Come Back, v. 70.3
I was an athlete as a kid, the youngest of six in a Midwestern family. Our Dad, a baseball player in his earlier days, took great pleasure in teaching how a batter could make a bunted ball difficult to handle, and how a catcher should block the plate or interfere with a batter without getting tossed from the game. My interest in basketball dwindled about the time my brother grew about a foot in one year and I didn’t. We grew up playing countless sports at our rural home outside of Baraboo, Wisconsin, and had to take turns on pretending to be Bart Starr. I was an athlete as a teenager, and how I loved volleyball. Best game ever. I was never the best at anything, but I had a knack for most physical things and was pretty good at whatever I was interested in.
I joined the Army after a couple years in college, seeking direction. When I wanted to, I could max the Army’s PT test of timed sit-ups, push-ups, and a two mile run. Eight minute miles were an “if I felt like it” thing.
As time went by, pain became a close companion. My knees hurt, going from sometimes to all the time. Among my few complaints regarding my time in military service is people are expected to be athletic, but aren’t handled like athletes. Much of the fault lies with me, though, because I didn’t take pain seriously enough and didn’t advocate for myself strongly enough for far too long; it’s also hard to get any kind of consistent care when you’re bouncing from one assignment to the next. I trained when I was hurt, when maybe healing still had a chance, and I shouldn’t have. Of course, a couple of pregnancies didn’t help my knees, especially when our son Jacob (and I) turned out to be much bigger than expected. I warned the nurses many times that the day I hit 200 pounds would be the last time I stepped on a scale. They thought I was joking. Not so much. On that fateful day, I told them it would all be guess work from there and they could write down whatever numbers they wanted. Not kidding.
After many rounds of being authorized 30 days of rest from physical training and alternate event PT tests, my knee pain was eventually considered a permanent problem. In the year I turned 30, I met with a total joint team in Colorado. The surgeon leading my team poured through all of my records and did more tests that he thought were appropriate. Then we sat down, he patted me on the shoulder, and told me that I had the knees of an 80 year old man, and if I was 20 years older we’d be scheduling knee transplants. The problem, he said, was that NO ONE does joint transplants on a 30 year old. The good news was that he had a plan that would probably give me ten more years on the knees I was born with. As it turned out, my knee joints had a slightly abnormal tilt which caused no end of wear and tear on the inner half of my knees. That part of my meniscus was long gone and I’d been running bone on bone for some time. OK… this is the early 90’s folks… no cadaver tissue transplants, artificial tissue or stuff like that yet. The proposed solution is known as a High Tibial Ostiotomy. In short, the doc cut through my leg bone and removed a wedge, so when they pinned me back together, my body’s alignment was changed and all my weight was carried by the undamaged half of my knees… which was necessary because it was too late to do anything with my knees. After I left that appointment, I sat down and cried – not because I was upset, but because someone finally gave me an answer about what was really wrong and even better, proposed a solution other than don’t run for another 30 days. I knew this was going to be a two year process of surgery, rehab, surgery on the other knee and more rehab, but I was totally into it.
Our plan was to work on the worst knee first, so we scheduled surgery on my right knee. It went exactly as planned until I woke violently ill and unable to breathe – a nice way to find out that I’m allergic to morphine! It was kind of a white knuckle ride for a while until the morphine was out of my system and they thought it was safe to give me something else. I woke with my leg in the machine to keep the knee constantly functioning which was a little surprising, but not nearly the surprise the next day during my first trip to post-surgery physical therapy. The first time all the dressings were removed, I saw a man’s handprint bruised into my lower leg from the surgical team holding my leg in place while the plates and pins were going in. WTH?????? That’s pretty much when the shouting began, but much as it creeped me out, I got over it. In therapy, I learned things like, “If you lose count, we start over.” Time went by quickly, though, and I went from crutches to cane, from full leg brace to walking. So many hours spent on a treadmill in front of a mirror, learning to walk without limping. Eventually I took a few jogging steps… it hurt like hell, but I was excited and we scheduled surgery for the left leg three months ahead of schedule.
June 1994, again in Colorado. This is when I found out what they’re checking for when they ask you to wiggle your toes and move your foot after surgery… because mine didn’t move any more. The staff was careful to not react in any way that would cause alarm, but they kept coming back to check and my foot still didn’t work. Then they brought out sharp objects to see what I could feel… in my left foot: nothing. The condition is called “drop foot” and I learned that it’s common to stroke victims. When on my feet, my left foot would just hang and I had no way to control it or make it function. After additional frank discussions, I accepted that this was going to be a long term thing. Maybe some function would come back, maybe it wouldn’t. I left the hospital on crutches and eventually progressed to walking with a cane. I wore a hard plastic sleeve down my leg to hold my foot in place and couldn’t wear my own shoes. Without the brace, and frequently with it, I tripped and hit the dirt. I was angry… for a year, I was angry. I left the Army, not wanting to need exceptions in order to serve. Almost a year to the day of my surgery, after endless attempts, I wiggled the big toe on my left foot. Then I did it again, because I thought I may have imagined it. It took what seemed like forever, but as months passed, I started regaining some feeling and motion. In 1998, I walked without the brace and without a cane. What a sweet victory. The first time I tried to walk and talk at the same time, I tripped and fell because of the amount of brainpower it took to control my foot. To this day, when I’m tired, control of that foot is the first thing I lose and I still trip, but have learned from my dear husband Dan to try to loudly declare “Have that removed!” just for fun.
