Are you?

Someone, another powerlifter, commented on yesterday’s training Instagram post, asking if I was going to compete in February. The question brought forth a sigh born out of hope and despair. I really do wish that I could compete in February, but I also know full well how far removed I am from competing anytime soon. The mind is willing, but the body is not. 

As I think about that innocent question, I find my thoughts branching out in various directions, and I am rather amused with one particular branch of thought. 

What was in my few short training videos to make someone even think that competing soon was a question to ask me? 

Anyone who follows me on Instagram should be aware of the fact that I herniated a disc and have been rehabbing and plodding along slowly for the past year. Since I am not fond of typing out lengthy posts using my phone’s keyboard, I try to keep my messages on Instagram short and sweet, but I haven’t hidden the facts of being injured or in pain or being a powerlifter who isn’t powerlifting. 

Yesterday’s training session was okay and not so okay. It is becoming obvious to me that training after work is no longer ideal for me, since my back is usually more achy and the muscles have all ganged up on me. The nerve pains in the legs have been slightly stronger for the past couple of weeks, so that doesn’t help much at any time of day; however, in conjunction with having been on my feet for hours and the resulting angry back…well, let’s just say that I feel like I resemble some hideous, deformed creature as I hobble around the gym. 

Bench press was okay, except for the cranky back and the nerve pains shooting through my buttocks and down the backs of my legs. Rack pulls were sucky once I reached my working weight of 225 pounds. The combination of back aches and leg pains made the rack pulls feel heavy and slow and tough, and I know that there is a mental block about pulling heavy things. The Zercher squats were uncomfortable because of the body aches and pains and the fact I’m adverse to using the bar pad to cushion my inner elbows. And the cardio of doing a minimum of five reps! Even something as simple as a glute bridge hold was uncomfortable as the nerve pain in the buttocks squeezed harder with every rep. The only other exercise on my program yesterday was some reverse pec deck, which I ultimately decided not to do for no other reason than that I didn’t want to. And someone was using the only machine and I didn’t want to wait around anymore. 

Nothing I did yesterday actually made me hurt more than I already was, but the constant day in, day out of pain and going through the motions of a normal life in such a state is toxic. I fought against emotions as I was doing my glute bridges yesterday. The rack pull mental block is big and difficult to remove. I feel frustration oozing out of my pores. 

And yet somehow, someone looked at my little videos of struggling through rack pulls and saw something, saw enough to ask if a competition was in my near future. I don’t know what was seen. Maybe nothing. Maybe the question came from a place of innocence or concern or just because. I could be thinking too much about something rather inconsequential, and this is likely the case. But regardless of the motivation behind the question, perhaps this is merely a reminder that the way others see us is not always the same as how we see ourselves. 

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One Year Later

A lot happens over the course of 365 days. Today is the one year anniversary of the day I lifted all the heavy things, owned all the records, and herniated my L5-S1 disc. I honestly didn’t expect to still be recovering from that injury a year later, but here I am.

Time tends to blur our memories and soften the sharp edges, but I can still recall quite clearly the intensity of the pain I experienced that first night and the days and weeks that followed. I got absolutely no sleep that first night, because I could not sit or lie down without pain so excruciating it made me want to cry. I spent many hours of many nights standing in my dining room working on a jigsaw puzzle, because I could not sleep for the pain I was in. Lying down today still makes the pains running down the backs of my legs worse, yet I am glad to say that the level of pain is significantly less than those first couple of months. Uncomfortable but tolerable is much better than off-the-charts pain.

A few days ago was the first time I put a barbell on my back since squatting a World Record last year. I have only been doing deadlift variations for a couple of months. I have been patient and accepting of the slowness of the process of healing, while always believing and striving to get back to powerlifting. I have been told that I will never be able to do such things again. I have heard advice to continue squatting and deadlifting through the healing process. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what a herniated disc will mean for one’s future and knowing which voices to listen to has been a challenge. I am thankful to have had some people in my corner who were invested in my care and wanting to do things the right way. Obviously there is still something going on inside my body causing the continued pain, tingling, and numbness, and getting answers for the why and how to get rid of it seem to be hard to find. But things are better than they were and slow progress is better than none at all.

It’s been an interesting year, but I would really like to have a more exciting report a year from now.

I Rise Up

The one year anniversary of herniating my disc is in four days. As I’ve lain awake in bed the past several nights, I have been doing a fair bit of reminiscing and thinking about where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.

