Why am I a rheum skier? Why am I a rheum road biker? Why am I a rheum mountain climber? According to a January 10th post by Creaky Joints, these are questions that seem to be making a large segment of my disease community upset. I don’t understand at all why these people are upset. I’m seriously confused by some of the anger expressed by my fellow patients. To be fair, these same people are probably equally confused at why I choose to ski 2 months after total hip replacement surgery. They don’t understand why I spend more time on The North Face’s website versus some medical supply company’s website. This post is about trying to answer some of these questions.
I started skiing at 5 years old. Skiing was the next sport to learn since soccer, tennis, dirt bikes, and baseball can’t be played in the snow. Both of my parents had been skiing but my dad would be the one with the traditional label of skier in the family. Since Bogus Basin, our local resort that is about 16 miles from the base of the mountain, was so close skiing was definitely on the list of sports to learn. Although I was born with bilateral hip dysplasia, neither of my hips was painful at this point in my life and my inflammatory arthritis along with gout diagnosis would not come for years so throwing myself into skiing was possible.
As a kid, skiing had already become so addicting that I remember once trying to muscle my way through lessons with chicken pox. If I remember right, my parents found the chicken pox while eating lunch in the lodge, their clue to look for something wrong being that there was still food in the lodge that I was not asking for. I could seriously eat, part of the reason I’m 6”5’ today I’m guessing. As I got older the deal became that if I paid attention (were quite and respectful) we could go skiing immediately after church. Soon, the deal became that I would go to church if Bogus Basin wasn’t open or it was Christmas Eve. Finally, church became a memory and Powder Magazine was the closest thing I had to a religious bible (the August issues was always the best).
I started working at Bogus Basin in high school. My job at the time was working in Ski Check. As I recall, people could pay a dollar and we would put their skis in a rack and watch them while they were in the lodge. Season Pass holders got to use it for free. This was a great job for a high school kid because it meant a free pass, locker, and a lot of ski time. We even took turns taking free runs on the clock during slow periods sometimes. It also was my first exposure to the world of ski instructing. Several high school friends went to Ski School in order to become instructors versus working at Ski Check.
While working as a Ski Check I got my first real experience with being a patient. I took a free run, while on break one day, that ended up causing me to be taken down off the face of the mountain in a toboggan with ski patrol. There was this 10 foot rock on the face that we had found and were taking turns jumping off. At the time, I had already been off the rock several times but for some reason I got too cautious and landed on a rock patch that was usually easy to clear if you had enough speed at take off. I had sprained my knee bad enough to need a surgical consult; luckily it wasn’t bad enough to actually need surgery.
Thus, my first lesson as skier that I still use today was learned. Once you pick a path (i.e. surgery, meds, physical therapy, naturally), attack that path with everything you got. Don’t look back or second-guess yourself. In the end, I second-guessed myself and that is why I got hurt. This is also reason I skied 2 months after my right hip replacement surgery. I decided I wanted to go skiing and then did it. Skiing so soon after surgery scared me and I don’t recommend it for other patients but it worked for me because I had made up my mind to do it and went for it. Skiing, much like life, requires everyone to attack it at some level in order to get the most out of it. Lying on a couch criticizing others doesn’t make for a great story in my world.
After high school I left Ski Check and joined the Ski School in order to become a certified ski instructor. This was the next logical step in my skiing career. Ski School was weird. At the time it was the hardest thing I had ever worked at while at the same time remaining fun and exciting. The long clinic hours, studying, practicing, certification tests, and teaching was difficult while being a full-time student at Boise State University. There was a group of us that took the job seriously, which meant that I was always being pushed by someone to become a better skier and ski instructor.
My second lesson as a skier that I still use today is that you have to be able to separate work from the fun times although sometimes there are days were hard work can lead to fun times. As a patient, we have to learn to accept the fact that some days we are going to have to work our asses off just to be able to do the little things like tying our own shoes or take a shower. Other days, we have to work like hell in order to be able to cope through an 8-hour workday, a family event, or simply writing a post in the hopes of helping other fellow patients. Finally, some days all that work does pay off in the form of an amazing day on skis, a climb that leads to amazingly beautiful and relaxing scenery, a personal best run, a party for the history books, or simply being able to put a smile on a friends face that has helped you.
These are just some of the practical reasons why I ski. There is a larger reason why I ski, ride, climb, and do other sports unapologetically. It revolves around the idea of wanting to smile, enjoying the challenge, and because the mountain, ski resort, or road is there waiting for me to conquer it. Remaining active gives me the freedom to forget about my inflammatory arthritis diagnosis or chronic pain issues and just concentrate on the task at hand on the mountain. Bogus Basin is 16 miles up a hill with over 100 turns on the road; heading to Bogus is very similar to being on a road trip. It is just long enough for me to leave the regular challenges of being a chronic patient at home and work on being a chronic skier or climber with challenges. Understand the difference? It is about retaining the right to dream big and then climbing up whatever challenge facing me today in order to achieve that dream.
I understand that not everyone is cut out to be a skier or mountain climber. I am NOT advocating that at all. My story revolves around these hobbies because I’ve spent me life doing them and don’t want to give up that right yet. What right do you want to fight your illness for? Some day my condition (damn Arthur) might cause me to not be able to ski or climb anymore. When that day comes, I will probably cry for a little while then move on to a new adventure. After all, part of the reason I started writing on this site was because I wasn’t able to ski at the same level as I could/wanted to any longer and wanted a new challenge to replace that loss of part of my favorite hobby.
Being a patient as taught me that most of my life from now on will revolve around some level of pain. That is just the nature of a disease that does not have a cure with chronic pain as one of many symptoms. However, this does not mean that I should sit on my couch, not leave the house, or forget to live my life. Quit the opposite. It means I should take advantage of lower pain days and see if I can still ski that run that ski patrol once had to take me off of, travel, write, make others smile, and yes maybe even try and get a girlfriend (I still hate Valentine’s day). It means I should match Arthur’s pain with my own life generated pain, which will be a much better story to share than hey I took a shower today (yes, some days that is all I can do though).
Since my diagnosis, athletic adventures have not been my only form of success either. I’ve earned a second degree in Accounting, bought a house, earned a full-time state tax position, became a Stanford University Medx Scholar twice, was approached by 2 national organizations to help them out, and most importantly, I hope, have been an exceptional friend to my fellow patients. Skiing, climbing, riding, has provided me an outlet so I can continue to work on other life goals. Let me tell you, having 4 surgeries while trying to get a second degree requires a lot of stress relief. Being athletic, in any sport actually, still provides me with stress relief along with that ability to “push it” when my life requires help.
Long story short, being a rheum skier, climber, and rider still gives me a chance to define what it means to be Big Al. It helps me retain that right each of us has to define our own lives as we see fit. I want to ski all the snow and climb all the vertical feet, you might want to become the world’s most successful author, advocate, friend, baker, designer, artist, or signer. The reason I, along with my fellow rheum athletes, share our adventures is to help others remember their own definitions of what it means to be them. Our hope is that our adventures spark whatever that “it” is in you that your illness has spent so much time, energy, and money trying to rob you of. So rob us of knowledge, experience, energy, or inspiration, that is what we want. If you don’t like us, then don’t read or follow us. We are still going skiing, climbing, or running so you might as well spent your energy on selfish interests versus attacking us! I will only give up skiing once you pry my skis from my cold dead hands 🙂