Hey readers. This may seem incongruous while we’re all watching the Olympics and wishing we were hurtling down luge runs or throwing triple-back-twisting-quad-layouts, but I’m here to talk about caution, and how it relates to having a long career in sports.
There’s a phenomenon that rescue rangers in the Tetons call YMIS, young men’s immortality syndrome. (This is a gender-equal term since women are quickly catching up in athletic performance - and injury, and rescue statistics.) To put it simply, YMIS is really cool these days. Don't believe me? Just watch any ski, mountain bike, skateboard or climbing film.
When everybody’s out getting’ radical, raging downhill mountain bike trails and sketching up 40-foot-high boulder problems, it’s easy to get pulled along by the lycra sportster frenzy. It’s like drafting the leader in a me-too race, earning your place on the Facebook adulation party circuit. We all share the fear of getting left behind, dropped off the back, relegated to the corner of uncool.
But there’s a downside to X-Games risk and weekend one-upsmanship, and that is injury. Oh sure, you can stump around in a cast and recover later. After all, plaster on your leg is a sign of authenticity these days. But here’s the rub: In the end, no injury is temporary. They all come back to haunt you.
A thousand years ago, this was not an issue. People didn’t run marathons or ski moguls, much less run marathons at age 60. Most people didn’t survive to age 45. Their body, and particularly their teeth and joints, just wore out before that. Humans weren’t designed to last a half century.
Now most of us, and especially older athletes, are basically working with an expired warranty You may not blow you knee out catastrophically running pavement, or die scrambling that oh-so-close-to-the-fourteener-summit cliff, but you can get really trashed, and stay that way over many decades during which you otherwise might have been healthy and active. So if you’re planning on staying athletic beyond age 30, you should work hard to avoid injuries.
I’ve got three old injuries, relatively minor at the time, that bug me years later: The first were two crushed discs in my lower spine from falling off the rings in high school gymnastics. They don’t bother me much - yet. I also have a loose left shoulder from high school wrestling. That didn’t bother me at all for 25 years, until I dislocated it in a mountain bike fall, then again, a year later while whitewater kayaking. Believe me. You do not want to take a mile-long whitewater swim with a dislocated shoulder. I have done the experiment and it is zero fun.
The last serious injury I got was about 25 years ago, when I took a mountain bike fall on slickrock while chasing fast friends along the Gemini Bridges trail near Moab. Still locked in the pedals, I got kicked sideways at 25mph and the first thing to impact all that naked slickrock was my left hip. I didn’t break anything, although at first I thought I’d broken the ball off my femur, but I pounded that hip joint enough that I spent months limping around.
Now, that hip is falling apart. The official term is osteoarthritis, bone degeneration. I can’t say for sure whether this is the result of that fall, some family history of arthritis, or whether it’s from skiing, climbing, and carrying heavy backpacks for the last 45 years. It’s probably all inter-related. Two years ago it hurt a little. Now I can barely walk.
So by the time you read this I’ll be heading to surgery in Boise, Idaho, for a hip resurfacing. That’s a fancy way of saying I’m getting a stainless steel hip (see above), consisting of a ball-shaped cap on top of my sawed-off femur, and a cup-shaped implant that’s chiseled and then pressure-fit into my pelvis. The operation, called a Birmingham Hip Resurfacing, is common these days and nearly always successful, but it’s still a radical surgery. My late father was an orthopedic surgeon, and I once watched him implant an artificial hip. I had no idea you could open up a human, disassemble them like that using saws, drills and hammers, and then put them back together.
Still, I’m not worried about the surgery. On the contrary, I can't wait. I’ve been in chronic pain for years, and I know people who have had this operation and returned to climbing, skiing and even ultramarathons within a year. It’ll be a new lease on my life, but first I’ll have to be flat on my back for 9 days, and then begin a slow recovery process involving lots of cycling, gentle hiking and specific exercises.
I should be hiking again, carefully, in a couple months, but how much athleticism I regain will be largely a result of how well, carefully, and conscientiously I do my rehab. If I overdo my recovery before the operation has healed, the implants might break loose.
So, you younger readers still full of ambition, well-calcified bones and healthy cartilage, listen well to my tale. And the next time you’re wondering whether to risk it all for a brief flash of weekend glory, think again. Breaks and stitches and plates and pins may seem glamorous when you’re showing off your cast around the party keg, but they will haunt you for life.
I’ll check in from the hospital and let y’all know how it’s going. (And if readers out there are considering the same operation, I’ll be glad to offer advice.) Until then, stay safe. – Steve Howe