Find your x

When I first got injured, my main objective was information gathering. I wanted to understand the nature of my injuries and how to fix them. It was obvious from the start that the answers to those two questions were complex; what was not at all obvious was that 8 years later, even though I now know the nature of my injuries, I would still be trying to “fix” the injuries.

Early on, doctors all asked the same question “At your age how long do you expect to compete at the professional level?” I found that a terribly offensive way to begin a conversation. I was just over a year removed from winning a World Championship title, so it seemed to me I was not washed up quite yet. And, since when is my age a barrier to reasonable care and a desire to be healthy? (Alright, that’s a loaded question and a debate for another day). At that time, I was still a spry 39 years old, not at all ready to be put out to pasture.

In those early months, before I understood the permanence of my condition, I was still trying to salvage my triathlon career. I just didn’t know. As the years progressed, I have had clearly stated athletic goals, but they have always come secondary to my health. Tasks of daily living like eating, sleeping, breathing, and working have been severely impeded, so all treatments have been in deference to making those endeavors easier.

My quest to find answers never waned; what changed was my overall objective from various procedures. What happens often with chronic conditions is that you start making bargains, “If I can feel x% better, then I will be satisfied”. The x changes over time. At first x is 100, as in “I want to feel 100% better”. It slowly decreases to the point where x becomes smaller and smaller, as in “I want to feel 5% better. Yeah, 5%. That will help.”

I have struggled with x over the years. My pain and symptoms have oscillated up and down like a roller coaster and with those variations x has also fluctuated. X even changes on daily basis depending on flare ups. At some point, I came to terms with the fact that x will never be 100, but I always harbored hope it would be higher than 0. There’s a lot of territory between 0 and 100, and therein lies much of the weariness of dealing with chronic pain, deciding where on that spectrum is acceptable.

Some people track their daily pain by putting a number on their pain levels or by their ability to carry out tasks of daily living. Running has become my de facto pain tracker. When things are less bad, I am able to run more and when things are worse, I run less. It just seems so much better to think to myself, “well, I had a shit run today, but at least I got out the door” or “I ran 3 miles at a jog, but it was faster and more fun than 3 miles of walking” rather than “well, I felt like shit today” or “I could barely get out of bed”.

Dealing with pain can be less onerous when approached in a positive and realistic manner. Making x too big, for example, is a set-up for disappointment, just as telling yourself that you had a shitty day is a very negative way to recall how that day passed.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, I have been approved for surgery to correct widespread intercostal nerve damage. Based on the research papers that have been published on this procedure, my x will most likely cap out at 50, as in, this surgery will hopefully make me 50% better. That is realistic. Anything more is a bonus.

The second reason I bring this up is because my approach to dealing with my injuries is no different than how I approached my life as a professional athlete. I just stated above “Dealing with pain can be less onerous when approached in a positive and realistic manner.” Substitute the word pain with sports and you end up with “dealing with sports can be less onerous when approached in a positive and realistic manner.”

So much of the frustration and disappointment in sport comes from making x too big, “I want to improve by x minutes”. Then, in damage control mode, x becomes increasingly smaller which is no way maintain motivation over the long term. Now you’ve lost sight of x and then your training and racing experiences are spent focused on all that went wrong rather than anything that went right and the cycle of sports disappointment ensues. Find your x and work toward it in a positive manner.

Here’s the truth. You never appreciate your health until it is altered. The same goes for sports. You never appreciate your abilities until they go away. Our athletic lives are a gift. Do not squander that gift on negativity and improbable goals. The manner in which you approach sports is merely a dress rehearsal for how you approach life. Practice well.

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