"Thinking of your athletic journey--which is inseparable from your overall life journey--as a story, and interpreting the challenges you experience as necessary steps in this journey, will help you embrace all manner of bad situations and make the best of them." Matt Fitzgerald The Comeback Quotient
Recently I woke up at 2am and, for whatever reason, I was thinking about my knee. Actually I don't know why I wrote that as if it's a surprise--I've been thinking of nothing but my knee for about a year now. It was July 4th, which was fitting since my thought was "I'd like to be free of this."
My knee trouble first began in the fall of 2018. Although I cannot one hundred percent blame the Spartan Beast Race that I ran, I can say with certainty that I fell down, over and off things more times than I could count during the seven hours it took me to complete the course, banging my body up pretty good in the process. I can also say it was totally worth it; it was exhilarating. I was two years into my new fitness life and I had, and would continue to have, a number of experiences that I would call pivotal, and this was one of them. These experiences didn't just level up my fitness, they leveled up my life. Nevertheless they do exact a toll, but I was always happy to pay the price. What's seven hours outside on a challenging course in exchange for a better life? It was highway robbery, and I was the robber.
Six weeks later I was half a mile into the local Haunted Halloween 5K when I took a step and felt something tear behind my knee. It took me longer to walk back to the start line than it took for my fellow racers to run the course. A trip to the orthopedic urgent care revealed that I had a torn meniscus. The doctor said I should stop running immediately which was not a problem; I could not have run a single step to save my own soul. I cross trained like a beast and ate like a boss for six months and got in the best shape of my life. When I returned to running in the spring my fitness was magic, and it took just a few weeks to bring my running back up to speed. A few weeks after that I began running my fastest times to date--at 52 years old. I was on Cloud 9. I was strong and lean and fierce--I felt unstoppable.
But then some big life events hit. And Covid hit. And I lost my job, and the world turned upside down. Amazingly for me those things created space. I started writing again. I continued to run; I continued to train. Once more my knee started to nag at me, but I ignored it. Running began to grow a little weary from shouldering the burden of therapist and enlightened guru and coach and cheerleader, but I ignored that, too. I had so turned the sinking ship of my life around through running and I was afraid to change the formula or try a new recipe. I had learned how to push, and how to gut it out, and how to stick-to-the-program, and it had worked. I had regained my fortitude and my confidence through running and I was building solid mental fitness, and I wasn't willing to rock the boat.
What I didn't acknowledge, however, was that I had no control over the waves. They come as they come and no amount of ignoring or fuming or bargaining or stubborn beligerence will affect the waves on the ocean. So, once again, Running started the work of expanding me. Running began to remind me that my mental fitness toolbox is filled with tools needed to ride the waves: curiosity, joy, flexibility, patience, surrender. GRATITUDE. Some of these tools were a little rusty, some well worn, but none of them had any experience building this new thing we were going to be doing, which was not running. It was time for knee surgery. There would be no running and no set date for a return. In fact, I wouldn't even be walking for awhile. My quad would start to atrophy and my knee would have to relearn how to bend and straighten while I healed from a meniscus repair and a root repair involving the tibia. I understood the transaction: surgery, recovery, rehab in exchange for a stronger knee and less pain. I understood the commitment required to rebuild my fitness and really to relearn how to run. Sign me up, I thought. I can do this. I have some big things to look forward to. Athletes, if I dare call myself that, have setbacks. Setbacks are full of opportunity. I can do this. In fact, I'm looking forward to it. Bring. It. On.
Now months have passed since my surgery. Eight, to be exact. I've worked hard during that time, and I have not tried to control the waves. I've been a good patient; I've been a committed athlete. I've shown up and I've been tested through many stages:
the weeks-of-completely-non-weight-bearing stage,
the PT-three-times-a-week-and-four-times-a-day-on-my-own stage,
the icing-six-times-per-day stage,
the navigating-snow-and-ice-on-crutches stage,
and the scared-to-take-a-shower-stage.
I've endured the slowly-putting-weight-back-on-the-leg-and-walking-with-crutches-phase,
the easing-back-into-work phase,
the ditching-the-brace phase,
the ditching-the-other-crutch phase,
all the while continuing PT and meeting twice a week with my coach at the gym. At the four month follow up appointment with my surgeon the outlook was sunny. Everything looked great. The bone was healed and I had full extension and was only fifteen degrees from a full bend. He was pleased, I was pleased, and it was time to start single leg work. But at five months my knee felt a little stiff, and at my six month appointment some pain had returned and it was clear I had regressed.
Around this time I tried running with my coach to assess where we were. We did "intervals": run a block, walk a block, for fifteen minutes, which added up to seven minutes of running. I wasn't hopeful or hopeless--I was objective. My knee was healed, my tibia was healed, and we had built my quad back up to be able to handle the impact. But as much as I missed running, the payoff to run wasn't worth the pain it cost to do it. I knew by the next morning that it wasn't right to start back, but just for good measure I gave it a go again a few days later. Nope, said my knee. So we pulled the plug.
