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Friday, October 10, 2008

If My Body is a Temple, Why Am I So Happy When It Breaks?

Last week, I twisted my ankle. I've had serious ankle sprains in the past, of the variety that involve nearly-instantaneous baseball-sized swellings and long weeks of wishing the bones had simply been broken instead of the ligaments torn, because bone heals so much more quickly and easily. The most recent one was nothing like that. It was just enough to occasion twinges of pain if I stepped down wrong or turned my foot at one particular angle. So I began swimming instead of running for exercise, but I didn't give up lifting weights.

And then, of course, the inevitable happened. At the gym, I went to sit on a weights machine that works your pecks and back, and as I swung my leg over the bench, my foot landed not on the floor but on the long metal "foot" of the machine. Of course, my ankle twisted right over the top of that metal piece, and I grimaced and muttered and got all twitchy and nursed it and generally did all the things that suggest, "ooohhhh I have an owie, and oooohhh am I stupid for not seeing that coming."

I didn't realize the man at the machine next to me had seen what happened until he asked if I was all right. And when I said I really was more dumb than seriously injured, he smiled. "These things just happen," I said, rubbing my ankle. "Yes," he said, "but that's how you know you're an athlete."

I've been thinking about those words for over a week now.

Crazy as it may sound, I think he might be right. Not about the fact that I am really an athlete, but about the fact that we humans wear our sports-related injuries as a badge of pride and think of ourselves as somehow more accomplished for getting hurt. We humans? We can be nuts sometimes.

For instance, there was that time I was on a mountain bike trail with Husband, who is a far better technical biker than I am. I have the infamous family thighs, however, and am a very strong climber of hills. So, while I can often out-climb him, he leaves me in the dust on the way down, as I tend to be a bit too tentative, a bit too heavy on the brakes, a bit afraid of doing an endo right over the bike and cracking my head open on a rock.

On this particular day, the sun was shining. It was early fall, and the weather was perfect for wearing a long-sleeved jersey (nice for warding off scratches from wayward branches) with biking shorts (nice for not feeling too restrictive). Maybe a mile and a half into the trail, I was really feeling great. Stronger. More confident. We'd been biking pretty often that summer, and I was clearly getting better. We crested a hill and faced a long, twisty slope down. Littered with small rocks, it was tricky going, but I was a new and improved biker, finding a good line between all the rocks and roots, using my brakes sparingly, descending much faster than usual.

And then: At the end of the hill was a sharp turn to the left. I was going too fast to make it, and in missing the turn, I missed a bridge. Instead, I zoomed right off the path next to the entrance to the bridge and, airborne, sailed into the muddy ooze of a low-lying swampy marsh. My bike tires, of course, stuck immediately in the mud. My body, on the other hand, had too much momentum to stop short, and I was launched, flying Superman-style, right over my handlebars and into the black goo. By the time Husband reached me, I was standing up. The entire front of my body, from helmet visor to shoes, was coated in a thick layer of mud. I removed my sunglasses to reveal a sort of reverse-raccoon face, with two light circles around my eyes the only part of me that was not coated in swamp mud, and I burst out laughing at the absurdity of it all.

The laughter only lasted about 30 seconds, though, because my right arm was completely useless, and my shoulder felt as though someone had sliced into it with a hot knife. It was a sharp, breath-catching pain that brought involuntary tears to my eyes.

We walked slowly out of the woods, Husband pushing both of our bikes, while I held my right arm as still and close to my body as I could. Even with a partially-torn rotator cuff -- in fact, I would venture to say, largely because of it -- I felt like more of an athlete than I have ever felt in my life. Walking out of that trail, I couldn't stop thinking, "Here I am in my bike shorts and jersey, flithy with mud, injured. I am a real biker. Anyone could see that."

Nevermind that a real biker would have made that turn and ridden the rest of the trail without Supermanning over the handlebars. Details.

I could tell plenty of other similar stories:

-- of fingers that had to be taped up because they ached from rock climbing so much. (Did you know you could actually overwork the ligaments and tendons in your fingers? You can. Did you know that the folly of rock climbers is that they will simply support those fingers with strips of white medical tape and keep on climbing? They will.)

-- of a deep, giant, perfectly oval bruise on my tricep, courtesy of a racquetball returned in a heated game. (Oh, yes, I did keep playing. And I won 2 games of 3 that day.)

-- of a fractured wrist sustained as a teenager while trying to learn a scratch spin on ice skates. (Did you know that your father will yell at you, a lot, if you go ice skating again while still wearing the brace because the fracture hasn't yet healed? He will.)

And so on.

