“She will develop arthritis at a young age.”
“Let’s stay away from lifting weights. Your body just can’t handle it.”
“You will never be a recreational runner again.”
“If you don’t have this surgery, you will end up in a wheelchair in your 30s.”
These are the things I heard over and over again throughout my life.
I have a condition called Marshall Syndrome, which is caused by a mutation in one of the five collagen genes. It basically means I have a deficiency in bone growth and early onset arthritis, among other things.
I wasn’t medically cleared to play a lot of sports growing up because of the fear culture I lived in. Doctors and my parents both leaned on the side of caution than on letting me take the risks and prove what I could do. There was very little room to ever challenge my body to do things medical journals said I couldn’t.
I rebelled as soon as I became an adult. As a college freshman, I decided to become a runner. It was January 2010. The first time I ever went running, it was snowing.
Because that’s a brilliant idea.
I ran a couple miles that night. And the next night, I did it again. And again. And again.
I’m a genius, y’all.
I was eventually running three to five miles every night. Sounds awesome, right?
Nobody had ever taught me to run. I had no idea there was a right and wrong way to run. I ran for the next couple years, but I did it the WRONG way.
In 2013, an orthopedic surgeon told me I had zero cartilage left in my left knee and that almost every ligament was torn. My knee stayed swollen. He got me a brace and scheduled surgery.
After all, it was my ONLY option, right?
While waiting on surgery, I did traditional physical therapy with his in-house team.
I bailed on surgery. Actually, I bailed on surgery FOUR times. I just didn’t like the idea. I decided I would rather be in pain and wear the brace than have surgery.
My tolerance for pain is so high that “not feeling pain” was not a good enough reason for me to be out of commission for a 16-week recovery period.
Shortly after I bailed on surgery, I began to lift. Doctor after doctor told me it was a bad idea. I did it anyway.
(And all the people who know me aren’t surprised.)
In June 2017, I broke my back. The only thing I needed from my neurosurgeon was a clearance to get back in the gym. When he gave it, he said – yep, you guessed it – “Ehh…I guess. But my personal thought is you’re probably never going to lift heavy or run recreationally again.”
About six months later, I joined Crossfit. Why Crossfit? Because when you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to go to the extreme to prove to you I can. There were days I wore my knee brace during the workout, but at least i was proving I could lift and run.
On May 23, 2018, it all came to a screeching halt.
“And you’re done. Go get a rower.”
The workout was six 400m sprints. I made it through TWO.
I cared more about proving to everyone I could beat Linda, a fierce competitor and avid runner at our gym, than I did listening to the voice in my head that told me to slow down.
I stepped over the finish line and rolled onto the ground, holding my knee in pain.
The coaches at my gym did what they should do. They shut me down until I got checked out by a professional.
That professional was Dr. Dustin Howard.
In our first session, I found out his answer wasn’t ever going to be surgery. Or to tell me I couldn’t do the things I love. His entire model was and is based on doing an individualized assessment on his clients and creating plans that help them get back to being active and doing the things they love to do.
We are designed to be active and our bodies are designed to heal themselves with the right movements in the right doses. He is like a movement ninja and can usually get people back to doing the things they love to do faster than they can even come up with excuses on why it won’t work.
I had NO IDEA what I was signing up for, and I don’t think he did either.
Turns out, we had much bigger fish to fry than a knee injury and learning how to run again. Dr. D quickly caught on that my issues started in my head and heart, not my muscles.
Before I would ever make solid progress on squats or running, I had to make solid gains in my confidence.
I had to learn that my own health and wellness was worth saying no to things other people wanted me to do that were detrimental to my progress. I had to learn I was worth putting the work in. I had to learn to slow down and allow pain to teach me my limitations.
I had to learn to listen and do what I was told to do, and not do what I was told not to do. I had to learn about nutrition and exercise. I had to learn that stretching is for champs, not chumps.
(Trust me when I tell you my learning curve on listening and following instructions without complaining or arguing is about as steep as they come. Just doing my part to prepare Dr. D for fatherhood.)
I had to learn about appreciating the PROCESS. I had to learn that taking slow and controlled steps toward my goal was the quickest way to actually hitting my goals.
Dr. D and I have been meeting every week for nine months now. Most of those sessions looked like a normal session. Exercises, workouts, stretching, mobility, running, etc. But some of the best sessions were the ones where we experienced breakthrough. Breakthrough of my heart and mind.
Early on, there were a few sessions where Dr. D told me, “we are just going to talk today.” These have been some of the most critical conversations I have had in discovering the heart of a champion. But there’s something else. Those conversations are where trust was built.
