“You’re going to regret that when you get older.” We all heard those words growing up when old timers would come around and interrupt our grand plans with their wrinkled faces and limping gaits. We ignored them, of course, but as the years wore on, and our own faces started to show the signs of wear we once attributed to our parents, and our own strides began to suffer under the weight of decades of injury… most of us come to a crushing realization: they were right all along.
“You’re going to regret that when you get older,” we now say as we come across young bucks sacrificing their knees, lower backs, and other joints in the name of adventure or accomplishment. They roll their eyes too, just as we did, and go about their warrior ways. If you’re anything like me, you’re tempted to shake your head, to dismiss their foolishness as naïveté and ignorance… but then you look back on your own mistakes, your own injuries, and through the objective lens of hindsight, I can now tell you unequivocally, I don’t regret a damn one.
Yup, I’ve had more concussions than most of the football players you see on TV. Yeah, I’ve been under the knife more times than a forty year old actress trying to stay twenty forever. Yes, on cold mornings, hell even on some warm ones, my cocky Marine strut gives way to a slow, lumbering limp moving to beat of popcorn popping joints and the occasional muttered swear.
I don’t know how many stitches I’ve gotten. Shit, I’m not even sure how many stitches I’ve gotten in my face. Torn ligaments, broken bones, metal plates, screws and parts donated out of cadavers… my body has slowly transformed into a Frankenstein of pain and pride. The scars couldn’t ruin a modeling career my face never deserved in the first place, but each one represents a hard fought victory, or a hard earned lesson. That limp that plagues my mornings isn’t just a reminder of how I’ve been hurt, it’s a reminder how how hard I’ve fought.
I once broke a kid’s femur during a rugby game. The sound it made was awful – like a tree branch cracking – and although there are no injury time outs in club Rugby, everyone on the field stopped what they were doing and watched that poor kid from some rival school writhe independently of his leg… as he twisted and turned, it stayed put, like all that was left holding it on was the skin.
I’m not proud of hurting that guy. I don’t take pleasure in ending a career… but I’d be willing to bet that today, wherever he is, he wears the scars he earned in the subsequent surgeries with the same pride I attribute to my own. Being a rugby player in the States means having a passion for the competition, for the game, for the violence. You’re not going to get in the newspaper playing rugby, it’s not going to impress the girls at the local community college. There’s no acclaim in playing a sport most of the country doesn’t understand… there’s just your team, your stories, and your pride.
As a Marine, getting hurt was more embarrassing. It meant missing work, letting my guys down, and feeling like a malingerer while the rest of the unit headed out to put the work in… it made me more cautious about the risks I was willing to take, but the risks persisted, and the injuries followed suit. Eventually, those injuries would end my career in uniform and, in many ways, doom me to being that guy that tells stories about the things I’ve done, rather than the things I’m doing. If there is any regret buried deep in my so-often broken bones… it would be that, and that alone.
Old Man Fitness is, at its heart, about staying in the game, but the unspoken understanding we maintain just to have that conversation is a willingness to accept some level of risk. Some of you are recovering from current injuries, some are managing old ones. Some folks have led a blessed and injury free life, but even they feel the sands of time seeping into their joints, adding a creak here and a pop there. Just like an old car, our bodies will all fail eventually – we can make them last as long as possible with proper maintenance and a gentle approach, of course… but let’s not forget that no matter what, things end. Cars break down. People do too. And by then, it’ll be too late to develop any good stories. You’ve either got them, or you don’t.
During a rough spot in our marriage, my wife and I chose to see a marriage counselor. We got married young, and although we don’t necessarily have moral objections to people getting divorces, we both see our commitment to one another as more than just love, it’s also a promise to always try, even when trying feels hard. That counselor, it turned out, was no help to us – though our shared hatred for his approach did turn out to be – and as I hobbled out of his office for the last time (on crutches as has been so often the case) he stopped me.
“You’re just always looking to hurt yourself so you can feel something,” he accused. My wife and I both laughed. She knows as well as I do that I feel everything, usually more than I want to. I’m just not afraid of hurting a bit to get to the important ones, like joy, accomplishment or pride.
Just like my marriage, those times that hurt didn’t weaken my resolve, they hardened it. My wife and I have hurt one another, and we learned, we grew, and we became stronger as a couple. I’ve hurt myself too, and as a result, I’ve grown in that same way.
There are two common sayings around my house: the first is that “we all make our own sandwiches,” which is an abbreviation of a parable about taking responsibility for our own situations (which you can read in full here) – the second is: “This decision was made a long time ago.”
That one doesn’t have a lofty monk-like story to go along with it, it’s just a mentality I’ve maintained throughout much of my life. The person I am, the road I’m on, is a decision I made a long time ago. That decision has caused me a lot of pain, it’s beaten me down and, on occasion, it’s broken me – but I chose it because, one day, when this old truck I call my body is too old and worn out to keep moving, I’ll be able to look back and be proud of what I’ve done, what I’ve stood for, and what I’ve prioritized over things like comfort.
Injury is a part of life, but for the athlete, it’s more than that. It’s a constant, looming threat, it’s another obstacle between you and your goals… warriors and athletes alike don’t fear injury because of the pain, they fear it because it means having to stop. It takes time to heal, to regroup, and when you start up again – you find yourself four steps back from where you where, and ten back from where you hoped to be by now. Injury is a time-thieving bastard that’ll steal your dreams and widdle away at your emotional stability… but here’s the thing: I don’t fancy myself a “tough guy” because of how much I can hurt anybody else.
I’m tough because of how much I know I can hurt and keep moving. I’ve traded blood, bones, and brain cells for a chance to find my limits, and the more time I’ve spent flirting with that line, the better I understand just what my body is capable of doing when it has to.
I’m not as fast as I used to be. I’m not as resilient either. To quote Toby Keith, I’m not as good as I once was… but I’m as good once as I ever was. I know that thanks to my close, personal relationship with pain.
Stretch, hydrate, make good decisions and avoid getting hurt… but remember, it’s not the days that go well that make you who you are. It’s the shitty ones, the painful ones. Don’t regret those moments where you felt like all was lost… remember them, and take pride in knowing you were wrong.
You were stronger than you thought then, and thanks to that lesson, you’re even stronger now.
So I’ll see you on the black top.
Images courtesy of the author