Three hours playing take apart, six months playing put-back-together-except-actually-works-now.  My surgeon had written up a comprehensive list prior to surgery called, we'll check out all of this and repair only what is needed.  Once inside my shoulder, he found that the answer was all of it, plus another tear that hadn't shown up on the MRI.  Of course that was much worse than anything else we knew about prior to slicing me open, but it doesn't matter.  He repaired everything and a few hours later, after two rounds of Zofran and 16 miniature ginger ales, I was dispatched back into the world with a killer hangover and no more (for a while) right arm.
The first week was bad.  Everyone had warned me that it would be, and I was prepared; none of that is the same as living through it.  A couple of friends came to visit or stay with me while the poet went to work to make sure that I didn't choke to death on my opioids or try to eat the plastic fruit, but the first three days I spent mostly asleep.  Dozing, actually, propped up in bed by 17 pillows and 4 golden retrievers that did not leave my side.  And I won't sugarcoat it for anyone unlucky enough to land here after googling, two labrum tears bicep tenodesis surgery does it suck: the pain is pretty fucking terrible.  The first day or two I was maxed out on my prescription pain killers, which helped about as much as when people tweet good thoughts and prayers to a national disaster.  But emotionally, I was okay, I checked in with my doctors and tried to sleep and only once did I end up sobbing on the bed after trying to get out of a shirt.
Day 4 I started working again, mostly via talk-to-text at the amusement of my patient and understanding athletes, who are probably going to miss me replying to everything within .2 seconds of uploading out of boredom once I'm healed up and can start doing other life things like leave the house.  I tried to go for a walk but that was too much; I made it to the next set of driveways before we had to turn back and that adventure resulted in a 3-hour nap.  Recovery is slow.  It resets your expectations of what you can do in a day.  The first week, I could shower and get dressed, but not on my own, and not without a break in between.  I think the worst unexpected handicap came in the form of the ponytail.  My husband is pretty awesome but he is not a hairdresser, and after a lifetime of wearing it scrunched up on the back of my head with a pencil shoved through it, it was torture to just have it laying around on my neck all day.  Hair!  The struggle, as they say, has never been more real.
Day 10 I left the house on a little trip, to visit some friends and their gorgeous new house.  Wearing a bra!  Getting in the car!  Seeing the real humans!  It was a good adventure, I got a bit tired and cranky by the time we returned home but it felt like progress.  Life has been pretty quiet.  I've been busy with work and continuing education, which is what I usually focus on this time of the year because no one is texting me crying from the middle of their 6-hour ride (man, do I miss being on the sending side of that text, though).  I had a talk with someone recently about continuing ed in coaching and how important it is because there's no real system that forces you through.  I've done it for years, it's a huge part of my daily work, mostly tracking down & devouring research as well as stalking good coaches, kinesiologists, physiologists, experts in nutrition, anatomy, mental performance.  It's as important or maybe even more so than the dailies of coaching, mapping out training loads and season planning and reading funny post-workout commentary and actually reviewing data files which apparently is a rarity among coaches nowadays.  

I think it was around the two-week mark that the pain really started to calm down.  The surgeon wanted me in physical therapy right away but due to a bundle of scheduling issues, I wasn't able to get in until I was two weeks into recovery.  I had done some research googling and started at home with some range of motion work, and it almost came as a surprise when I woke up the day of my first appointment and realized with a start that all the ridiculous nerve pain had been gone since the day of surgery.  The absence of pain is a crazy thing, it's the ringing silence after an explosion, the sonic boom to the shell that is left when suffering lifts.  The pain was - and still is - gone.  Gone.  My nerve pain is gone.
It's hard to look in the review mirror and see how difficult life has been for the people around me over the last six months or so.  So many injuries, the incredible amount of frustration that comes from working through the healthcare system - one that most of the time seems to be chock full of doctors who only want to turf you into someone else's office.  So much emotion (gross) around so much pain, so much struggle to keep chipping away; more phone calls, more physical therapy, more research, more getting up in the middle of the night to search for more specialists, but here I am.  Out the other side.  I made it through.  And as I'm starting to crawl out from under this massive rock of depression and grief, the first thing I'm doing is trying to find my people again.  To say to them, maybe not with words or all that well, thank you.  For not giving up on me.  There are a few people in my life who have taught me this year what friendship really looks like when it gets down and gritty, and I will value these relationships maybe a bit more than I used to, because now I know.  This is what it means when someone literally has your fucking back.  

