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.
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).
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.
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.
Our bodies are with us throughout our lives
to help us experience ourselves
and the world around us
They show us the limits of our experience
yet represent the starting point
of our boundless potential
I had the chance to visit the BODY WORLDS Vital exhibit yesterday in Louisville for a creepy, intimate, and illuminating look inside the human body. I’m sure I would have found it intriguing no matter what — these are actual human bodies, preserved and displayed in a way to show you how your insides all work — but a week after coming too close to being a specimen myself, I was especially fascinated.
Bodies were positioned to show them in motion — running, dancing, lassoing, and this beautiful scene of a man lifting a woman over his head.
I don’t think often enough about what’s going on inside my body. It’s there, it does its job, and only when I am in panic mode do I pause to wonder just what’s going on. In the hospital with rhabdo, statistically speaking I had something like a one in 12 chance of my body shutting down permanently because of kidney failure. I doubt I’d ever even given my kidneys a passing thought before. I got to see what kidneys actually look like yesterday, and read with way more interest than I ever paid in science class, that the body’s entire volume of blood passes through them 15 times an hour.
It’s a marvel that we function from minute to minute, let alone the decades that most of us have here. I got to talk this week with one of my favorite writers, Andrew Pham, a man who has biked the length of Vietnam (you should read his book about it – Catfish and Mandala) and he said that he wants to be the 80-year-old guy still running and swimming. This is the kind of wisdom I’m trying to instill in my frenetic little brain.
I’ve no interest in blaming or torturing myself for being hurt working out, but I do have only myself to hold accountable for not letting it happen again. If I tear down everything that is so carefully constructed in my body before I’m even 40, I won’t be able to use my body for its born intent – to experience the world.
We’re born to move and I want to keep moving.
There was a prisoner in the room catty-corner from mine in the hospital. He had his own guard day and night. I thought I had it bad, but I didn’t have a guard – I had family and friends who came to visit. I got to come home at the end my my nine days in the hospital with rhabdo. This guy had to go back to prison. It could always be worse.
I allowed myself one time to say “it’s not fair.” And I won’t repeat it. Because that’s a soul-sucking cycle of misery to get caught in. A lot of things aren’t fair. A lot of people have it a lot worse than I do. I missed a trip to Africa and Paris. They’ll still be there later. I’ll have a mammoth hospital bill, even after insurance. So we won’t replace our 80 year old windows this year, and all the money I’m not spending on personal training will go toward the bill. I can’t exercise for a while. Yes, I love to work out – it makes me feel good, and confident, and happy. Being strong and fit is part of my identity. But I can still do a lot of other things I love to do. Pet my dogs. Watch a movie in bed with my husband. Yack on the phone with my mom for an hour. Read. Dream about travel.
I don’t know how I can really deal with the second catastrophic injury (my doctor’s description) in a one year stretch, but I don’t really have any choice. it doesn’t exactly make me feel better to remember it could always be worse, but it can snap me out of a pity party. And I know from last time that once I start to wallow in woe-is-me, it’s a hard road back out. So I just have to not start down the road. And I do that by being thankful.
I listed a lot of people I was thankful for in a Facebook post, but they are all my heroes right now, and deserve mention again in a more public place.
I feel like I have so many people to thank, but I have to start with my mom and my husband. Between the two of them I was as comfortable as was possible, got the moral support I needed to not be terrified every time I got bad news, was well fed with off-campus food, got foot rubs and back rubs, my pillows fluffed and my hair washed. I could go on and on, but really, just having the people around me that love me the most in the world made a very scary, very miserable nine days bearable. I’m a very lucky daughter and wife.
Another round of people to thank: Dawn Geiger for staying with our dogs so Brian could stay in the hospital room with me. Sharon Dunne Gillies for bringing me sushi and company. Jonathan Dennisand Thommy Browne for bringing me a coke and a smile. Liz Solheim Huot and Jesse Huot for hanging out in the hospital room like it was any other night we’ve hung out eating and chatting (sorry the fruit and cheese selection left a bit to be desired).Jesse Hendrix-Inman for bringing us a hospital picnic dinner. Beth Newberry for sitting with me during a scary procedure and bringing the ultimate goodie bag. Constance Ard for helping me take my mind off feeling sorry for myself. Deb Rountree for sending a box of goodies from my favorite treat shop and Please and Thank You for delivering them. Keith Brooks for being at the right place and time when I needed to cry – and for macarons! Sondra Powell for chocolate and coffee. My boss for visiting to make sure I knew not to worry about work. My brother for making the drive from Somerset and making me a bracelet I wore for good luck. My dad for coming up from Somerset to give me a big bear hug that can only come from a daddy. Tracy Kitten for a late night pick-me-up visit. And all of you, you know who you are, for well wishes and prayers and calling and emailing and texting to check on me -especially those of you who made me laugh!. (I didn’t know FB limits how many people you can tag – hope you all see this). If I’ve forgotten anyone I’m sorry – I have been on rather a lot of meds.
So, so, glad to be home and counting my blessings to have so many people that care about me.
Also, I’m glad my arms no longer look like stuffed sausages.
I should be on a plane bound for Lusaka, Zambia, right now – a work assignment, followed by a weekend of thrills at Victoria Falls, and four days in my favorite place in the world, Paris. Why am I waking up in a hospital bed for the fifth morning in a row then, tethered to an IV pole that’s my lifeline, bewildered and shattered?
All I wanted to do was get stronger at pullups. I’m pretty badass with chin-ups, if I say so myself, pounding out 10 (see janky video here) after that inane NYT article came out that said women can’t do pullups. But pullsups are a lot harder. Not even similar, really, and I got the idea that I wanted to train to do a 53 pounds weighted pullup this year.
Training commenced Monday morning, new year’s eve. Not unlike every other workout with my trainer, whose approach is to go to complete muscle failure, I pulled — doing pullup after pullup, some unassisted, then with spotting, till I couldn’t do anything more than hang there, then seated rows, lat pulldowns, tricep extensions, curls, and more until I couldn’t even straighten my arms. I knew I’d be hella sore. I could barely get my coat on or off the rest of the day. But that’s just par for the course for the way I trained in 2012. It’s how I developed the arms that I’m, I know, inordinately proud of.