He would tell you that he has always seen gold in me. He’s always seen in me what I can’t see in myself.
The heart of a champion.
I remember the first time he called me a champ. I think I high-fived him and acted like I agreed, but the truth is I was laughing on the inside.
“If only he knew how far from a champion I am….”
But that word stuck with me. And the more I heard him say it, the more I began to believe that maybe I was a champion. Maybe there was a champion buried beneath all the rubble.
Maybe I just needed to discover it.
Slowly but surely, I began to uncover little pieces of what the difference between acting like a champion and being a champion are.
Nine months ago, my PT journey was about learning to walk pain-free without my knee brace. Then it became about learning to squat and run pain-free.
Now, it’s about building strength and doing things I’ve only dreamed about up to this point. Like running races pain-free and being an unstoppable force.
I remember the day he let me run ONE 50m at a time. It wasn’t that long ago. Now, I’m running almost 4 miles three times a week and I am gearing up to run my first pain-free 5k six weeks from today.
You know what I learned about myself through Dr. D’s commitment to me? That I am worth it. I’m worth the work. I’m worth the desire. I’m worth the trouble.
Dr. D is the physical therapist I began seeing last May, but he’s become more than just a guy who helps me learn how to move pain-free. He’s my friend and one of my greatest encouragers. He believes in all my dreams, fitness and otherwise, more than I believe in them some days.
Goals. Goals are a big part of fitness. You know when that finally became clear? When I realized how much I was inspiring others to get healthy. Within a matter of weeks, I played a direct role in people stepping into the gym for the first time ever or in years. I meet people at the gym several times a week. Most of them ask me to help them get in shape. My very first question now is, “what are your goals?” If they can’t tell me, I can’t help them.
By working with others, I have figured out how important it is for me to have well-defined goals and know what I’m working toward.
Right now, my top goal is running a 5k in six weeks really well. My next most important goal is to keep getting stronger in every muscle group in my body. Right along with hat, inspiring others to get healthy and be active is also really important to me.
What does that mean? It means running, faithfully doing my daily strengthening exercises well and meeting other people in traditional gyms are my priorities.
Without Crossfit, I would have never discovered the heart of a champion. I may have ended up in surgery. I may have never run another 5k again. While it isn’t my priority right now, it’s still a part of my life. I still do it a couple times a week. But you won’t see me participating in the 2019 Open or spending any amount of time trying to get handstand pushups or double-unders.
And on days where the WOD prescribes wallballs or box jumps, you will continue to see me scale it. Not necessarily because I’m in pain or can’t physically do them, but more so because those things won’t help me get closer to my goals but they can get in the way of my top priorities right now. It just isn’t worth it to me.
In a surprising recent turn of events, my fitness journey has become a big part of my platform. It’s inspired my second book. It’s become the thing people want to know more about and be a part of. That’s an honor and privilege I don’t take lightly.
I still have a long way to go, but I want to give you a few practical things I have learned about seeing progress.
- Put the work in. Consistently. Over and over again. Every day. Every week. Every month. Create routines and follow them religiously. Don’t try to change your whole life right this second. Start with smaller habits and build on them. One of the toughest disciplines for me to form is doing my daily exercises WELL every single day. It means getting up to be at the gym at least 45 minutes early most days. It means working through soreness. It means sometimes even missing my workout so I can make sure I get my strengthening exercises in – which is okay, because again, strength is my priority right now.
- Nutrition and sleep are as important, if not more so, than anything you will do in the gym. It wasn’t long into my PT journey that Dr. D and I drew a connection between what I was eating and inflammation. I started meeting with Erin Judge, my nutritionist, who swiftly gave me specific guidelines. As soon as I started following them, we saw massive improvements in my inflammation.
- Deal with your whole health, not just your physical gains. The reason why fitnessing is working for me today is because I am also working on my spiritual, emotional, mental and relational health. Whole health is imperative and will take you to a whole new level in the gym, if that is your goal. Want to be a champion, work on whole health.
- Have people in your corner. This may be obvious by this point but I absolutely would not be where I am right now without my people. Nobody wins alone. Champions have people. They have teams. Dr. D, Erin and my coaches at the gym. They’re calling the plays. They’re setting the rules. They’re not letting me give up. They’re helping me identify problems and find solutions. They’re pushing me to fight through the lie that tells me I can’t do the things I want.
I am stoked about a new season of fitness. One where Dr. D gets to push me further than I think I can go because I am getting stronger – physically and mentally. One where expectations go up and patience goes down.
New space. New goals. New model. Maybe even a new heart. Same principles.
Keep taking steps. One day, you’ll look back and realize how far you’ve come.