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?