Discovering life beyond the barbell / by Dana McMahan

Food writer to power lifter to ?

Hi! Here's where I talk about my adventure going from a food writer to competitive powerlifter -- and after an injury took me out of powerlifting, the journey to find my next sport. Read more

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Six things I learned in my bunny slope ski lessons

Finding success at Deer Valley, Utah. Photo by Whitney Tressel

When people moan about being too old to learn this sport or that, I usually want to scoff. Abilities often have way more to do with your enthusiasm and fitness level than any arbitrary number does. But I have to confess: I felt that my particular number was a bit on the high side to be tackling snow skiing for the first time. Becoming a beginner at a sport that involves careening down a snow-covered mountain on two skinny, slippery sticks — especially for someone who’s as prone to accident and injury as I am — seemed, if I’m being honest, a terrifying prospect.

In fact, by the time I strapped on and bundled up to head out into the falling snow (aptly enough) at Snowbird in Utah last week, I was as scared as I’d ever been on any rock climb, white water rapid or mountain biking path. But the lure of learning a new sport – advanced age notwithstanding — outweighed (barely) the nervousness, and I stepped onto the “magic carpet ride” conveyor belt with gusto, the first in a little band of five new, wanna-be skiers in the first-timers’ class at the resort. Between those first few moments of awkwardly navigating bunny slopes in my skis and the third afternoon of the trip when I could scarcely believe I was swishing down an honest-to-goodness trail, I learned a few pearls of wisdom from my instructors at Snowbird, Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley.

Read the six things I learned from ski lessons

Somebody that I used to know

That was then: ice packs after every workout, kinesiotape on multiple body parts, ice baths at home.

Sometimes people compare themselves to others, measuring their success or abilities against that of stars in their sport. I don’t. My measuring stick is what I used to be able to do, back when, you know, I was a competitive powerlifter. A record-breaking one (that’s for you Ryan, if you’re reading ; ) Despite spending most of 2012 and 2013 dealing with or recovering from one injury or another, the constant refrain in my head was that I used to be able to do more. Heavier bench, more push-ups – whatever I can do now, I used to do more.

Then, recently, I guess I had a bit of an epiphany. I was doing floor presses after spending a week eating all the things in Portland, Oregon (where I’d been on assignment).  No joke, I had to have consumed a good two to three times more than my usual daily calories every day I was there. I’d forgotten what a huge spike in strength that used to give me, and there I was doing floor presses for  the first time in ages. I wasn’t trying to go for a max — I don’t do that anymore — but I couldn’t resist when I found how easily the bar was moving.  So I maxed out.

“That’s only 15 pounds less than when I was at my strongest!” I raved to my husband, who was spotting me. “Like, my broken-down strongest,” I said for emphasis. As in the max (for two, technically) I hit just before my sports doctor told me I was out of powerlifting for good and would be going under the knife to try to repair the damage I’d wrought on my body. I could barely walk that day, it was all I could do to not scream in pain going from sitting to standing and vice versa, but there I was on the floor — because that’s where I could still lift a weight — hitting a new max. (My theme song in those days? My Body by Young the Giant: My body tells me no, but I won’t quit I cause I want more) And I didn’t see anything wrong with that picture. A little after the fact, maybe, but I do now.

Still, even with that said, ordinarily I’d have been inconsolable that I’m not still that strong, that I had it so briefly. When I missed a final attempt on that recent lift with 5 more pounds, before now I’d have cussed or cried or maybe pounded on my heavy bag. At minimum I’d have been in a foul mood. But I found myself laughing. “It was worth a try,” I said, grinning that I could even still be even this strong considering how little actual heavy lifting I’ve done in the past year, considering I was in the hospital for nine days in January and unable to lift *anything* for the first couple of months after release, considering I don’t work to the point of breaking down anymore. I’m still pretty fucking strong, and I’m glad to have what I have.