I am now more than two months further down the road from that attempted return to running, and I'm finding it harder to keep accessing all the tools I need to ride the waves. I've seen the surgeon again and had another MRI. He's concerned because this setback seems unusual, and we are meeting yet again next week to go over the results and to make a game plan.
This brings me back to where I started this post: it was 2am and I woke up thinking about my knee, and it occured to me that my MRI results might be in my patient health portal. I'm not sure why I thought this was a good idea to try and read MRI results in the middle of the night, but I logged in anyway and there they were. Well I'm no doctor, but I'm not sure that it's great news. The assumption has been that the problem is excessive scar tissue, which is fairly easy to fix, but that's not what my very limited MRI interpreting mind was reading. Point being, I took all that language that is a bit out of my reach and began to wonder if I would ever run again. That thought has not crossed my mind at all in the seven years that I have been running, despite a number of setbacks. But at 2am that new idea sunk its teeth in and wouldn't let go, and by the time the sun came up all the months of those blue feelings I've been holding off were holding court. I like big challenges, new challenges, and hard work. I like a solid goal and pushing my limits. I like feeling really alive, and I realized I've been missing that. I've gotten a little timid post surgery and I'm definitely feeling pretty vulnerable.
I just want to feel that vibrant rush of aliveness that I get from falling and getting back up and from getting caught in the rush of a challenge, I thought as I rolled my bike outside for my morning ride.
Literally...Be careful what you wish for...
I got on my bike and started to ride to nowhere in particular. I was lost in thought and filled with the blues...What if I can't run again? Who am I going to be? How am I going to understand myself? Would Running still travel along with me in life? Would I stay connected to my community? Would they still be interested in me? I rode a number of miles like this and found myself at a familiar spot by the lake near my home. I was at a tricky intersection where cars and bikes and pedestrians are all navigating one another. I looked in all directions for the runners and bikers and strollers and dogs and cars--all directions but one. I thought I had the all clear and started onto the bike path when I suddenly saw a biker coming from the left, so I slammed on my brakes and skidded and fell off my bike. The other biker slowed down to ask if I was ok. "Yeah, I'm ok." I got back on my feet with uncharacteristic agility as of late, threw my leg over my bike and started to ride. Am I ok??? I asked myself. Yes I am. In fact, I feel f**king invigorated, like that fall shook me awake! This surgery messed with my confidence and I have been terrified of falling since the day I got my bike in May. I've been tentative and nervous and doing everything in my power to not fall, but falling was exactly what I needed! I fell, I got up, I went on. I just want to feel that vibrant rush of aliveness that I get from falling and getting back up, I said to myself as I started my ride that morning. I meant it metaphorically, but it worked literally too.
I rode down the path like a bat out of hell. I felt renewed. I felt free. At the ten mile mark I stopped for a bit and then realized the skies were getting dark and I was five miles from home. I got back on my bike and pedaled steady and fast to try and make it home before the storm, caught in the rush of a challenge, but alas I didn't make it. The skies opened up and the rain and hail came in torrents. The streets turned into fast running creeks, and I was elated. "The rush of a challenge!" I said aloud to no one.
I slowed down as I neared home and just enjoyed the feel of the warm rain and the wind. What I love about these moments--the moments that hold such grand challenge and obstacles--is that there is no where else to be but in that moment. I don't have to work to stay present because the present moment calls me to be all in--it's all that exists. And as it passes I am left with a peace and satisfaction that only comes from that kind of effort, that kind of trial.
I realized in that moment that I've thrown in the towel a little on my recovery. Maybe that's not unusual after this many months. Maybe it's fair to say I needed a little break from thinking about my damn knee. Maybe I should offer myself a little grace. But the experience also showed me that it's time to get back in the game. It's time to act like an athlete again, right where I am in my current circumstances. It's time to tap back into those tools in my mental fitness toolbox and not let curiosity and joy and patience, and for god's sake GRATITUDE, get rusty.
My coach took a look at my MRI results and is suspicious that I have a new injury, but has no doubt I will run again. And I am working on climbing back up onto the bow of the boat to ride those waves. I went below decks for a little respite and started to get a little too comfortable down there, but the rain and wind in my face reminded me that the rush of a challenge is all around us, and we can choose to look at injuries and setbacks with a steely joy and surrender to the surprises they hold. I can be free, but freedom isn't born from movement, it happens in my mind. Freedom comes from challenge and trial, not in the absence of it. "No Mud, No Lotus," said Buddah. These challenges are necessary steps in my journey, it's simply a matter of choosing to see it that way. And optimism isn't denial, it's a full on choice to point your face towards the wind and be fully present in the direction your experience is taking you.
Optimism is true moral courage.