In a long and athletic life so far, I’ve had my share of injuries and done some interesting damage to my body. The most recent is a dodgy knee that requires serious medical attention. That’s an injury I’ve been hoping to avoid, but some things are inevitable. With no ACL in that leg, it’s a tricky battle to keep things stable.
But I’ve had injuries that are acute as well as cumulative. So I ran through my memory banks to think of the some of the most profound injuries I’ve sustained or caused during participation in sports.
The first “sports” injury I can recall was being whacked smack in the head by a five-year-old friend swinging a golf club. It knocked me out cold.
But then in elementary school, I was always bruising my noggin’ playing competitive kickball. There was a swingset in left field and it was an automatic homer if the ball flew over the set and landed on the other side. My main mission in life was to prevent anyone else from getting homers because I led the playground with more than 100 over the swingset each school year. The price of my defensive struggle to prevent others from keeping up was ramming into the swingset and getting goose eggs on my forehead at least once a month. My mom got sick of the calls and told the school nurse: “Just put ice on it. He’ll be fine.”
I also got stabbed in the face by the buck teeth of a fellow softball player on the playground. It gave me a huge black eye, my first. But not the last.
And at some point during a pickup football game I was shoved into a concrete ditch by the older brother of a friend. That’s how I picked up a wicked concussion and had to cross a big road on the walk back home while seeing double. The gash required stitches and I got to stay home several days from school.
In middle school a teammate in eighth-grade basketball rammed his head into my knee while doing sprint drills. The knee swelled to triple its size and required treatment. The doctor stuck a six-inch needle inside the kneed to drain off a quart of black and bloody fluid. I stared at that jar and looked at my father. He shrugged. But it was disgusting. True to form, however, I was back playing ball in a week.
Playing league baseball was always good for injuries. Spike wounds in the ankle never tickled. I also chipped a bone in my elbow trying to steal home one summer day. That put me out of action the entire summer. But it was a line drive to my front teeth at twilight that did permanent damage to my mouth. I have a fake front tooth as a result of that. Some injuries last forever.
My ankles were always strong and I was agile enough to avoid many sprains in high school hoops. In fact the basketball helped me avoid many common running injuries. It also helped make me into a decent steeplechaser.
But eventually the mileage in track or cross country would add up to some sort of overuse problem. I’ve had IT band tightness, chondromalacia of the knee, hamstring pulls, multiple periods of Achilles tendon tightness and calf pulls over the years. There were also groin pulls and back pain from hard or long workouts. I’m slightly bowlegged, which increases the angle of torque on my lower legs. That reverberates back up the body in some ways. But I’ve made it work for a very long time.
Decades of use and abuse
None of those injuries ever stopped me cold. I held up very well through two decades of competition, running the mile in just under 4:20, the 5K in 14:45 and the 10K in 31:10. Not world class times, but respectable, especially this day and age, when 5Ks are typically won in 18:00 and 10Ks in 35:00. As the front cover of the Chicago Tribune section about the Chicago marathon said, “It’s about Community, not Competition.” Those were the headlines in an Advocate Health Care ad. They say as much about the culture of running these days as they do about how much it’s changed from forty years ago.
Being a dad
In my late 20s, along came fatherhood, and running took a back seat to being a dad, and making a living. When I emerged on the other side of 40 after coaching soccer for the kids all those years, I started playing indoor soccer myself. Then it was back to the joys of ankle sprains and groin pulls.
But I was also pulling things while playing basketball in pickup leagues. So I consulted the family doctor to see about getting physical therapy as preventative care, but he said, “Ah, that’s a bunch of fluff.”
And that same year, in keeping with my dire instincts that my body was in need of strength work, I tore my ACL playing indoor soccer. Six months later I had surgery and started the long rehab process. I was determined to return to playing soccer and basketball again. I accomplished that and made it another two years. But on a hot spring day on a wet field, I got tired and a player struck my leg with his knee and the cadaver ACL in my knee gave way.
Fake it to make it
So I’ve been faking it since probably 2013. I’ve been able to run and ride thousands of miles without an ACL. But now that my body is aging a bit, the cocky little rooster of prolonged competition has come home to roost. Cock-A-Fucking Doodle-Do. It’s time to wake up.
I’ll be crowing if there’s some sort of quick fix, but not holding my breath. It’s likely this is a problem built over years of running without an ACL to stabilize the knee. The medial collateral ligament is just sick of it. And it hurts.
But I largely know how to handle injuries. I’ve had a great career so far and have come back multiple times from painful conditions. It’s harder as you age, but not impossible. Five years ago I went down on the bike in a violent crash caused by bike wobble. That required a surgery to fix, but weeks after it was fixed, I got back on the bike before winter came.
There is a good strategy to all of this. Be persistent to find good doctors. Press them for a plan that is concrete. Granted, no surgery is entirely predictable, nor every treatment a guarantee. That’s what makes this scene from Trainwreck so freaking hilarious. I’ve had a couple physician consultations that were about this weird. I was also prescribed a steroid painkiller by a college doctor that was equivalent to the amount normally given to HORSES. I wandered the campus dazed for three days before a doctor at the Mayo Clinic got a look at the prescription and when WHOA. I mean, WHOAAAA.
So that ended that.
But I’ve also done some absolutely stupid things on the bike without cause or provocation. Like crashing into a downed tree. That accident resulted in a massive bruise on my lower back, a crushed iPhone and a bloody chin that required stitches. It took two full years for my massage therapist and a chiropractor to break down the scar tissue from that little joyride. It was all due to riding with my head down while thinking. Some call that inattention. I call it experience.
This is only Day Two on Injury Island, and I’ve been in touch with the ortho again and am scheduling an MRI. We’ll take a look at what this MCL is up to, and in my mind, make a decision on how to plan for the next ten years.
Because I don’t want to give up running. There’s really no need. It may require a brace and some PT to put me back on the road, but this guy isn’t done yet. I’m assessing the damage just like an insurance adjuster. Then I’ll claim my destiny back again.