Friday, July 19, 2013

The Art of the Comeback, Part 1

Option A: Short, Succinct "Sprint" Version (highly recommended)

After shoulder surgery in January, I was incapacitated and lazy for a few months and became fat and out of shape. I was also planning my wedding to Alla which was in March. To light a fire under my ass I picked some big end-of-season races that offer legit competition. Goal is to go from broken and worst shape ever to healthy and BEST shape ever in the same calendar year. Impossible? No. Stoke Factor = All-Time High.

Option B: Long As Hell  "Endurance" Version (Long-winded inner monologue, stream-of-conscousness gooblygob, seriously not recommended)

The Art of the Comeback, Part 1: "I love it when a plan comes together"

On January 4th I went in for arthroscopic surgery to repair my jankity right shoulder (SLAP repair of my frayed/partially torn labrum with two anchors, Brazilian-wax "acromionectomy" (picture to the left) to remove bone spurs and impingement, synovectomy to remove Indiana Jones stalactites and stalagmites in the joint, etc. Biceps tendon at labrum was fine and rotator cuff had serious PTSD but was  totally intact thankfully).


Due to the "unfortunate" combination of the shape of my acromion, along with congenital laxity of my joints, I have been dealing with joint pain and injuries due to bone spurs and impingement for well over 20 years (swimming was "a grind" since high school triathlons, and overhead squat range of motion was nearly impossible with a 15 pound bar). To spice things up, along the way I managed to tear my shoulder labrums. Yep, both.  I fixed my left labrum when I lived in Boulder through physical therapy in early 2011 (after competing in two back to back 24 hour national championship Adventure Races without full use of my left arm (not recommended)). My right labrum was tweaked in 2010, but got better. After a particularly rowdy CrossFit workout involving sets of 25+ kipping pullups in 2012, I re-injured the shoulder. MEA CULPA!  It was not improving to full strength after almost a year of solo DIY rehab, so I opted for arthroscopic surgery. At 37, I feel that I have at least another 20 years to compete at a high level, so I had to focus on the Big Picture.

The recovery process to date has been on-track, with just a few minor setbacks (such as falling down the stairs and landing on a concrete step with my stitched-up shoulder a week after surgery. Yes, seriously.). I was fortunate to have received nutritional advice and a shopping list from my friend (and international sports nutrition thought-leader) Anthony AlmadaHe gave me a detailed list of supplements and foods to take before and after surgery that would speed recovery.

I am the type of person who MUST have a specific fitness goal as a "project" that I'm working on at all times.  I simply enjoy executing on my training plan as my fitness progresses. It's as much about the journey as the fitness goal or race itself. The grind is the glam. I view the race itself as just a celebration of the fitness you have banked over the weeks and months of hard training....a release, or D-Day if you will. It's really no different than rehearsing for a play and then a do-or-die, "one night only" performance.

The day after my surgery I was stuck on my couch in nauseating pain, unable to move much. Sleeping at night was very difficult, awkward and painful. After several months focused more on power lifting than endurance training, I was up to 216 pounds after my surgery, almost 40 pounds over my normal race weight. Sitting on that couch with my arm in a sling, I realized that by the time the sling would come off, my hard-earned strength and lean mass gains would as well. With a serious winter layer and without the ability to move pain-free, I started 2013 truly in the worst overall condition of my life.

In contrast to every January since the mid-90s, I was not sure how to plan my race season or even select a reasonable fitness goal. How long would it be before I could SQUAT or RUN without pain, let alone do a pullup or shoulder press?  Before even considering a new focus for racing, I had to focus on the obvious antecedent to any wild dreams of racing. I had to patiently rehabilitate my shoulder.  Simultaneously, I had to keep this talk to myself since I was planning for my wedding, which was in March. Obviously planning for the wedding was the top priority for my time and energy outside of work. It paid off, as we had a wonderful wedding free of any hitches or SNAFUs.