There is still a lot ahead before I'm back to what I consider my own normal.  I haven't even really started into rehab yet; this morning I celebrated that I could hold my toothbrush with my right hand and put toothpaste on with the left instead of wedging it between my hip and the counter, an operation that has resulted in a lot of Toothpaste Jammies Fuck.  I'm looking forward to the day where I can once again put a shirt on not like pants, or ponytail up my hair, fall asleep starfished on the bed, scrub out both armpits without an assist.  Let's not even discuss the "blender started dancing and I didn't have a hand to catch it before it fell off the counter while still on" incident.  And I know there's going to be more pain to work through as I teach my shoulder to act like a shoulder again instead of a weird dead arm baby that I carry around stapled to my side.  
But I'm in good spirits - that's the thing I say when people poke me to see how I'm doing.  I am in good spirits.  I'm starting to feel like me again, I might even be cheerful sometimes, the wrench of chronic pain has cleared and is no longer is the first thing I see when I look in the mirror.  Surgery was the right decision, and I'm putting it in print because lord knows I'll need to remind myself of that over the next few months.  The world feels different, and not just because I have to do everything with my left arm.  I can look happily into the future again.  I'm grateful to move through life again without relentless nerve pain.  I am, unfortunately and ironically after so many years of talking shit about bloggers who abuse this sentiment, blessed.  

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

light begets light

I don't even know how to talk about everything that has happened.  But I've got about thirty-six more hours on this planet with the use of both hands (just for a while, I'm not donating anything to science), so if I'm going to get a story out, it's going to be now.

When you lose something you love, whatever it is, there is grief.  We know that, it's a fact in the world. And I, an ENTJ with absolutely zero patience for stupidity, adore cold hard facts.  
There are facts about what I've been through in the last six months, straightforward well-documented medical information.  In July, I was diagnosed with two herniated discs, scapular dyskenisis, and a whole bunch of torn shit in my shoulder.  BOOYAH, here we go.  I was already rocking a dozen stitches up the poonanny thanks to the nod from a year of bicycle chaos and then while continuing a long trend of doing what I was told, I ended up with a calcaneal stress fracture.  So I finally decided to shut it all down.  For real.  Not just I'll just go to yoga and do an easy hike, but twisting the handle firmly and all the way over to OFF.  When I say it like that, it sounds like I had a choice.  But with a torn up shoulder and a torn up saddle-sitter and a busted foot, there just wasn't anything left.  (Other than, as a friend helpfully pointed out, the Single Arm Tai Chi Chair Olympics).  
It didn't help.  Of course it didn't help, don't be ridiculous, but I did it anyway, if for no other reason than to shut up all of the (mostly well-meaning) fucking assholes who felt inclined to chime in on my situation unsolicited, with absolutely no information other than that I was in pain (thanks!).  I found a new physical therapist, a different kind who specializes in neuromuscular reeducation.  She was actually quite a bit more knowledgeable than some random people on Instagram and she didn't even seem to mind that I cried almost nonstop for the first eight weeks of working together, a flood with no outlet.  My neurologist person at the same time guided me through many many rounds of medication and nerve studies and scary things done to my neck down at CU Anschutz in Denver, where they have the greatest-tasting ginger ale on the planet in their surgical recovery room.  And for a long time, for weeks that turned into months, I did nothing.  Nothing except watch my life pass by without me, imprisoned by a body that had totally fucking had it.  
There are facts about what this did to my mental state, facts that are probably oversharing but there's nothing really left on my fake bullshit highlight reel.  Depression, yes, that's what happens.  And I don't mean, oh man they discontinued my favorite flavor of coffee creamer I'm so bummed kind of depression.  I mean the real, ugly, dark & twisty kind, the kind where you don't leave your house for days at a time, where you stop getting out of your pj pants because it starts to seem like an exhausting effort to do so. Pain that lasts more than six weeks is considered chronic; mine lasted over five months & still isn't gone.  Nerve pain is its own particular inferno, because muscle relaxers don't help, steroids don't help, naproxen doesn't help, a hot bath and a glass of wine doesn't help, meditation doesn't help, actually nothing helps, you just walk around trying to figure out how to keep breathing in and out, all the while being mercilessly stabbed with thousands of knives.  So the only thing to do is to chase down the next doctor who might know something, or be able to prescribe something, or move something, or fuck it can we just chop my neck off if that will make it stop?  And in our brilliant health care system everything takes two weeks: scheduling appointments, getting a follow-up, finding a new specialist, seeing if the latest meds will start working, and that's a lot of dead time of waiting for a few quick seconds of hope before the doctor disappears out the door in a whirl of white coat.
October is my favorite month.  I'm in love with fall and everything it brings - the birthdays of everyone in my house, arm warmers, cool nights, dark beers, fuzzy boots, all of that crap.  And every year for the last seven years, for my own birthday, I've written a blog post.  It's generally just another pile of overly adverb'd nonsense, but routine, rituals, rhythm - these things are meaningful to me.  This year, I didn't do it.  This year, I missed the whole thing.  One of my best friends was in town to celebrate, and oh, it broke my heart that she spent the time and effort to come out and visit in the middle of this, that she had to bear witness to some of the worst moments of my life.  I woke up the morning of my birthday, and I tried to go for a ride.  That's what I do every year, usually it's the 80+ mile loop through the mountains that makes me happy in a way that not a lot of other things do.  This particular morning was Colorado-windy, and I was in a tremendous amount of pain, and I rode less than forty minutes before I was back home, and if we're going to be honest on a deeply squirmy level, I spent most of the ride hoping that a car would hit me so that it would be over.  So it could all just stop.