That was it. I thought. Then I woke up that night, arms screaming sore, back and abs also incredibly sore. My arms were so sore it felt more like a charlie horse in the bicep. Tuesday was the same. I couldn’t straighten either arm. Wednesday I was in agony. I pulled off my sweatshirt before bed because my arm felt puffy, and no lie, almost passed out. My ears started to ring and my vision went dark around the edges. I don’t handle shock well. My right arm looked like a textbook case of elephantitis. My husband packed it in ice and convinced me to see a doctor the next day instead of go to urgent care immediately.
I debtated in the morning going to my family doctor, urgent care by my office (to be quick) or my sports doctor, Paul McKee. The others wouldn’t even know what a pullup was, but he is notoriously behind schedule. I called though, and had to good fortune to get in on a cancellation.
Talking about this bizarre happening on Facebook, a friend asked if I’d ruled out rhabdo. My heart froze. I didn’t know much about it but had heard of it from my days at Crossfit. It was bad news.I went early for my appointment and got right in. “I’m worried about a couple of things,” Dr. McKee said. “Don’t say rhabdo,” I pleaded. “I’m worried about rhabdo,” he said.
“The thing is, I’m going to Africa. Monday.” I replied. Things started happening quickly then. A “STAT” blood test, immediately followed by an MRI. Once out of there my bloodwork was back. McKee was admitting me to hospital. He met Brian and me at his office. His words were sort of one big scary string. CK levels of 41,000 (normal is one hundred). Liver damage. Danger of seizing. Of acute renal kidney failure. ICU. Heart attack. I couldn’t even cry it was so surreal. I had only done a few pullups. You don’t die from doing pullups.
I spent my first night in the hospital, breaking down the moment Brian shut the door behind him.
My body’s job was to take in massive quantities of fluid and flush out the toxins the damaged muscles were flooding into my bloodstream. McKee was playing a delicate balancing act. Not enough fluid and the myoglobins (the toxic proteins from the breakdown of the muscle) would damage my kidneys. I already had liver damage. Too much water and I’m in equal danger. I assured him repeatedly that I drink a *lot* of water. Up to a gallon, most days. I can handle it. I lay in the hospital bed in the dark room and in the glow of the IV pole watched the fluids flow into my arm. I pictured the liquid flushing out the goblins (that’s what I like to call them). And in the morning, the number was down by almost half. I might still be able to go to Africa. We had a long talk about blood clot risk, and about what to do if I had a relapse in Zambia (get off the continent, he said).
But in the afternoon the numbers had risen 50%. “I’m taking the decision from you,” he said. “You’re not going anywhere.” Five minutes later a nurse arrived to take my blood pressure. It’s usually about 100 over 65. Now it was 212 over 100.
That was Friday. It’s Tuesday now. We’ve been chasing down the goblins (the CK) and the liver number, balancing sodium and potassium, and he’s pounding me with as much fluid as he would a college athlete twice my size. My kidneys are rock stars. I wish I could get them a present. They are taking every once of fluid and pushing it on out, carrying the toxins with it. My level was 10,000 last night. When I get to 1000 and hold for 6-12 hours I can go home. The amount of fluid he’s giving me would put most people into ICU, McKee says. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am that for years I’ve been such a heavy water drinker.In fact, if I hadn’t been drinking my usual copious quantities all last week I could well have gone into kidney failure before even seeing the doctor. Even still, I saw my doctor just in time – my body was already shutting down when I got to him, he tells me now. “I think I was in a lot more danger than I realized at the time,” I said. “You were,” he says.
So what the heck is rhabdo anyway? and how does it take you from this:
Here’s how I understand it. When you work out, you tear your muscle down a bit. It rebuilds, and that’s how you get stronger. The small amount of myoglobins pass through your system and don’t hurt anyone. When you completely decimate a muscle, like I did to my bicep, bracchii and lat, your body is infested with the stuff.
This LA Times article has some good information:
It’s difficult to know when vigorous strength training has crossed the line and athletes are at risk of rhabdomyolysis, Clarkson said. Tiny tears occur in muscles after any strenuous workout. The healing of these micro-tears, which causes the soreness people feel after hard exercise, is what prompts the muscle to become stronger.
But the tears release a protein called myoglobin into the bloodstream. If too much myoglobin is released, it can build up in the kidneys and impair function. Treatment includes intravenous fluids and sometimes kidney dialysis.
Dehydration increases the risk. Eccentric exercise, in which muscle fibers are lengthened as they contract — such as with squats and push-ups — is usually involved in triggering the syndrome, Clarkson said.
However, some cases of rhabdomyolysis also appear to involve a coach’s or trainer’s enthusiasm for working athletes to the brink of collapse, Hawkins said.
It seems it’s a tricky little monster. It’s not like there’s a barometer in your body that indicates when you’ve crossed the line from killer workout to actual killer workout. I didn’t know, my trainer didn’t know, that we’d crossed that line.
I want to be furious and devastated and sick and full of regret, and feel foolish, but I can’t take the energy away from recovering to do any of that. I know the time will come, when I start physical therapy with two pound dumbbells, and I lose my popeye muscles, and I dwell on the travel opportunity of a lifetime that I’ve lost, to feel all of those things. But for now, my job is to rest, let the water do its job, and take comfort where I can in my friends and family and dogs (I got to sneak a little visit with my Alba outside the hospital last night)
Muscle & Fitness sent me some supplement samples; I’ve always relied on just eating good food for fuel so I’m not sure where to start. I have two sets of this sample so I’ll pick someone who gives me some good tips to have the other set.
Things have a way of coming back to bite you. “I’ve never cancelled a workout,” I’ve been known to say. In the two+ years of my life as an athlete, I’ve been fortunate to not be sick enough to miss a workout (while I’m home anyway — I was miserably sick with a sinus infection while in Paris and Morocco last fall, but that was a scheduled deload time anyway).
Well, never say never. I came down with a viral infection so nasty last week that I cancelled all my weight training for the week, and skipped my mid-week boxing lesson (my new sport this month). I took off a whopping three days from working out and thought that was sufficient. Back to boxing I went Friday evening, telling myself the cardio would clear my nasal passages and maybe I’d even sweat out some of the sickness. For good measure I went for a lesson Saturday morning. Then I slept 11 hours that night and felt progressively worse all day Sunday.
Why? I didn’t listen to my body. After a drastic two and a half week diet getting ready for a photo shoot earlier in the month my usually robust immune system was fried. My body was exhausted. I work full time, train 5+ days a week, balance multiple freelance jobs and am planning two international trips. Eventually something’s got to give.
