First run of the day on a slope I'd skied hundreds of times before. Late-morning sun had warmed the April snow to a nice corn, and my Dynastars were making lovely arcing turns. The next moment, I felt snow grab the inside edge of my left ski, jerking my leg backwards as the rest of me continued forward. The pop of my knee reverberated in my ears, and down I went, sliding off towards the edge of an aspen grove into the shade. When I came to a stop, I sighed. No tears. No curses. Just quiet.
Not again, I thought. I'd torn my right ACL 15 years earlier going in for a game-winning jump shot, minus the game-winning part. Would've been a lot cooler, but injuries hardly ever happen when we're doing super rad things. It's usually something lame. Like skiing a groomer on Gaper Day dressed in a gold one-piece suit with glitter in your hair.
Even though I knew it'd be futile, I took a deep breath and stood. Both skis were still attached. I braced myself into a slow turn, leaning into my boots. A nauseating sensation followed, like the feeling that my femur had slipped behind my tibia. I crumpled back to the snow. Maybe I could walk a couple hundred yards to the bottom of the hill?
I popped my ski off, took a step, and immediately collapsed. This time the femur-slippage uproar was too much. Reality check. A heavier sigh ensued as I called ski patrol. Ten minutes later, I was once again schussing down the mountain, only this time belly-up on a toboggan. Thank goodness we weren't in the backcountry, I thought.
On the drive home, sadness settled in. As the San Juan Mountains slipped out of view, all I could picture were the impending adventures planned and unplanned that I'd miss out on. No mountain biking. No peak bagging. No trail running. No skiing. No fun.
My husband pulled me from that doleful reverie with a challenge, something he knew I could act upon right away. He said I should make a list. Not a list of all the things I would do when I was better, but rather a list of all that I could accomplish while injured. This was most excellent advice.
With my knee and some whiskey on ice, I opened a new Excel spreadsheet. SURVIVAL BOOK: The Silver Linings Knee-less Checklist, I titled it. At the top, I wrote headings for Task, Deadline, Notes, Date Completed and of course a box to put a big ole satisfying X in. I was surprised by how much stuff I came up with during that primary script.
After an MRI and initial consultation with the orthopedic surgeon a couple of days later, I learned I'd torn my ACL, LCL and meniscus. Surgery would be two weeks from the time of the injury. After the surgery, I would be six weeks non-weight bearing. I'd never been down that long. The projected time before I could be back to my hundred-miles-an-hour lifestyle was six months. October. Forever.
I decided that the overarching goals over the coming days would be 1.) to not run out of things to do, and 2.) to not be miserable. Now, four months post-operation, fresh off a mountain bike ride (ahead of recovery schedule), I can look back on the experience and confidently say that it was not only not miserable but fruitful. Besides three or four days of wallowing in frustration or pity, I made the most of it, and built some character in the process.
Someone told me early on that injuries can be the greatest teachers. I'm a really good student. Here's my cheat sheet on how to not only cope with but triumph over injury:
9. Maintain perspective.
Daily perspective checks were the greatest tool in calling me back to the light when I would start to feel sorry for myself. I'd lost a friend to cancer a few months earlier, and another friend was in the throes of fighting ALS. Both guys were formerly strong, athletic, healthy, 30-something-year-olds. Those were real battles. Mine was just a knee injury with a shelf life, not a terminal illness.
From Googling professional athletes with similar injuries, like Lindsey Vonn and Emelie Forsberg, to hanging out with friends going through their own recoveries, there's guaranteed comfort in commiseration. Note: this is not your free pass to a pity party but a chance to vent, laugh about and acknowledge the suffering with someone who gets it.
7. Do stuff.
I read that Lindsey Vonn got a puppy after her most recent epic knee injury. Hmm, I thought. Maybe it's time to get a puppy. Then a wise friend suggested she probably had someone to take that puppy for walks and clean up after it. This was a terrible idea. The point was that it's amazing how much time you have when you can't ride your bike or fill up the hours with long days in the mountains. Brew kombucha. Grow tomatoes. Research how to build shotskis. Watch every single NCAA March Madness game.
6. Treat yo'self.
Little comforts go a long way when your body is healing. Since I couldn't fully submerge in water, a simple foot bath was the ultimate luxury for me. I would take a book and a glass of wine into the bathroom, draw a tub of steaming water, soak my feet, maybe even shave my legs. The warmth was good for circulation, too. I also ordered a stylish pair of Crutcheze pads for my crutches. Game changer.
5. Limit screen time.
An empowering move for me: I quit Strava cold turkey and weaned myself off Instagram. While movies and Netflix were a nice distraction every now and then, I made myself busy with other time fillers, like listening to records or radio programs. Okay, I binged on Master of None, but that's a really clever show.
4. Feel the burn.
After surgery, as soon as I could get on the floor, I created a 30-minute daily workout routine conducive to my injury. My circuit included 30 pushups, 500 crunches of various positions, all sorts of leg lifts and stretching. While I watched my quad muscle disappear, my triceps and core - two weaker spots prior to the injury - benefited immensely.
3. Do physical therapy.
I was an angsty 17-year-old after my first ACL reparation so opted out of physical therapy then. Bad idea. I've paid for it ever since. This time around, I went to physical therapy twice a week for four months. My physical therapist is one of my good friends, so each session served as the highlight of my week. Not only was I kind of exercising, but I could easily measure progress, hear positive feedback and commiserate with fellow recover-ees (see #9).
2. Be the shuttle driver.
Offer your services to others while you're down and out. Whether that's an airport run or coordinating with friends who want a lift to the trailhead for a ski, bike or backpacking adventure so they don't have to deal with a car shuttle, now's your chance to be that guy or gal. This one always comes back around.
1. Be grateful.
Gratitude is good medicine. Instead of focusing on what's been taken from you, concentrate on what you have. Beyond thinking grateful thoughts, I started writing Thank You cards to anyone and everyone, whether they cooked a meal, or came over to hangout while I was couch-bound, or sent me packages in the mail stuffed with chocolate and trashy celebrity magazines. Nothing will make you more grateful for your own afflictions as reading about the Kardashian's.
If you're getting after it in the great outdoors, chances are you've either been here before or know of someone going through it. Enjoy your health while you have it. Be safe. Be primal. And, when you discover that you're in fact breakable, too, take heart. There's more to life than gnar shredding. Besides, not much feels as good as that first time you get back on the bicycle, or, dare I imagine, skis...