Setbacks: A Metaphor

A few weeks ago, I was setting a new max in my back squat at the gym. I did a 4th rep and felt good. I’ve got one more in me, I thought. I went down, and I felt the pop in my lower back. I ditched the bar and fell back onto the floor. It took me five full minutes to get to my feet. During those five minutes, the tears started, and the fear, as I moved my feet, checked for feeling in my legs, then struggled to my knees and hauled myself up to stand. The pain in my back took my breath away. It took several more minutes to decide whether to call 911 or to try to make it to my car. I drove straight to the emergency room.

I could barely talk through the pain, explaining what had happened, giving my insurance information, moving to the waiting room. The x-rays were torture. The technician was a saint, waiting patiently during the minutes it took for me to roll from my back to my side for each new image.

The doctor was sympathetic. He spoke of physical therapy. Six weeks at least. Prepare for lifestyle changes, he said. You’re not 20 anymore.

I listened politely, but I’ve been here before, I thought.

It was January 2nd, , just 8 months ago. Also, the back squat. The bar was loaded heavy, and I went down. It was my knee that time. I managed to stand back up and rack the bar, but I could not put weight on my right leg, and I could not bend my knee. I hopped to the bench and sat, then hopped to my car. I’m OK, I thought. Shake it off. The pain got so bad in the night that I woke up gasping for breath. Tears flowed. The pain shot from my knee to my hip and my ankle. It was unbearable. The next day I went to the emergency room. They gave me pain meds and grim warnings that I should scale back. Consider my age. Maybe it was time to trade the weights in for a treadmill. No way, I thought. No way.

I started weight training 6 years ago. I had been going to a “Boot Camp” type gym, then one day they piloted a new thing. For those of you who are interested, they said. Try this. They set up a rack and taught us the back squat. The very first time I got under that bar and stood, then bent down under a weight that seemed just too much, felt the burn in my thighs as I squatted deep down, then pressed my heels to the floor and made it back up, racked the bar, I was hooked. This is what I want to do, I thought. This is a challenge. This is strength.

I joined the new program, changed trainers. I began working with Tony. We focused on three lifts: the deadlift, the squat, and the bench. The year I turned 40, I hit 205 pounds in my squat, 225 in my deadlift, and a less impressive 100 in my bench. But still. I had strength I never knew was possible. I was competing with myself, making progress.

My first injury was my hip. I was doing an auxiliary exercise. A landmine deadlift, unilateral, which meant doing the lift balanced, standing on one leg. I overestimated my strength, lost my form, and twisted on the way down. The result? I lost 70% mobility in my left hip. Physical therapy was extensive and excruciating. But I worked my way back. I regained my 225 deadlift max.

My next injury was my shoulder. The military press. I overestimated my strength, lost my form, and again, the twist. For months, I could not raise my arm high enough to buckle the seatbelt in my car. Again, months of physical therapy that left me weeping with pain, bruised purple from the deep tissue massage. Yet I pressed on. I recovered and broke my own “glass ceiling” beating my previous max and setting a new one of 115.

So, now, I’m 47. My squat has never recovered. I doubt I’ll break 200 again. But I refuse to accept my doctor’s prognosis. I get it. I overestimated my strength. Lost my form. Hurt myself. I’m back at ground zero, but I am back.

I’m not obsessed with fitness. I’m not addicted to the gym. But my workouts have become a metaphor for the way my life has panned out. Again and again, I have done this. Overestimated my strength, lost my form, hurt myself. The damage has been extensive, but over and over I’ve worked my way back. Regained my losses. Rebuilt.

I have had a few constants, which have brought me back. One is a coach who doesn’t lose patience with me. A coach who works with champions, nationally competitive weight lifters who win medals. Yet, he still takes the time to create modified workouts for me, an ordinary person who will never make him famous and who keeps hurting herself over and over again. He invests in me, uses his expertise to help me find my way back, even though I will probably just keep repeating this cycle.

Everyone needs someone who has their back, and Tony has mine.

I also have a mindset.

I will learn from my mistakes. I will press through the pain. No matter how many times I have to start over, I will start over. I will accept the humiliation of picking up smaller weights. Moving backward in order to move forward. I will do it again and again and again.

This is not just training. This is my life.

This is really just one big metaphor.