My husband, who came down with the same bug I did, listened to what I said, not what I did, and cut out his workouts. He’s feeling much better than I am now. We leave next week on a trip that starts with a five-hour car ride, followed by a 14-hour flight, plane change, six-hour flight, and arrival in a city that’s a 12-hour time difference. I want to go into that gauntlet as healthy as possible. And as difficult as it is for me to skip workouts, that’s just what I have to do. After work my body wants nothing more than to lie quietly on a couch or in bed and read or watch movies. I have to override the scared voice in my head that tells me I’ll get weak and soft by taking time off. I know perfectly well that I can take time off and still be strong. I was out for two months when I was injured, and came back stronger than ever! Still, it’s a loud voice and I really have to fight to drown it out.
I’m downing tons of water, eating lots of green and orange veggies, and taking my vitamins. Speaking of, now’s a good time to note that I did some traveling back in August that I thought for sure would end with me being sick, but — I think thanks to some super duper vitamins I was taking — I never felt the slightest bit puny. I had the chance to sample GNC‘s Women’s Ultra Mega vitamins, and I’m pretty convinced they kept me running when I was overdoing it. Duringthe month I took the fistfull of vitamins every day I flew out to San Francisco, slept (or not, actually) on a futon for several nights while attending a conference that lasted about 14 hours a day, ate nothing like my usual diet, then flew straight to Oregon for a camping trip for five nights, then back home and straight to work. I almost always get sick when I travel like that, but I felt healthy as a horse when I got back. My hairdresser also informed me I had an abundance of new curls coming in. I can’t be sure it was the vitamins, but the packets contained a cornucopia of health-boosting ingredients, so they couldn’t have hurt. In fact, maybe I need to get another month’s supply to as insurance for this next trip.
Either way, I’m going to listen to my body, be kind to it, and give it what it needs.
In which I wait in line for two hours to shoot a machine gun
I’m not a gun person. Not even a little bit. I was terrified the first time I shot one, so I shot a whole bunch in order to get over that. I worked on my aim a little over the summer with a trip to the Linden Sportsmen’s Club with the guys in my husband’s family and found that I’m terrible with a pistol, but fairly good, thank you, with a rifle with a scope. Even with that bit of practice under my belt though, and my brother (a licensed firearms instructor and gun collector) behind me, I was still a little shaky when I took the Tommy gun at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot.
Clearly the worker assigned to me was apprehensive about me as well, a tiny speck of pink in a sea of large and heavily armed men, as he took the gun away, explained how to stand, handed it back and told me where the trigger was. I may be wearing pink, I wanted to say, but I’m not a dumb girl. I know where the trigger is, I just don’t want to put my finger near it on a MACHINE GUN until I’m ready to fire. [Technically I shot a submachine gun, but whatevs]
I shot with some trepidation at first, then found it wasn’t so scary after all; in fact was kind of fun blasting away at a car, boat, washing machine and drinking fountain out on the range (even though I had no clue if I was hitting my targets). So I fired away for a moment, then wondered what the heck was wrong with the weapon. It wasn’t shooting anymore.
Turns out 40 rounds go extremely fast in an automatic. At $40 to rent it, that was the most expensive per-second entertainment of my life. But the adrenaline jolt was in line with the ticket price – my hands shook and my heart raced as I left the range.
I can’t speak to everyone else’s motivation for waiting in line to shoot a crazy-ass gun. But for me, shooting isn’t so much about learning the sport of target shooting as it is about facing fear. Guns scare me. A lot. And I guess there’s not a scarier gun than a machine gun.
Walking the line between fear and adrenaline draws me to other sports; rock climbing, white water kayaking, and every time I find I can face a fear, I feel that much more equipped to take on the next challenge.
And bonus! I’m also now equipped to document my adventures in a new way – video. Thanks to the super cool people at GoPro, I can now record this quest to share in living color. I’m still learning how to use it (and the Mac and iMovie I got to edit) but I foresee a LOT of fun with my new tiny and amazing camera.
I wasn’t involved in sports or athletics as a kid (except for a year in 7th grade as the last cheerleader to learn every move). Knowing what I know now about how transformative athletic training can be, and what an incredible boost to self-confidence it is, I wish I could go back and do a lot more in sports. I can’t, but I can help kids who would really benefit from athletics.
I’m going to pull a plane for the Special Olympics. A 147,000-pound UPS Boeing 757 cargo plane!
Ok, so not all by myself I’m joining the team at my gym, Absolute Fitness, to raise money for Special Olympics Kentucky. Will you go to this page and make a donation to support this fantastic cause? Even $5 will help. My goal is $250 by next Friday. Thank you so much for your support!
Go here to donate
Paris is a magical place. In many ways of course, but in one very particular, and very happy way. I can eat as much as I want there and not gain an ounce. How can this be? you ask. I ask too. And there’s no logical answer. Yes, I walk a lot. And on my weeklong trip last week I rode a bike several miles a day. But really, I checked the math on an exercise calculator, and the numbers don’t add up.
I ate every day as if it were my last day on earth. Macarons, oozy creamy cheeses, piles of baguettes and croissants and pain au chocolat, cafe creme with sugar, desserts every night, wine with lunch and dinner and before dinner and after dinner, sausage, steak, pasta, and did I mention daily foie gras? Honestly, I ate so much that one day I went to the pharmacy for something for an upset tummy. But I want to devour Paris, and since I ate with utter reckless abandon. One day I ate an entire wheel of Camembert. Fried. As my first of three courses.
And when I got home I weighed precisely the same as when I left. Now I don’t like to weigh – when you’re building muscle the scale doesn’t really mean that much, but I wanted a basis of comparison. So I weighed and I measured my waist before I left, and not only did I not gain weight, my circumference even shrank a bit.
So yes, I walked a lot. I rode a bike. I climbed 700 stairs on the Eiffel Tower. I even did a pretty tough workout with a fantastic personal trainer from Waite fitness. But all that could have only been a drop in the caloric bucket. The only reasonable assumption I can make is that it’s magic. The magic of Paris. Clearly I must move there.
