Adrenaline: You Fall and You Get Back Up

These are the people who inspire me to ski like a bad ass. And they all make me smile and feel loved.
These are the people who inspire me to ski like a bad ass. And they all make me smile and feel loved.

I feel like I’m in the movie Groundhog Day. Except the more apt title would be Crash Day. Or, rather  Injured Month.

Dear readers, I wish I wasn’t so damn redundant with these missives about injuries. But here I sit, propped up on pillows, eased from pain with drugs, and am fighting off tears about how my final day of racing in the US Telemark National Championships resulted in a crash.

I’d been dealing with tendinitis in both knees since January and in my current state, I’d give anything for my primary injury to be left and right knee.

The National Championships, held in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, was a four day event. Despite the tendinitis in both knees, I was focused and prepared to travel to Colorado and race well. I’d been training hard. I’d worked on the areas that were my weakness:  getting my hips forward, improving my strength in the skate, and driving my body down the fall line. I was ecstatic to see my teammates and competitors. Nationals is always a tough long weekend of racing but it’s also a blast. There a good, good people who race. Also, since I missed last year’s championships series (why? oh another injury) I was highly motivated and driven to return to the podium.

However, on the Monday morning before Cole and I flew to Steamboat, I awoke in severe pain in my neck and ribs. On the Wednesday prior during gate training, a gate slammed into my back, causing a deep bruise. I didn’t think much of it. Apparently, I had sprained my ribs and the pain migrated to my neck. I arrived to Steamboat with with a sore neck and tight ribs. Before this new injury, I was just hoping that my knees would cooperate to five days of training and racing. Now I had a new injury to treat. The pain made it difficult to to ski and I ended up visiting a chiropractor in Steamboat for two visits during racing.

My goal was to just make it through the entire race series, no matter how sore my ribs were, especially in the skate. There’s video footage of the Classic race (the longest and most grueling of telemark racing events) where I clutch my ribs at the end of the skate section. I was hurt but I made concessions with myself: just complete the races and then rest. At the end of each day, I’d promise myself: one more day, one more day.

I had finished in third place in the two Classic races. I had competed quite well against the competitor ahead of  me so I knew that I was in contention for a top spot. I was filled with the fire to prove my salt in the course. I was making jump lines and skiing aggressively.

On the third day, in the Sprint Classic, I made a major mistake in my first run. I launched off the jump and instead of landing and making a turn into the gates to the left, I ended up near the mogul field at Howelsen Hill. I was not focused on where I needed to be on the course. I hiked up to catch the missed gates and finished the first run. Needless to say, I was pissed. More than pissed. This was a mistake of my mental focus. On the second run, I  left the start gate, determined to redeem myself for my stupid error. I skied, jumped and skated well. It paid off–in the second run I was the fastest woman. I will take that as a major victory because the top two women on the US team are World Cup medalists. I finished the day in 4th place–which meant that on Sunday, the final day, in order to remain on the podium for the overall standings, I would have to at least place third.

The last day was the Sprint Parallel–head to head racing where each racer has their own course but share the rap and the skate section. It is a wild, lively and intense event. In this event, I knew I had to ski without any flaws. My nerves were at their peak. I was unable to eat breakfast, and gingerly  I nibbled on an energy bar during course inspection.

When I launched off the jump, I don’t know what happened but I crashed hard on my left side (the side that was already hurting). I didn’t know the threshold of pain I was experiencing, but I was damn certain that I’d finish the race.  I hiked the gate I missed, returned to the course and in the finish area, sat in a crumpled mess and sobbed. I didn’t know what to do, should I take a second run? I was devastated. Yet adrenaline is a magical and elusive thing. It’s also a motivator. It forces our bodies out of danger, but it probably wasn’t designed to inspire us to seek another race run.

I was asked if I needed medical attention. I said no and went back to the top of the start and raced a second run. It was not my best run and I was still in tears as I went through the course. When you train so hard for the National Championships, the emotional flood of not performing well isn’t easy to control. When I skated through the finish, I knew that I’d lost my chance at third.

Now, here’s where the story turns from racing to pain. I thought I was okay. I was not. My teammates knew that I was not well and I went into the lodge to lay on some ice. I was shaking, crying and it was difficult to breathe. I told parents and teammates that I was okay. It’s curious the lies you tell yourself when you don’t want to acknowledge that something is very wrong with your body.

