The Weakest Link(s)

Have I already used that title for another of my posts? Perhaps two? It's very possible. For the past four years (actually almost five) I've dealt with a number of climbing-related injuries either from overtraining or pulling too hard on the wrong types of holds. Notice that I didn't say 'a number of different climbing injuries'; that would be precisely because it has been the same fucking injury over and over again in the same finger on both hands! Technically, the specific injury is a sprain of the collateral ligament(s) (radial proper and/or accessory) of the proximal interphalangeal (or PIP) joint of both of my index fingers, with possible tearing of the ligaments that stabilize the palmar (or volar) plate.

The first occurrence of this injury, on my left hand, required me to completely rethink my relationship with climbing and offered a frightening look at how skewed priorities can become when pursuing something physical (like climbing) with such rigor. For instance: I write with my left hand; I like to play guitar; I like to be able to grasp objects and/or move them from place to place. I also like to push my limits in climbing, but when it directly interferes with these more basic issues of functionality it's hard not to reexamine what I tend to expect from my body. Fast forward to a re-injury of the same finger. Then a new sprain of the same finger on my right hand earlier this year. Then a re-injury of that finger two months later.

Somewhere in this course of events, valuable insight has been gained...and lost...and gained...and lost...and gained...and lost...and gained...

...and lost again, although this time I think I've been lucky enough to get a warning. More specifically, I've once again gone through the process of building up fitness (climbing a lot), carefully pushing the envelope a bit to see how my body responds (climbing harder routes), then going full throttle (bouldering), perhaps too soon, suffering the typical setbacks that come along with trying hard. Injury is almost inevitable with sports, but the fact makes it no less troublesome. This time, I don't think I did any serious damage but I certainly reactivated the injuries incurred earlier this year to some extent. Instead of the grim prognosis of two more months off from climbing, followed by rehabilitating an even weaker finger joint, I don't anticipate this taking more than a couple of weeks if I'm smart about it; which brings me to the reason I started typing: I haven't been smart about any of these injuries so far and have apparently learned very little from a combined year and a half off from climbing in the prime of my youth!

Is my old age enough to spark some kind of understanding between mind and body, between a standing expectation to always attempt to forge ahead towards the highest level and a certain type of connective tissue that has just fucking had enough? Or is being injured, albeit slightly, just part of the game, a necessary ingredient in the gamble?

A number of things bother me about my response to this issue over the years. Key to understanding this, I think, is the identification (in myself, obviously) of a rather laissez-faire approach to training. Training for climbing, for me, has always meant climbing more. At times in the past I've dabbled with weighted pullups, one-arm pullups (will my body ever allow me to do one of those again? Yeesh) and campus boarding but never to the extent that it dominated my time as compared to actual climbing. I actually don't think this is a worthless approach just so long as nothing goes wrong. Acute injuries are usually caused by a 'too much, too fast' event (and yes, this can include falling and breaking an ankle amongst a pile of sharp talus). A relatively slow buildup of skill and strength through actual climbing, as opposed to a regime of periodizing workouts towards maximum fitness, is a great way to progress. It's most likely not going to get you up the hardest of the hard routes, but for many of us neither is any sort of training regardless of its efficacy.

The problem, however, is that the 'slow and steady' thing hardly ever stays that way. Once I find myself with the requisite core strength and endurance (and I think there is a time when one just 'feels' competent again), I never hang up the fingerboard and begin a careful finger strength program to get me ready to pull really hard on tiny holds; I simply go and pull on the holds. I want the immediacy of the experience. I never had to do the homework when I was 24 because I had iron-strong fingers. I also could drink 7 beers the night before a climbing day and still pull 5.13 with ease (which might be a slight exaggeration, but the point stands).

Now I'm lucky if I can eat normally without a major uprising in my gut and get through a climbing season without any further career-destroying finger fuckery. It's true: the rebellion that began in my battered finger joints (a hand surgeon I consulted about a prior injury scoffed and told me I had hands like a career plumber's; I told him to go piss up his own asshole) apparently spread to my stomach earlier this year. No beer, no coffee; hardly any food. Actually, aside from the first week of acute distress, the latter of the three is untrue: having taken Prilosec for five months I could probably win a habanero pepper-eating contest and celebrate after with shots of rubbing alcohol muddled with aspirin and poured over broken glass. Actually, I'm really just thinking about how my stomach initially felt during the course of this malady. In truth, I am having to reinvent this thing called a diet that so many of us take for granted. Rather than everything in life that is edible to humans comprising a free-form omnivore's cornucopia as it did before, now I must hold up each olive, each chocolate square, each bite of peristalsis-inducing spicy Thai curry and think "Is it worth it?" Is it worth the aftermath of deglycyrrhizinated licorice, slippery elm bark and marshmallow root cocktails and bile-flavored morning eructation (put that one in your vocabulary pipe and take a fat hit)?

Occasionally it may be worth it, just as occasionally a minor injury is worth the feats of sport that preceded it. Usually it's not. I still struggle with this question. I've had an incredible month of sport climbing and bouldering, not to mention a wonderful three weeks in Joshua Tree. Shit, at least right now I can actually still climb without it being painful: I just have to lower the intensity for a little while. Was it inevitable that in climbing at the Buttermilk Boulders three or four days I week I would eventually write a couple of checks my fingers couldn't cash (there has to be a raucous double meaning there somewhere)? Probably. Had I taken a slightly more conservative approach would I have avoided any such setback? Possibly. The problem with my continued failing to learn a better strategy in this case leaves me with these questions. Time to get a hangboard? Probably. Time to sit back and strategize a bit, revisit goals and expectations? Probably. Time to switch over to a vegan, gluten-free diet and start doing yoga? Probably. When there's multiple links in the chain rusted through, you probably better not tow too much shit with it until they're fixed. Or something.

Anyway, treat those injuries with respect. When you're putting maximal effort into something with minimal caution, accept the risk of failure. Be grateful for these extra chances occasionally given before real disaster strikes. Or something. Fuck, never mind. I'm going to go rub homeopathic sports cream on my joint and play Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

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