I tried camping once. My husband and I registered for a tent and camping gear when we got married, with high hopes of romantic camping trips – on his part. I’m not a camper. We set up the summer we were married in my parents’ back yard like a couple kids at a slumber party. When the first creepy crawly bug joined us I fled the tent for the safety and comfort of AC and a bed in my parents’ guestroom. I don’t remember what ever happened to the tent.
I’m headed now on an assignment to camp in southwest Oregon. For five days I’ll raft the Rogue River, and spend my nights with nothing between me and the wild outdoors but a sleeping bag and a tent. I’ll have no internet, cell, electric, or shower from Monday morning to Saturday night. My job is to write a candid account of the experience for the outfitter’s catalog. O.A.R.S. is an adventure company that guides travelers on adventures around the world. They wanted a travel writer with no camping experience for this assignment, and I definitely fit the bill!
With almost no time to think about it – I got the assignment the night before I left for a writing conference in San Francisco – I threw some things in a backpack, and tossed and turned all night with excitement and apprehension about both trips (I’d be heading straight to Oregon from San Francisco). What had I committed to? I require three pillows, a fan, and a 68-degree room in utter darkness – preferably on a pillowtop mattress with 100% cotton 600 thread count sheets — to sleep. I smooth Dior skin cream on my face daily, don’t leave the house without mascara, and I’m addicted to social media. And I’m seriously headed accoutrement-free into a river that runs through Hellgate Canyon, so named for its resemblance to the gates of hell during flood season? I’m going to pitch a tent at night? Bathe, such as it is, in the river?
It seems I am! A frenzied shopping expedition online with my order shipped to San Francisco has outfitted me with hiking shoes, a rainjacket and a headlamp (which I’m given to understand will come in handy when I need to leave my tent at night to step behind the bushes). I’m taking a great book to read, a notebook and pens, and a mind most curious to discover how I’ll react to this altogether new and unusual world I’ll inhabit this week.
Two years ago I don’t think I’d have had the nerve; wouldn’t have trusted in my own gumption to stick it out. I’ve learned though, that I can do whatever I decide to do. Nevertheless, wonder is tinged with a fear I try to suppress. What if my back hurts jouncing along on a multiple-day whitewater rafting expedition, or is even re-injured? Then there’s the toe I learned a week ago has arthritis and a bone spur. I was limping painfully before I left. A steroid shot and some prescription anti-inflammatories are helping a bit, but what will happen when I hike for hours along a rough trail? What if I get a migraine? Or sick? And I’ll miss my husband terribly.
But behind all those worries is determination, and an urgent need to live the life I want to live, not the one that worry consigns me to. The media detox will do me good. Five days in the wilderness with fellow adventurers, endless trees, blue sky, sunshine, wildlife, and a rushing river my companions is a beautiful respite to the many hours a week I spend eyes trained on a computer. Time in the evening to just think – free of distractions like glowing screens and piped in entertainment – may lead to any sort of revelation. Or none at all, which is ok, too. Just clearing my mind may be quite enough. I might work out, but I’m not to stressed about keeping to a program or a schedule. I’ll eat what’s in front of me, not fretting if it’s white carbs or an extra helping of dessert. Even without my presence on Facebook or this blog, the world will keep on spinning. And will be waiting, just where I left it, when I emerge from Rogue River.
Fear often keeps us from what we want, whether it’s a major life change or the perfect photograph.
I attended an amazingly good travel writing conference this weekend, one packed with some of the most important movers and shakers in the field. The faculty was chock full of editors and agents and writers I wanted to meet.
Besides offering the opportunity to learn to be a better writer, the conference promises connections that could well help a writer land assignments they’d never snatch otherwise. But the faculty doesn’t necessarily come running, open arms, to random conference participants. I’d have to muster the nerve to walk up, introduce myself, and engage in hopefully witty and memorable banter so they’d recall me later when my pitch lands on their desk.
I’ve never been good at that kind of thing. I’m a lively, mile-a-minute talker when you know me, but planting myself in front of a stranger, especially one who has the ability to give me career-making assignments, is flat terrifying. It’s far easier to skulk around, linger back, and twiddle with my phone while the gutsier writers attach themselves to these people.
But on the first afternoon of the conference, a talented and immensely successful photographer (we’re talking National Geographic) fielded a question one of the participants put forth. “What if I see a great shot of a person while I’m traveling and I’m uncomfortable taking their photo?” I waited for his answer.
“Get over it,” he said. And moved on to the next question.
I liked that about this conference. Honest, no BS answers. An editor at a major travel website told us, and I quote, “sometimes writers not as good as you will get assignments because they are ballsier than you. They have teflon skin and ‘no’ rolls off. They keep coming back and pitching. The shy, sensitive writers give up.” I’ve lamented, and even cried, more than once lately at the number of rejections I’ve endured. But his words were a challenge. You don’t break a powerlifting record by being meek and giving up. You don’t work your way up to 10 chin-ups, or a single arm push-up, or a double body weight deadlift by listening to the voice that says you can’t do it.
So with both these lines of wisdom in mind, I applied myself to the conference like I have to my workouts. When I could catch a faculty I wanted to meet, and that “oh, I can’t bother them, what will I say, I’m going to annoy them” refrain began, I told myself to get over it. And before I left, I’d met with every one I’d wanted to. I’d lunched with them, had dinner, tasted bourbon, joked, shared stories and found that they are just people too. Yes they live the life I crave and are immensely successful, but they’re also just people. And regardless of what opportunities may or may not arise from these connections, I’m proud that, scared or not, I got over it.
I’d like you to meet Holly. We’ve worked together, traipsed around Italy, Greece and Turkey together, cooked and ate together, and in general had more adventures than our fair share. We have inside jokes, can talk for hours on the phone (or in a car careening around Monaco), and when I was at my lowest point this winter after being injured, spending a month and a half at home, having surgery and losing powerlifting, she showed up at my door as a complete surprise (she lives an hour and half away) bearing one of my very favorite dishes, bagna cauda.
I was able to forget for a while how much I hurt and how sad I was, as Holly let me regale her with travel stories, laughing her head off at my tales. I don’t think she realized how much her visit meant to me, but I hadn’t laughed in weeks. She’s like that — always giving, always helping. So when she decided it was time to start giving back to herself, and taking better care of herself, I was honored she would ask for my help, and couldn’t wait to help guide down a path I knew she would love.