Yeah.  That kind of depressed.  That kind of hopeless.

There are facts about what this did to my physical state, and the next person that says nah you still look great to my face is getting their eyes clawed out and I am not even joking.  Because I've gained more than twenty pounds at this point, and twenty pounds on a 5'6" frame that has completely stopped exercising does not look the goddamned fucking same.  My running shorts are gathering dust, I've been rotating between the black yoga pants and the stretchy blue yoga pants when I deign to get dressed at all.  My boobs have exploded fantastically outwards into being, when I stuff myself into a sports bra I am the grand prow of a ship; I'm Courtney Cox in the fat suit, a shadow of the person I used to be except the opposite of a shadow, a caricature with four chins.  So when you say, shut up you look fine, either you're placating me or you aren't seeing me - or my pain - at all.   Both of those are worse.  
Nerve pain, that's been my problem throughout.  When the superstar doctors solved my neck issue all of the pain should have stopped, and went it didn't, everyone just kind of stumbled over their feet and went, huh.  About a month ago, I saw yet another specialist.  She mapped out a couple of experiments to try and route some kind of path forward, and I was in, ready to try anything, sure I will buy your purple snake oil and drink it while reciting German poetry backwards at moonset because I bet THAT will fix me.  I was almost ready to listen to someone on the internet!  But one of them worked, although it was the bad kind of "worked," the kind that means, well, we figured it out but you are really not going to like the answer.  My herniated discs were compressing a nerve, and that sucked and probably kicked off at least part of this mess, but it turns out the all the Torn Shit around my shoulder wasn't holding the shoulder in place - you LITERALLY have one job! - and when it flopped forward to where it's been living for the last six months, it was compressing a nerve.  Actually a whole crapload of them.  And nerves DO NOT like that, NO NO NO NO NO, they bitch and moan and pull on every single muscle they can reach, and now I know exactly how many there are back there, surrounding my scapula.  It is a lot.  I've spent the last several months busting my ass in physical therapy to try and get my body to put my shoulder back where it goes and keep it there, but we haven't been able to crack the pain/flare-up spiral at all and no one could figure out where all the nerve pain was coming from.  This particular doctor, who will now get a Christmas present from me every year for the rest of eternity, voodoo-taped my shoulder back where it's supposed to be, and over a period of about a week, most of the nerve pain went away and the muscles started to calm down and all of a sudden I remembered how to smile.  After about three weeks of working hard and hoping, we pulled the tape off to see what my shoulder had learned and everything went batshit to hell, because, like I tell my athletes all the time, hope is not a strategy.  So on Thursday, another doctor is going to take my shoulder apart and put it back together correctly because tape is not a permanent solution.  And all of the 17 opinions that I've gathered from real doctors about moving forward in this direction are confidently positive that with about 6 months and a zillion more dollars of physical therapy, I'll get my life back.  Exhale.
But I won't be the same.  I'm already not the same, I'm already different in a way that I can't quite put my finger on but I can see, and not just in the boobs and thighs.  I'm more careful, with my body but also with my life and the people that are allowed inside.  I'm sure that stress contributed at least in part to this, and I've finally started to learn how to set real boundaries around my time, my energy, my heart.  

