Sunday, May 12, 2013
When I played varsity wheelchair basketball, the pre-season conditioning/team building/Stockholm-syndrome-acquiring exercise was "ramps." Both the men's and women's teams would meet at Memorial Hall Football stadium at 6:30 a.m., which at that hour would be would be so cold that your fingers would be too numb to grip the pushrims. The coach would put two trash cans on the bottom level-- they smelled like rotten soda and rust -- for everyone to vomit in. For several hours, we would push up and down the steep concrete ramps: short pushes, long pushes, power starts and stops, backwards. You'd get to the bottom, take off another layer of clothes and gulp some water before the coach shouted 'Go!' and you'd push back up past dead birds and oil stains, sometimes past the maintenance guys on golf carts, the exhaust of which would both choke you and give you a contact high. When "Living on a Prayer" came on the boombox exactly halfway through the workout, the entire team would sing along, and the dozens of voices echoing Bon Jovi off the concrete walls made the stadium sound like church.
Anyhow, it was hard work. It was really hard work. (Josh Birnbaum documented it in the photo essay 'Uphill Battle.' Click on the link and scroll right until you get to the 5th image). But at the top, you'd get to look for a few seconds out over Champaign-Urbana looking all stark-midwestern-pretty in the August light. Your brain would be flooded with exercise endorphins, the breeze from the windows would feel good against your salt-encrusted skin, and you would think: damn, I have done a really hard thing. During the next hard thing -- say shoveling your car out of a few feet of snow to get to practice in the dark at 5:30 in the morning -- you'd think, "Well, hell. I got through ramps. This isn't going to kill me."
For the past three years since the hip replacements, I have missed that sense of accomplishment you get from pushing your body to its physical limits. Because of the two hip replacements, I can never play wheelchair basketball again: a fact that's taken me a long time to accept. Given that "Take it Easy" is just a Jackson Browne song in my world, I've been trying to find something that will give me the same feeling.
First, I wanted to be a runner. Runners get to achieve personal bests and cross finish lines and show off their well-toned asses in spandex as they glide along the Vancouver Seawall. Not to mention that running is free, and, unlike using the elliptical machine, you don't have to spend hours pondering why the person next to you felt the need to eat 20 cloves of garlic as a pre-workout snack. So, despite the fact that running is a no-go for people with hip replacements, I downloaded a little training plan from the Internet and set to work. I will spare you the messy details, but let's just say that it's hard to really get a sweat on when people are stopping you every 5 minutes to ask if you're alright. If you need a visual image of me running, think of those blow-up noodle-y figures they have at car lots.
I tried biking, but the combination of "missing half your ass" and "jamming your ass repetitively* against a hard bike seat" is not a successful one, no matter how many pairs of padded shorts you wear. Plus, when I realized that the learning curve for biking outside involved the risk of getting beat-up by an aggressive Vancouver cyclist (yeah, chime chime to you too, wanker) or getting smoked by a semi, it became clear that cycling wasn't for me. I try to avoid activities that have a high percent chance of turning me into meat-paste.
*Apologies in advance to anyone who found this post by googling the above phrase and is now deeply disappointed.
And so, I arrived at the wonderful world of at-home exercise DVDs. I picked up the Jillian Michaels 30 Day Shred (and her 'Shed and Shred,' which I plan to do next) because I watched The Biggest Loser obsessively when I was in bed for 8 months following the first hip replacement, and because years of being coached make me respond well to someone shouting at me. (In fairness, Jillian Michaels is not super shout-y in the videos).
The concept is simple: The 30 Day Shred has 3 levels of punishing circuit-style 30-minute workouts and you do them for 10 days each. I figured they'd be short enough that my hip wouldn't swell up, but challenging enough that I'd feel a sense of achievement when I finished the entire plan.
