Under the knife – coping with major sports injury

What happens when a triathlete suddenly can’t be a triathlete?

Physiotherapist taping up someone's kneeFifteen months ago, I tore up my left knee after a fall while hiking: meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament. Since last August I’ve been waiting for reconstructive surgery. I haven’t run a step since January 2014 when the injury happened, and it took several weeks to gingerly get in the pool, and several months to be able to get on my bike.

It’s been tough, especially since I was a runner first, and running is my main stress-reliever. It’s been my go-to for blowing off steam for as long as I can remember, because it’s so easy. No bike tires to pump up, no open pool lanes to find. Just lace up shoes and exit the front door.

“With people coming to sports as a way of moderating depression or stress, warding off illnesses like heart disease or cancer, or to lose weight, the stakes are higher. When injured, they not only have to deal with the pain and stress of being injured, but they have lost a primary coping strategy,” said one article I read (Tarkan 2000), and that has been very much my experience.

Last season I did a couple of relays, but it wasn’t the same. Triathlon is a sport in itself, because when you’re doing one leg, you’re always thinking of transition, and how the next phase of the race is going to be affected by what you’re doing now. That’s what I loved about both rock climbing and triathlon: the problem-solving.

And I haven’t been able to do it for more than a year. Once surgery comes, I will be in recovery for months more.

“It’s often said that being a triathlete is a life-style rather than a reflection of having raced in a triathlon. It is a cornerstone of a person’s identity and self-esteem … The unspeakable fear is, “What happens if full recovery never comes?” Serious injury can rattle the very foundation of one’s identity,” says a guy named, I kid you not, Dr. Charlie Brown in a blog post from 2000. As a result, many athletes can get clinically depressed after injury: “Research has shown that some of the more common psychological responses to injury (ie, depression, anger, anxiety) are amplified in cases of more severe injury, such as a traumatic ACL injury,” (McCardle 2010).

I have many friends who had major injuries requiring surgery, so I turned to some of them for this post, asking how they coped. Not surprisingly, the friends least prone to depression were the ones who immediately responded to my request.

My triathlete friend Connie has had two major surgeries in the last several years: to repair a hamstring avulsion (it was torn right off her sit-bone), and then a broken wrist.

My climbing friend Dave has had several surgeries: one resulting from a dislocated shoulder as a result of a fall, another a ripped biceps from a particularly strenuous move at a gym, and more recently some foot surgeries to deal with arthritis.

“There was a 7-day delay for the hamstring surgery because the first surgeon who was on call didn’t know how to do it,” said Connie in a text message. “This was June 2010, two weeks before the first Half Iron I was supposed to do …. I was in a specially constructed brace … I sat on the front porch for 8 weeks. Peter [her husband] would make me a pot of coffee, put cream and sugar in it and leave it in a thermos for me …. I was already signed up for the October Half Marathon. I shed exactly three tears, then started wondering from whom I could borrow a racing wheelchair. LOL. I didn’t get depressed but I did worry it’d never be normal again. I don’t think I realized how worried I was until my first “run,” which was about 8 minutes per K. I kind of lurched along.”

Let me just add here that Connie is one of the sunniest, friendliest, most fun-loving people I know, and I wasn’t surprised at all to hear that she coped well with this injury, which happened before I knew her. However, I did know her when she broke her wrist a couple of years later, and that was a little harder to deal with.

“The wrist was more debilitating than that. I had never been in so much pain and I completely underestimated the recovery that would be necessary. I knew I’d be in a cast for at least 6 weeks after surgery. And I was; that was all fine. I couldn’t cycle, even on the trainer, because I couldn’t hold myself up. I couldn’t run/walk because it swelled. I couldn’t do anything for myself,” she said.

It was when the second surgery to remove the pins happened that finally threw Connie into a funk. “I TOTALLY underestimated how that was ‘like another break’ because of the space left by the pin. Was in the cast 8 weeks and then 6 more weeks of recovery.

I lost 40% of my range of motion. For example, I can’t pull myself out of the pool by putting my hands on the side and hoisting myself up. I have only just gone down on the drops [while cycling]; it hurt for a long time and I think I was a bit depressed because I couldn’t even cycle. …. [But now] I am back to training … and it feels good!!!”

As for Dave (a retired teacher who lives in the Kootenays), after the second injury in 2001-2002, he never did technical rock climbing again, “I figured maybe it was time to quit. I started that stuff late in life, so it wasn’t a big deal. I realized I couldn’t climb the way I could before – but I never could climb very well. I was always uneasy about technical rock climbing. I learned a lot about movement of body and rope management though. For me it was almost a minor relief that I didn’t have to do that anymore. I got more into mountaineering.”

What has been more difficult for Dave is recovering from foot surgeries to correct the effects of osteoarthritis: “My feet have caused me big problems. They would be so painful after spending a day in the mountaineering boots.” Dave has had joints fused in three toes on one foot, and big toe surgery in the other one. “I’m just finished the recovery process and I’m still hiking and bushwhacking – but long days on rough terrain is becoming too hard. Although we trekked for three weeks in Nepal last year … as long as I can still hike it’s OK.”

