It is hard to believe it has been one month already since my shoulder surgery. This has certainly been an eye-opening experience for me. It has given me new perspectives on the way I operate on many levels: as an athlete, as a coach, as a physical therapist, and as an individual.
I won't lie, the first few days were pretty painful. I was intent on being at home by myself right away after surgery- I had spent weeks preparing food, readying my house for the one-armed life, setting myself up to be as independent and normal as possible making the transition. Well, my body had other ideas, and I didn't argue when my friend KayLynne brought my nauseous, incredibly loopy self home with her instead. It was definitely nice having someone of sound mind making sure I took my pain meds and stuffing soup and toast down my gullet. I did not have the presence of mind to do anything but lay in the recliner for the first few days. Fortunately, I don't remember much about that time period- it's pretty hazy. I slept a lot.
The morning after my surgery, I learned the terrible news that we had lost Amy Dombroski in a training accident. It was a huge blow to the cycling community as Amy was very influential, and it was a shock to me as I had just spoken with her days before, as she was on her way to Belgium for her cyclocross season.
Amy and I had become friends when we roomed together at US National XC Championships two years ago, and she is certainly one of the brightest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Though she was five years younger than I, her inherent wisdom and her deep-rooted knowledge of herself was apparent from the beginning. We talked often of goals and dreams, and she would always tell me to know myself and my own goals well, and be true to my direction and my core no matter what.
She spoke from experience when she told me lots of shiny distractions and opportunities would come along in life and it was important to take the time, before jumping in, to really reflect and ask myself if the new opportunity was in line with what I really wanted from life. No matter how attractive something might seem, if it didn't line up with my core, it would never work out in the end. If I stayed focused on what was truly important, I would succeed. Amy herself was living proof.
That conversation was over a year ago, and I think about it nearly every day. Whenever something threatens to pull me off track, I think of Amy, her big dreams, and her fiery and focused determination; and I re-center.
One week after surgery, I was feeling better, and I went and coached some indoor training sessions for my athletes on the Crested Butte High School mountain bike team. They were nearing the end of their season, and it was great to be able to finish it out with them. They ended up third in the state in their division as a team, and I couldn't be more proud of them. I have never seen a group of more hard-working young people. It was so much fun watching them learn and grow as racers and as young men and women throughout the season. I miss them already, and can't wait until next season.
Mid-way through my second week, I started to hike. It felt wonderful to be spending time outside again, soaking up the last sunny days of the Fall. I put my sling on right over my little backpack, and Cody Oats and I made footprints all over the Gunnison valley. I was determined not to let this experience distract me from my goals and dreams; from what I want to do with my life and what it all means to me. I thought of it not as a setback, but as another opportunity to make myself better and stronger. I thought of Amy.
I focused on everything I could possibly do to enhance my healing. I started drinking a glass of water mixed with chia seeds every day, made sure I was extra diligent about my hydration and nutrition- I already eat with a good deal of discipline, but I took it a step further by cutting out coffee and alcohol for the two weeks leading up to, and the two weeks after, my surgery. I had some type of work done on my body nearly every day- physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, and passively moving my left arm using my right arm.
Five days after surgery I stopped the pain medications, and I learned that my biggest hindrance was my body's difficulty with clearing the medications and the anesthesia. Two days after quitting the drugs, I still felt like I was in a fog. It would take me three hours to do anything because I couldn't focus on even the simplest tasks. So I did an herbal cleanse for seven days to get all the crap out of my system. It worked. Two days after I started the cleanse, I felt my clarity return, and I felt like myself again- but with even more energy. I felt great after purging my body of caffeine, alcohol, medications and anesthesia, and only eating and drinking things that would nourish me. I read books and got a lot of sleep. I focused all of my energy on healing. And I hiked, and hiked, and hiked, in my sling.
Finally, last week, I was allowed to start moving my own arm, which is the beginning of strengthening the muscles. It is a huge turning point in recovery, and it happened much earlier than I had anticipated. I have been healing incredibly well, and I have many things in combination to thank for that. Starting with an awesome surgeon, Dr. Rhett Griggs, who did a wonderful repair; having access to top-notch physical therapy and other body work at Heights Performance nearly every day; eating extremely well, cutting out any crap, and getting plenty of rest as well as low-intensity exercise.
I am still spending a lot of time in the mountains on foot. This process has certainly not been a piece of cake; there have certainly been days of frustration at my limitations and days of more pain when I do too much, but in all honesty it has not been near as bad as I had thought it would be. I haven't taken any painkillers since my second week out of surgery; including ibuprofen or tylenol. And the ability to get into the mountains, even if it involves moving much more slowly than I normally would, is certainly helping with both my physical and mental well-being.
I still bring my sling along with me, as I usually need it when going downhill over rough or steep terrain. My shoulder can't handle the jolting yet. I am also using one ski pole in my uninjured hand. The worst thing right now would be for me to fall on that shoulder, and my dexterity over uneven or slippery terrain is certainly not what it would be with a fully functional body. I feel much more stable with my ski pole.
I am re-learning the art of slowing down, looking around and appreciating the details in nature, the trail, the sky, and the mountains that I usually move through so quickly on my bicycle or skis. I still notice the beauty of my surroundings when moving fast, but there is nothing like slowing down and being conscious of each step I take to fully appreciate life's intricacies.
