Thwack! A resounding thud resonates against the suddenly hollow insides of your body, the realization of what just happened flows from head to toe and from brain to heart. You sit in shock, trying to make sense of what happens next. This is how I imagine receiving news of having cancer. But the Thwack! also represents something I experienced just seven months ago. What follows details how I fell and learned to stand up again. And how that experience led me to fight a disease from which many have not been able to do the same.
A jump shot gone wrong, and in a moment, life is no longer the same. No warning signs. No awkward landing. No change in my warm-up or how hard I played. But I crumbled under the weight of a landing that was one landing too many. I lie on the floor, bewildered. That Thwack! plays over and over again in my head and I stare at my now useless left calf thinking “how did it all come to this?” But there I was, unable to walk nonetheless. A cold and uneventful December 15 changed my life considerably over the months to come.
Emergency room visits, doctor consults, and MRIs only proved the inevitable to be true— I had ruptured my Achilles. However, the tear was in an odd place, the musculotendinous junction. To spare you all the medical jargon, more typical Achilles ruptures occur closer to the heel bone and are usually repaired by surgery. Because of the location of my tear, surgery was not recommended as it would provide little additional benefit but increase the chance for re-rupture (more on that little bit later). So I become friends with a cast for several weeks.
Those weeks were difficult at best. I live in Johnson City, TN with an apartment that can only be accessed by either climbing a hill at 20% grade or a set of stairs with a leg cast and crutches, so just getting inside was an amazing arm and shoulder workout. Every menial task now required five times more effort. Cleaning dishes. Making dinner. Putting on clothes in the morning. Walking. I’m the kind of person that spends free time staying active and playing sports, but I couldn’t even walk. It was a brutal problem to mentally and emotionally process. I felt exhausted, but still full of pent up energy. I felt angry. I felt sad. I felt anxious. And I was facing six to 12 months of healing before beginning to feel normal again — it felt like insanity. It was unacceptable, yet unescapable.
On January 24, I got out of the cast, into a boot, and began physical therapy. In a few sessions, I was walking under my own two feet, albeit with a stride length of about 8 inches. Eventually I shed the boot. I walked everywhere with my 8-inch stride, but felt like I was flying. Co-workers joked because I took five minutes to walk across the 150-foot courtyard, but I didn’t care, I was walking again! I made significant progress in the weeks to follow. I slowly increased my stride length and walked with less of a limp. By the end of February, the therapist and I planned to wean me off therapy and slowly work to light strength-training and low-impact activity, such as cycling and very light jogging. With the mention of cycling, I became overly excited and signed up for Pelotonia for my second year. I felt that I’d have plenty of time to slowly work up to being able to complete the new 200-mile route after successfully completing my first 180 mile ride last year.
A week or so later, things began to turn for the worse. On March 1, the day after a moderate leg workout, I started having pain in my upper calf. It felt like I’d overworked the muscles while lifting. As the next several days passed, I began to swell in my achilles area and walking became increasingly more difficult. A visit to the physical therapist led to a call to the doctor’s office and a recommendation to lay off it for a few weeks until the doctor looked at it. As scheduling doctor’s visits go, I was going to have to wait 4.5 weeks to see him again. So I took it easy and continued working with the physical therapist. I slowly began to feel better, and began working activity as I could back into my life. Then it happened.
Thwack! Two steps into a jog and I was rendered helpless. Another tear. I was
demoralized. All of my progress vanished into thin air with a little bad luck. Only 25–30% of people that don’t have a surgical repair of the Achilles tendon end up with a re-tear, and I was one of the unlucky ones. I was passed around from doctor to doctor at the office as I became the “interesting” case amongst them. The MRI showed the tendon to be fully torn, but I still had slight functional capability in my physical exam, which is uncommon with full “tears.” Surgery was discussed and scheduled. I knew at that moment that my chances at Pelotonia were zilch on a bike.
But I wasn’t going to go out like that. While I could have just raised money as a virtual rider, I wanted to take part in the physical ritual that is Pelotonia weekend. I wanted to show people that I couldn’t be grounded. So I bought a handcycle and remained signed up for the 200-mile ride.
I learned extremely fast how naïve that decision was. My first ride on the handcycle was April 27. I completed 7.9 miles in an hour with 210 feet of climb.
It was brutal.
Every little hill felt like a 15% grade hill to my arms. I was nowhere near ready for 200 miles. I begrudgingly dropped to the 25-mile ride, knowing it would be difficult, but more within my physical limits.
A few weeks later my doctor threw a curveball and reconsidered surgically repairing my tendon. They were again worried that the repair would be too risky for little additional benefit. I was frustrated that I could not get a straight answer on the best path forward for me. I had just spent weeks firmly sure that I’d be having surgery, preparing for the recovery, and suddenly that wasn’t the plan. Eventually a strategy was formed: I would do intense physical therapy to see if my Achilles could stand up to the test. A week later I am impressing the doctor and the therapist at my sessions. With that success, my path was finally set on long-term therapy.
Within two weeks, I learned to walk again with no pain and was doing light workouts on a stationary bike. I consulted my therapist about riding my bicycle and he suggested easing back in to road riding without standing out of the saddle. On May 31, I went on my first bicycle ride in months. I was miserably out of shape and my left leg was noticeably weak, but there was only slight soreness in my calf and no swelling in my Achilles. I started to pick up the frequency of my rides and gained confidence, strength, and endurance each and every week. Since that day in May, I have ridden 469.5 miles in preparation for this year’s 200-mile ride for Pelotonia.
As I look back on 2018, I can’t say it’s been my favorite or most fun year. I do know, however, that I’ve grown more this year than I ever have as a man. I joined The Midnight Train from Georgia last year and rode in Pelotonia because I wanted to make a difference in ways I’d never felt I’d made before. I made new friends on this journey that have shown me the difficulties of living with cancer and the inspiring stories of their lives having survived it. They push on with me and I could not be prouder of them. That is why I ride this year, despite my limitations. If they can be brought to the brink, and still come out to ride and give the way that they do, then how could I not? For that, I thank you, Charlie and Amy; you gave me strength in the times I felt like I had none.
This year, I ride with one bad leg and one good leg. This year, I ride to show my commitment to The Midnight Train from Georgia, and our concerted effort to fight cancer. This year, I ride for Papaw Frank, who lost the battle to lung cancer long ago. This year I ride for Kelly Debusk, who is still fighting her battle with cancer. This year, I ride to show to myself that I’m stronger, mentally and emotionally, than I’d ever measured. This year, I ride with one goal, end cancer.
Some team members will contribute periodically throughout the season as we ramp up to Pelotonia weekend in August.