As years went by, I made many attempted come backs to an active lifestyle. Any dreams of being an athlete again had been given up on so long ago, I just kept wanting the pleasure of being physical again. Injury after injury got in my way….tendonitis, arthritis, a shoulder that dislocates whenever it wants to. I’d make enough progress that working out became part of my routine and then have another setback. Even attempts to return to my beloved volleyball led to a broken and dislocated middle finger (which was mistakenly but commonly referred to as a repetitive use injury by my co-workers).
Once, my left knee was suddenly incredibly painful even though I didn’t really think I’d done anything to hurt myself this time. After a few days and more xrays, I had a diagnosis that you don’t hear every day: a loose screw. No kidding, who else do you know that really had a medical diagnosis of a loose screw???? Yippee, more surgery. When removing the hardware that obviously wasn’t necessary anymore, I heard the surgeon say, “Oh-oh.” The gas-passer and I looked at each other, looked at the surgeon, looked at each other again, and I said, “You better explain.” It turned out that while one screw had become dislodged, another broke while the surgeon was trying to take it out. Really! I politely declined his offer to “excavate” in order to dig out the screw, on the grounds that I wouldn’t let him do stuff that sounded like construction equipment was needed – at least not while I was awake. It made perfect sense at the time. We decided to leave it there and see what happened. So far, it’s still there. On a positive front, airport security technology has changed with time, and I no longer set off the alarms.
Fast forward a few more years… and I became a Grandmother. Coolest thing ever, but kids are really active and I realized I was in danger of life’s circumstances turning me into the kind of Grandma that sits on the porch watching. I didn’t want to watch, I wanted to do, but now older and wiser, I also accepted that I would have to be careful and not push for things unachievable. I started walking for exercise, and then adding short and very slow jogging intervals. Before enough time passed to discourage me, I was jogging a couple of miles with few breaks needed. As more time passed, two miles became three, and three became four…not often, but when I dared. Eventually, my thoughts turned to doubles, and I thought…if I can jog three miles, maybe if I’m really careful I could do six. Once I hit six long, slow, glorious six miles, I thought I could do a half marathon…so I did. It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t know what I was doing, but oddly enough, that first half marathon in 2011 remains my PR. Go figure. By then I loved that I was slowly seeing my body change into that of an athlete again, and convinced that I no longer knew what my limits were; felt that I could go longer as long as I didn’t try to go hard. So what the heck, I entered a marathon training program, and had a fairly disappointing experience completing the 2011 Chicago Marathon. It’s true that I had now made a number of successful comebacks, but it wasn’t the experience I wanted it to be – too many other things were in the way. Two more years of trying to return to marathons resulted in two more years of injury and more surgery. I’m over it… really, I am.
Last year, I thought I’d take a chance and give tri’s a try. Naturally, I had to scratch my first tri entry (ET Batavia 2013) due to more surgery, but I started coming to swim clinic and entered the Naperville Sprint in the fall. I started learning and loved the mental challenges that multisport requires. Swim clinic led to ET Masters Swim class and ET CompuTrainer over the winter, and I was learning something new all the time, with many of the lessons being about me. I was uncharacteristically undecided about what events I wanted to sign up for in 2014. That’s so unlike me — I rarely actually think about decision to be made, I always just know… but not this time. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that each time I go for something new and challenging, it might be the only chance I get, like running a marathon. But that’s part of what makes going for something so incredibly special to me – I never assume that there will be later opportunities. One day toward the end of winter, which was in April (UGH), I asked Coach Suzy to be brutally honest with me and asked if she thought a half IM was beyond me – this year. She said, “Not if you commit to it.” I said, “OK, I’m in, let’s do it.” So many things are beyond me now, I’ve just had to accept that there are some things that just aren’t a good fit for me: jumping rope = agony, running hills=pain for days, and there are few things I hate more than weight training and the treadmill because they are reminders of the many months spent in attempted comebacks. When I filled out the athlete questionnaire, I fully expected her to decline after reading the long list of medical conditions, injuries, chronic problems and medications that have become a part of my everyday life. Suzy set my training schedule starting in May, and my first date with IM 70.3 Racine was Sunday, less than 3 months later. There were a few discouraging points along the way; always being the last rider in the pack of IM/half IM riders was a shot to my pride because my brain keeps telling me I’m 26. I took Suzy’s words to heart that what mattered was being present. Sunday was another opportunity to not let life’s circumstances carry too much power.
So, another come back when I didn’t think it was probable or possible. Thanks to Team Experience Triathlon and everything the Coaches do to help athletes achieve their goals. What you do is valuable beyond measure, and I believe you must have among the most satisfying jobs in the world. Thanks to my guy Dan, who understands how important this is to me. Thanks to the ET athletes and family members, for your kind support and friendship. I hope there will be more IM 70.3s in my future… I’m planning for that. I REALLY hope so, because I want to continue to improve as a triathlete, enjoy the amount of training, and the unique challenges of endurance events; but if not, if this was my one chance, it was a pretty sweet day, to be present, to be in the moment, and to dare.
Enjoy all the photos from our amazing day at Ironman Racine on the ET Photo Gallery!