A teammate’s mother, who’s a Wilderness EMT, called ski patrol. It was the right thing to do. I was not in any capacity to make rational decisions. She stroked my forehead and tried to calm me down. As I lay on the floor in the lodge, trying to slow down my breathing, and trembling in my speed suit, this is what I thought about: don’t let Cole know I’m hurt so he can race well in his two runs. My plan didn’t exactly work because Cole later said that when he was at the top of the hill, he heard over the radios that a 31 year old female, on oxygen was being transported to the ER. Cole finished his race in which he qualified for the second round of the duals, and arrived at the hospital with the color drained from his face.

An oxygen mask was placed over my face to help my breathe. The EMT’s were called to Howelsen Hill. When they arrived, they began to run an IV of pain medicine. All of this is a blur to me now. I thought I was okay–I mean, I took a second run and everything. Again, it’s incredible what adrenaline will do to our bodies.

The good news was that my cat scan and x-rays revealed no broken bones. Although my doctor at the ER (side note: if you are ever injured, and I hope you’re not, in Steamboat Springs, you will receive impeccable  care from the EMT’s and doctors) said that she wished people like me would have a broken bone so I’d take my injuries seriously. My ribs are pretty banged and bruised. I have a cervical sprain (whiplash) and was diagnosed with blunt chest trauma, which makes it sound like I was involved in a bar brawl. If only…

Back in January, when I saw my orthopedic doctor for my knees, he advised that I take the next 6 weeks off and go to Mexico to drink beer. I didn’t heed his advice because I knew I had to make it to February 24th, the final day of Nationals. I even promised my physical therapist that I’d stop skiing on February 25th.  So, I did make it to February 24th, although not completely. I won’t be traveling to Mexico any time soon, but this injury has forced me to rest. And rest is exactly what this body needs.

Now, I just have to readjust my emotional and mental response to the injury. I’ve been crying a lot, and I think I may have made my physical therapist a bit uncomfortable when I started to sob during yesterday’s evaluation. Some might say that skiing is just skiing, that it’s just  a sport and that I’m lucky that I was able to race in the first place and have some good finishes. I agree but telemark ski racing is my focus, my passion, and in addition to writing, my vocation. Especially after missing last season due to cracking my right ribs. I was determined and fixated on racing well this season.

Before my major crash, when Cole dropped me off at the chiropractor in Steamboat, I turned to him and asked, “Is the universe trying to tell me something about racing? About how I should be writing more instead?”

Cole replied, “The universe isn’t trying to tell you anything. It’s just bad luck. It’s outside of your own control.”

Outside of my own control: that’s the message I need to take away from this. I like to be in control. I’m a control freak. And this accident is teaching me that I can’t be in control, no more than I could control any of the results from any of the races. I need to abandon the mental track of “if only I made the jump line the Classic” or “if I hadn’t boggled up the Sprint Classic” or “if I would only would have not fallen”, “I could have earned the bronze”. All of it is out of my control.

And the women who made the podium: Madi, Zoë and Sarah, they are deserving and talented athletes. Congratulations to them and all of the female competitors–there was a strong showing of women racers, both young and old-woot woot!.

What I did control, was this: when I fell, I got back up. And I finished.


From the Sidelines

In early March the US Telemark National Championships were held at Gunstock Mountain Resort in the quaint Lakes Region of New Hampshire. For Cole and me, it would be our first experience skiing on the east coast.

For Cole, the 2012 championships proved to be his career  best , placing 8th overall. He skied incredibly strong and made impressive improvements in his Achilles’s heel of tele racing — the jump. He skied, skated, and jumped notably well over four days of racing on little snow and lots of sunshine (also, not to mention, Cole did not have many days of training prior to flying east).

For me, this year’s race was a completely different experience than what I experienced last year in Steamboat. While Cole and my teammates gunned for the title, I humbly watched from the sidelines.

My own Achilles’s heel is a longstanding streak for injuries sustained during the month of February and this year proved to be no exception. On a bluebird day on the Big Mountain while skiing groomers with good friends, I took a good fall and landed hard on my right side. Not wanting to look like a goon and fending off embarrassment from my gaffe, I ignored the ache in my ribs, continued my way down Inspiration, loaded Chair One, and attempted to make my way down the backside of the mountain. Half way down the bumpy run, it became difficult to breathe. The pain in my ribs were sharp. It felt as if my entire rib cage and shoulder blade were shoved about a foot further into my body.

On the chair ride back to the summit, I vocalized my pain and Cole directed me to the ski patrol shack at the summit. Guided by a patroller, I was downloaded off Chair One and sent promptly to the urgent care clinic. A series of X-Rays determined that my ribs were bruised, perhaps cracked, and my scapula had “about a B-Cup’s worth of swelling”.