Dave has never been the type of guy to let little things like injuries get in the way of doing what he loves – being out in the mountains. Both he and Connie are inspirations to me as I wait for my ACL reconstruction surgery. I can still walk a bit, and I can still cycle and swim. It’s an adjustment, but humans are adaptable.

Or, as Dave says: “If you get out and do anything, stuff happens. And then you get older, and different stuff happens. You just deal with it.”

Further reading:

Image: “Sports Injuries and Physiotherapy” by Durrah Ramli, used under Creative Commons License

Weekly picks March 15-21

I read a lot and I listen to a lot of podcasts. Here’s an annotated selection of what has caught my attention lately:


RadioLab – La Mancha Screwjob

One of my favourite podcasts, Radiolab manages sometimes to draw connections between things that you would think are utterly unrelated to each other. This episode connects the world of pro wrestling (which I have always thought of as soap opera for the hyper-masculinized) and Don Quixote by Cervantes (the tilting-at-windmills adventure which has always fascinated me).

Turns out (and it’s obvious when you think about it) they’re both meta-narratives, where the spectator is drawn into the story with a nudge and a wink, where to question the authenticity and veracity of the story is to ruin the experience. The question isn’t “Is this for real?” The question is “How can I, as an observer, fully engage in this wonderful, crazy journey?”

Caustic Soda – Turtles

I’m giving away my unorthodox sense of humour by outing myself as a Caustic Soda fan! This podcast is not prime-time listening. No topic is too gruesome, horrible, or cringe-inducing for these guys, but they’re also pretty funny and, more importantly, science-based. They do their research.

I’m a late convert to this 6-years-running podcast. I started listening after I met co-host Joe Fulgham at a Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub event a year or so ago. When I saw him again at the monthly downtown Vancouver SiTP last week, he said he was surprised there was enough grossness for a CS episode on turtles (I wasn’t!). Which got into a whole ‘nother string of grody animal husbandry anecdotes from people there. A good time was had by all.

Star Talk Radio – Star Talk Live! Evolution with Richard Dawkins Part 1

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is one of my favourite people, and this is one of my favourite podcasts. I include this show because I found out that Richard Dawkins is married to a former actress who was a Doctor Who companion, who actually ended up married her Doctor (Tom Baker) for a time. She was introduced to Dawkins by their mutual friend Douglas Adams. That is actually more impressive to me than Sir Richard himself. Mind. Blown.


New York Times – The Heartstopping Climbs of Alex Honnold, by Daniel Duane

I used to be a rock climber, but Honnold is in a staggeringly unique league of his own. He climbs free-solo (without ropes or protection) big, difficult walls that take others days to scale. I’m always intensely interested in free-solo climbers; mostly I wonder if there are any former such climbers who didn’t fall to their deaths. Maybe Honnold will be one of the few …

The Atlantic – What ISIS Really Wants, by Graeme Wood

When is a terrorist group more than a terrorist group? When it is motivated by religion rather than politics or thrill-seeking, and world governments would do well to study those motivations closely. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” My Political Science/Sociology background and interest in current events has not waned over the years.

Frank SidebottomFrank, by Jon Ronson

This short e-book is only CDN$2.99 on Amazon. It’s the true story of Frank Sidebottom, the strangest musical group you’d ever want to see, fictionalized to the nth degree for the 2014 movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender, and Domhnall Gleeson (as the Ronson-ish character).

And finally:

Using Trello for your Personal Productivity System

I’m trying out the Kanban productivity system, using Trello, while I’m between work assignments. So far I’m impressed – I love the visual aspect of it. Blog post to come later, when I’ve had more time to play around and evaluate.

Image of Frank Sidebottom by James, used under Creative Commons License.

Looking for another mountain to climb

I have news: I am no longer with Vancouver Community College.

I was their Director of Marketing and Communications for three months, and I can honestly say I’ve never learned so much in such a short period of time. It quickly became became clear that my vision for my role (and for the College’s direction overall) wasn’t in sync with my manager’s vision, so we agreed to part ways.

Mountain photoThere’s no blame and no hard feelings in all this. After successfully negotiating the terrain of VCC’s unique culture, and assessing where I want to be in my career and my life, I realized this was not my mountain to climb.

I am grateful for that experience, and for the 15 wonderful people who worked for me in the department. What a talented, creative group of professionals. I will miss them.

In the short term, I am looking at doing some consulting/freelance work while I search for the right full-time permanent opportunity. There are a few irons in the fire, and I want to be careful that the next full-time chapter in my career is a productive, meaningful, and longer-lasting.

I’m doing a lot of research and self-assessment. I’m throwing myself into my professional association, the IABC – BC chapter, by taking on a volunteer role (more on that later). I’m making a list of professional development activities and skills I want to brush up on: advanced social media analytics and measurement, for instance. And, of course, I am eagerly seeking out my next challenge.


Image credit: “cold mountain” by Paul Bica, used under Creative Commons license.