This is now: happy to be able to do cool things like go rock climbing. (Thanks to Van Brinson of World TEAM Sports for the photo)

This is now: happy to be able to do cool things like go rock climbing. (Thanks to Van Brinson of World TEAM Sports for the photo)

Why the change in heart? I’d like to say it’s that I’m growing up, or getting wiser or something  that means I can claim credit. But I can’t. I would defy anyone to meet the athletes I met at the adaptive adventure race I went to last month and come home unchanged. Were the people with prosthetic limbs or in wheelchairs or facing other “inconveniences” (as my new friend Duane called them) whining about what they *used* to be able to do?

No. Hell no. They were just out there climbing and biking and rafting and rappelling and living their lives with passion and joy.

And after seeing everything they accomplished and witnessing their attitudes, only someone who is incapable of learning and changing could still cry about not being strong like they used to be. In fact, I feel like a pretty huge jerk for all my complaints over the last couple of years. Will I ever be as strong as I was? Nope. But for the first  time, I am ok with that. And I’m happy to have found that new kind of strength.

I put a hex on you

[I use Grammarly for proofreading because I write fast and don't proofread my own blog and had a typo in my HEADLINE in my last post and that's just mortifying.]

Bed feels good. I love my comfy bed. And when it’s dark and cool and it’s just so cozy under the covers who wants to get up and go out all bleary-eyed to the cluttered garage gym and turn on a fluorescent light and start picking stuff up and putting it down?

I do!!!

I’ve been in a boot, an air cast, for the last few weeks for a sesmoid issue and not able to do much more than swim (have I mentioned I hate swimming?) and do some upper body work (which I wasn’t even really doing until last week). Yesterday my nemesis became my friend when my sports doctor let me take the boot off and “get after it” as he put it. No ballistics or anything stupid (use common sense for someone who’s had rhabdo, he said) but weights? Yes! And just before I went into the boot I had added a cool new toy to the garage gym line-up: a hex bar.

Deadlifts and back squats have been more or less out since the back injury, but I love working my legs more than anything. When I stumbled across a hex bar deadlift article and read that it can work essentially the same compound muscle groups as squats — but without loading the lumbar spine, I was all over it. Dr. McKee gave me the thumbs up (and he gives thumbs down to a LOT) so I found one used and bought it that day. After a couple trial runs it’s collected cobwebs since while I moped in my boot.

I've got 99 problems but a hex bar deadlift ain't one!

I’ve got 99 problems but a hex bar deadlift ain’t one!

This morning, fresh from being given my freedom, I couldn’t wait to load it up — lightly; I’m trying to be smart here — and get after it. My powerlifting days are over, so I’m doing sets of 8. I worked my way up to just 100 pounds — pretty much where I started with traditional deads back in the beginning. It was still dark out, my little garage speakers were blaring, I got warm enough to lose the hoodie and Flint Barbell Club top, and it was freaking awesome. I followed it with some TRX leg curls which are fantastic for working glutes without loading the spine.

And bonus: I like to finish a workout with crunches holding my 35 pound kettlebell. I always do 50, but also always have to stop at least once or twice to catch my breath. Swimming was pretty much my least favorite workout ever, but evidently it had its benefits: I did all 50 without needing a break, and still had a little left in the tank.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt  optimistic about working out. It’ll be 6-8 weeks before I’m really able to ramp back to where I’d like to be, but I guess the benefit of the hex(es) I’ve had on me lately is I can enjoy finally where I am now.

Indestructible

Somebody’s been missing around here. The athlete and writer that wanted to destroy limits has been gone, defeated by one too many injuries, one too many comments about inabilities and poor judgement.

I gave up. I didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to write about it. I just didn’t want to try anymore because it made me feel weak to go into my garage gym and try do something that wouldn’t re-injure my back or risk getting rhabdo again or hell, even put weight on my toe in the air cast I’m wearing thanks to the million and one weighted step ups and lunges that stressed a little bone in the big toe until it cracked (though to be fair, the high heels for miles in NYC that time didn’t help matters there any).

Everything I tried to do felt like a shadow of what I used to do. A failure. Why bother struggling through four lousy chin-ups, all I could manage the last time I tried, when I used to be the bad-ass who could knock them out with weights chained to my waist? Why do push-ups when I can’t do 37  in a row anymore? Why bother doing anything? I can’t do squats, my new doctor-approved hexbar that I was so excited to use is gathering cobwebs until the boot comes off. The only thing the sports doctor will let me do at this point besides upper body work is swim. And I hate swimming. I’m doing it, but it’s just a chore. It doesn’t make me happy.