The physical therapy clinic I picked in Los Angeles was more like The Muppet Show than the truly world-class rehab experience I had with Dr. Jeremy Rodgers in Boulder (he fixed my OTHER shoulder non-surgically in late 2010 after a bike crash, and amazingly fast). Thirsty for knowledge, I spent more time devouring Dr. Kelly Starrett's MOBILITY WOD free videos on YouTube to further educate myself on optimal human shoulder mobility and rehab/prehab techniques. I have been a devout follower of K-Starr's for a few years, and am also a CrossFit Mobility certified coach, after attending his seminar at CrossFit Invictus in San Diego.  After my share of CrossFit injuries, I am definitely increasing the amount of time I invest in "maintenance" each day with the lacrosse ball and foam roller.

My orthopedic surgeon, physical therapists and other athletes told me to expect 6+ months until I could achieve 90% normal range of motion, 7 months to resume strength training, and "18 months" to a full recovery. Yikes. Others warned that I would never be the same. They would point to their own experience with the same procedure. The acromionectomy alone was done to allow me the unobstructed range of motion to swim and surf without pain, and even do proper overhead squats for the first time. I wouldn't accept anything else, regardless of the nay-sayers.

My hubris and impatience has often lead to setbacks that cost me dearly when recovering from injuries. At 37, I cannot make that mistake again, but I also require a goal that would be currently out of reach to scare and motivate me. In order to define my terms and begin my next "human experiment", I needed a goal, or a primary endpoint before I could begin this controlled experiment of one.

Starting 2013 in my WORST shape, at rock bottom, made my 2013 goal as simple as it was audacious: FINISH 2013 in the BEST condition of my life. I just needed to define "Best" and build a training plan so I could indeed define my terms and write down my "business plan".  My idea was to pick just a few late-season races as fitness tests. Because I have raced extensively and often victoriously in the hardest 24 hour to 72+ hour events in the world (usually with my DART-nuun teammates), I was kind of stumped while looking for a solo event that would be as hard or harder, but different.

What would it be? Adventure Racing? Another Ironman? Another ultramarathon run or mountain bike race? AR has always been my passion since I started competing in the sport in 1997, and it seems like a no-brainer, but my DART-nuun teammates had already selected their North American and international expedition race teams for the season. That left only domestic 24-72 hour races I could race with another team, but most Adventure Races in the USA today unfortunately have become "get whatever checkpoints you want" orienteering meets, an unfortunate watering-down and bastardization of my beloved sport that I just would rather not support.

I'm not into half-assing my training once I sign up for a race. It is a full commitment and it has got to be full-ass or nothing. I needed something a bit gnarlier that would challenge not just my endurance, but my overall fitness and rehab timeline. Something that would give me the feeling I had almost 17 yrs ago when I was training for my first overnight "24 hour" adventure race.

We have all seen a hundred movies about comebacks. We know the formula for a comeback, the narrative arc. In cinema, the comeback and ultimate victory is virtually guaranteed at the outset, regardless of the impossible mission. In real life, you cannot simply "press play" and let things happen. You have to make shit happen. You have to take personal accountability from the time you set your goal through completion if you are to have any hope for success. I believe the way you define your terms and visualize success at the beginning of your journey has a profound impact on the outcome. A goal, or desired outcome without a plan is just a wish.

One critical aspect of any grand plan was the involvement of my wife Alla. If I couldn't include her in my training it was not worth it. Period. Spending time with Alla is my top priority. She is not an obsessed competitive athlete, but does enjoy yoga, some strength workouts at the gym or beach, and getting out on the trails to run, hike, climb or mountain bike for a few hours.

Whatever I picked, it had to absolutely mandate MAXIMUM total-body fitness, serious shoulder strength and mobility, full-body readiness. It had to absolutely punish any weakness or chink in my armor. It had to be something a little bit scary. Something just out of reach, a race against serious competition where the odds are stacked heavily against "the current me", but maybe in favor of the me I believe I could become....

 It would have to be a a little bit 24 hours of running in freezing rain in a wetsuit, or maybe thousands of burpees, unplanned 3 mile swims, extreme landscaping or chopping wood.

When you're accustomed to racing nonstop for 24-72 hours, in awful conditions, and comfortable outside of your comfort zone, how do you "get outside your comfort zone"?



*(If you are still reading,  sorry your flight is delayed and you're forced to sit in that uncomfortable position next to the 'charging tree' at the airport for so many hours.)


jameson said...

so stoked you are back it. we need to get back to the mountains and train like bears.

Charlotte said...

This is cool!