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Somewhere Between Obscurity and Oblivion

November 1
At this point is has been about three weeks since the accident. Immediately after the accident, a number of good friends gave me some good advice: be patient. Nothing good can come from pushing myself too much, too soon. My high school ski coach wrote me the following:

I have a matching pair of once-broken clavicles but it sounds like you reached another level. A word to the wise... I rushed back my left collarbone.....actually skied 10K w/o poles two days later. There was a cost. It healed with a slightly larger bone callous that knicked away at my rotator every time I served in tennis or threw a ball...which in three years led to a ruptured rotator.
It's more than just gutting through the pain... pay attention to HOW it is healing.

So I was patient. No excess movement for the first week, then nothing more than an easy walk for the next two weeks. A first it was easy to restrain myself. I was in pain, and any movement would make it worse. Mentally I really wanted to go out for vigorous exercise, but physically I knew I couldn't.

But now it is getting harder to be patient. My walks have become more lively. I have gone to the ski trails to walk so that I have more vertical. I have to admit that on a couple of occasions I have found myself ski-walking - almost bounding - up the hills. My shoulder is feeling better. It is still very sore to the touch, but other than that it feels fine.

This is the grey area. When can I start to pick up the activity? Not training, mind you, just activity. Is it still too early? I feel fine when I push it a little bit, but if I do too much and strain it (or worse yet, fall) I could set myself back another month.

On doctor's orders, I take my arm out of the sling once in a while and let it swing around gently, just to loosen up the muscles. This feels really good and I have found that if I left my arm hang when I walk it feels better than if I left it in a sling.

I have thought about trying to workout other parts of my body. Doing sit-ups, leg presses, or something like that. But I don't enjoy those things. I hate strength workouts. Sure I did them for years because I had to, but they were always the most-dreaded part of my training. So now, given the choice between no training or doing strength exercises in the gym, I choose no training. I now have the freedom to just say no. I'll stick to my walks for now.

November 3
The locals here in Anchorage is starting to get restless. November is here and still no snow. Memories of last year's winter that never was are beginning to resurface. But I'll be honest - I am in no hurry for the snow to arrive. It is hard enough for me to sit inside all day when the outside is dark and dreary. If there was snow on the ground and I wasn't allowed to go skiing, it just might kill me. Everyone else out skiing while I sit at home? I go into a fury just thinking about it. So while everyone else frets about the poor winter, I can say that for the first time in my life, I am in no hurry for the snow to fall.

Time Speeds Up - November to March

That next weekend, my friend Scott called me up. He was heading up to Hatcher Pass (an hour from Anchorage) to do some skiing. There was about 3k of groomed trails there and he wanted to know if I wanted to come along. I knew I wasn't supposed to ski, but I also knew that I desperately needed to leave the house. I was going insane just lying there staring at the ceiling. I decided that just taking a drive up into the mountains would do me good. So I told Scott that I would love to go along with him, but I wasn't going to ski. So he swung by and picked me up. As I was getting ready to go - marching around the house trying to find all my winter clothes that had been stored for months - Linda remarked that it was the first time in over a month that I moved with a sense of purpose. And indeed, I did feel like life was rushing back into my body as I searched for my gear. The thought of snow had awakened my spirit from its slumber and was I was now readying myself to tackle the road back to full health. So I gathered up my jacket, hat, gloves, and boots and headed off to the mountains. And I just happened to throw my skis in the car know, just in case.

Okay, I admit it. I wasn't just going for a ride into the mountains, I was going to ski. I told myself that I was only going to ski if conditions were good and the terrain was mellow. But in the back of my mind, I knew that if I put the skis in the car they were going to get used.

Truth be told, I had been planning my re-introduction to skiing since the moment I heard my bone snap into pieces. I knew I wasn't going to hit the trail at 25 kilometers per hour and be instantly back in form. I knew I would have to be cautious and take it easy. Especially because I also knew I was going to be on my skis long before my doctor gave me permission. I decided that today was as good a day as any to start the plan. I used my wide, stable, metal-edged backcountry skis, with my heavy, sturdy backcountry boots. And I put on my climbing skins as well. Even though I was going to be skiing on groomed trails, I figured that this set-up would slow me down enough that I wouldn't hurt myself. I could shuffle along with one pole, and it would be just as safe as the walking I had been doing. I had a great time, shuffling along at about 8 km an hour. I skied for an hour and forty minutes.

The following week, we received our first major snowfall in town at about the same time that I went back to see my doctor for a one-month check-up. The trails were now skiable and now I was hopeful that the doctor would give me the green light. He said that the X-rays looked good and the bone was healing fine, but that I shouldn't ski for another month. I did not tell him I had already been skiing once. Instead, I immediately started searching for a loop-hole. I asked, "Can I walk vigorously?"


"Can I snowshoe?" Yes, if I was careful.