My question today is: WHY? Why do we injure ourselves like this and then go back for more? Of course, the smart aleck answer is that I am a clumsy klutz who shouldn't be allowed within 50 feet of any kind of sports paraphernalia beyond a yoga mat. But the fact is that I'm actually reasonably coordinated. And that it is a simple truth that if you try enough new sports for enough time, you will eventually hurt yourself doing something.

But that doesn't explain why those injuries are badges of honor. What is it within us that makes us feel like we are more athletic right at the very moment of our becoming broken through that athleticism? How is it that injuries make us feel psychically stronger? Is it the rush of endorphins? The amnesia about pain that takes over after a day or two? The fun of telling a "war story" that obviously results in an only-temporary limp?

Or am I the only person you know who has secretly enjoyed the powerful rush of feeling? I have done something daring and dangerous, even hurt myself in the process, and come out on the other side to tell the tale.

I am athlete. Hear me whimper.

Don't forget: you only have until midnight tonight to leave a comment on this post to be entered to win $75 worth of lovely custom holiday cards and stationery. Winner of the drawing will be announced on tomorrow morning's post.


Amber said...

With great delight I read this post because I have been there, done that many times. But the last line? Made me roar with laughter. You, my dear, are a hoot!

Mrs F with 4 said...

If only I could say "Oh, this torn muscle right below my shoulder blade? It's nothing, I was just parachuting / playing squash / free running". Instead of "I was too far away from the trunk of the car when I lifted the double-stroller". It would be so much More Impressive.

Most of my broken bones have come from eventing (horses)... shoulder blade, legs, ankles, wrist, big toe (that HURTS!), coccyx (worst of all). I've always felt vaguely ashamed of being so incompetent as to hit the ground at 30+ miles an hour.

Sorry, MT, you're on your own with this one!

Mr Lady said...

You rock, MommyTime.

I think we can't get enough because sports are the VERY BEST drug. Nothing feels better than pushing yourself, no matter how much it hurts at the time. Maybe the reason we like the breaks and the sprains is because it's proof that we can get hit and get back up. That we're STRONG.

Superman wouldn't be Clark if he didn't like being Clark sometimes, you know?

PS: I will spend all day with the image of you airborne in my head. Gigglegiggle.

foolery said...

A sports injury is visible proof that you tested the edge of the abyss. Overshot, perhaps, but you were brave, and that says a lot.

I have owies from the competitive sitting phase with which I am currently obsessed, but they're not owies I am willing to discuss.


Hey, if I weren't afraid of death I'd try some of those sports, too! Just not ones that involve height, or speed, or tumbling, or pain, or death.

Maybe clenching is where it's at. I can clench with the best of 'em.



Dragonflysuze said...

but I AM that klutzy klutz who shouldn't be allowed near any sports equipment -- even my yoga mat (as evident at Pilates last night). I once broke my nose in high school while I was skiing. I was trying to go over a few little hills and slammed my pole into my face. So, yes, I understand.

Amy in StL said...

Yeah, honestly I think that my friends who feel this way are crazy. Downright, honest-to-goodness crazy. I've had a broken arm four times, a broken ankle once and numerous sprains. I am not athletic, nor have I ever been. When I get hurt during my quest to be less of a squat toad looking human being; I never feel like an athlete. I feel like an Advil!

Jaina said...

I'm sorry, I only made it about halfway through. I'm really squeamish when it comes to this sort of thing. Haha. (picture the doctor explaining the process of the very simple arthroscopic knee surgery...look across the room and see me having to lay down because I'm getting nauseous...yeah..I'm that bad)I hope your ankle gets better soon!

Ree said...

I am so voting for the endorphins...

and the fact that you can say, "yes, I have a stress fracture in my foot from my 5k race" instead of saying, "I dropped a gallon of double-chocolate chocolate chip on my foot" makes you sound healthier, wealthier and wiser than the slob down the street?
(Not that you have slobs down your street.)

Even if you drop that ice cream on the OTHER foot the next day.

BusyDad said...

YOU ARE AWESOME!! Getting down, dirty and wrecked, and then coming back for more is just mucho cool in my book. My athletic injuries are my badge of honor! I also have really bad ankles. I have sprained them at least a dozen times very badly (as in the leg turned purple up to the knee a couple times).

I still have the bloody towel that my coach used to clean me up after each round in the kickboxing match that I have posted on my blog. I take pride in that. I went thru a lot of pain that day.

Funniest thing? When Fury bloodied his shirt from a nosebleed once, my wife told him to take off his shirt. Know what he said?

"No way mom, this is my badge of honor!"

I love that kid!

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