No one would ever choose it, but the silver lining of starting over after a long hiatus due to injury is that I get to review everything I think I know.
When I was about to turn 40 I shifted from long, slow running (did a few marathons and an iron distance triathlon) back to the track. I discovered masters competition and thrived in many ways for a solid 6-7 years. There were some bumps in the road, but after some initial adjustments I was able to get myself to a point where I eclipsed my high school age grade in the 400 meters, and running in the low 55s, had a lot of fun competing at events like the Millrose Games, Penn Relays and masters national championships.
If I didn’t make a new critical error at that time I might be writing a completely different blog post today, but I do believe this experience fits into the category of “everything happens for a reason.”
As I gradually increased my training capacity I began to spend more time in the gym. I had been doing a deadlift routine for a few months, and actually attributed that with dropping below 56 seconds. But then I took the advice of one of my high school athletes who also played football, and began to incorporate more Olympic lifts.
This might be better as a separate post, but to keep this story short, what I ultimately learned at the end of this chapter is that I never should have done those lifts, especially those that involved deep squatting. After developing the worst pain I’ve ever experienced that would wake me up from deep sleep in the middle of the night with a force that sent me to the ceiling, I learned via mri that I have a birth defect in the form of a hip impingement, a fairy common thing, and this made it almost inevitable that I would injure my hip labrums. (The extremely important coach takeaway I learned from this is that we should really never have athletes do heavy lifts involving a squat without getting an x-ray of the hip joints first, something no insurance company is going to approve.)
What I am trying to explain in brief and abstract terms was a 1-year ordeal that began with the usual attempt to remedy the pain through non-invasive, but aggressive pt, led to mri’s and a diagnosis of a sports hernia (which I came to learn is likely a totally bogus diagnosis — for another post!), bouncing around a few surgeons, and ending up with what I ultimately believe was the most accurate diagnosis and set of treatment possibilities. A surgeon who works on the hips of NHL players told me he could fix the labrum tears, and that it would take two years to get back to competition. He was honest that he thought my recent athletic history made me a decent candidate, but that it would also be a brutal process. With two young children and a need to show up to work every day, I took his second option which involved 6 months of total rest (he told me to avoid even kicking a soccer ball with my kids), followed by injections and then pt.
The whole process seemed to elicit the exact response from my body that was hoped for. I have been relatively pain free ever since. However, in hind site, the 6 months off was something I would never recommend, because by the time I finished up pt, I accumulated a total of almost a year of no training. The treatment plan worked, but at the expense of the routine I had developed over the previous ten years. On a side note, that reminds me of something Chuck Shields told me shortly after I joined Greater Philadelphia Track Club, which was that the secret to staying in the game was to never stop. I knew his advice made sense at the time, but boy has that haunted me ever since.
I am always quick to remind people I coach that there is always a silver lining to every experience of injury. That is so hard to accept in the throes of a derailed training plan, or three weeks out from Penn Relays (another post), but it is as true as the sky is blue. Or as the sky is actually not blue but appears that way to our human brains, which is really all that matters. One of the myriad things I learned from the hip labrum injury is that my training was intrinsically linked that of my wife. When we first began dating, our relationship evolved partly around the idea of training and supporting each other’s training. When our first kid arrived that was just one new hurdle to overcome as we were both totally committed, almost more to supporting each other than ourselves. This worked phenomenally well, and even added to our motivation. Going out the door to a workout can always be hard, but trading off baby duty to keep that appointment with the track added to the push. “My turn!” and then a roadrunner blur out the door!
Once I felt fully on top of the original labrum injury, I honestly attempted to get back into a training routine, but too many details about my life changed over that year. The kids were another year older and their activities had increased in number and complexity. My wife was used to taking time out for her workouts but seemed to forgot that I had a right to do the same. I was a year older and new physical issues were emerging, including a fair amount of weight gain. All the details seemed to simply add up to a series of stops and starts, and three years later I am literally back at the very beginning. More or less on the proverbial couch.
Actually, I’d say I’m at about an even place as I was when I started back to running and triathlons in my late 30s. Back then I had the benefit of age, but I really was sedentary for a few years before. Today, I’m significantly older, but I’ve been walking quite a bit for the last two years, and my diet has improved steadily over the years. I feel a new motivation to get back on the wagon as a result of dropping some weight by intermittent fasting.
So here I am, starting from scratch. No one would choose this. But I am enjoying the process. Back in September I started a cross country component as part of my youth South Jersey Track & Field Club, and I have followed the slowest progression of my life leading the kids on what is basically a couch-to-5K program. A few weeks ago I could tell I crossed a threshold, and it suddenly felt comfortable to run 3 miles continuously and at the same time I comfortably dropped my pace to a reasonable place.
And of course, just as I was celebrating that achievement, I woke up one day with knee swollen like a balloon!
No big deal, right? I assumed it was just a tight quad muscle, and did the work I’ve learned is usually a quick solution, but three weeks later I was still hobbling around. But it’s downright crazy how things happen and random events and decisions line up. I attended Greater Philly’s annual Harrier’s Ball last Friday night, and met a new member who just happened to hear me telling someone else about my knee. I followed up with the new member the next day to chat about club business, and he shared a link to a phenomenal resource. It sounded a bit like snake oil, but then again, reinforced what I already knew about muscle tension and joint pain, so I spent an hour working through a series of techniques and suddenly my knee felt fine. I hadn’t been planning to run that day, but did a quick 20-minute interval workout just to see what would happen. The workout felt good, and when I woke up this morning my knee felt the best that it has in weeks!
I will wrote a separate post about the website my teammate recommended, but here’s the basic information:
Gary Crowley was trained at the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration in Boulder, Colorado, and he runs this totally free website with very simple techniques that anyone can use to receive their own joint pain.
Back to the workout and where I am today. After all this time away from the sport I love, or rather, time away from my own training and competing, I know that I need some sort of regular routine to be truly happy. Tapping back into some of the things worked back when I was getting to know my wife, I know I need a goal, and I know for me, the goal needs to be a race.
I’m writing this now and posting it publicly really just to push the envelope — my goal is to make the 50+ 4×400 team for the Penn Relays next spring. It won’t be easy, and I’m a long shot, but it’s concrete, and that is what I need.
I will blog about this process on occasion as a way to share some things about the learning. Specifically, I’m interested in exploring what it means to go back to the beginning after years of practice. I’ve been a serious competitor, and I’ve coached people of all ages. I fight the tendency, but as a coach it is very easy to forget things, especially about the earlier stages of the training/fitness process. I’m assuming there will be all sorts of insights to emerge from the next few months of work.