No workout makes me happy like the simplest act of moving something heavy. Doing something hard. Pushing to do just one more rep when I don’t think I can. I found my passion for athletics when I fell in love with powerlifting and we know how that crashed and burned but nothing makes my heart race and adrenaline surge like wrapping my hands around that barbell or the chinup bar. But when I have an imaginary peanut gallery  criticizing me and — and sometimes not imaginary, sometimes people flat telling me in person and online that I shouldn’t be doing this, that I’m crazy, that they “don’t admire my tenacity” that I “destroyed by body” — I am afraid to do what I love. I’m afraid I’ll get hurt again, but I’m also afraid of what people will think if I get hurt again. I’m already the girl who wasn’t smart and got a scalpel in the spine and a hospitalization with a bizarre and rare injury and then a cast, all in less than two years. How ridiculous does that look?

Well, I’m back from a weekend that changed the way I look at that for good. It changed the way I look at a lot of things. And I almost didn’t go. When my sports doctor finally lost all patience with me and forbade me — because of the cast and the toe — to take part in the Adventure Team Challenge, I backed out of going to write about it. Because I was that mentally defeated. And I didn’t even have the courage to write about my decision to not go.

Thankfully the World TEAM Sports chief guy called me up and talked me into it. The full story will be on the Women’s Adventure magazine website in the coming days, so I don’t want to jump their gun, but I will say this: these people sure as hell are not sitting around boo-hooing over what they used to be able to do and calling it quits. The strength — physical, yes, but mostly mental — and grace and passion and determination of the athletes I had the privilege to watch and get to know knocked all the ridiculous self-pity and concern for what other people think right out of me.

 These are the most bad-ass athletes I've ever met.

These are the most bad-ass athletes I’ve ever met.

I saw men and women who’ve been blown up in trucks, been broadsided on a motorcycle by a car, been hit by a drunk driver, skied off a cliff to break a back, lost legs in war — I saw these people, these extraordinary athletes, go rock climbing, mountain biking, rafting, paddle boarding, swimming, rappelling, hiking through quick-sand like mud. I saw them spend three days overcoming fears, supporting one another, not giving a damn what anyone thought of them or ever told them they couldn’t do, and having the absolute time of their lives doing it. I couldn’t be any more proud to call them my friends now.

And there was no way in hell I was coming home and moping around, wallowing in my made-up misery. So I opened up the garage gym today for the first time in weeks. I swept out the cobwebs and I put my Pandora Linkin Park station on full blast and thought of my new friends and their unstoppable spirit when ‘Indestructible’ came on.

I chalked my hands and I did chin-ups — no, not weighted ones unless you count the cast, but not assisted ones either — and push-ups and I grabbed a barbell for overhead presses, and got down on the floor for some Turkish sit-ups. I breathed hard, and I said fuck a few times when it got difficult, and when I finished I felt like a new woman. Maybe not the same one I was before, in the days of one-arm push-ups and insanely heavy squats, but hopefully a better one.

Back at it!

Back at it!

‘Grace? She passed away 30 years ago’

The entire movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one long favorite scene. But one of the best is asking Aunt Bethany to say grace.

Clark: Since this is Aunt Bethany’s 80th Christmas, I think she should lead us in the saying of Grace.
Aunt Bethany: What dear?
Nora: Grace!
Aunt Bethany: Grace? Ohhh…She passed away thirty years ago…
Uncle Lewis: They want you to say grace…. The BLESS-ING!!!
Aunt Bethany: Oh.

Today is my last birthday in my 30s. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but I liked the idea a friend had in making a birthday resolution so I’m totally stealing that. It’s not so much a resolution as it is a word for this year. I was awake part of the night and spent some time trying to think of the exact word I need. I wanted it to be something like thankful or grateful, but also partly to give myself a break and not expect so much — too-high expectations being behind some injuries, not to mention stress — and to forgive myself when I do something wrong. I loved the name of a drink my my husband had last night at our joint birthday dinner (his birthday is the day before mine, which makes for a celebratory week!). It was called “Don’t Worry About It,” and I wanted my word to have a bit of that as well.

