Friday, May 18, 2007

Desperatly seeking fitness

I had a talk with my doctor the Ironman triathlete today. He strongly discouraged complete inactivity as a healing option. His advice was exactly what common sense would dictate, but for some reason we pay professionals to tell us so ... if it hurts, don't do it. "But it's important to keep up with your fitness," he said. He told me the story of a patient of his in Ketchikan who has a similar injury. Our MRIs were nearly identical, he told me. The only difference - she contracted runner's knee while hiking on a steep mountain trail. I earned mine in a long, slow bike race. Now, she can ride a bike without even feeling that burning pain. I could hike up steep stuff all day as long as I was never required to come down. But neither of us can do the thing we love.

Despite this, I am actually still considering inactivity. From everything I've learned, it is probably the quickest path back. My current path of small cycling increments is mostly just an experiment in seeing how much pain I can deal with, now that I don't seem to be stiffening up as much as I used to. I know it's not the smart path. No one needs to tell me that. I don't see it lasting for more than a week, either. But I am curious to learn whether cycling is still an option, should my current condition persist indefinitely (there's no guarantee it won't. Even inactivity isn't sure-fire insurance against that.)

But the big question, the question I hear sometimes and ask myself often, is what is the big &%*#@ deal anyway? What is so bad about losing fitness? What is so great about cycling that I can't give it up for a few weeks or months, when that's all it might take at this point? All very valid questions. After all, there are so many worse things that could have happened. I am definitely both a lucky and selfish person, and the view from my front window reminds me of it every day.

Fitness is interesting in that it is a different thing to different people. I read about it in the magazines at my gym. To some, fitness is duty, with obsessive calorie counting and a daily slog through 30 minutes of cardio. To others, fitness is fine-tuned precision, with plastic balls and free weights and index cards. Fitness is routine. It is expectation. It is preparation. It is well-toned arms and that perfect snapshot once a year on a beach in Maui. It is an ego boost after beating co-workers in racquetball. It is hope against hope that life can be prolonged. It is a lot of things. And I respect and appreciate each and every one. But they are not my fitness.

My fitness is the drug that keeps me away from dark places. I may be lucky and selfish, but I'm not immune to depression. Maybe it was a questionable path to self-medicate with endorphins. I know they were tough to quit, sitting immobile on the couch as the darkness closed in. Addiction is one theory; coping is another. Humans were not meant to sit in little cubicles and spend sedentary days learning everything they can about all the meanness in the world. But that's how I chose to put food in my belly and shelter over my head. I love it, the news cycle, but sometimes I find myself lost inside of it. Fitness was my escape.

But it wasn't just that. It wasn't just about pedaling myself into an endorphin-pumping bag of chemicals, until all the images of war and famine faded into the background of my most immediate physical needs. Otherwise, it would be easy to take doctor's orders and just swim until my skin took on a translucent film and my thoughts projected nothing but calm fatigue. Fitness may be a good mental escape, but cycling was my literal escape. I couldn't help but feel wistful today when talking to my doctor about the places he rides. They were the places I used to go. I can only picture what they were like in the winter, because I haven't been back in a while. Berner's Bay. North Douglas. Even the Mendenhall Valley. My memories of the scenery, blanketed in snow and encased in silence, become more muted every day. And what I have left are blurring glimpses of a sunset or the shimmering reflection of sky on water. In my biking days, I would linger for a while and take a few photos. Now I just blaze by in my car, if I get outside at all, and I miss the way the landscape used to lock me in wonder.

It can be a destructive combo - an unfilled inclination to explore, a typically stressful job and pent-up energy. Losing fitness is not the end of the world. It never was. But the fact that I've let a simple, minor injury consume me says a lot about how much fitness meant to me.

"It's not like you're a professional athlete, not like this is your paycheck, your livelihood," my doctor said. (He was just joking. He's a nice guy. Really.)

But still ... who says it's not my livelihood?


  1. Hey there! Have been observing your knee trials for a while now....I had knee problems after being hit by a car (whilst riding my bike) stopped me from doing all kinds of things I love, plus hindered my job incredibly, I teach yoga, but slowly with patience and care I got it back to perfect.... Have you thought about trying yoga... it can do wonders if done properly with the right instruction and adequate care. From my own experience I rested totally for a little while until the worst was over, then I had to work at getting back flexibility ... took me weeks to get back into lotus, a position that had been so easy before. Good luck!

  2. I understand. So much of what I do physically is as much for my mental health as it is for my fitness. Take time off if that's what's going to allow you to get back to what you love. Oh, and great photos, as always!

  3. Jill,

    Your response to my comment a few days ago made my day; I felt like a giddy teenage fan who catches a glimpse of her idol. On medicine: even the best Doctors are frustrating to interact with. Here is the problem: Doctors are only experts in one thing, instrumental biological reasoning. They can tell you how to get what you want, given that you know what you want, and given that its get-able. Even that, they can't really tell you, since they never say "If you do this, this will (definitely) happen": they only know so much and are only willing to work so hard to find out. They can make a more educated guess than you can about the road between your current state and your desired state. But they can't tell you what state to desire. They often forget that, and couch their recommendations in absolute rather than conditional terms. They forget that their knowledge is indifferently the knowledge about how to live and the knowledge about how to die. They mistakenly assume that they have special right to say things like: health and painlessness are "goods" that everyone "should" pursue, you don't "need" to be doing such and such to your body, this circumstance is "not so bad," you "shouldn't" worry, you "have to" have this surgery, "it's important to" do X or Y or Z. But insofar as they say these things they are speaking as laymen, not as Doctors, and you have no reason to listen them over the man on the street. This is why, in some sense, there is no such thing as "following Doctors' orders." Doctors can't give you orders, or even advice. Your friends or mom or Rabbi can give you advice, and sometimes you should listen, and sometimes you shouldn't—there's no one to "follow" once you're a grownup. Relative to their epistemic status 50 or 1000 years ago, Doctors are very, very knowledgeable. Absolutely speaking, they are very, very ignorant. And theirs is an a kind of ignorance that no amount of technological innovation will ever erase.

    your comrade in frustration,

  4. "who says it's not my livelihood."

    Huh. A very good point. I've been struggling with injury for over a year now, and have used that doctor's very rationale on myself many a time. But, also yours in this last sentence. I've just never seen anyone else voice it before, and am feeling a bit of validation at the moment. Thank you.

    Swimming, biking, running ARE my livelihood in that the activity and pursuit of goals keep me "alive" in a sense and feed me. So, yeah, it's as important to me as the pros, even though they're in a completely different league.

    Best wishes to you, Jill. Keep persevering and soon this struggle will be a distant memory.

  5. Wow Agnes ...

    You made me blush. Thanks again for your comments. I have come to the same conclusion about doctors. They may know more about body mechanics than I ever will, but they don't know me. Keep in touch about your progress. I'm interested to hear how the comeback goes.


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