Thursday, July 23, 2015

Training Notes: "Can't" is a Four Letter Word

“It matters not how strait the gate,
 How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”
William Ernest Henley

My daughter is a budding actress.  She loves to sing and dance and act.  Who would have ever thought my shy little girl would love the limelight?  The night before a recent audition, she said to me, “Mama, I’m nervous—I want a real part, not just a member of the ensemble.”  So I launched into the 10 year old watered-down version of the “you have to believe in yourself” pep talk and the power of “I am…” affirmations.  We came up with some statements she could tell herself if she started to get nervous during her audition.  “I am a good singer, I am a good actress, I am a good dancer.”  I told her about Mohammad Ali and his signature, “I’m gonna show you how great I am!!”  “I am….such a simple statement….

It took me back to this winter.  After IMMD, my body just fell apart.  I was in the best shape of my life and the worst shape of my life. Because of the volume of training, I neglected the basics—core, hip and back stability and strength.  It was a grave error.  About a week after the race, my piriformis went into a major spasm.  Translated: I had an enormous pain in the ass…and up into my back and down my leg.  My foot dropped and I couldn’t flex my toes. In my last blog I mentioned that the doc I saw for this told me it was irreversible nerve damage.  He also told me, and I quote, “stop being a fucking idiot and stop triathlons-your body can’t do this.” Did he just say what I think he said?  “You can’t do this.”  Normally, those words
would mean a challenge to me.  But maybe he was right? I’ve had shoulder surgeries and painful rehabs, but the pain paled in comparison to this pain.  There was no escape.  If I laid down, I couldn’t roll or move.  Sitting was torturous…which does not bode well for a psychotherapist who sits most of the day. I couldn’t even swim because evidently that uses your ass muscles too.  I would walk to physical therapy from my office—a 5 minute walk if that, and it would take me 20 minutes.  It was like a knife in my heart when my daughter asked me, “Mama, are you turning into an old lady?”  My swim-bike- run schedule turned into a physical therapy-chiropractor-acupuncture-massage-orthopedist schedule.  One time my physical therapist asked if it was ok to do dry needling in the main gym instead of off in a private room and I said, “Why sure—just about everyone else in the state has seen my ass over the course of the past couple of months.”  At least I had some semblance of a sense of humor.  But I became depressed.  I cried every night.  I lost my athlete identity. Things continued to deteriorate.  I watched my muscles atrophy, and kept losing weight—unintentionally.   I walked with a limp that I couldn’t correct and I kept losing my balance. And then sometime in November, one side of my face started to droop.  I went for my annual physical and my PCP took a look at me, listened to my symptoms and promptly ordered an MRI.  I stopped listening at that point and just heard blah blah brain lesion blah blah stroke blah blah MS blah blah perhaps dormant til now.  So I did exactly what one shouldn’t do—internet research.  If you ever want to convince yourself you have something very very wrong with you, just look it up on line.  I remembered reading a book about a neuroscientist who trained his dog to sit in an MRI scanner while it took images of his doggie brain.  It was a pretty complex procedure, but first he had to train the dog to sit with this cage-like apparatus around his head.  I thought, well, if the dog can do it and not freak out, so can I.  At that point I was too numb to even feel nervous, afraid, sad, or anything.  At the same time, my family surprised me and registered me for another IM.  I cried, in part because I was so touched that they believed in me, but in part because it felt like something more out of reach than ever.

You must be reading this posting thinking, “Wow, thanks for the inspirational message, Debbie Downer.”  But now the story takes a turn, because why would I start out my post with “I am…” affirmations? Thankfully, the results of my MRI were negative. I thought to myself since I didn’t have any brain deterioration taking me down for the count, then I could get better.  I began to think about what this all meant?  What was the lesson? What could I take from this? Was I not attune enough to people’s pain? I thought I was, but maybe I needed a reminder of what it was like to feel vulnerable, numb, and even hopeless at times. 

I finally reached a point in PT where I could ride the stationary bike. My physical therapist would set it for 5 min.  The first time I rode it, 5 minutes seemed like an eternity.  I remembered a time in the not so distant past where I rode 112 miles.  How could that have been?  There was such a disconnect between my triathlete self and this person who folded inward.  I could only reconcile this discrepancy by reminding myself that I was the same person…I am the same person….I am a triathlete.  I’m not quite an ironman, but I visualize myself as one.  I would ride the stationary bike, but hunch over as if I were in the aero position on my tri bike, close my eyes, and visualize riding outside, strong, free, feeling the elements, and repeat over and over, “I am strong…I am a triathlete…I am an ironman."

I’d go to the Y and ride the recumbent bike and sit on the balance ball doing my balance 101 exercises—lift one leg, then the other.  I’d watch the runners on the treadmill longingly.  But it no longer took me 20 minutes to walk to PT.  We worked on getting rid of my limp and it was like learning the basics of walking again. I could finally flex my toes and my foot drop disappeared.  Permanent nerve damage huh?? I started working out with someone who was my trainer 10 years ago when I was at my heaviest and unhealthiest.  We began working on core and hip stability and balance.  I continued with PT, massage, and chiropractic work.  And then began a very light and conservative regiment of swimming and walking.  The bike trainer came out of the closet and into the living room, and I started riding my triathlon bike inside.  I took a 2.5 hr swim workshop (a story that I’ll save for another post-lol), and I was able to keep up (barely) for 2.5 hr.  My coach slowly increased my training volume and intensity.  In the early days of spring I still had some doubts about ever getting back to the level of fitness I was at last Fall.  I’m not even sure at what point the pain began to subside…and then dissolve, but it did.  Walking turned into running and I was surprised that I was actually not back at square one.  Swim, bike, run, stretch, foam roll, strengthen, rest, repeat….

So, here we are in my peak of training—with about 3 months to go.  I can swim 2 miles 30 minutes faster than I could last year.  I can ride my bike and run at a faster pace than I could at the time of the race last year.  I don’t grumble and scowl at my coach’s training plan, even though our idea of a “recovery week” may differ.   I think back to those winter days and feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the healing, strength, and insight.  For the privilege to be able to resume something I love doing. Maybe that was the most profound lesson of all—that pain can come to an end.  And don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something--how could I have forgotten that?  As I hunch in the aero position on my bike, what was once a visualization is now reality. I am that person in the vision.  I still whisper to myself, “I am strong…I am a triathlete...I am an ironman.”