My month’s supply of Cymbalta was at an end. My doctor’s appointment was cancelled, which required me getting an emergency supply of medication until my rescheduled appointment. Being on Cymbalta has been horrible…the worst of all the medications I have tried over the past year. I didn’t want to continue. This morning was my rescheduled appointment, and I was lucky enough to get the same student doctor that I’ve seen a few times now. She agreed with me about stopping the medication (actually tapering off of it), and she asked me what I want to do or from her. I don’t want anymore medication. I don’t want to chase after pain relief. I’m still waiting for an EMG to see if there is any problems with the actual nerves, and I have a nerve block scheduled at the pain clinic for the end of November. Beyond those appointments, I just want to do my own thing: eat well, try to sleep well, go to the gym and continue getting stronger, chiropractic, and stretching. As I told the doctor, the pain and tingling in my legs and feet is constant. There are slight variations throughout the day or night, sometimes stronger and sometimes slightly less, but they are always there. These sensations are uncomfortable and a nuisance, but they are tolerable. I’d rather not have them, but I don’t want to keep putting medications into my body in the hope of masking them. So I walked out of the appointment with a refill prescription to wean myself off of the Cymbalta (because withdrawal can be nasty for this one), feeling incredibly proud, strong, and relieved. Although I have always been in the driver’s seat when it comes to my care over the past year, I have mostly felt as if I was driving a vehicle without power steering. If I had seen my real doctor today, I don’t know that the conversation would have flowed as well as it did, even if the end result might have been the same, so I am glad to have had the student again. I am happy to have been asked what I want to do now and given a blessing of sorts with the recognition that I am pretty tuned into my body. Now I feel like I am back in control.

Although I’m not sure if it is completely official yet, I no longer hold a World record. I’m not upset about it, because I know there are many strong women out there and records are made to be broken. I held it for almost a year, and I will always know that I did have a World record squat. The plaque is on my wall to prove it, even if my name is erased from the record book. But knowing that my record has been broken has had me thinking about powerlifting and competing. I still don’t have a timeline for stepping back on the platform, but I was excited to see that my coach programmed half-depth high bar squats for me this week, which I will be doing tomorrow morning. This will be the first time I will have had a barbell on my back since my World record squat on November 4, 2017! I am so excited!

When I finished work last night I could barely walk for the pain and weakness in my right leg. That level of pain and difficulty in walking hasn’t occurred for a long time. The pain was gone this morning, but it has just flared back. Work tonight is going to be challenging if this continues, and yet I still want to stop taking medication. This pain is worse than just uncomfortable and tolerable, but I don’t want to be zombie Angela anymore. It’s been almost a year since the injury. They say time heals all wounds. Does it really? How much time? It’s been a year and I’ve certainly healed significantly in many ways, but not completely. Maybe I need more time? Maybe there is an issue with a nerve that could be revealed by an EMG. Perhaps the nerve block will help. Or maybe I will deal with these symptoms for a long, long time. So be it.

I’m done being held down by it all. It’s time to rise up and move on, even if I have to drag myself in the right direction.

Unexpected

Yesterday I watched several hours of a local powerlifting competition. This was the first year that I did not enter this particular competition, and that decision was solely based on the fact I am still recovering from herniating a disc at that competition last November. I have missed out on competing a few times this year, and each one has brought about a myriad of thoughts and emotions.

The first and biggest competition I missed out on was the Canadian Powerlifting Union’s Nationals. I had worked hard for two years to qualify for this event, and this year it was held reasonably close to home, or at least not on the other side of the country. This was one of my big goals, so having to walk away from it was extremely disappointing. I allowed myself to feel the sorrow and grieve the loss, but then I accepted the need for time to heal. I decided that I wouldn’t compete at all in 2018 and play it by ear beyond that. It wasn’t an easy or palatable decision, but it was the right one.

I missed out on two other competitions which I would normally have hoped to compete in. One being the British Columbia Powerlifting Association’s Provincial Championships, and the other being a BCPA meet held in my hometown this past August. Of course, neither event was an option for me this year. I had already made peace with not competing, so my feelings about not doing these ones were not as strong or volatile. I was able to volunteer at the local meet and enjoyed being able to do that.

Yesterday’s 100% RAW competition was the most recent one I would have liked to have entered. This was where I set a World record. It is where I hold Provincial and National records. Last November, it was also where I herniated a disc. I wasn’t quite sure how I would feel being there this year, but I knew that I could go and still be at peace with how things transpired and where I am at.