I followed my line of questioning to the all-important final question: "So basically I can do any activity where I won't fall on it?"


In my mind, this meant that I could ski, as long as I didn't fall. Linda, being the voice of reason, completely disagreed, but she also knew that she wasn't going to change my mind.

Training Begins

For the next few weeks, I shuffled around the trails of Anchorage on my touring skis and skins. I would push the pace a bit on the uphills, but I was very cautious on the downhills. And most importantly, I didn't fall. My shoulder honestly felt better after skiing than it did at any other time. Just before Thanksgiving, about 6 weeks after the accident, I made the next step in my rehabilitation. I began skate skiing without poles. At first I stuck to the very easy trails and went slow. Once I had my ski legs under me, I began to pick up the pace on the uphills, but still kept it very slow on the downhills.

By the time I went back to the doctor for my two month check-up, I was skiing 5 days a week for between an hour and two hours, all without poles. My legs felt like they were really getting back in shape and more importantly, my shoulder felt great.

The doctor asked, "So you are wondering when you can start skiing, aren't you?"

At this point, I admitted to him that I had already been skiing "a couple of times."

I told him that I was skiing without poles, going slow, etc. He smiled, said that was probably fine and that I should continue doing that for two more weeks, then I could use poles.

A week later I started using poles. Again, I eased into it - no strenuous double-poling. By New Years, I was skiing up a storm. My arms still felt weak, but I felt 'normal' when I was skiing and that was huge progress.

Finally A Race

On January 11, I entered my first race of the year, a 30K classic in Anchorage. I had no expectations for my performance, I figured that if I finished in one piece it would be a success. I started conservatively, hoping that if I was back in the pack my racing instincts could be kept at bay and I could enjoy my ski. But then a funny thing happened. I was skiing along - a bit faster than I planned on, but not too much faster - and I realized that I was in fourth place. Wow, not too bad for a guy with a busted wing. I did my best to play it safe and not 'race' too much. I worked hard, but I didn't kill myself. In the end I got outsprinted for fourth, so I came in fifth. It was much, much better than I had hoped for. And it was a lot of fun. More fun than I have had in a race in years.

Over the next two months, I entered four more races including a 50 km wilderness race. In each one, I felt better and better. As I stated in the first article, my goal for the year was the Tour Of Anchorage. Before my injury I wanted to be able to ski the whole race in the lead pack, maybe even have a shot at winning. In the dark days on my couch in October and November, I thought that goal had become impossible. But on March 7, as I stood on the start line for the Tour, I felt good about how far I had come and I was going to give it a try. I was going to stick with the leaders.

Tour Of Anchorage

The Tour of Anchorage course goes like this: very hard climbs for the first 10K, then downhill for 5K, then fairly flat for a long 35K before a 3K climb to the finish. I felt pretty good for the first few K's. As we climbed up the hills of the Spencer Loop, one by one the skiers began to drop off the lead pack. Eventually it was whittled to six. Erik Flora was setting the pace, followed by Nathan Schultz, Tobias Schwoerer, Jurai Brugos, Scott McArt and myself. I was definitely working harder than any of them, but I kept thinking "Just make it to the top of the Spencer Loop then you have a free ride all the way to Westchester Lagoon (about 35 K into the race)." When we crested the last hill on the Spencer Loop, I felt like I had just won the tour. I was so proud. My goal had been to ski most of the race with the leaders and now, with lots of downhills and drafting to come, it was merely a formality to do so.

I should have known better. Never assume you know what will happen over the next 25K, or even the next 1 K for that matter. As soon as we all dropped into our tucks, it all started going wrong. As I prepared to rest, breathe, and recover from my effort on the uphills, I noticed that the gap between me and Scott was increasing rapidly. They were all gliding away from me! I jumped out of the tracks and free skated, trying desperately to hang on, but it was no use. It was a very long downhill and by the time we reached the bottom they were out of sight. This was awful. Now I was by myself, with no one to draft behind, exhausted from my efforts on the uphills, and I had slow skis. It was going to be a long 40 K to the finish.

I kept fighting, and when James Southam caught up to me, I skied most of the rest of the race with him. Only one other person passed us and I had just enough left to get past James right before the finish line. I finished 7th.

I was disappointed that I couldn't stay with the leaders. I think I had the fitness to do it, but I made a poor ski choice. I used a pair with too much structure for the cold conditions and they were slow.

But in the bigger picture, I had made a successful recovery from a potentially season-ending injury. Maybe it wasn't exactly what the doctor recommended, and it certainly wasn't nearly as aggressive as I would have liked. But I think it was a good compromise. I pushed my limits a little bit when I thought I could, and held back when I thought I should. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for others, but it worked for me. I made it through the healing process and now I feel good as new. Which means that now I can look forward to training for next season...


© 2003 Cory Smith. All Rights Reserved.