I’m not a coach, nutritionist, or any other sort of health and fitness professional. But what I could offer was support, encouragement, accountability, and sharing tips for things that have worked for me. Right from the start she was willing to try everything I suggested, and did what I said to do, even when she thought it was crazy. (I’ll never forget the night I gave her 100 burpees and she texted me periodically throughout the evening to tell me how many she’d done, until she finished. I’ve never seen such determination!) I mainly hoped she would find how amazing it felt to challenge your limits and to grow stronger. Luckily we’re good enough friends that I could be stern and demanding, and push her hard, and know she wouldn’t hate me for it.
It’s been a couple of months or so now, and I couldn’t be more proud of or happy for my friend. She has made significant changes that aren’t easy for anyone, stuck with it even when life intervened, acknowledged when she did backslide and worked on ways to continue to improve her approach to health and fitness. And last night she texted me a photo of her first weights that she’d just bought! I can see why people like to be trainers — it’s w wonderful feeling to know I had any part of her success. We haven’t been able to work out together yet, but she’s coming over in three weeks and I can’t wait to hit the garage gym together!
I asked her to write a guest post for my blog and share what the experience has been like for her so far. Here, then, is Holly.
Why did you decide to make a lifestyle change?
Because I was tired of being stagnant and average. AND…I needed something different, challenging, something to shift my attention to.
What goals did you set at first?
Reduce the sugar intake – whether it be in drinks or food. Drink 2 32oz bottles of water a day. Exercise 5 days a week – and actually just be more active period. Setting a 1200 calorie diet and using a phone app to track it (and my exercising.) And just being able to cross my legs without having to hold it to keep it from slipping (stupid, I know but it’s true.)
What was the hardest change you made?
Honestly….none of the changes I’ve made thus far were hard. Once one makes the decision to do it just happens effortlessly. And I made the decision to stop eating the foods I had been eating. A friend of mine (you) gave me some tips on how to make some good protein packed energy foods and not snack. But the workouts I do are extremely hard (to me) but hard in a good way – just challenging and that’s what I want.
I want to push myself to my limits (which change as I get stronger with each exercise) and be sore the next day. So hard = good!
What kept you going?
Honestly…one thing kept me going and still keeps me going. One thing that I would rather not mention. Just pushing through…that’s all.
Love the feeling of accomplishment – for nothing other than just knowing I can do it.
What was the most fulfilling change you made?.
Exercising to the point of actually pushing myself and making it a challenging workout. Not your average everyday leisure exercising. I actually look forward to sweating and I don’t like “not” exercising. But I don’t think of it as exercise…I think of it as a hobby, just something I do in my free time – like going to the movies.
What results did you see first?
My lack of craving sweet foods and even food in general during the day. Then…I noticed I could start taking my pants off without unbuttoning them. Honestly…that was a shocker one day. I guess I just kept going and going and then realized that my pants don’t fit anymore and were literally hanging off me.
What goals have you met?
Putting a stop to my sweet tooth and eating so much sugar!! That was number one. Honestly…I used to CRAVE birthday cake and want to actually go to the store for just that. But now…I have a slight craving maybe once a month? HUGE goal for me. 1200 calories a day (switched it up by adding a few hundred calories here and there), I’ve drank more water in the past 3 months than did all year LAST YEAR, and I can now cross my legs effortlessly.
What are your next goals?
I need to sit down with my trainer and come up with another set of goals. I’m thinking endurance, something different, outside of the box. Not sure yet.
What would you say to people who also want to make a change and want to know how you have done it?
“BECAUSE I’M EATING GOOD FOOD AND EXERCISING MORE DUMBASS!!!! It’s not rocket science. It’s common sense!!” That would be my no holds bar response. But…honestly…my response would be “You know what to do, you just need to put your mind to it and make the decision. It’s not whether you CAN do it or not, it’s WHETHER you want to or not and what your priority is.”
What’s the best part about changing your lifestyle?
It’s not the compliments that I get – “OMG, you look so skinny” because ‘skinny’ is not what I’m going for and I’m actually pretty shy about that and don’t like that type of attention. I don’t do the stuff I do for others or to get the attention. It’s not the fact that my clothes fit better and that I’ve actually been able to go buy new cuter stuff. And not even that I just feel better all around. This may sound weird (I would probably roll my eyes if I heard someone say this too – so it’s ok if they roll theirs at me) but
I feel more empowered. Realizing this is my life and it is what I make of it – and I have the power to make that CHOICE.
As much as I love our garage gym and as amazing as my trainer is now, I really, really miss being around powerlifters. When I saw my husband’s old classmate from Flint, Michigan, was opening a barbell club, I immediately started following along on facebook. This looked like a cool place – exactly the kind of club where I’d want to work out.
I wrote to one of the partners, Marvin Coleman, who’d graduated with Brian’s sister (after noticing we had several Facebook friends in common – strength sports is a small world) and he was kind enough to ask me some questions about my powerlifting background, injury, and current training. He asked to see a video of my bench, and invited me to train with him when we went up to Michigan. He was the USAPL coach for the men and women open bench team so needless to say I jumped at this opportunity.
I’ve been doing the Wendler 5/3/1 bench program and seeing great progress, and luckily the timing worked out that I would try for a new max while I was there.
I walked into the gym with my husband and my nephew (who’s a very strong 13 year old that would make a great powerlifter) and felt immediately at home. With the back garage door open, sunlight poured into the space full of all the equipment a powerlifter, bodybuilder or MMA fighter (they all co-exist here) would need. I love the smell of a gym in the morning! Seriously, this is a dream gym.
Marvin asked me to warm up like normal and try my max. Despite the bench itself being a Cadillac among benches, I was nervous, and when Brian handed me the 105 pounds, I knew immediately I didn’t have it. We still haven’t worked out his hand-off technique, and I fight him for the bar. That’s no excuse, but it affects me. I was really disappointed. Since coming back from being hurt I’ve wanted to get back to my previous max of 105. With my feet up on the bench it takes a lot more upper body strength than it did before, but it’s been a milestone in my head to tell me I’m back.
“Do you want to try it again my way?” Marvin asked. That’s why I was there, so back to the bench I went, with a new, much wider grip, the bar aligned lower over my chest, and a tshirt rolled under my back to allow a little arch while still supporting my spine. It felt bizarre. Negative thoughts crept in that there’s no way I could mix things up, go back through another warmup, and have enough left to hit 105.
