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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Royse

My Busted Body and CrossFit

Today was “one of those days” in the gym. It was full of lessons and reflections. Today, I was proud of myself for stopping half way through a workout. While I cheered others on to their respective finish lines, I had lots of time to think about how awesome it was that I stopped half way. And really, that I was there at all. And what CrossFit is all about.

CrossFit is about figuring out what you CAN do, not fixating on what you can’t.

It’s hard to find the actual starting point of the improbability of my being in a CrossFit gym at all. I could be 9 days ago when I was rowing in the gym, and my back went the kind of “out” that involved my screaming in quick pain, tumbling to the floor and staying there (singing to 80’s pop tunes while others worked out) and waiting for my husband to come get me. Or it could be a few years ago when I had both shoulders surgically repaired, a year apart, from torn rotator cuffs that happened before CrossFit was even a thing. Or it could be the moment that I broke my neck in a car wreck and didn’t die, but was told I’d never be athletic again…..

My body is broken in so many ways. And if it weren’t for CrossFit, my spirit would be also.

Knowing yourself is about figuring out what you CAN do, not fixating on what you can’t.

So, 9 days ago, that back thing….. It was not the first time this has happened. The last time was in August, when we were driving our daughter cross-country to college. That sucked. Before that, it was about a year ago, but I’d say I’d previously been on the “once a year” schedule. That time, I dunno, I gave into despair. I went to see a  new-to-me doctor, a physiatrist, who basically said “you probably have a  herniated disc and should avoid all strenuous activity, forever.” Basically “no sportsing for you.” I wish I had never gone to see him. I never will again.

That’s just bullshit, for so many reasons. But is a really standard medical response. I don’t know why. Maybe they’re just lazy, trying to save their asses? I don’t know. But what I do know is that telling people to adopt a sedentary lifestyle in order to avoid pain is insane. Can sportsing cause injuries? Probably. Can being sedentary cause life-threatening chronic disease? Absolutely. In the Risk / Reward analysis, I’d take periodic injuries over Type 2 Diabetes and COPD any day. (And don’t get me started on the pain meds I was offered.)

But, beyond the physical realities of injury vs. chronic disease, not sportsing would make me crazy. I’m 49 years-old. My broken body is the result of living life. Of skiing, running, biking, swimming, falling, crashing, and one really random staph infection in my hip. You could do a semester of med school on my body alone. And yet, this amazing body of mine just keeps doing stuff. Hard stuff. Fun stuff. Joyful stuff. That keeps me sane.

Because my life has been filled with a shit-ton of stress and trauma. (Oprah could do a week, when those med students finished doing their semester.) On top of trauma, I have ADHD, and a serious propensity for “worry” that a doctor might call anxiety. For me, sportsing has always been the way that I handle it. When I was in high school, I used to ride my bike around the island that we lived on before school (and, if I’m honest, sometimes instead of school.)  As an adult going through divorce and associated traumas, I ran, and ran, and ran. And ran some more. I broke up the running with traithlons.

Then I broke my neck. Badly. (There’s no good way to, but still, mine’s extra bad.) I snapped the dens off my C2, something that is colloquially called a “hangman’s fracture.” Usually when the dens snaps off the C2, it severs the nearby brain stem. Mine didn’t. But it’s still lodged there, ensconced in scar tissue and seemingly buffered by a cyst that my body grew, probably to protect me in some way that none of us are clear about, but I am thankful for. (Seriously, you guys, bodies are so fucking amazing.)

When this happened, exercising was the only thing keeping me sane. It was “alone” time, time to push through, sweat, cry, get exhausted. To show myself I was strong and capable and would be fine. Then they slapped a collar on my neck, told me I might wear it forever, and I would never run, bike or swim again. But hey, I was lucky as hell to be alive and not paralyzed.

No, really, I feel lucky as hell. I am in pain every single day of my life, but when I want to give into the pain, I remind myself that I am not only alive, against all odds, but my life is amazing.

So what about that “no sportsing ever” diagnosis. Ya, about that. I found a different doctor. It took a few tries, but with the help of my AMAZING primary care doc, I found a spine doctor whose answer wasn’t “don’t do things,” it was “let’s find new things for you to do.”

Life is about figuring out what you CAN do, not fixating on what you can’t.

Ignoring our weaknesses make us more susceptible to injury and illness. I don’t know if I can fix the underlying issue with my back, but I do know that I can strengthen the muscular system that supports my spine. Unless I don’t use those muscles.

This amazing spine doctor, who I credit with my entire joy-filled life, told me to start lifting weight. It’s not that he loved weightlifting, per se, it’s that he knew I needed to move for both my physical and mental health; and that I can no longer be jostled.  I, to this day, cannot handle the impact of running, or the strain of holding my neck up on a bike, or the constant turning of my neck to breathe while swimming. My neck doesn’t move much, really. It can’t handle impact or force at all. (No more roller coasters. Super sad face.)

