Ken “The Badger” Nowell
Recovery from a major injury is a journey to be embraced, but not taken lightly.
Ever wonder what it’s like to have a significant injury? I hope you never find out, but here is my story of the journey through a major back injury and the surgery that fixed me.
I went from a high-level B racer on Zwift to needing a walker to make it from the bed to the couch. Then clawing my way back to virtual racing has been a long process.
I had to lean heavily on my village to make it through.
Embrace the Suck
All athletes deal with pain, whether you are an age grouper or a professional. Sometimes it is a pain experienced during an interval or a nasty case of delayed-onset muscle soreness after weightlifting for the first time in a year.
Then there is the pain of minor injuries that happen seemingly every season, such as a rolled ankle, scrapes and bruises, or road rash. Most of these don’t require much more than an ice pack or an Ace bandage, but they are a fact of life for the athlete. We learn to live with them.
None of the above are the subject of today’s article!
This is NOT Normal
In 2020, sciatica started setting in after about eight years of hardly any symptoms, which occasionally plagued my ”bad back.” This time, however, nothing was working to mitigate the discomfort.
Medical massage, core exercises, chiropractic, physical therapy, and dry needling didn’t bring any relief. Then one day, a white-hot searing pain shot through my leg while in the lumber store that dropped me to the ground.
The next few months of my life brought unprecedented misery.
We’ve got Good News and Bad News
Just kidding, the doctor only had bad news. I had developed something called a grade 2 spondylolisthesis between my L5-S1 vertebrae.
In layman’s terms, I broke my back at some point in my past, and it went untreated, probably from snowboarding about 15 years earlier. As a result, my spine slid forward 14 mm and crushed the disc. Over time it impinged on the nerves of my leg.
I had several steroid injections over the next few months, but they only brought modest relief. Spinal fusion surgery was my last hope. I hoped it was going to be the answer.
CAT scan of my shifted spine and crushed disc.
Grappling with Reality
Being an athlete was an enormous part of my identity, and now I couldn’t even walk more than 100’ without excruciating pain. I had to make a lifestyle choice; live as someone that was functionally disabled or go under the knife, and I would probably get better.
I was willing to give it a shot as I couldn’t choose the lifestyle of being inactive.
My wife is rad, she visited me every day and took care of me for weeks after surgery.
A Lesson in Humility
If you are unfortunate enough to deal with a significant injury, I can give you some of the best advice to be humble and allow others to help. You’re going to need it!
Remember this: It feels just as good for other people to help you as it does when you get the opportunity to help them. Don’t deny them that feeling!
We had friends and family bring us meals, cut the grass, watch our daughter, and a local guy with a mountain bike apparel company gave me a pair of Misfit Mountain pajama pants to cheer me up!
My Misfit Mountain pajamas.
One of the few things I could do before surgery was riding my stationary bike. I stayed surprisingly fit, but after about a month off the bike following surgery, my fitness tanked.
What was once my warm-up pace was now about to cause a cardiac event!
I had to reset my expectations from being the fittest middle-aged dude on the block to someone that just enjoyed moving his body.
My new workout routine included walking around the block three times a day and riding Zwift for 10 minutes at 100 watts.
Back in Shed Shred exactly 30 days post-op.
Branching Out to New Activities
“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one”– Robert Greene, 1592
In the years leading up to the injury, I had become a pure cyclist. I rode and raced Zwift and mountain bikes, and that’s it.
I didn’t lift, stretch, run, walk, do Zumba, do yoga, or anything else. Since surgery, I am back in the gym, walking the dog, swimming, mountain biking, and racing on Zwift.
I broadened my horizons in order to rehab and prevent future injury. It feels great!
Hiking with my daughter, nieces, and nephew.
Talk it Out
I felt all of the feelings as I struggled through this injury. I felt like an inadequate father and husband. Like I wasn’t pulling my weight at work, and like I was broken and defective.
I was able to stay sane by talking with my wife, therapist, physicians, and of course, friends and family. They assured me, “this is just a season of my life,” and that turned out to be true.
Through this, I gained perspective and a new appreciation of the fragility of my body and of life itself. And I’ve also gained some sweet hardware. Cyclists love our titanium!
4 screws, 2 rods, and a titanium spacer holding me together.
This experience has taught me a lot. I learned that my fitness or athletic achievements do not define me. I embraced recovery like a project with no defined goal or expectation of an outcome.
I grew as a dad and husband, and my life took on a fresh perspective. I have become a calmer and more peaceful person as a result.
I exercise now because it’s good for my mind and body and because I enjoy it, not to get a podium spot in a bike race. I am grateful to have had this experience and fortunate to share my journey with others.