When the alarm went off, I had fallen back asleep. This never happens, but I woke up with the precise word I needed in my head.

It’s grace. That feels like an old fashioned word (in fact it is) but it fits everything I’m looking for.

Sunrise on the Rogue River in Oregon.

Sunrise on the Rogue River in Oregon.

I need to give myself a grace period when I need it — like now. I’m clunking around in an air cast, an ugly gray boot, because I hurt my big toe walking around NYC in high heels a few years ago and aggravated it every time I did a lunge or I sprinted or even went on a long walk. My sports doctor finally showed his exasperation with me, when he told me the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. So for the third time in two years I’m limited in what I can do, this time because of something as ridiculous as a tiny bone in my foot with a stress fracture. This has to be a grace period while the little bone heals, a time that I’m not working out like I like to (I’m swimming, which is another story because my flailing about in the water is the least graceful version of swimming you can imagine) but I have to accept it. And I can do it with grace or I can make myself miserable. Wouldn’t it feel better to do it with grace?

And I need to give myself grace when I’m not accomplishing everything I want rightnowthisveryminute. I’ve been freelance writing for about seven months. I’m not in every publication I want to be. But I can never be in ALL the things. If I allow myself grace I can be thankful for what I have done so far, and optimistic about what’s next.

I need to give other people grace. Other people have other motivations and they’re not always going to do what I wish they would do. That’s it. I can’t change that. Even when it’s hurtful –like the woman who commented on this blog to give me her (incorrect) theories on why I’ve had so many injuries and tell me she would “never listen to somebody who has destroyed their body in such a short amount of time” — I can let it get to me, or I can give them grace and move on. Obviously that’s not the easiest path, but, hey, I’ve got a year.

I’m under no illusion that when I turn 40 in 365 days I’ll be living in a permanent state of grace. I can’t change 39 years of a short temper and no-holds-barred, everything it takes goal-oriented nature. But I have a better chance of remembering now and then to allow myself and others grace than I do of ever being a graceful swimmer, and I’ll take that.

Let’s take this outside

Did you spend most of your life outside when you were a kid? I did. What was there worth doing inside when the weather was nice? Outside there were tire swings, roller skates, creeks, and trees. I spent as much time reading under those trees as I did climbing them, but still, I loved it outside.

TRX at the park

Atomic push-ups

As an adult, I spend too much time inside. One of the many things I love about travel is just being outside all day. But there’s no reason I can’t find ways to be in the fresh air, under the sky when I work out. So when my friend Sarah suggested we meet in my favorite park to work out one morning, I loved the idea.
We met bright and early the morning after the 4th of July – kind of appropriate, since my friend is a Marine veteran. She brought her TRX, and concocted a heinous plan to run up what we all call Dog Hill (the steep, long hill where locals like to let their dogs play) in between sets. What sets you ask? Did I mention she was a Marine, and therefore one tough workout partner?

We did rear leg elevated lunges, and single leg squats, ran Dog Hill, and repeated. Then for good measure we threw down with some atomic push-ups (feet in the TRX, knees to chest in between push-ups) and TRX rows. Don’t forget the hill runs in between. And after.  I might add that I hate running. But when a freaking *Marine* is running up the hill for the umpteenth time you can’t wuss out and whine that you don’t feel like it. So run I did. And we encouraged each other through our progressively more fatiguing sets on the TRX. To be quite honest, I felt a little like I might throw up by the time we were done. Not quite — just enough that I knew I’d had an arse-kicking workout, the first one I’d had in a while.

We’re doing it again tomorrow. I can’t wait to  get outside and get working.

Mountain bikes don’t come with training wheels

Remember the first time you rode a bike without training wheels when you were a kid? What a glorious and giddy feeling that was? Just you, your two wheels and your feet in a frenzy on the pedals, face to the wind about as happy as a puppy with her head hanging out the car window? Yeah, that was fun, wasn’t it?

