Sorting through the wreckage

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To say I have beaten myself up physically over the course of my 58 years is a bit of an understatement. It comes with the territory when you love to push yourself to your physical limits.

I read somewhere we do not all posses the natural talent to become professional athletes, but we all have the ability to train like one. It’s true, but it comes with a price. Still, I have always tried to adhere to that principal and despite my advancing years, I have this inner desire to push myself when it comes to training.

Surfing is a California tradition for nearly 100 years

Like many kids from my generation, I grew up playing sports. We were not pushed to focus on any singular one at an early age. Instead, I got to enjoy playing and competing in as many as I wanted to. I fell in love with football at a very early age and thought the game was magical. Playing outdoors against not just an opponent, but the elements were something I seemed naturally attracted to.

Baseball was fun, but a little slow moving for my liking. Basketball was more enjoyable than baseball, but required access to a gym in the cold of winter. I loved hockey, but my folks said no to skating lessons so I had to stick to street hockey.

In elementary school, I had a pal whose father came from Yugoslavia and was a former goalkeeper for their national soccer team. Michael introduced me to the game and I fell in love with it. I could run all over the field, play outdoors in the elements, and for some unknown reason, found I had a natural talent suited for the game. I dreamed of a career on the pitch.

When a major ankle injury ended my soccer dream my senior year in high school, I turned inward to running. Again, I seemed to have a natural gift and it was something I could enjoy in all weather conditions. Best of all, it required only myself. I trained alone in a way most others would think a bit extreme. However, for me, it was the only way I knew how to train. If I was not pushing myself to my fullest extent, I was wasting my time in my opinion. Anyone can be a jogger, but I was a runner. I proudly wear my running PR’s with a shoulder tattoo that is inscribed with the phrase “Running Man” in Japanese.

As my times slowed and I realized there would never be any more PR’s, I began adding other things to my training. Weight lifting was one and began as something involving lightweights, but I soon found myself competing with my inner athlete. I had to push myself to see if I could bench press 100 pounds over my body weight. There was this desire to see how many reps at the NFL combine weight of 225 pounds I could do and compare them to those seeking a career in football. It didn’t matter that I was 40, I had to find out.

Bicyclists, walkers and joggers on a perfect day in Southern California

A major bicycle accident in 2007 would end my days as a runner and nearly claim my life, but I was not going to be deterred. My athletic mind would allow me to do as much as six hours of physical therapy work just so I could live a normal life, and then move on to my more competitive life.

My first athletic related surgery was in 1989 at the age of 30. My right ankle was a mess from my years of soccer and then I made it worse by insisting on running while blocking out the pain of a persistent stress fracture. I was advised to give up running, advise I chose to prove was unwarranted and succeeded doing so until my bike accident at the age of 49.

A torn rotator cuff in my right shoulder would be next in 1992 followed by a similar surgery five years later on my left shoulder. A third shoulder surgery for a torn biceps tendon would make me rethink whether or not I should push myself with the weight lifting. I decided to change how I trained with weights, but continue to do so today.

Then in 2007, I managed to survive a horrible accident on my bike, one that would leave me with a rib cage torn from the sternum, muscles torn from the back of the skull, and enough disc damage that would make holding a pencil near impossible and nerve pain unbearable despite five years of physical therapy. Running was now out of the question and I simply longed for some level of normalcy that would allow me to workout in some other manner.

I turned to bicycling, the very thing that resulted in my injuries, like a junkie turning to a new drug. Before long, I was logging 150 mile weeks and seeing how fast I could complete a century ride or how much climbing I could do without cracking. For nearly ten years, I have been able to enjoy a level of training I had not enjoyed since my late 20’s or early 30’s.

Then early last October, on what was supposed to be a leisurely recovery ride, I noticed what seemed like a strained glute. After the ride, I stretched it out and figured it would be fine in two days when I scheduled to ride again.

Instead, in two days, I would wake at 3 a.m. screaming in agony and require two hours to get to a car so my girlfriend could drive me to the ER. A week later, there would be another visit to the ER. My pain in the butt would turn into major sciatic impingement. Vicodin and muscle relaxants would replace riding a bike and lifting weights. Walking was unsteady and painful, physical therapy was not working, and insurance was slow to do anything.