But we kept at it, adding another shirt to the roll under my back, Marvin guiding the bar out to where he wanted it when my autopilot brought it back up nearly over my head. I got up to 95 pounds and did three. Surely I’d have nothing left. Not for nothing has this guy coached at a high level though.
“If you can hold 155 pounds for 10 seconds you can bench 105, no problem,” he said. And sure enough, the guys loaded 155 – a weight I’d never have dreamed I’d hold above myself – and I braced myself against the weight.(My abs were incredibly sore the next day!) I made it 10 seconds. A rest, and back under the bar with 105 — which suddenly felt light. So wrapped up in the experiment we’d just done, I didn’t even really think. I just listened for Marvin’s cues, lowered the bar, paused in true competition style at the bottom, being sure not to relax, and started pressing. With some grunting and a lot of pushing, the bar slowly, if slightly crookedly, rose under my own power.
I’d done it! And, as Marvin was quick to remind me, I’d done it after two warm-ups, a failed attempt, and ten seconds under 155 pounds. “You’re strong,” he said. “It was all mental. And technique.”
Then we had the thrill of working out with Marvin and the other lifters. I was at least as excited, if not more, than my nephew, to be training alongside guys who are moving upwards of 500 and 600 pounds on the bench. I wasn’t originally trained by a powerlifter so this one morning at the gym was like going to school. I wish I’d known the right set-up a year ago!
It was a great feeling to have reached my goal. This was the first goal I set for myself after surgery, and I did it ahead of schedule. It will do wonders for my confidence. But even better was working with Marvin and the guys (and gal) at Flint Barbell. They took me seriously, went to a lot of trouble to help me, and Marvin is going to help both Brian and me with a program and wants to see us back in a few weeks. I walked in a newcomer, with lingering feelings of being broken, and walked out feeling like a lifter again. And with a cool Tshirt, to boot!
The next best thing to my PR was getting to bench 135. Even with three boards I would have never thought I could move that much weight, but it was SO FUN. My long term goal is to bench that much without boards!
Check out a very cool video feature on Olympic athletes, a definitive study on whether or not carbs make us gain weight, tons of smoothie ideas, and recipes using vegetables in place of pasta (hint – the study was not happy news to pasta-lovers).
I wish I’d taken time with all the reading I’ve done on strength training and fitness over the past couple of years to save it all somewhere. But I’m starting now with my Libreeze. And I’ll share my findings once a week (or so) with you.
My ‘weekly reader’ this week has articles on pain tolerance, a strong woman in the news and some tasty recipes, among other things.
You’ll see something new on my blog soon – a library. The library was my favorite place in the world when I was a kid. In retrospect I wish I’d spent a little more time being physically active, and maybe not quite so much time reading, but that’s ok. I still love libraries, and am an obsessive collector of information.
Since discovering how much I love to challenge myself, I’ve added fitness, strength and nutrition to the rundown of topics I keep up with through RSS, Facebook and Twitter. There’s a lot of garbage on the internet, but in the past couple of years I’ve curated my sphere of information to some pretty good stuff. What I haven’t had all along was a good way to file all the great articles I read. Now I do. There’s a new digital library software called Libreeze™. and I’m joining up with them to create a collection of the online content that I find the most useful and valuable in my own ongoing education.
My library will include tons of articles, videos, photos, and my own entire collection of blog posts. You’ll be able to browse, search, and find content that I recommend super easily. My collection will grow quickly because I’m constantly finding things that smart people have to say.
I hope you’ll find it useful. Let me know what you think – and do tell me if there are resources you use that you’d recommend I include.
I wouldn’t have been more surprised if I’d woken up with my head stapled to the carpet.*
I’ve been carrying around a desolate feeling that I’m weaker than before. Before I was hurt I worked out five, six days a week. An hour was a short workout. Two was more like it. I knew I was strong. Of course I did – I could measure it any time I liked with barbells. And barbells were king. Then I got hurt. I had surgery. I lost weight — muscle. I spent a lot of weeks out of the gym.
And when I went back to my new gym, it was for only three days a week. Half an hour, 40 minutes tops. Bustin my arse, yeah. But on machines, mostly. Some free weights – I still bench, get some skullcrushers in once a while. I use dumbbells for lunges and curl. But mostly it’s machines.
No way could I be as strong as I was before. Not after how weak I had become being hurt, out of commission, scaling back my workout time, and having to give up chinups, my favorite upper body workout, because of the pressure they put on my spine. Of course I wasn’t as strong. How could I be?
Well. Don’t call it a comeback. I been here for years.
At the peak of my training, last summer I reached my goal of 30 push-ups. One time, and I was never able to again. I wasn’t interested in proving to myself how much less strong I am now than then, so I never tried maxing once I got back to doing pushups. I kept doing my machine work though, lat pulldowns, rows, tricep pushdowns, preacher curls, a bunch of stuff I don’t even know the name of, with unknown weights because my trainer picks the weight and I don’t worry about it, I just work as hard as I can with what he loads.
Today I had to do a challenge for an UnderArmour contest I’m taking part in, I had to video a workout with a friend. Lauren, the beautiful badass married to my trainer, was a good enough sport to do the challenge with me after she completed her own workout. We decided on pushups.
I was afraid of being totally blown away, but I couldn’t think of a good reason to refuse. So off we went. 15 went by easily. Then I had to work. Then my arms got quivery, wanted to give out. Then I hit 30. I wanted to best my previous max. 32. “Five more and that’s my age!” I thought. My arms shook more with each one, and I feared I might just wipe out on the bottom of 37, but after taking a big breath my stronger-than-I-knew arms came through for me and I made it. SEVEN more push-ups than my PR from my most badass days of powerlifting! [video if you want to kill a minute and a half]
I was flabbergasted. Truly. I knew I’d been working hard, but to get unquestionable proof that not only am I not weaker now, but that I’m significantly stronger — that was a much needed reset for my outlook. It’s been a fight to not feel sorry for myself for losing so much of what I had. Turns out, it was there all along.
And after the workout following this revelation, when my trainer (not a guy given to hyperbole) said that I’m strong an an ox, I believed it.
I think I’ll go for 38 on my birthday in a couple months : )
I like power. I like it in myself, and I like it loud and throaty in a car. One with a V8, to be exact, one with kicked up catback exhaust and K&N air filters, 17 inch tires, a five speed manual transmission, and close to 300 horsepower. I like it in my new-to-me Mustang GT convertible.