And I was right! Though I had to make a few modifications for exercises that I didn't have enough hip flexion to do, (looking at you, Mountain Climbers), I quickly fell in love with the program. It was great starting every day with an exercise endorphin high. I could flail around in the comfort of my own home where only my cat and boyfriend would judge me. Actually, being an expert at both 'shedding' and 'shredding,' Mika was more than happy to pitch in. During push-ups, she'd lay underneath me and lick my nose every time I dipped down to her level. It didn't even matter that, because of my ground floor apartment, people would routinely peer into my living room with perplexed expressions, trying to work out whether I was channeling spirits/ speaking in tongues/ summoning the rain gods. It also didn't matter that my clomping around made the entire apartment complex shake (Arley Stomp! Arley Smash! Arley Do Jump Squats With The Daintiness of Donkey Kong!). I was feeling good.
Now, when you've had two hip replacements and your ligaments are basically held together with duct tape and you've got all of the '-itis'es, there are bound to be hiccups. My 30 Day Shred was actually more of a 33-Day Shred, because I took three days off after my knee took issue to over-compensating for my hip and decided to go rogue. In the days of yore, a sore knee would have translated in my brain into "shut up body! You're not the boss of me! Watch me push through harder until I literally cannot walk and THAT will teach you." These days, however, I've dialed the intensity down several crucial notches. I realized that it's better to do a 33-Day Shred, than a 30-Day-And-Knee-Reconstructive-Surgery Shred. When I returned after the three days, I even helped my knee get through the rest of the workout with ice packs, anti-inflammatories and anti-inflammatory cream. I'm not sure if this is what maturity feels like, or if this what old age feels like.
And so, today, I got ready for the final day of the 30 Day Shred. I imagined how triumphant I would feel. Perhaps there would be an exclamation-point-filled Facebook status update. Perhaps I would cue up "Eye of the Tiger" and dance around my apartment while Mika looked on with deep scorn. My back had been stiff and achy for the past couple days, but during the warm-up I was feeling okay. During the first circuit set I was feeling okay. And then, during the one-handed clean-and-jerks of Circuit 2, I felt a sharp pain in my back. The pain shot down my leg and into my knee. There is the good pain (the kind that leads to you getting mightier) and then there's the bad pain (the kind that leads to bed rest), and this was the latter.
I stopped. I paused the DVD. I limped around my apartment. The pain didn't go away. I got a glass of water. I limped some more. The pain didn't go away. Every step sent a blast of pain from my back to my hip to my knee. I turned off the video and hit the showers, feeling more disappointed than I'd been in years, feeling like I'd fallen on my face a few steps from the finish line. I mean, there is no medal for finishing the 30 Day Shred, but I'd wanted to kick its ass. I wanted to do the thing I had set out to do. I wanted a moment like I'd had on the ramps, where I'd done a hard thing that would propel me to accomplish more hard things (like, say, finishing the novel I've been working on).
Now that a few hours have passed and I am sitting here with an icepack on my back, however, I am trying to see my almost-30 Day Shred differently. Before the hip replacement, I routinely pushed my body further than I should have. I got injured or sick, played through, got more injured, played through, got frustrated because I couldn't understand why things weren't improving, played through, blamed myself for not trying hard enough, played through. I bought into all those Nike commercials about pain being weakness leaving the body. But sometimes pain is not weakness leaving the body. Sometimes pain is just damage happening. Knowing the difference is not the kind of slogan that looks good on a T-shirt, but it does prevent you from having further hip replacements.
And so I will declare my 30 Day Shred to be a qualified success. I did have to modify it. I did take more than 30 days to do it. I did stop with 11 and a half minutes left to go in the final damn workout, turn off the DVD and walk away. But I also achieved more leg strength than I've ever had. I did both walking and traveling push-ups from my toes. I did lose an inch around every part of my body and about 6 pounds overall. And, if I do say so myself, my ass is looking damn impressive...ish.
I guess that's the take-away message for those trying to work out with arthritis, or post hip-replacement. You push until you feel the wrong kind of pain, you take a step back to recover, and then you push on. Your path to success looks like stairs, not like a ramp. You do small difficult things over and over again until they are no longer difficult.