Crashing Through Recovery

Many of you know that I have been recovering from a pretty good spill on the ice right before Thanksgiving. I had actually made a decision not to ride that day. In fact, I cancelled the outdoor VQ ride after driving in for the early a.m. indoor ride and assessing the ground as I walked into VQ. Then about 30 minutes before the outdoor ride was to take off, a few VQers and VQ coaches convinced me that it was OK to ride. We decided to do a non-sanctioned VQ ride with about 11 of us. To make a long story short, we headed out against my gut instinct and, sure enough…BAM! All but 2 of us fell on some black ice about 5 minutes into the ride.

Let this be a lesson to everyone out there to trust your gut instincts, because as my Uncle Tony says, “if you think it smells bad…don’t eat or drink it!”

In the 40 years that I have been riding a bike, I have fallen more times than I would like to admit. I still find it hard to believe that while on a casual outdoor ride, at just 15 mph and at the experienced age of 43, I took one of the worst falls of my life. I managed to, in the words of my surgeon, Dr. Brian Cole, “decimate” my shoulder. And to make matters worse, my knee took a hit that ruptured my PCL (posterior cruciate ligament). So, needless to say, I have had the longest break off my bike in 40 years, the worst fitness of my life and the most chronic pain I have ever experienced. Let me share…

First and foremost, like most people that have not been hurt in a while, I was not going to let a little shoulder injury keep me from staying fit and training hard. I figured that it was not that bad and I would bounce back like I have with any other injury I have had. I usually heal quickly and the longest an injury kept me away from my bike was 2 weeks MAX! I have had broken collar bones, separated shoulders, broken hands/fingers/knuckles, road rash from head to toe and even a few concussions, but none of these held me up for long and I returned to my top shape within 6 weeks of the injury. Today I find myself 12 weeks from my accident and still wondering when I will be completely healed up and can really start to ride hard and long again.

Here is a look at the last 12 weeks…

The process started with denial: “I am fine. I should be good to go in a couple of weeks.” Believe it or not, I actually felt this way post-surgery. Copious amounts of pain pills, plus the post-op endorphins, made me feel like I was healed just a few days after. I was really thinking that somehow I was different than everyone else and I estimated my progress as about 90% healed. I took my arm out of the sling thinking I no longer needed it.

Then week 2 arrived. I took the initiative to reduce the pain medication. The realization that I had been managing the pain with medication–and not my super-human healing abilities–hit me. Hard. It was so bad I could not sleep or move my shoulder at all. The fact that I had been feeling good the first 4 days after surgery and spending way too much time out of the sling, because “life” is easier without the thing, did not help at all. I had failed to realize that the pain meds coursing through my body were causing me to think I didn’t need the sling. Still I maintained my “I am fine” attitude.

Week 3: I decided to revisit the pain management plan the doctors had offered me so I could sleep and survive the serious pain during all waking hours. Thoughts of getting back on the bike started to surface. But after going to physical therapy, I realized that those first 2 weeks without the sling cost me some healing time and now I was basically back to the beginning from putting too much stress on the “unslung” joint. This is the point when I became pissed at myself because I thought I healed like Wolverine, but really I was just an idiot. I vowed to never take that damn sling off!

Weeks 4-6: PT started with Andrea from IBJI. She was not only my physical therapist, but also my voice of reason when it came to getting back on the bike. I got the green light to start some indoor cycling, but only while putting very little weight on my left side. I used an adjustable bike with the front end way up, allowing me to put more weight on my butt and less on my hands. I started riding indoors a couple times each week. It was not enjoyable. I could not ride hard and always felt sore after, sleeping terribly.

Weeks 7 and 8: These were the toughest weeks for me. Up to this point I did not feel like I was getting any better. Still in the sling, I had no range of motion, stability or strength in the shoulder. My mood started to go south for the first time during the process. Until now I had been distracted with so many things: VQ was busier than ever and we moved VQ Chicago, Thanksgiving and Christmas brought family to town, the kids were home on break plus the New Year…lots of things to keep me busy! But then the holidays were gone, my fitness was plummeting, my weight skyrocketing and my mind was starting to go a bit dark. As you know, this is not a place I visit very often.

The feeling that I was not making progress started to scare me. I realized that saying I was fine and focusing on doing everything that would make me fine, were two different things. I needed to acknowledge where I actually was and then put a plan together to get myself through it. Every time I started to think negative thoughts, I would redirect my thinking to focus on the controllable things that could help me improve, rather than the potential downsides. I would do more PT exercises, try to get better sleep, make better choices with my food and drink more water. Even if some of these individual actions are not tied directly to healing and recovery, I believe they are tied to mindset and that is a critical part of healing. This shift helped me endure some tough moments. Then, all of a sudden (or at least it seemed that way because I stopped focusing on time off the bike and started focusing on everything to get myself back on the bike), I had a breakthrough. The pain started to subside. I got the green light to take off my sling. I really started to feel much better. It seemed as though I improved 10% during the first 7 weeks and from week 7 to week 8, I improved 50% more. So, now at 60%, I felt it was time to try getting on the bike at the VQ Florida Camp and take it outside!

Weeks 8 through 10: I got out on the road a little in Florida, but inside I knew I wasn’t really ready. I figured I could improve my fitness maybe 1% by riding a bunch and risk an accident or more delayed healing (like I did those first 2 weeks) or I could be sensible and give it another couple weeks before riding outside again. As we often say at VQ: I realized the juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze.

Weeks 10 through 12: Feeling much better! And, after reflecting on this process, I can tell you that the challenge of balancing a positive attitude while also being honest and realistic is harder than I thought. I needed to realize the process is hard to manage both from the healing and pain perspectives. It is tough! Being positive is good, but acknowledging that you really are hurt is also important. I don’t think I acknowledged that at first. I tried to be so positive that I ignored the fact that I was really messed up and recovery would take time, sacrifice and pain. I get that now!

I want everyone to understand that coming back from an injury is hard. If you find yourself here, remember: it is a process. I don’t care how strong or special you think you are, we all heal at a similar rate. If you think that you can short-cut that process by staying positive, you are dead wrong. Yes, you need that positive attitude, but in combination with a realistic understanding of where you are and what you need to do to get back on your feet. The attitude will take you through the plan, but it is not the plan by itself.

Here are my take-aways:

  • It takes time–the one variable over which we have very little control.
  • It takes discipline and support.
  • It takes becoming OK with losing fitness and changing your focus for a while.
  • It takes realizing that you will get better and it will never be as fast as you think!
  • It takes being 100% truthful with yourself during the process.
  • It takes making sure you have supportive people around you. I was lucky to have people like Andrea from IBJI, Dr. Cole, my wife, Lori, and friends like Jeff Rothstein to shoot me straight and support my recovery process.

I am grateful for the folks at Rush and IBJI. They put me in a position to be back on my bike soon and ready to roll hard again. I am also thankful for all of the support of the Vision Quest team and members. Your kind words, treats and show of support were all very helpful to me. This whole experience is just one more example of how awesome the people of VQ really are.

This week I got back on my bike for an outdoor ride with friends down to Bartlett Lake. I reflected on a new motivation, appreciation and excitement to continue getting better. My cycling fitness has not changed much in the last 10 years. Sure, I may get 5% better or worse, but that’s about it. I have never taken off for this long and I think it will act as a complete reset for me. I’m resetting my appreciation for the beauty and opportunity to ride my bike, resetting my excitement to grow again as a cyclist and resetting my understanding of all people/athletes that come back from injury. It’s never easy to come back from injury, but it can create new opportunities, make us better teachers and give us a renewed gratitude for life.

Ciao~
Robbie

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