I like driving a car with power. I like shrieking with delight and hope that a cop’s not around as I accidentally peel out from a red light. (I like red lights, too, when I’m the first at the light). I like the pause between (loud) songs so I can revel in that deep rumble of the engine ready to leap out from under me if I put my foot flat. I like making the trip from point A to point B as much about the fun of the journey as it is the destination. I like leaving other drivers sitting as Black Betty (yes I named the car) streaks past in a frenzy of shifting gears and crimson tail lights. I like a connection with the road, hair frothing in the wind, a grin splitting my face as I find joy in a new place.
I like thinking of driving as not a chore but a sport – one that takes as much skill and precision as any athletic endeavor. I think I’d best get myself to a track soon.
I read a great quote at the Muhammad Ali Center. So great that I didn’t think I’d need to write it down because surely I’d remember it. Well, just like I can’t remember a joke (I either remember it all but the punch line, or nothing but the punch line – not very helpful) I can’t remember the quote. I hope someone will recognize it and jump in. The gist of it was this: It’s the work you do after you want to quit, the extra mile, I suppose, that really counts, that really makes a difference. I really wish I could remember the words, but the meaning of it really stuck with me.
And it pushes me still. Especially when I hear the dreaded words from my trainer, “now we work.” I hear this only when I’ve reached the point that I don’t think I can do another rep, and I know it means I’m not done yet.
“Now we work,” he says as my muscles burn and quiver and I want nothing more than to drop the weight and just crumple into a heap on the floor. “This is when other people stop. But this is when you WORK!”
A few days ago I wanted to do something besides the hellish uphill and downhill weighted lunges I do for legs. So I got to take the stairs — two at a time coming up — with a 25lb dumbbell in each hand. Over and over. With my new machine squats in between, just to be sure I was frying my legs. With a lot of the workouts I do, I can keep pushing myself because I know nothing will happen if I stop, so I tell myself I’ll go until I fall. Stairs were a different matter. If I go until I can’t I likely will take a fall. But after a few rounds of this, when my legs were spaghetti, and I was breathing like a freight train, the magic words came. “Now we work.”
That’s my cue to muster up some reserves from somewhere, dig in, ignore the pain, and just. keep. going. Because the happy side is that those words mean I’m *almost* done. It may be the worst part, but it’s the part that’s closest to lying down. And if I hear those words it’s a guarantee that when my breathing has slowed and I’m no longer seeing spots that I’m going to feel absolutely amazing – strong, unstoppable, flying high. And that’s why I work.
If there’s one thing I’m sure of in life it’s that nothing comes to those that sit around and wait.Going for something may not mean you’ll get it, but you’ve certainly got a lot better chance than if you do nothing.
It can be scary, going for something. Especially something big. In a lot of ways. You wonder if you can do it. You wonder if other people are thinking “who does she think she is, anyway?” But if that stops you, then you probably weren’t going to get whatever you’re striving for anyway.
Audacious may be scary, but it’s a lot more fun. A lot more exciting. And a lot more gratifying than wondering, “what if I had tried?” Being audacious means no excuses. You’ll never fail if you don’t attempt. So it can be tempting to never try.
I tried something pretty audacious tonight. And I was flat terrified. I’m trying to make something happen, and though I have a pretty good history of making things happen when I want them badly enough, this one took new reserves of guts.
I need a video for this particular project, so I hired a very talented and creative young filmmaker, wrote — for the first time — a script (and my eternal thanks go to my friends who read it and gave constructive feedback), sat in a makeup chair for over an hour, then pulled up a seat, killed a bourbon and ginger, and faced the camera.
Directly addressing a camera ranks right up there with getting under the bar for a max attempt. My heart raced and my insides quivered, but I had to stay calm (or at least project non-psychotic enthusiasm anyway), remember what I wanted to say, smile while saying it, and not do any of the million things you can do to flub up on film.
Then I got to do some fun stuff — stop in some restaurants, try some food, and hit my old gym, where I thought it would be a good idea to climb a rope for the video. I have climbed a rope exactly once, well over a year ago. I had no idea if I could still do it. And it was a very long rope. The ceiling looked very far away.
Despite the best instruction from the super helpful coach working at the time, I could not get the hang of positioning my feet correctly. Which meant I had to haul myself up hand over hand, using nothing but my upper body. I knew I wouldn’t have it in me to do two takes, so I had to do it in this one attempt. I couldn’t even worry about what I looked like or how red my face must be. I just kept reaching and hoisting myself up way up that rope, which went even further than it looked from the ground. And I did it. I didn’t touch the ceiling, but the difference in when I did it a year ago and now is I can judge my strength reserves better now, and I knew if I made the one more reach it would take to summit that I would have trouble getting down. The last thing I need is to crash to the floor so I scrambled down, exhilarated and grinning ear to ear.
I can climb the rope. I can make a video.
I can be audacious.
Ever seen a racy car — a Ferrari or Lamborghini or some such with a V12 and zillion horsepower? Sleek, shiny, 0 to 60 in 0.001 seconds? Or close enough, at any rate. Then come to find out, it’s a kit car. The outside looks fabulous, but it’s no faster than your average teenager’s muscle car. You have to wonder — what’s the point?
I will get back on track, but these days I’m having a bit of a wallow in self-pity because I’m starting to feel like a kit car. Sure, I’ve got muscles. Thanks to the paces my trainer puts me through my triceps and biceps are popping more than they ever did before. I feel like freaking Popeye. My legs are like rock and my back is getting carved up. But it feels like it’s just for show.
Back when I was powerlifting sometimes I wished I could work on the showy muscles, but really I was so happy to be strong it didn’t matter. I loved being strong, loved what it did for me, the confidence it built, the sense of being able to tackle anything. Now that I can only lift weights in a controlled environment, under supervision, I don’t see the point as much.
What good is being strong if you don’t use it? Before, my arms looked like they did because I did a million chin-ups, one of my most favorite exercises. I can’t do chin-ups anymore, so I build my arms with machines, bicep curls, and funky push-ups with one hand elevated (even then on my knees to protect my back). My muscular back came from the king of full-body exercises; deadlifts — now I have to carefully work it in sections, so the muscles are machine built. And we won’t even talk about squats. As exhilarating (and scary — my hands were shaking, my heart racing) as it was to get under the bar for some heavy Smith machine squats last week, I know full well that those dozen reps at 165 pounds aren’t equal to one real squat at 165. And I’m still nowhere near over the loss of my sport.
