The Winter Of My Discontent

The winter of ‘21/’22 was to be my sixtieth season on skis.

After staying away the entirety of last season due to the pandemic, I was looking forward to returning to the hill.

It didn’t quite go as planned.

I was the very embodiment of the storied camel, poised and ready to have one… more… straw… break its back and, oops.

To be fair, I had more than my share of high-speed ski crashes over the decades, beginning all the way back in high school. Most were soft-tissue insults centered around my spine.

My last truly ugly crash happened when my son was in middle school. I joined him on his weekly ski club outings and, while he was off on another part of the hill, took a run on my own.

Doing that thing I typically do, I was coming in hot and completely overlooking a deep trough hidden in shadow. (It was a night session under the lights.) At full speed my tips augured into what may as well have been a wall, and I landed hard.

The impact knocked the wind out of me and gave my vertebral column one more good rattle.

While I’m blessed not to have as full a catalogue of injuries as many lifelong skiers and former racers, just the fact that I have a selection says something. And as I make my way through my 60’s, my body reminds me that we played pretty hard.

And it came to pass that, back in September of ’21, I found myself in one of those moments.

One Sunday night I went to see Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Festival…

The next morning I awoke with a wicked case of sciatica, pain shooting from my right lower lumbar, down my barely usable right leg, across the back of the knee and well into my calf.

Calling upon my very best Jack Skellington, I asked no one in particular, “What’s this?” (My language was probably more colorful.)

I’d been doing semi-OK at getting out on my bike regularly through the summer, but evidently the camel had a hard time with Willie’s music, or just did not find the seats at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to his liking.

Somehow, though, I think it’s a small miracle that I made it this far without all those crashes catching up to me.

From an understanding and appreciation point of view, I’ve developed a whole different level of empathy for those dealing with chronic pain. It is neither easy nor pleasant.

The given here is that we all age, and we all do so differently. That’s simply a fact.

Another thing – I’m wildly grateful for all the experiences that got me to this point.

No kidding.

I’ve gotten to do some amazing things in equally amazing settings, and I’m not done.

Yes, I continue to have days where I’m unable to move as I would like. The nature of this kind of injury is that “leaning into the pain” does far more harm than good, and that’s frustrating…

I’ve been called (and ordered by a team of PT’s and other healers) to be gentle with myself – and to develop a new relationship with self-kindness and patience.

I’d love to tell you how easy it’s been, but I’d be lying.

It’s been a slog, and it’s far from over.

Meanwhile, my skis hang patiently in the garage, edges sharp and ready for next season.

Beyond my aches and pains, I think there’s an invitation in this, particularly for men like me who have, to one degree or another, wrapped part of our identity around the word “athlete.”

While I do hope to bring the elder athlete back at some point, I’ve gotten to let that part of myself rest and allow, with a modicum of humility, the dedicated help of others to get back on my feet.

It’s been a very different way of occupying this amazing body I get to wander around in.

Yeah, after this winter of my discontent I’m looking forward to taking those skis off the wall next season.

Until then, I have a lot of recovery and strength-building ground to cover. As I progress, I imagine I’ll be learning lessons that, with the hubris that came with taking my able-bodied status for granted, I’d never considered.

I’ll let you know what I discover as the seasons pass.

And the invitation I mentioned earlier…?

I invite you to choose at least one of your own long-held identities, specifically one attached to an activity – and ask yourself who you would be without it.

Let me know what you find out.