Somewhere between riding the bike to elementary school and paying a mortgage riding a bike became Exercise. Cardio. Ugh. I avoided it, except for renting bikes in foreign cities to get around faster than walking. Even with a super cute hipster vintage bike complete with basket and bell collecting dust in my garage I never biked, or wanted to.

Then I got on a mountain bike. And full of enthusiasm for my newest sport, the one I’m learning in preparation for the Adventure TEAM Challenge this September, I pedaled onto the trail at nearby Waverly Park. Grinning under my helmet, I couldn’t wait to check this out. The next thing I knew I was on my back under a bush, my bike wheel spinning crazily above me, a string of profanities flooding the air as I laughed and cried in equal measures. My husband stood above me, fear and concern turning to exasperation when he saw I was more or less ok. I could still see the road where I’d entered the trail. I wasn’t off to the best start.

We rode for as long as we could that first day, stopping ever more frequently as my ragged breath couldn’t keep up with my lungs’ demands. It didn’t take long to realize that cavemen didn’t have bicycles and my usual high protein paleo-ish diet wasn’t going to cut it. Shaking, I made a gas station run for a sugary sports drink and a carb-laden energy bar.

Fast forward just over a week and we were on our third trail run last night (after a few road rides to work on that pesky cardio). A couple minutes into the Cherokee Park trail and I was already walking my bike, too scared to attempt a steep drop wrapped in roots and edged with big rocks on the right, a fat tree on the left with a gnarly climb out the opposite side. I walked the bike in several more spots, growing more dejected each time. I was scared. Flat scared that I’ll fall off, or hit a tree, or knock out a tooth or break a leg or somehow end up back in the hospital. My husband raced ahead of me, For that matter every other biker we saw (nearly all male) took the drops and climbs and scary bits with flair.

It was a gorgeous night but I couldn’t enjoy it as fear and my annoyance with the fear warred, all while I tried to just stay upright on the bike. We made it as far on the trail as we thought we could manage and turned back. Approaching that super scary section going back, it didn’t look as bad in this direction so I decided to just gun it and rammed my way up the root-laden hill, roaring as I made it almost all the way before my horsepower failed to keep up with the steep incline. I ran my bike off the path, managing to keep from falling as a guy rode by grinning at my exuberance at having made it as far as I did.

A guy and girl rode by a couple moments later and we chatted for a minute about this stretch of trail. The girl was a beginner too, and said she’d walked this part four or five times before getting the nerve to attempt it. Now she made it look easy. I didn’t want to leave without trying, but was terrified. I don’t know anything about grades, if there even are, on trails to tell you what it was. All I can say is it was a precipitous drop and I could all too easily see myself being flung headfirst over the handlebars onto the rocks near the bottom.

Before I could talk myself out of it I backed my bike up the trail and aimed for the drop, my stomach feeling like it does when you’re creaking those last few inches toward the top of a roller coaster. I didn’t want to be a chicken, and I didn’t even want that negative talk in my head so I gave myself a little pep talk. Taking a cue from Muhammad Ali’s words

It’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself.

I muttered a few times as I maneuvered my bike, “You’re brave, you’re strong, you can do this.”

Then (purposely) with no time for second thoughts I started pedaling, remembering my motorcycle-riding dad’s admonition that you go where you look. I looked hard at the narrow strip of trail where I needed to stay, and flew down the hill and rocketed up the other side, bumping to a stop by my husband with a grin surely like the one I wore when I took that first training wheels free ride 30 years ago.

Feeling pretty proud and pleased with myself, I thought we were done. But he had other ideas. We rode it over and over until my hands weren’t trembling quite so violently with nerves. I even hit a big rock once at the bottom of the drop but stayed upright and managed to still come up the other side. And after we rode out the rest of the trail I couldn’t resist the urge to turn back and go do it one more time.

It’s still scary. I’m still afraid I’ll get hurt. There will never be training wheels or an easy, safe way to train. I just have to get out on the trails and be brave and be strong. But oh, now that I know how good it feels to take on the scary bits and come out smiling, I think I’m hooked.

(I did finally make it after a couple more tries)

Gearing up

It’s time for a new challenge.  And a new adventure. Goals with numbers land me in the hospital. How many plates can I put on the barbell and still lift it=spinal surgery. How many pull-ups can I do=rhabdo. And any goal related to a number on the scale is the last thing I want. (Hi, I’m Dana and I haven’t stepped on a scale in 7 months since the great and horrible six-pack experiment.)