Maybe if I were interested in bodybuilding or physique competitions it would be different, but I loved strength training for the simple fact that I loved getting strong. When I can’t carry heavy things now for fear of re-injury, and I can’t try nearly all the sports I want to learn for the same fear, I see less and less point in being strong. I still prefer a muscular look to a skinny or soft appearance, but that’s really not enough. I don’t want to be a kit car. I want something useful and amazing under the hood.
My husband tells me to give it time, that it’s only been three months since surgery. But I still can’t even do so much as jump rope, I’ll only ever deadlift in my dreams (which I do) and I’m lucky/maybe even tempting fate to even be using a machine so loathed by real weight lifters for my new ‘squats.’ It’s a constant battle to find challenging workouts that won’t damage my spine further. Since the surgery didn’t fully repair the damage to begin with, I can’t take risks any greater than I already am. And that’s the worst of the injury’s legacy. Strong = limitless. And now I push up against limits every day.
Do kit cars ever get to transform into real supercars?
I’ve told a lot of my story on this blog, about my brief shooting star in powerlifing, the too bright-too soon star that crashed and burned. But there was a lot that I didn’t talk about, here or anywhere. Until my story in Elle magazine on this experience came out this week.
Runaway Train: What happens when a sport changes your life-and then you can’t do it anymore? Carried away by the power of powerlifting, Dana McMahan discovered new abilities and hard limits.
Writing this story and dissecting the experience in the weeks following my injury and surgery served as therapy (helpful, since there are no sport psychologists where I live). It was also profoundly painful (have you ever poured alcohol on an open wound?) because it required an unflinching look at my issues; an analysis of truly why I kept going when I knew I was hurt. We all have issues, but we don’t all write about them in a magazine with more than a million readers. Let me tell you, it’s freaking scary. I had nightmares in the days leading to publication.
So if you read it, I’d like to give you an online addendum. I only got 2,000 words and could have spent that on just the great stuff alone. The dysfunction -– my own and that in the relationship with my coach — could have used another 5,000. (For that matter, my editor said this was a book, not a single article!) Luckily I don’t impose a word count on myself here.
I spoke with some very insightful sport psychologists during my research, and while unfortunately the word limit meant we didn’t get to include some of their quotes, they had quite an impact on me so I want to share them here (especially for female readers, who are – I learned– at more risk).
“With a personal training relationship, it can be hard to clarify and hold to important boundaries,” says sport psychology consultant Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Athletic Coaching Education at Western Virginia University College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, and a former weightlifting coach herself. “There is the potential for dysfunction to occur… more likely in someone with lower self esteem, less experience, who hasn’t received the kind of approval they needed in other areas of life. Women are also more likely to fall into this area, particularly when we are talking about a physical activity realm, an area that many women don’t get a lot of support or encouragement in.”
She went on to say, “Athletes will put up with emotional abuse that in any other setting they wouldn’t tolerate,” she says, “because the coach holds the key to elite performance and achievement.”
“People coming in with low self esteem looking for surrogate confidence and approval … it’s a dysfunctional place for the athlete because the center of confidence is coming from an external motivator,” she says. “They’re crushed when the coach isn’t happy and on cloud nine when he is.” (She said this without even knowing that the day I finally hit my goal of bodyweight bench press, instead of celebrating, I cried on my drive home because my coach hadn’t been excited – he’d said I should have done more.)
“The person wraps up their whole being in the sport and the coach, believing ‘they’re the one that knows best for me.’ The athlete loses the ability to listen to that little internal voice. When the coach is not aware or doesn’t care … When he doesn’t understand the impact [he has] and the potential for damage, and you have an athlete who has low self confidence and puts the coach’s thoughts above their and own relinquishes control, you have a recipe for disaster.”
Though it’s sad to think that other people have gone through similarly painful experiences, it also made me feel immensely better to know that I wasn’t alone in my reaction to the situation.
While she helped me get some perspective on the coach-athlete dynamic, Eddie O’Connor, Ph.D., a clinical sport psychologist at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, shed light on my inner drive to keep going.
“You were getting something so incredibly powerful and rewarding that met such a tremendous need of power,” he says. “And you just kept wanting to feel that.” He compares this compulsion to the inclination to speed through a yellow light—a natural tendency for athletes, he says. “A lot of times you just want to close your eyes and muscle through.” But, he warns, speeding through as the light turns red often ends in a crash.
There was lots more, but word count or no, I know there’s a limit to what you will read!
I appreciate both of these experts talking with me. Although I wish we could have included their insights in my story, I hope it means something to them that speaking with them helped me a great deal. It helped me stop blaming myself (so much, anyway) and has equipped me to be healthier in my training and relationships moving forward.
I would’ve been nasty indeed if you’d told me a year ago my bench press goal for my birthday in 2012 would be my bodyweight. That was my goal last year (and I didn’t make it by my birthday – it took another month and a half).
But if you’d told me in February I’d be close enough to benching my bodyweight again in May to reach out and touch it, I just wouldn’t have believed you. (I’d have thought you were being cruel, too.) Everything seemed over in February. And there are plenty of days still when everything seems over; when I think about all the things I *can’t* do.
But one thing I can still do — albeit with the handicap of putting my feet up on the bench to keep my spine flat and protected — is bench press. Two months of muscles weakening while I was hurt, having surgery, and recovering, took a toll, as did losing weight in that process.
But I regained the weight, have been back to working out with increasing intensity for two months-plus now, and decided to restart my bench goals. And I’m starting with bodyweight by my birthday — 105 on August 29. And by the end of the year, I’m determined to hit 115. (side rant: I hate that I have to justify this, but that’s HYOOGE for me. Wanna have some fun? Go plug your numbers into this website. I love watching the little blue bar roll on up toward ‘elite’ when I plug in my goals)
I started the 5/3/1 program last week and had my second workout last night. And it feels amazing. Foremost, it doesn’t hurt my back. But that last set, the all-out for max reps — that just leaves me exhilarated, feeling like myself again. So much so that I’ve even come to peace with this reset that seems to be costing me about a year of progress. I guess the good thing about déjà vu is that I know if I did it before, I can do it again. (And this time I’ll get past that 105.)