Tuesday, April 27, 2021

That which used to make me stronger kills me

 The best laundry days are the ones when the fire wardens warn you that the dry grass could catch fire just from a cricket rubbing its legs together. Today is such a day.

The clotheslines are hung high enough to allow bed sheets to hang clear of the dirt. Hanging a load requires some reaching and stretching upward. And that is how the subject connects to the temporary but frequent inconveniences that formerly very active people deal with when attempting to be moderately active in the face of all of the elements of life that conspire to make us sedentary subjects of contented decay.

Deprived of convenient access to the one-stop shopping of cross-country skiing, my winter conditioning consists of baking tasty things and lifting them out of the oven. Occasionally, a stab of misgiving impels me to put myself through as much as I can remember -- and endure mentally -- of my old indoor routines. Since 1982 I have had to keep up regular conditioning of my right shoulder, to reinforce the acromioclavicular joint, where the collar bone attaches to the rest of the shoulder joint. It was blown apart on a night ride when I failed to clear a cut in the road that I was jumping on my racing bike.

Of all the people I used to ride with when I was messing around with racing, the only one who doesn't have a messed-up collarbone broke his leg instead. All of them received their wounds valorously in competition. The guys who got fractures in the middle of the collarbone took off the sling and resumed training in a week. The other guy who suffered an a-c separation had real health insurance, so he had the surgery where they screw it back together like a wobbly chair, so he had minimal down time as well. I, on the other hand, unsure of my finances, wore a strap for ten weeks, which held the errant collarbone in place by compression along the humerus. The orthopedic doctor who treated me in the ER said "eight to ten weeks," but I think the eight was just to give me a ray of false hope. I went to that eight week consultation full of joy, only to find out that it had never been a strong possibility.

Do you know how scrawny your arm gets when you have it strapped in a sling for ten weeks? And then there's range of motion. When I finally got the sling off, the doctor told me I could go ahead and straighten my arm. I think he did it for the "humerus" value. My forearm, which had been held level at about ninety degrees to the upper arm, only dropped about ten degrees before I felt the tug of shortened muscle.

As a low-budget patient I didn't receive a ton of follow-up once I was released back into the alley. I was advised not to rush things. Having explored strength training for various non-biking activities, I pieced together some exercises with light weights, calculated to reinforce the joint. For sensible symmetry, and strength for a growing interest in climbing, these weight routines became a regular habit for more than 20 years. My misspent life centered on human-powered exploration of my neighborhood, on foot, by bike, and in paddle craft. 

At 64, lacking the bottomless reservoirs of youthful strength, I still feel that life is made more worthwhile by aimless exploration of mostly natural environments.

Pain after exercise is an insidious foe. In your teens and twenties you might push yourself and feel pain almost immediately afterward, which diminishes steadily as you go forward. In your thirties the onset may be immediate or slightly delayed, and the arc of it rises before it falls. By your forties, the onset is delayed by as much as a day, so you have no idea how intense it might get. This continues with the next decade. Ah, but the 60s... this is the decade of surprise. I will be surprised at how strong I feel, resuming training after a layoff. I will be further surprised by what hurts -- and how badly -- when the backlash hits a day or two later.

Yesterday afternoon, after a nice hike up the mountain behind my house, I felt pretty good. The day before, I had done my wee little workout, with the vestiges of core work and upper body strength needed to support the bike commute and keep my shoulder knitted together. About an hour after I returned to the house, a sharp pain stabbed me in the muscles of my upper chest, just a couple of ribs below the clavicle. I felt around to see if maybe I'd been shot and hadn't realized it. It's clearly on the outside of the chest cavity, but the stab of pain makes it hard to take a deep breath, and excruciating to blow a snot rocket. I really pissed something off in there.

Muscle memory is not always your friend. I can't point to a single moment in my exercise session in which I said, "Oops, I shouldn't have done that." I flowed through the familiar movements with what seemed like reasonable amounts of weight. Nothing, really.

The pain fluctuates, but has not gone away. Some pains suggest their remedy when you explore them by careful movement or exploratory pressure. Not this little bastard. Every time I think I've found the key stretch or the right massage, it ripostes with another accurate thrust.

Trainee David has a tee shirt from the Marine Corps that says, "Pain is weakness leaving your body." As inspiring as that may seem to a youngster feeling only rising strength, I can think of numerous instances in which it is not true, including combat wounds. I asked if the recruiters showed them splatter flicks, like the scare movies in driver education classes, just to prepare them for the realities of armed conflict. If you don't get a deep look at your own internal anatomy, you still might have to function while looking at your buddy's. The more hardened you can get to that, the better, if warrior is really your calling. Life is pain, and ultimately weakness does not leave your body. You figure out how to work with it.

1 comment:

Rob in VA said...

Grade 3 A-C separation here, circa 2016. The crash left me unconscious for awhile, and with permanent short-term memory loss, though my long term memory seems unaffected. My chosen Orthopedic surgeon, who had already performed rotator cuff surgery on both of my shoulders, looked at the x-ray images and said "welcome to the peloton". He advised against surgery on the A-C separation. I used to do 80 pushups at a time, now I can do none. It's disheartening for sure.