Learning about life through injury
I reached the summit of Mt. Whitney in early May, just a few days after putting in almost 50 miles on the Trans Catalina Trail. Less than a month later, I was lying inside an MRI machine dreading the painful quarter-mile walk back to the car from the hospital. Metaphorically, I was back at the foot of the mountain trying to figure out how I could reach the summit again.
Everything was going according to plan - my endurance and overall backcountry fitness had peaked right on time - until it was not anymore. I was a train that had reached top-speed just before a downhill and allowed momentum to take over. I exceeded my capacity and the wheels started falling off.
When I left special operations, in 2018, I knew that I would have to keep tabs on the nagging injuries I had accumulated over years of beating down my body. The shoulder injury, persistent plantar fasciitis and multiple bulging discs had become part of my daily reality and were hardly limitations for my passions of trail running, rock climbing and backpacking. I pushed on because that is what I had always done, not knowing that the pain was my body’s way of saying, “be better.”
I finally received the message when my body gave me no other options. I could barely manage a pain-free 10 minute walk and even my libido was gone. Fitness and adventure had become such an important part of my life that I felt without purpose. Yet, it was the people around me that suffered most - my wife, especially. I had to figure out a way to escape the miserable reality my mind was constructing. Just like I had done months earlier when putting together my backcountry training plan, I had to evaluate each aspect of my lifestyle and direct them toward a single goal. This time, the priority was healing my body and spirit.
Since most movement I was used to was no longer an option, I had to find manageable modalities for building mental and physical resilience. I started with a cold shower immediately after waking, which I am now absolutely hooked on. My morning yoga flow was replaced by a moment of stillness and breathing, focusing mostly on gratitude and positive affirmations to set the tone for the day. No phone or computer screens for the first hour or two of the day also boosted my mood and allowed for more time with my own thoughts. Each morning became an opportunity to learn about myself and foster the growth I needed. I had become comfortable in the most extreme and physically demanding situations, but was frail in spirit and uncomfortable with silence and stillness.
I have always been a bit of a book-worm, so I directed this passion toward healing as well. The bulk of my reading during this time consisted of topics related to health and adventure sports. I was able to learn about performance and nutrition, while keeping myself motivated and inspired by those out there putting in the work to live radically. From these books, I was able to build a comeback plan that would spare my body and mind from unnecessary stress, and, most important, ensure that I could get back in the backcountry and keep doing what I love for the rest of my life:
- Back Mechanic by Dr. Stuart McGill
- Gift of Injury by Brian Carroll and Dr. Stuart McGill
- Ready to Run by Dr. Kelly Starrett
- Becoming a Supple Leopard by Dr. Kelly Starrett
- Pose Method of Running by Dr. Nicholas Romanov
- Beyond Training by Ben Greenfield
- Primal Blueprint by Marc Sisson
- Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn
- Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich
- Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
- Meateater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter by Steven Rinella
- American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella
- Hunting Trips of a Ranch Man by Theodore Roosevelt
It took about 60 days until I was feeling like I could take off running through the wilderness again, and so I took about another 30 to practice patience and make sure I had a solid baseline before even thinking about targeting a project. I was hyper focused on the goal of healing during these three months and used every resource I had available to accelerate the process. My kitchen sink approach included comprehensive lab testing to determine the best path for improving my metabolic and hormonal health, a paleo-reset approach to nutrition with FDN-P guidance, PRP injections at the site of injury, daily walks and core exercises following the Stuart McGil “virtual surgery” protocol, quality time with friends and family, sunlight, earthing, 4-7-8 and box breathing, cold and heat exposure and the positive outlook that injury is an opportunity for personal growth.
As the year comes to a close, I reflect on the growth that I have been able to achieve during this recovery period. Yes, I missed the multi-day backpacking hunt I had been training and planning for because of injury. I was not able to continue building my endurance or swing my kettlebells as much as I would have liked. My overall fitness declined and it caused an identity crisis. Still, I would not be the husband, friend and athlete I am now if it was not for injury. Looking back, the things I missed would not have offered me the growth of what I actually went through. I admit, it is only on reflection that I can see this clearly but even that offers a lesson on faith and trust that I would not dare sacrifice.
I am grateful for injury because it has taught me more about myself than the most difficult physical endeavors I have experienced. That is, more mentally challenging than Pre-Scuba and Combat Dive School, and of more athletic value than Advanced Special Tactics training. The cadre of any special operations course I ever went through could not be as hard on me as I can be on myself. They did beat important lessons into me, but the most important lessons were the ones I had to learn on my own. There is nothing more valuable than having the demand for growth come from within, and that is what injury is: a sign from our body that we could do things better moving forward.
When VOG founder David Wood is proclaiming the warrior virtues on his Instagram it is because he recognizes the need for an improvement of character in our society. The benefit we are able to draw from being part of the collective is proportional to how much work we put in toward individual self-improvement. Without the drive for self-improvement, we diminish the potential of our selves and tribe. Our individual ability to recognize calls to, “be better,” is a skill more difficult to cultivate and more valuable than having the aptitude to stage an effective response. The greatest lesson of injury is to never be complacent and always know there is room for improvement.
Whether it is empty bar squats, heavy suitcase carries or a long-slow aerobic run, each movement must be treated with the same purpose of being better. How we move every time we get up from a chair or pick something up from the ground translates to how we move on the lifting platform, especially when fatigue settles in. Avoiding complacency means treating a light kettlebell like a heavy one, respecting mile one as much as mile twelve and knowing you have to earn the right to train another day.
As I return to endurance training, and begin to target new projects, I am grateful for the opportunity to be a better athlete. Each day that I get to train is an occasion for celebrating the life-long process of refining technique and establishing consistency. I know now that being at the foot of the mountain is better than standing at the summit, because personal growth is part of the journey. The best part of standing on peaks, anyway, is being able to appreciate the landscape and what it took to earn such a unique vantage point.
My focus in the upcoming year is on the climb rather than the summit. Sure, there are milestones that will allow me purpose in training and the ability to track overall progress, but I will strive to view the process as the reward. Thanks to injury, carrying my Dynami Sandbag during a morning workout can be as fulfilling as carrying a heavy pack out of the field. If it were not for slowing down to a walk, I do not know that a city training run would feel as liberating as running an end-to-end trail. When I strap my pack for the first approach of the year, or walk up to the starting line of a spring 25k, the purpose of my training will be achieved because I earned the right to experience the journey.
The motive for adventure and physical challenge is tied to the greater life-purpose of realizing opportunities for personal growth. Training our reward system to associate difficult processes with character development keeps us present when it matters and allows the “be better” message to come through. I seek challenge in wild places not as an escape from reality, but as a way to near the justification for our existence. We are here to grow and help others grow. However often we orient ourselves to receive that “be better” message reveals the amount of work we are willing to put in to move our selves and tribe closer to truth and triumph. I am fortunate that injury amplified the need for self-improvement, but I know that the message does not always come in so audibly. That is why I will continue to seek the wild, difficult and less chosen route to the summit - where the opportunities for growth are vast and the vantage point is well earned.