Figuring this mess out and scheduling surgery lifted a lot of the dark clouds that were hanging over me.  Even though it means the next few months I'll be in a sling and on the stairmaster and knocking things over trying to navigate the world with my left hand and oh fuck I just realized I'm incapacitating my selfie arm, even though it's a few more months of staying inside while the world seems to pass by in high speed outside of my window, there's an end, or maybe just yet another day one.  There is a light.  And light begets light.  
More well-intentioned friends have tried to point out a silver lining here and there.  I've been able to focus more on work, and I do truly love what I do or I wouldn't still be doing it, but if someone took away a bunch of crap that make you really happy and rewarded you with more time behind a computer telling people they don't eat enough on the bike, would that 100% be a good thing?  As a coach, it's hopefully not immodest to say that this year has been really great, and in a lot of ways that has helped what I have been going through personally.  I don't want to take the credit because it's all of my athletes that are out there busting their asses, but I feel really lucky to be working with the people who have found me.  People who are rebuilding from something themselves, or seeking new heights, or chasing whatever kind of dream that gets them out of bed in the morning.  And this year, athletes that I have coached for years have experienced some incredible breakthroughs.  I'm torn between wondering if it was because I had more time to nurture their experience and truthfully understanding that it is a combination of hard work, planning, opportunity, patience with the process and just a tiny sprinkle of luck.
I've been able to see how much my husband loves me, and tucking in a few lines deep in this post is in no way able to embrace the incredible significance of how supportive he has been.  He has tried to fight for me when I could no longer fight for myself, and if that isn't what marriage is supposed to look like, then I don't want to know what is.  
When we found the correct band-aid for what was going on, I was able to start moving again.  And I don't want to call it training, it's barely even been exercising.  I've made a lot of jokes about how it's been going, the watts and the pace and the near intolerance of the spandex, but it has felt good to move again.  To work through the process of starting from scratch, all on my own terms.  I've always said that as an endurance athlete I would never be without a coach to prevent myself from falling down the ironman stairs naked in the dark, but this isn't training.  I'm not an athlete right now, and I know that no one on the planet knows better than I do what I need.  I'm not even sure I would trust anyone to try.  So I've been building it myself, and patience is easy to come by after everything that has happened.  It has been a month, and I've watched myself grow, and I'm excited to do it all over again once this is truly behind me.  A couple people have asked why I would bother to spend a few weeks now rebuilding when I'm going to turn it all off again after surgery for more than a little while, but that's easy.  Because it's who I am.  Because it's how I take care of myself, because after all this darkness I needed some sunshine, because it's the few moments on this planet that I feel more me than anything else I've ever experienced.  I have no idea what the future will bring, but I know I have two choices, I have a reminder that I see every day.  I can stay here, and get the shit kicked out of me.  Or I can fight my way back.  Into the light.  I can climb out of inch at a time.  I was stuck there for far too long.  I gave up.  But now, I am ready to climb.