And yet I was surprised by unexpected emotion! I was there for the morning and was able to watch the women’s squats and bench press. Those ladies were amazing! Ages ranged from 10 to 63 and many records were broken. I believe it was the 63 year old woman who squatted a new World record. As I clapped and cheered for her, I found myself choking up with raw emotion. Tears pooled and threatened to spill. My chest began to heave. This was very similar to what happened to me after I set my World record squat last year, and having such a reaction to another’s record caught me off guard. Out of all of the emotions I could have felt, this was not what I expected.

I regained my composure and watched more lifting without anymore emotional moments. It was kind of weird but also somehow appropriate.

No Competition

There is a powerlifting competition close to home tomorrow. It is 100% RAW, and this will be the first local RAW meet that I will not be competing in since I began powerlifting in 2014. I always enjoy competing closer to home, because that means I will usually have a cheering section of family and friends in the audience. Not competing at a local meet is disappointing, and this one might be even more bittersweet than missing out on a local meet a couple of months ago.

Tomorrow’s competition is the same one in which I herniated my disc nearly a year ago. It is where I broke a World record with my squat and broke a few National and Provincial records for just about everything. Aside from the injury, that was an exceptionally good meet for me. I look back at it with nothing but pride and joy, because I had to struggle through some things and work hard to get the results I wanted that day. The injury could have happened at any time and in a variety of ways, so I don’t have any regrets. Although I don’t understand why I’m still dealing with pain and symptoms, I might even be at the point of being glad I did have the injury. Maybe.

I am hoping to attend part of tomorrow’s competition…as a spectator. Another obligation prevents me from staying for the entire day, but I should be able to see the women lift. Watching isn’t the same as competing, but I am at peace with my decision to not compete this year or until I am physically ready. That doesn’t mean I no longer think about it though!

Post-Injury Fear

I did a thing yesterday. Rack pulls. It’s no big deal really, as I have been doing rack pulls since my chiropractor gave the okay a couple of weeks ago. The weight started low with a 20-25 pounds jump each week. The weights and reps leading up to yesterday had felt good, but yesterday’s program had me pulling 205 pounds for five sets of three. Being given the green light to add more exercises to my training makes me happy and excited, makes me feel as if I am stepping closer to being a powerlifter once more, but that’s still a ways off yet. Permission to do rack pulls feels like finding the golden ticket. This is the first time I’ve been allowed to do any lifting resembling a deadlift since herniating a disc ten months ago!

Pulling 200 pounds yesterday was exciting, but I also approached the bar with some trepidation. Feeling the heaviness of the loaded bar during the first set did little to calm the flutters in my stomach or stop the doubts from invading my head. Still, I plugged away at my reps until the fourth set, when I started to feel soreness in my low back and my rhythm broke after the second rep. I tried to refocus to do the final rep, but it didn’t feel right and I stopped, rested, and then completed the final set.

It’s been a long time since I’ve picked up that much weight and doing it yesterday was so exciting, but getting the work done didn’t stop the doubts and fears. The low back felt a bit achy during the rack pulls, and the discomfort I felt increased for a while after and then held. My first instinct was that this was the normal post-deadlift muscle soreness, but lurking in the corners of my thoughts was the possibility of having hurt my back again. This ache didn’t feel quite the same as how the back feels after a day of bending at work, but it’s been so long since I have deadlifted that I wasn’t confident in my ability to discern the difference. What if I had aggravated the disc? What if I had pissed off my SI joints? The pain doctor suspects a joint problem…what if? Did I use too much back and not enough legs to pull the weight? Was I going to have to drop the weight? Would I have to stop the rack pulls completely?

As much as I tend to say that my training has been light and easy in these months since herniating my disc, that is true only in comparison to what my training looked like prior to the injury. Before the injury I would squat and deadlift weights heavy enough to impress my non-powerlifter friends. Some training days would see me moving more than 10, 000 pounds of weight over the course of a work out. With the injury came drastic changes to every aspect of my life. I went from squatting and deadlifting to performing breathing exercises and basic body-weight movements, gradually adding in some upper body work and light weights as healing slowly progressed. Those have been basically simple exercises, and yet, they haven’t always been easy to perform and I have worked very hard to progress as much (or seemingly as little) as I have. Yesterday’s rack pulls seemed like a milestone, or perhaps an important test I had to pass. And while I think I did ultimately pass the test, the taking of it also revealed a weakness.