Just under three weeks after my surgery, my boyfriend came back from his season in Chile. Although I have actually become pretty independent in the one-armed life, it has been so nice in the past week to have his assistance and support with the daily tasks. And, of course, to be able to spend time together and with Cody Oats; having quiet times at home, talking, enjoying meals, reading, working on our individual projects together, and enjoying the chance to explore just the surface of our beautiful new backyard.
Over the past four weeks, while taking the opportunity to slow down, focus on healing and wellness, and take time for the most important things in life; I have also developed a new appreciation for what my clients go through when they have surgery or a major injury, both emotionally and physically. Even though I technically know the rehab and healing process happens, and I work with people having pain every day; to actually experience it myself has been something else. It has been eye-opening to feel it all first-hand.
I certainly have more gratitude for the seemingly mundane, daily tasks we all take for granted, a deeper respect for the things that really matter, and a broader and (I hope) wiser perspective on my direction in life, the choices I make, and my place on the planet. Because of Amy, I am remembering every day to always keep my focus on my bigger dreams and goals, to keep moving forward even when I can only take baby steps, and to not become distracted by shiny things. I am becoming stronger every day, and I look forward to continuing to challenge myself, learn from this experience, and share it with others.
"If a man does his best, what else is there?" George S. Patton
Yesterday, while I was coaching for the Crested Butte High School Mountain Bike Team, the other coaches and I were preparing our athletes for their last race of the season, the State Championships. All of the kids have been pushing hard all season. Many of them are at the top of their division, consistently finishing in the top five. For some of them, it is the last race of their high school career. All of them are tired.
As we spun on the trainers to avoid the raging weather outside (which I was selfishly glad for, so I could ride with them- sitting up and spinning with my arm in the sling), we talked about goals. We went around the room and each athlete told us his or her goals for the coming race. They have learned about making ambitious yet realistic goals, so that they set themselves up for success. Each one of them had goals based on results. A few of the kids said their goal is to win- very realistic as they have been on the second and third step of the podium recently and they are close.
As we went through our recovery spin, we went on to talk about different types of goals. There is nothing wrong with wanting results. There are times I have won races mostly because I rolled up to the line honestly believing I could- and setting myself up throughout the race to do just that. You have to believe in yourself or you will never get to the top step- anywhere.
One of my kids, who got second place for the first time in his previous race after fighting his way through the pack due to a bad start position, told me afterwards that he was surprised, that he didn't think he could actually win. Maybe that's why he didn't. I have been there- so close but didn't believe it was possible, so I didn't give that little extra bit of effort it might have taken. The wonder and growing confidence in his voice when he said yesterday in front of the group, "I really think I could actually win a race!" was nothing short of inspiring. So were the cheers that came from all of his teammates- some who are also his competitors. Now that's sportsmanship.
One of the kids, a very fast little junior who had consistently been finishing top ten early in the season, has been feeling burnt out and has been disappointed with his results in the last few races. He hasn't been meeting his goals, and has been really bummed out. When it came his turn, he said simply this: "I am going to do my best." Wise words, little dude.
When we focus all of our energy on a race result- or any "result" in life, really- we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Sometimes we accomplish that result and we're thrilled. Other times, we don't, and we beat ourselves up for it. There's nothing wrong with having a specific result in mind, something to strive for. There are certainly good lessons to be learned in failing to reach our goals. But if we remember, above EVERYTHING else, that our primary goal in every moment should be to always do our best, and we do that, we can't really fail.
My best moments in racing have come when I have dimmed the focus on a race result and just focused on racing my best, on riding my best- cornering smoothly, flowing over technical sections, pushing hard on the climbs, always staying on the gas even just a little whenever possible. When I ride my best, and believe in my abilities, having a desired result in the back of my mind but not making it my focus, good results happen. When I narrow my focus too much on a placing, I can get anxious and screw up.
I have certainly mastered this concept much more successfully in bike racing than I have in life. The past week and a half since my surgery has certainly been trying for me. I have spent many frustrated moments beating myself up because I haven't been organized enough around my house or with my schedule, because I haven't gotten back to work as quickly as I would have liked, and even for bigger-picture things like my financial future or my contribution to the world's environmental problems. Ugh.
A timely conversation with my boyfriend and this coaching session with my high school athletes yesterday brought me back to reality. Just like I tell my athletes: all I can do is my best, and my best will change when I am sick or injured as compared to when I am healthy. Sometimes my best will net me a top spot on the podium. Sometimes I will race my best for DFL. Most times, it will be somewhere in between. More often than not, "my best" over the past week has resulted in a lot of naps, slow Cody walks, and focusing on work and housework when I have the energy.
Yes, it is frustrating to my Type-A, overachiever, high energy personality. I won't say that I will never again get frustrated with myself- it happens to everyone. But if I am going to be a good example for others in my life, especially "my" kids, then I have to live what I teach. I will tell myself the same thing I tell my athletes: Do your best, with what you have, where you are. Right now.
And, of course, don't forget to have fun. :)
note: Thanks to my good friends Timmy Duggan and Alison Powers (also my coach) for instilling this important lesson in me so that I can pass it on, and my boyfriend Donny Roth for listening and talking some sense into me when I need it most.