AS A COMPETITIVE PERSON, minor setbacks have always made me feel as if my world was crumbling. This had always been the case with my academics (getting a B- on that International Trade Law paper will forever haunt me) or my professional life.
My at-any-cost attitude when it came to athletics, however, resulted in much more than ego damage. With it came a sports-related eating disorders in high school, wherein I subsisted on crackers and vegetables because I thought that the extra calories would slow me down on the lacrosse field.
When my lack of energy caused me to pull my quads and twist my ankles regularly, I would have my injuries wrapped by the sports medicine students, going to a different one every day with a new excuse. When the pain of shin splints made walking to school an exercise of tiptoeing a mile each way, I would pop some Tylenol in the locker room and do our drills so that my coach didn’t notice me limping on and off the field.
My relationship with sports was directly correlated with my desire to succeed, as were my injuries. The more I had, the harder it meant I was working, the greater my sacrifice would pay off in the numbers, and then everyone would love me. Nevermind that after a physical exam, my tests showed that my body was leaching protein at worrisome rate. My four hours of daily exercise, the competitive spirit bred by team sports, and my ability to fit into the same pair of jeans year after year–it was all part of a fitness routine that defined me.
I Run, Therefore I Am
“I’m a runner.” “I’m a cockswain on the men’s crew.” I took pride in these delineations, and at the very least, I knew that if all else failed (including some of the exams I slept through due to 5 AM practices) my split times were always better than any other girl I knew.
I know that I was and am not alone in my fixation on fitness as self-identification. I’ve met people from every athletic pursuit–triathletes to yogis, rockclimbers to weightlifters–with similar stories of mental rewards from structured exercise, not to mention the social communities they have found through them long after high school and college ended. However, this drive has a flipside.
Missing a mark by seconds or even skipping one day at the gym would result in much longer lasting self-punishment. So after a lifetime of addiction to physical feats, I refused to worry about the pinch in my hamstring, felt after a teacher wrangled me into an intense Ashtanga forward bend, several years ago. Undeterred, I finished my two-hour practice, showered, and ran for the subway.
The problem was that my left leg wouldn’t run with me. I stumbled and side-hopped my way to platform as the train pulled away. As the days passed, I used my old Tylenol habit and hit the treadmill, until knots basically paralyzed the entire left side of my body.
Setting aside my pride, I allowed a doctor to stick her finger into the back of my leg, and when I winced, she said my most-feared words: “You have a hamstring tear. It’s small, but it’ll take a long time to heal.” My stomach tightened and my shortened breath would allow just one question: “When can I run again?”
“Not for at least 2 months. You can’t do much of anything for a while.”
Forced to Slow Down and Start Over
A bump in the road by many people’s standards, I was crestfallen. What would I do with all that time? Those extra hours a day I allotted for exercise? I often wondered this aloud as I visualized my calves atrophying followed by my quads and abs: “I can’t imagine my life without running.”
What I refused to believe was that it was the sprinting long distances and the power yoga classes combined–the types of aggressive activities I had gravitated towards–that had injured my non-teenager body. After years of pushing them to tighten, tone, bend and build, all in the name of my pride, my muscle fibers were fighting back in their biggest form of protest.
Several weeks of endorphine-free depression later, I bought a one-piece bathing suit and made the descent into my YMCA’s chlorine-odored dungeon. I was nauseous at the inevitable inferiority that awaited, proven by the senior citizens of the “slow” lane lapping me every few minutes.
I felt the need to tell someone, anyone, that I was “a runner, you see, so I’m not used to this whole floating while using my limbs-thing.” Lifeguards would snicker as I stopped mid-lane to catch my breath, but I couldn’t do more than just keep showing up and sneak in how-to-swim YouTube videos at work.
There was no other feeling but shoulder-shrugging humility. I couldn’t race to the subway, so I would let everyone else claw and sardine their way onto the train, as I found a seat on the one that followed seconds later. I asked the 80-year-old man with the kickboard how to efficiently use my legs in the pool. I’d go to gentle yoga classes and learned that I had been doing downward dog wrong for years.
I found more joy in not competing with the uninjured students in the class, and there was transcendence in replacing iPod running mixes with the wooshing sound of water. My newfound independence from the gym allowed me to be outside, taking up more activities like surfing and city biking.
In the past year, I have not only stopped running but also canceled my gym membership. There is glorious liberation in letting go of an unhealthy identity of the past, learning to be more patient with myself and laughing at the inconsequential competitions in daily life. With this newer relationship to fitness, I can finally treat it as the diversion from my professional grind that it always should have been, and it’s a lesson I could have only learned from a minor tear.
What are your stories related to sports injuries or competitive setbacks? Let us know in your comments below.
Feature Image: 365:2010/07/28 – digits iii by Foxtongue