The last thing I thought I’d be writing about from training camp in Austin is injury. I have plenty of ammo for writing on injury—stories about how they’ve wrecked me emotionally and things I’ve learned in the process; practical advice on recovery and the do’s and don’ts of getting back on your feet—and younger athletes ask about tips for coping all of the time. So it’s certainly a topic I planned on tackling at some point.
And then my back seized up the day before leaving for Texas. And “some point” suddenly became now.
Carpe Diem, right? Let’s dive in.
What happened? A recap.
It’s funny… I sit here hesitant to write about what happened partly because it’s ill-defined and partly because I take great pride in staying healthy. The latter might sound kind of strange but I worked my butt off to be able to train and race again, and frankly, a good deal of effort still goes into the upkeep. But a lot came out of the past few weeks, in terms of both writing inspiration and personal rowing-related development. And the reality is injury happens when we least expect it and no matter how bulletproof we make ourselves.
So, here goes…
What happened? Take two.
In short, my sacrum shifted in a way that created a gap between the L5 and S1 vertebrae, leaving my low back vulnerable and with limited ability to flex (i.e., bend forward). In addition, C7 and T1 shifted as well, and caused my upper back and neck to go into spasm (think: can’t turn my head very far right or hold anything (ahem… like a boat) overhead). This essentially meant that I 1) was in pain and 2) needed to very carefully navigate the first week of camp.
Overall, the first few days looked like this:
Saturday: Fly out at 6 a.m. and for the first time realize that I may be in trouble. I contact this wonderful lady during my layover in Atlanta, trying not to sound too desperate but desperate enough that she’ll move heaven and earth to see me when I arrive. (Kidding… kind of). Luckily, Karen fits me in at 1 p.m. so when my flight lands, I get the keys to the rental car and head straight to see her. We work on the releasing the muscles around my sacrum. I leave feeling better and with hope for rowing on Sunday.
Sunday: Rig my single 😀 and go for a very light spin. My back is hurting and I need help putting my boat on the trailer where it will be housed during the trip. However, I know my body incredibly well and am confident that I’m not doing more damage. I see Karen in the afternoon. We focus on my neck and make some more progress.
Monday: Another light row then a trip to the chiropractor late morning. Ironically, I made the appointment a week earlier, which is something I usually do as precaution (pro-tip!) when traveling for rowing. We do a lot of soft tissue work and get my spine looking closer to normal. Afterwards, I meet Karen at Texas Rowing Center—the club that’s hosting our team—and by the end of Monday, I’ve done two light rows and my upper back looks like this:
Tuesday: 10 x 1k on tap, with ratings between 20 and 30 strokes per minute. I’m increasingly feeling better and set a goal to do all the work but still keep the pressure light. No dice. I bike to my host mom’s and sink into an Epsom salt bath—one of my then recovery methods of choice. I’m starting to feel like I flew to Austin just to immerse myself in sports therapy. It’s kind of embarrassing but I don’t have much of a choice.
Wednesday: 7 x 2k steady state, with ratings between 16 and 22 strokes per minute. DONE! Ha, it actually feels good to write that… DONE!!! First full workout in the books. I bike “home” and hit up the tub. Wednesday proves a pivotal day. I have afternoon appointments for sports-massage and acupuncture with two incredibly skilled women, Geneva Sampson and Ann Mowat, whom, along with Karen, save me. Moxibustion, a therapy used in traditional Chinese medicine, is the linchpin at this point: It calms the inflammation in my low back, helps strengthen the ligaments and ultimately works a small miracle. The next morning I’m able to put some weight on the footboard—just in time to do race pieces.
For me personally:
Practically speaking, there’s nothing I would have done differently or could have done better. I’m confident of this. Experience has taught me what I can move through and when. The hard part now is just listening, which doesn’t ever get easier. What I gained, however, was insight from all the things going on in my head.
I said earlier that Saturday morning was the first time I realized that I may be in trouble. For the most part that’s true. What I failed to mention is that I had an inclination during the evening before. And that the result was a sense of desperation so strong that I felt nearly blindsided—taken by complete surprise.
Honestly, I’ve experienced so much adversity in rowing that I often (probably foolishly) think that there’s nothing left that can shake me. And, after 10 years of post-collegiate training, I’d be lying to say I haven’t questioned whether or not it’s time to move on. But feeling so desperate before flying out—afraid of not being able to row and how it might affect my run for racing at Worlds… well, like I said, it caught me off guard. And, more importantly, was an indication that I’m still in the right place, doing the right thing… and that gives me peace of mind.
What I want to convey to you:
If you’re fighting through a short-term setback like what I was experiencing in Texas, stop fighting and learn to be patient. Practicing patience with injury is art, and much easier said than done. But it’s always, always worth it to take the extra day rest. We’ve been conditioned to work through pain, and because of it, a surprising amount of effort can go into deciding when to push versus when to pull back. Personally, I’ve come to rely on a mantra when grappling with whether or not I should train: “When in doubt, leave it out.” It’s a mantra I read in a Runner’s World interview with Meb Keflezighi many years ago. For some reason it stuck and has seriously helped me with many training decisions since.
If you’re missing one or more seasons because of a surgery or something that’s taking its sweet time to heal, understand that I know. I know the frustration. And I know the despair—how it feels when you crave to be doing the one thing you can’t; like your world’s ending because pursuing your passion is being forced on hold. I spent a lot of time navigating that headspace—not in Austin but when I was out with my hamstring and the various setbacks that followed. There’s strength in solidarity, and it’s easy to feel alone and confused when you’re watching your teammates move forward. So find comfort in knowing that I and so many others have felt the same heartache and emerged better athletes (and stronger people) because of it.
In either case, my best advice is this:
1.Listen to your body. And listen to yourself. Learn to trust yourself and make decisions accordingly. Ultimately, you’re the only one who knows exactly how and what you’re feeling.
2.Figure out what kind of help you need and find the right people to provide it. This is much easier than it sounds, and will most likely involve some trial and error. So ask lots of questions. Get referrals from people you trust. Always be your own advocate.
3.Take action! And take ownership of your recovery. Make a plan to continue moving forward in whatever way you can… and then implement it! This can include anything from improving nutrition practices to meditation to journaling to listening to motivational podcasts. Immersing yourself in alternative ways to move toward your goals is critical to mental health, especially if you’re out for weeks or months at a time.
4.Lastly, always, always fight to stay positive. Have faith that everything happens for a reason. Commit to becoming stronger, more resilient, more driven than before. The lessons learned and perspective gained will serve you well if you let them.
Thanks for reading. Always sending my best!