Climbing the hills are some of the best challenges for bicyclists, on the road or in the dirt

Months would pass before a specialist was approved. The epidural for a herniated disc didn’t work and now I wait for another surgery. I am told I should not only be able to return to biking, but by removing the two herniations, I should even be able to return to jogging, not running, but jogging.

So now I continue to wait, the worst part of all of this. I have always seen each of my previous surgeries as a blessing and not a punishment. They have allowed me to take on the challenge of rehab and seeing whether or not I can return to what I love to do, working out.

Because I have always trained alone, I have learned to suffer alone. I am the only person who knows whether or not I succeeded or failed with a workout. I have never relied on the company or words of others to push myself and because of this, I have created a me against myself mentality. If I decide to quit working out it will be because of me and not because my training partner moved on. If I do not meet a goal, it will be because I fell short and not because my partner didn’t push me enough or because he had an off day. It is just me against me.

For over four months, I have had plenty of time to reflect on what I want to do next after I recover from this latest injury. I’d like to think there won’t be any more injuries and certainly no more surgeries, but even I know that is not a certainty.

At this point in my life, I live with pain even on my best days. It’s just a matter of degree. I know enough to know to quit working out is not healthy and it certainly is not going to happen if I can help it. My mind is wired in a way that even if I end up in a wheel chair, I am going to find a way to challenge myself physically. Some might call it a compulsion or illness, but I see this as one of my greatest strengths.

What you can find while running or bicycling

Unless you love to push yourself like I do, and certainly if you have a disdain for working out in any form, you have no idea just how much doing so makes you mentally stronger. Through suffering, you find yourself. While it may be more enjoyable to chat away with a friend while walking, jogging, or going to the gym, it is through the suffering that only comes from truly pushing yourself to the limit that you realize just how strong you are mentally.

It is this strength that has served me well with my struggle with depression. It has allowed me to get out of bed on days others would choose to remain under the covers. It is what got me through the horrific pain and recovery process from an accident that I was lucky enough to live through. It has allowed me to “suck it up” as they say and push through the most challenging and darkest days of a career that was often as frustrating as it was rewarding. It is what allows me to break things down into workable stretches when life throws me for a set back like it has from time to time.

I may well have pushed my body too much too often and it may be wrecked in ways others my age aren’t. However, it is the wreckage that I draw on to find an inner strength when I face my biggest tests in life because if you are not mentally strong, you are never able to physically push through some of the pains we face. You might instead hide behind the comfort of a bottle or prescription just so you do not have to deal with the aches and pains, both mental and physical, that pile up over a lifetime.

So as I wait for another surgery, I am again optimistic for what lies ahead for me. I am not afraid of another surgery to rehab because I already know I have faced worse things in life to make it to this point. My body may not respond as fast as I would like, but it will respond because mentally I already know it has overcome much worse.

Setting the bicycle aside and not riding is not an option

I once worked with a person who was a cancer survivor. We were the same age and he was diagnosed when he was just 50. We were talking one day when I asked him how he got through the treatment. He told me if he did not have the mindset of an athlete and had known what it was like to suffer through the type of training he put himself through over the years, he never would have made it through radiation and chemo. It was his ability to know how to suffer that allowed him to survive.

There are worse things than having to suffer. Our culture seems to think we should never have to. Childhood today is made entirely way too safe and too many parents are too quick to step in when their kid struggles with anything. We should all be made to struggle and we should all be challenged to push ourselves physically at an early age. Like our parents told us, it builds character.

Others can think I am a wreck after all I have put myself through. They are free to think I have a mental disorder. That’s just fine with me because I know differently. Alone, I have chosen to suffer through what others would never consider and while I may have some scars to show, and while there may be a few to follow, I also have the knowledge I am equipped to handle whatever life wants to throw at me. I’ve made it this far and I have no intention of stopping any time soon.

Photos by Tim Forkes