I'm currently in the Ventura/Santa Barbara, Calif. area to escape for a week or two to some of my favorite training haunts. I arrived in Ventura on Friday night and not a moment too soon. It was a rough week. I went in for another MRI last Monday to get some updated pictures of my back. The pictures were telling and the story not the type you want to write for yourself.
I am moving beyond the negative and going forward, but here is the jist of the situation. The last disc in my spine, the L-5/S-1 disc, is toast. When we saw the MRI pictures in April of 2007, the disc was in bad shape so I was expecting to see more of the same in the new pictures. However, I wasn't expecting to see the level of degeneration that exists. Basically the doctor said that he has never seen an athlete with my condition return to competitive running (or triathlon for that matter).
This diagnosis puts me in a very weird space. Do I read the writing on the wall and 'retire' or do I try to work around this back thing and return to racing?
I wish the answer were cut and dry. The doctor explained that currently the vertebrae are slipping on the disc casings. (There is no disc to absorb impact, so the vertebrae are literally moving around/sliding on the disc casings like riding a flat tire on the rims. This causes a lot of pain). The doc said that it is possible that when the casings 'dry out' I may have reduced pain and with that reduced pain the door might open for the possibility of running again. How fast or how competitive? There is no answer to that. How long might it take for the disc casings to dry out? Who knows. Could be months, could be a year or two. It is entirely possible that I could return to competition at a decent level down the road, but we don't know how long that road is.
Where do I go from here? The doctor has recommended that I undergo another round of epidural and facet block cortisone shots. That will help calm the inflammation and give me some relief so I can work on more strength training. He suggests that I don't run for 12 weeks or do anything of significant impact during that time. Of course, I am also advised to do as much core strength training as possible. I can swim and bike as tolerable. I've decided that all I can do is focus on what I can do and let the rest take care of itself.
I'm spending almost two weeks in Ventura clearing my head and enjoying my time on the bike and in the water. Although it is not realistic to lay out a race schedule for triathlon or running for the remainder of '08 at this point, I am trying to put together an event schedule for swimming and cycling events. At minimum I get to be out there enjoying the cameraderie of sport and maintain a semblance of the lifestyle that I have lived for so long.
I watched the US Olympic Trials for gymnastics on tv the past two nights. It was very inspiring to hear the stories of Alicia Sacramone and Chelsea Memmel. Granted their stories are entirely different than mine, but the fact that they overcame significant adversity helps me in trying to do the same.
After all 'trying' is all any of us can do. I'll be out swimming and riding tomorrow morning and being thankful for whatever my body will allow me to do. In case you are wondering, yes, I have a lot of other interests and pursuits. However, when something is an integral part of who you are and how you live, letting it go and moving on is extremely difficult. For me, I think I can let go of the competition, but losing the fitness and the body that goes with it terrifies me.