This weakness is not physical, although I am certainly still healing, still struggling with constant pain and other symptoms in my legs. No, this weakness is mental. It is the fear of re-injury and all that would come with that…more pain, more suffering, more set-backs.

The opportunity to add exercises and weight back into my training is exciting. This is part of the progress I want to see, but I really don’t want to regress. The fact that I am still dealing with pain and a partially numb foot means I’m not keen to make things worse, but I also have to accept that some discomfort and aches will come from taking those forward steps. The stiffness I’m feeling in my low back is most likely simple muscle soreness, because that has been normal for me after pulling and I haven’t used those muscles like this for a long time! There is a measure of comfort in realizing this is probably normal, but that won’t stop the fears from surfacing again.

For anyone involved in a sport, the mental game is just as important as the conditioning and physical training, even more so when coming back from injury, I think. I experienced this on a smaller scale last year when I had issues with my SI joints for the first half of 2017. Recovering from that issue was an up and down affair, and things didn’t always go the way I wanted. I did get through that issue though and was stronger as a result, both physically and mentally. Then I broke a World record and had an excellent competition. I also herniated a disc. I will get through this stronger…again.

Here is an article I saved a few months ago which talks about this same thing:  https://www.girlsgonestrong.com/blog/mindset/overcoming-fear-injury/

A Dark Cloud

An announcement was made yesterday by one of the two powerlifting organizations I compete with. A lifter had tested positive on a drug-test and was suspended for four years. I read the notice with dismay that someone had attempted to cheat. While the number of people involved in powerlifting within Canada continues to grow, we are still a relatively small group. Unless you live and compete inside of a bubble, as a lifter you become familiar with the names of successful lifters. I don’t know this lifter. I don’t know much about him as a person off the platform, but I know his name and the respect he had earned on the platform. I love my sport, and it is always sad to see its’ reputation tarnished due to situations like this.

Then the lifter himself shared his story, and I found my thoughts and emotions becoming even more disgruntled. I respect the fact that he is owning his decisions and his transparency once the violation was discovered. I recognize the shame and upset this has created around him and the outward ripples created by his actions. But I’m shaking my head.

A couple of years ago, he slipped a disc during competition. Healed up a little but competed again a few months later. When things got worse with his body to the point that he wasn’t training and worried he might never compete again, he knowingly took a banned substance in an effort to prevent muscle wasting. He then competed five more times before competing at Nationals in February of this year. Somewhere in there was the drug test which ultimately was his downfall, and now he has been banned for four years.

Strip away the fact that this lifter is stronger and more experienced than I am, and you’re left with two powerlifters in somewhat similar situations.

  1. We both experienced a disc injury in competition.
  2. We have both experienced disruptions to our regular training due to our injuries.
  3. We both have struggled with fears about losing our strength.
  4. We both have questioned our being able to compete again.

Similar situations but different outcomes.

  1. He chose to take a substance that is banned completely and is not even legal for human consumption anywhere. I took medications which are banned only in competition but are allowed outside of competition.
  2. He chose to compete within a few months of his injury, likely before his body was actually healed. I chose to take at least an entire year off of competing in order to allow my body the time and space to heal.

Herniating my disc last November was a major blow for me. I have been in constant pain ever since. I am not sure if the numbness in my left foot will ever go away. I lost 8 months of work. Two years of hard work and checking off prerequisites in order to go to Nationals were wiped out. Not only was I unable to compete at Nationals this year, but I will also need to start from the beginning in order to qualify for a future Nationals, which means I’m looking at least two years from now. I have had many fears and questions about the long-term prognosis for my health and ability to compete. My day-to-day life has been greatly impacted by my injury and the ongoing symptoms. I may not be the same caliber of lifter as this individual, but my experiences with my herniated disc are not all that different from his. I just let go of my ego in order to heal.

I don’t know which cheating scenario is worse: just wanting an edge over everyone else or the unwillingness to accept the repercussions of an injury. The cheaters who feel they need the advantage are easily viewed as ignorant jerks. But this lifter has a young family and appears to be a genuinely nice guy. While I don’t think he was looking for an edge, he still made the conscious choice to put something illegal into his body. When I look back over the past ten months of my own pain and suffering, it is difficult to feel sorry for him and the punishment he’s received. Anyone who competes in a drug-tested sport knows their responsibilities to be clean and the risks that come with failing a test.