So I’m gearing up to join a team with my husband and race through the high desert of Colorado on a multi-sport adventure. The Adventure TEAM Challenge this September will put me to a whole new kind of test as I climb, raft, mountain bike and hike at a mile elevation, part of a five-person team that will include two people with disabilities — one in a wheelchair.

If anything will knock me on the head and make me stop feeling sorry for myself for all the things I can’t do because of my assorted and sundry injuries it will be this race.

World TEAM Sports provides opportunities for people with disabilities to compete in sporting events. Not only does this chance help the competing athletes overcome challenges they can feel amazing about, it inspires spectators. I know, because I watched their documentary Vietnam, Long Time Coming, last year and cried repeatedly watching veterans overcome huge physical and emotional challenges to bike from Hanoi to Saigon. And I know if they can accomplish such a mammoth undertaking, then this utterly non cardio-conditioned wanna-be racer can get ready for a two-day challenge.

I’ve experienced personally how much competitive sport has transformed my life, and injuries notwithstanding, the confidence I’ve gained has made a whole new world possible for me. If I have a soapbox it’s that more people — especially women, and especially people who may not think they have what it takes — experience this change.

So I’m going to raise money – lots of it, more on that later – to join this race, and I’m going to train for two days of high-altitude sports that I am a complete beginner in now.  With maybe a dozen climbs under my belt, a few days of rafting, and a brand new mountain bike I broke in with an immediate crash, I’m gearing up for a summer of training for this blissfully number-free goal: to complete the race and not let my teammates down.

It takes some creativity: I can’t run or do lunges because of a janky toe. I can’t load my lumbar spine. And with newly re-knit muscles in my biceps, shoulders and lats (they ripped away from the tendons just a few months ago) I can’t lift to failure. My new friend is the TRX in my garage gym.  With the bad foot in the strap I can do lunges that are even harder than the garden variety. I can do hamstring curls that will strengthen my underdeveloped hamstrings. And since I’m still feeling sketchy about pull-up I can do rows on the TRX to work my upper back. I’m also loving push-ups with my feet elevated in the straps.

But mostly I’ll be on my new bike, planning climbing getaways in Red River Gorge, and hopefully finding somewhere to raft. I can’t think of a better way to spend the summer than gearing up.

 

 

Rx: TRX

My sports doctor is a good guy. Instead of washing his hands of me and saying I’m just too accident and injury prone to keep working out, he wants to help me find things that will challenge me. (I guess if I were cynical I’d just think my insurance company has probably paid for, I don’t know, at least a few mortgage payments for him. But when he waved my inches thick file at me and said he wants it to not be any bigger 20 years from now, I’m gonna go with he’s actually a good guy.)

I’ve completed my post-rhabdo sentence of boring elliptical work which I served at the nearby public gym where my punishment included watching dudes massacre proper form on lifts and young ladies perform perplexing movements with tiny weights. I got my doctor’s all clear to go back to working out just a few days before leaving for Italy. I wasn’t ABOUT to risk getting hurt before that trip so I went pretty gingerly back into upper body workouts.  But I wanted to really get back to work when I came back from Italy, and I’d be on my own. (Clearly personal trainers and I are not a good match.)

“Try a TRX,” my doctor suggested. Hmm. I tried one when I was doing physical therapy  during the Injury Chronicles Part I and remember being surprised at how challenging it was. “It’s your bodyweight, so you shouldn’t be able to hurt yourself,” he said. Ah, so that was the selling point. After all the things he’s told me I *can’t* do, it’s nice to have the seal of approval for a change, so I went right out to get one. And actually the TRX folks were kind enough to provide me with one. It arrived while I was stuffing my face with pasta and pizza and gelato in Italy.

The pizza at Da Attilio's in Naples was worth the flight.

This pizza, at Da Attilio’s in Naples, was worth the flight.