That exact quote was deftly delivered by my doctor. He seriously compared the lump on my scapula to a breast. I would have laughed much harder but it hurt too much.

The nurse, after scanning through my records, pointed out that I’d been admitted to the urgent care clinic for three ski related (or dare I say, induced) injuries during the month of February since  2006. She looked at me and offered that perhaps I should not ski during February. Lovely advice that I will not heed, no matter the bruised ribs, torn shoulder or broken wrist.

In one fell swoop (pun completely intended), I realized my ski racing season was over before it even started. I would not be able to attend the World Cup series in Steamboat the following week and it would be a long shot to recover and train in time to make a go at Nationals.

Last year, while training I partially dislocated my left shoulder but I was still able to heal and compete in Norway at a World Cup race series and finish in third place at the US Nationals. This year, a much longer recovery period was in order. Also, with my full-time job, training had been completely and utterly thrown to the back burner.

I was upset, annoyed and angry. I also came to the realization that I possessed a raging accident prone gene. Although early in the season I had eschewed my concentration from racing to working full-time, I was still saddened that my race season had come to an abrupt end on what seemed like an innocuous ski run down Inspiration.

Luckily, work kept me occupied. I focused on physical therapy, a weekly activity I’d been participating in all winter for other injuries in my neck and shoulder. My winter season was directed to healing my body in all of its imbalances. I didn’t understand how my own body could be so beat up, down trodden, and kicked to the curb.

I wanted nothing to do with the National Championships after my rib injury. I told Cole to go without me. We’d save money — one less plane ticket, registration fees, hotel reservations, and lift tickets to purchase. Without competing in one single race this season, I felt so utterly removed and separated from my teammates. I wanted to focus on work — who actually says that? — since it offered me my most immediate distraction. I wanted to forget about racing and move onto life with the symphony and reengage with my writing self in preparation for grad school. I was ready to throw in the whole speed suit towel. As I typed out an email to the USTSA Board of Directors explaining my injury and how it wouldn’t allow me to compete at Nationals, I thought of how dramatic the changes in the last year had been. Last winter the complete and utter focus was on telemark racing. This season, I followed the journey of my teammates through the channels of the Internet and YouTube and cried when two of my teammates, Madi and Zoe, made it to the podium at the World Cups in Steamboat.

The Board, while concerned for my injury, encouraged me to attend the National Championships and hoped I’d volunteer for the race. Cole wanted me to come as well. So while he packed up his race gear, speed suit, and wax equipment, with a scowl on my face, I threw in my race jacket that hardly saw any use this season into my dufflebag.  I kept telling myself that I’d go to the race, cheer on Cole, and that I’d hardly blink an eye about the actual race. I’d put the racing experience out of my heart and mind.

Nice try, wise gal.

Arriving on the east coast and hugging my teammates in the hotel lobby, I realized that I foolish to think that I no longer cared about the sport. It was a tough nut (it was actually more like a shard of glass) to swallow to watch the racers take the course, navigating through the gates and skating to the finish. As a gate judge, I watched every single competitor race. A huge New England contingency of telemark racers showed up to compete against the US team. I stood on the sidelines for four straight days in my team jacket, watching, judging, and cheering. The first two days were the most difficult, and I choked down tears as the women’s elite division took to the course the first. It was a lot harder than I anticipated to be a mere bystander than a racer. I desperately yearned to slide through the course during inspection run among my teammates, visualizing my line, and I wanted nothing more than to enter the skate section — my strongest discipline in the race. But my body was not going to allow me to slide through the start gate and wait for the signal, “Racer ready? Three, two, one – GO!”

Prior to heading east to Gunstock, I told my co-workers that I’d formally bow out from racing at the Championships, using the venue to say goodbye to my friends and teammates, leaning on my well worn excuses of injuries, age, job, and graduate school. But  from the moment I gathered with the team at the base lodge, slapping hi-fives and catching up on the past year, I realized that my biggest fault was not that my  body is prone to breaking frequently, but rather I possess a nasty and debilitating  habit of giving up. I may not ever have a year like I did in 2011, competing in three different countries on the World Cup circuit and ending the year with a bronze at Nationals, but it still doesn’t mean that I don’t absolutely love chasing blue and red paneled gates on a free heel.

And my lame excuse that I’m getting old is completely unfounded as Charlie Dresen, aged 48, took home the gold in the men’s division. I may be getting older but that doesn’t mean I’m any less fast.