Long story short, because of this doctor, I flagged the OK Cupid profile of some guy that was opening a CrossFit gym in my neighborhood. I assumed he’d be a terrible match for me, just like every other guy on OK Cupid, but thought maybe he’d at least teach me what to do with a barbell. At the time, I was still wearing a collar if I was doing anything at all strenuous. He didn’t bat an eye. He patiently, and perhaps hornily, worked with my broken body to show me everything I could do.

That changed my life. Not just because we’re now happily married, and owning this gym with him has been fulfilling beyond my wildest dreams. But also because it’s given me a calling in life. Bring me your broken body, I can work with that.

I can help you figure out what you CAN do, not fixate on what you can’t. I can help you amaze yourself.

Which brings me to today. I am still mad at the physiatrist who basically told me to stop sportsing because my back was iffy. I am mad as hell at every doctor / PT out there who tells people not to use their bodies for fear of what might hurt, rather than helping them get stronger. The risks of physical activity pale in comparison to the risk of no physical activity. Period.  The answer to “my back is weak” is not “then don’t use it,” it’s “then make it stronger.”

Ignoring our weaknesses make us more susceptible to injury and illness. I don’t know if I can fix the underlying issue with my back, but I do know that I can strengthen the muscular system that supports my spine. Unless I don’t use those muscles.

I know what I need to do to make my back stronger, because I’ve found a great team of practitioners who support me. And I’ve been lame about doing it, because, EXCUSES. But this last wake-up call was loud enough, I’ll do all my core rehab and prehab. But also, I’ve was back in the gym as soon as I could. We NEVER, EVER push through the acute phase of an injury. Ever. Never. I spent a week barely moving while my body worked through whatever it was working through. (When I broke my neck it was a year. When my daughter herniated a disc at 14, rowing, it was a year. Now she’s an elite Weightlifter.)

But once I could, I was back in the gym. Doing mini-workouts that were highly modified for my body. So, let’s look at today’s workout, which was programmed by the genius of Taz and Pat Barber at Warmup and Workout:

27-21-18 Lateral barbell jumps Parallette Heel Taps Deadlifts – rest 2 mins- 18-21-27 Lateral barbell jumps Parallette Heel Taps Deadlifts

Okay, I have a broken neck, so I don’t jump.  BUT, I can do box jumps, because there is no “crashing,” really. In a box jump, you land in the apex of the jump, you don’t crash back down. So I subbed box jumps. Easy. Parallette Heel Taps? Hell no, my back is still iffy, I can’t do that rotation right now, though it’s usually one of my jams. Today, really just seated heel raises. Deadlifts? With a weak back? You bet! But I went SUPER light. Basically, just range of motion with flawless form, which looks a lot like rehab / prehab work. Used all those muscles, gently, slowly, calmly. And after I finished the first set, during the rest, I checked in with my body. I decided that it was wise to stop. Not because it hurt, or because I was tired – neither of those were the case. But precisely because I wasn’t hurt or tired, and I wanted to stay that way.

As I stretched out, singing my heart out, while everyone else finished, I thought “THIS IS WHAT CROSSFIT IS.” That moment, with those people, in that place.

CrossFit is about figuring out what you CAN do, not fixating on what you can’t. It’s about a community of people who know how to honor their own bodies and processes, and having help to figure that out.

Look, I’m ALWAYS the person modifying every single workout. And usually whining. My husband is one of those “go-getter” types who likes to push as hard as he can at all times. I’m the opposite. Partly because my body just has more “quirks” than his. But also, it’s just my personality. I’m not lazy, so much as just not interested in doing really hard things. CrossFit lets me be that person. It lets me just be me. Unlike a race, or a team sport, it’s just me, doing what feels right at the moment. I am so grateful for that.

But getting into the gym and giving it a little more than you think you can, even if it’s not close to your “all,” is awesome. Your body, your health, isn’t an “all or nothing” thing. It’s embracing what you can do, and knowing that it’s worth it. You are worth it. Because the better you treat your body, the better it will treat you. Is it linear, always progressing? Hell no. I spent a week watching TV in bed because my back insisted.

But here’s what I know. Some stupid doctor told me not to workout because my back was “weak.” In the months since he said that, I’ve lifted more than ever. Literally, got PRs on everything. And had a blast and felt powerful and joyful. And then my back went out again. And that sucked. But a week later I was back in the gym. I suppose you could look at it and say “maybe it went out again because you were still working out so much.” Sure, that’s possible. You could also say “you got better in a week because you’re so strong.”

And that’s how I look at it.

At this point, I assume that life is going to injure me. It’s going to break my body and my spirit. Repeatedly. It always has, it always will.

And I am going to be strong enough to bounce right the fuck back.


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