I have stopped feeling guilty about not working out when I travel. I just don’t, and that’s ok. Which is weird because I would have given almost anything just to do some push-ups from Jan 1 through mid March, I finally got the go-ahead, but once I was in Italy I couldn’t care less (although I was amused by the Italians who wanted to feel my bicep, so I guess I didn’t wither away like I feared I would).

First TRX workout

Anyway, I came back with a hard-earned pasta belly and a raring urge to get into my garage gym and just do some hard stuff. I wasn’t sure, despite my little bit of previous experience, how hard a couple of straps would actually be. Then I did a test that came in the packaging. And oh. my goodness. It’s hard all right. I noted my results (max reps in one minute) for each of these  and will check again in 30 days: Chest press 16, biceps curl 17, hamstring curl 24, crunch 28.

I like that I have no idea what constitutes a good result. It doesn’t matter. Improvement matters. Sitting in a hospital, looking at an MRI of my damaged muscles and discussing necrotic tissue with my doctor put quite the damper on my desire to compete or break any more arbitrary records. But that doesn’t mean I stopped caring about meeting challenges. So my first challenge is just to beat those numbers after 30 days.  I’ll let you know.

‘It’s not about doing something dangerous’

There’s been some radio silence on this blog lately. Allow me to explain. For one, I’ve not had much exciting in the way of working out to discuss as I wait for a post-rhabdo follow-up with the sports doctor before I’m cleared to do much of anything interesting in the gym again. My workouts consist of slogging along on the elliptical (thank goodness for my LCD Soundsystem Pandora station), watching the dudes in my new public gym massacre correct form on squats and bench in between doing their curls in front of their mirror, and doing a little bit of lower body work. No upper body allowed while my arms, traps and shoulders heal from the great, misguided, tear-the-muscles-off-the-tendons pull-up workout of new year’s eve 2012.

But for two, I’ve been cray busy getting my freelance writing work going  since being laid off from my day job at the end of January. Every day I’m hustling, trying to drum up more work, and furiously scratching out stories for my local gigs, plus stuff for relish magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Food Network magazine, Fodors.com and LonelyPlanet.com — and NBCNews.com. Exciting stuff! The best part about it is getting to talk to all kinds of fascinating people. The highlight so far? Interviewing the space jumper Felix Baumgartner. You know, the guy that free fell in SPACE?

I wrote a story about his National Geoographic Adventurer of the Year people’s choice award, and got to ask him a few questions for NBC’s Today.com.

What struck me the most was this:

“It’s not about doing something dangerous,” Baumgartner said. “It’s about finding challenges that are meaningful to you, approaching them in a thoughtful way and, hopefully, expanding your boundaries.”

As we know, some of my challenges have been — while not remotely in his realm — a bit insane on some level. And I’ve paid the price.  Squat 200 pounds as a barely 100-pound woman and end up undergoing spinal surgery. Decide to start training for the Iron Maiden challenge (24 kg pistol squat, single arm overhead press, and weighted pull-up) and on DAY ONE do a workout so extreme I land in hospital for nine days with rhabdo, and on rehab for months. Two catastrophic injuries in one year, as my doctor describes it, and I’m finally paying attention. I don’t want to keep getting hurt, but I’m not satisfied without a challenge.

What I learned from the man who jumped out of a balloon 25 miles above the earth is that you have to be smart about it. Approach challenges in a thoughtful way, he says. Granted he has an enormous team behind him, but I have my own supporters in the form of family and friend, and you, dear readers.

Through years of careful planning and preparation he achieved his singularly exceptional dream. And that’s inspiring to millions to reach for their own dreams. I’ve always reached for mine, but my trouble is I don’t know when to back down. And that’s as important as knowing when to reach.

I don’t know what my next physical challenge will be. I’m bound by multiple limitations I’ve caused myself, but I’ll find something to work toward again. In the meantime, I’m reveling in a new type of challenge:  becoming a writer, not just as a hobby, or sideline, but as a way of life. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most meaningful. Detractors are coming out of the woodwork, and some days I painfully understand the adage ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Planning to make this my career and not return to a 9-5 job feels sometimes as petrifying and exhilarating as taking that free fall leap into space. But thanks to adventurers like Felix blazing a path I have the confidence that I can make it happen.

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