On a recent episode of SOFREP Radio, former Navy SEAL, CIA operator, and current professional firefighter Frumentarius briefly addressed the transition all firefighters must eventually make toward “fighting fires like an old man.” As he pointed out, over time, your body stops recovering like it used to, and if you can’t adjust tactics to suit that shift, you’re career as a firefighter will likely be short-lived.
Although my life experiences are vastly different from Fru’s, that sentiment reverberated in my mind for days as one of those universal truths you only stumble across once in a great while. No matter what you do, the slow transition of time will force you to adjust your methodology to suit your body’s capabilities. In many cases, we’re given ample opportunity to make those small adjustments as we go – changing how we do what we do so little each day that, looking back, we can hardly notice the change, though we can certainly recognize the difference overall.
Injury, like aging, forces a shift in how you interact with the world, and how you face the challenges of your day-to-day life, and much like aging, over time you come to absorb those shifts in methodology into your subconscious, until walking with a limp feels so natural, so second nature, that it’s just walking to you.
While at Atlanta Motorsports Park for the 4th of July this year, I was approached by the race track’s owner and asked if I’d be willing to participate in a big wheel race though a portion of the track before the fireworks. I knew I couldn’t fit on a big wheel. I knew I would almost certainly crash and live the repercussions for days. I also knew I’d probably never get the chance to ride a kid’s toy around the same race track that usually features Vipers and Ferraris, so I agreed none the less. The $500 purse that would go to the winner, I’ll admit, might have also served as some motivation.
As one might expect when a 240 pound gorilla tries to ride a big wheel, the toy promptly fell apart as soon as the green flag was waved. While the slender, bicycle riding types rolled down the hill with what was, honestly, impressive speed – the wheel popped off my ride, sending me tumbling over the handlebars and into a pile. Refusing to give up, or to surrender my chance at $500, I jumped to my feet and tried to apply pressure only to the portions of the big wheel that still had wheels. I made it a few dozen feet, and fell on my face again.
By my second or third crash, my knees were beginning to stiffen up. Literally every joint below my waist, save my left ankle, is supported by surgically implanted screws, bolts, plates and wires, all intended to compensate for old injuries, missing parts, and the like. I could feel swelling start to set in, and I knew I couldn’t get my plastic jalopy across the finish line. In the distance, I could see the slender dudes approaching what we refer to as the track’s “turn one,” and, with inevitable failure looming, I made a command decision.
Frustrated, I stood up, pulled what was left of my big wheel onto my shoulders, and took off sprinting. I try to jog the Marine Corps mandated 3 miles a few times a week still, though my times are always embarrassing and certainly don’t meet Corps standards, but I’ll admit… it’s been a long time since I’ve tried to sprint. Needless to say, despite my willingness to break the rules, I didn’t win the race, nor did I get to add the victory purse to our new-car fund, but as I crossed the finish line, I was greeted by more fanfare than the victor: everyone, it seems, likes watching a big, dumb Marine lose a fight to a toddler-toy.
My pants were torn, I was bleeding, and I had lost the race, and although my right knee promptly swelled to the point where my pants grew tight around it, I hadn’t hurt like that in a long time… and I realized that I’d missed it.
Even when sparring, my body has naturally learned to adjust to meet the needs of my old injuries. Slipped discs in my back mean you’ll never find me lifting an opponent with my core, three knee surgeries mean I don’t impact the mats with my knees like I used to when going for a double-leg. The metal screen I have in my upper-abdominal wall starts to feel tight if I arch my back too far, and the blind spots in my right eye that come and go have slowly forced me to adjust my stance and hand positioning to try to better protect my head.
It’s sort of like I’m a car that was meant for the demolition derby, but that always insisted on trying to keep pace with Indy Cars. Now, at too young an age to “feel old,” it’s my mileage, not my birth year, that’s catching up with me.
Fru was absolutely right – there comes a time when you have to shift your methodology, and even your ideology, in order to survive the ravages of aging. There also comes a time when you need to make those same shifts for the sake of injury, which for me, was probably a number of surgeries ago.
But, with that important lesson in mind, don’t be afraid to hurt, just because you’ve led a long life and have already experienced plenty of it. My big-wheel race resulted in some swollen joints and a bit of road rash on my knee… it left me limping for a day or so and forced me to pick up a tube of Neosporin on my way home.
And it reminded me that I’m still alive.
I spend every workout, every long bath, every gingerly-footed run, trying to avoid the pain of my past injuries. I tip toe around lifts that might aggravate my back, I cut workouts short when I can feel my knee starting to get loose, and I seclude myself to a dark office any time I can feel my vision start to falter… but in all of that (admittedly necessary) pain management, I think I’ve lost a bit of who it was that got me here.
Sergeant Hollings, the guy that ran a first class fitness test two months before being medically retired from the Corps, the guy that earned his brown belt with a torn ACL and once competed in a grappling tournament with broken ribs… now devotes the majority of his day to trying to avoid the slightest aggravation of old, nagging injuries. Necessary or not, that sucks.
Ultimately, the lesson I learned from my brief stint as a big wheel racer is that, just because it takes us a little longer to recover, and just because it might hurt like hell the next morning, doesn’t mean we should say no to those races when they pop up. Fru wasn’t wrong when he said you’ve got to learn to fight fires like an old man – we all have to do our own versions of that – but don’t let that dissuade you from still playing, from time to time, like a kid that’s not afraid to scrape his or her knee.
I promise, it isn’t that bad.