Three Points of Contact with the Earth

By Whitney Dean

A few years ago, I rode my bike into a moving vehicle, both of us traveling about twenty miles per hour. The police officer who visited me in the hospital’s triage ward for a secondary report told me I caved in the driver’s side door, broke through the sunroof, then rebounded back out onto the pavement. I don’t recall that part. My memories of the accident are erratic: I thought I’d broken my knee because I couldn’t walk, I called my friend to tell him I wouldn’t make it for coffee (the sirens of the first responding firefighters blaring in the background), I cried when the paramedics cut off my favorite dress while I lay strapped to a spinal backboard, I denied a tramadol drip (a decision I would regret for days), and I was treated for my blunt force trauma injuries under the watchful eye of a man covered with blood and handcuffed to his gurney beside me—a Friday night in triage.

“Taking out cars.” I heard a nurse tell my doctor.

Over the years, I’d incurred eight concussions, the occasional broken bone, and a sundry of other minor injuries. Now this—broken ribs, concussion, lacerations, punctures, road rash—careening my bike through Vine and Colfax on a yellow, while a woman, anticipating her light to change, careened her car through a red.

A few years later, I herniated a disc while wrestling with a friend--L5, S1, which bulged against my sciatic nerve. Orthopedic surgeons told me the various traumas I’d experienced the past thirty-something years had caused my cerebral spine to curve inward. I was told the vertebral compression fractures that often accompany head and back injuries cause muscle spasms to collapse the vertebral body forward. Little by little, I’d weathered with each new collision I made with the world around me. My spinal deformity cocked my hips to the right—some physiological self-correction I would've never thought to do of my own accord—but chronic pain endured. I was told surgery was imminent.

What I did instead was continue my CrossFit training. I heard, “You’re insane,” from just about everyone I knew, but I’d hit a bottom of sorts, being so immobilized. And while the orthopedic surgeons were saying my only option was surgery, my physical therapist and CrossFit coaches were telling me to rebuild my body. There were serious risks involved in surgical treatment of my spine and nominal risks in exercising, if I paid careful attention to feelings of pain and followed the instructions of people who had been there and seen it before. I went to my CrossFit coaches with my limitations, and they generously programmed a unique regimen of exercise for me. I could participate in the daily workouts with my CrossFit community with modified movements that built strength while protecting my spine. Pull-ups became ring rows, deadlifts became work on the reverse hyper, pvc pipes replaced barbells. I was humbled and frustrated and afraid of my prospects for recovery, but trudging forward led to this great discovery of my mind’s relationship with my body and my body’s relationship with hard objects.

Spatial and situational awareness begin with simple observation. I like to start from the bottom up. Where are my feet positioned in any given movement? Do I have three points of contact with the earth? Am I mobilizing joints, rolling sore muscles, resting sufficiently? How tight are my IT bands, and on which side do I bear weight when I stand? How long do I stay seated at a desk, and how do I breathe under a loaded barbell? What nutrients have I consumed to fuel the demands I put on my body, and what actions have I taken to assist in recovery from physical exertion?

In my bottom up self-evaluation, I eventually reach the top of my head, where my brain lives. I have to consider what she expects of my body and how she intends to participate in the various processes. How willing is she to accept feedback, educate herself, put in the work required to get results? The numbers on the white board in the gym are often a reflection of how regularly I train and eat, how long I sleep at night, how disciplined I am in implementing new practices that serve my health. I screw these things up all the time, of course. (And I struggle with a negative mindset. What’s a positive spin on, “I screw these things up all the time?”)

I owe a near full recovery from a herniated disc in my lower lumbar to the times I’ve managed to remain teachable. I owe all my setbacks to the part of me that runs yellow lights, fully aware that it might not end in my favor. Ultimately, I do think the timing of the traffic light at Vine and Colfax was faulty, and the driver of the car I wrecking-balled should have been more careful, but I’ve been asked a million times in this life to slow down, to heed warning, by people who really care for me. So, what’s the harm in just stopping at the yellow? Apply the breaks and drop a foot to the ground to make three points of contact with the earth.

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