Thursday, March 23, 2006

today: playing through the pain

A strange thing happens. I was watching the Commonwealth Games and specifially the English Decathlete Dean Macey. Macey is one of those athletes who has great potential. Except he's spent the whole of his career thus far injured in one way or another. In the Commonwealth Games he won, achieving a first ever Gold Medal. Yet even while he was winning, he had an elbow, hamstring and foot injury. In some events he purposefully underperformed in order to ease the strain on his injuries. Even when he doesn't have current injuries he has a raft of underlying stuff. The whole story of his two days and ten events was whether he would actually make it through.

Shaun Edwards, Wigan's Rugby League scrum half from the late 1980s and 1990s, famously smashed his cheekbone and eye-socket in the first few minutes of a Cup Final, playing on for the whole match and leading his team to vistory. Bert Trautmann, the Manchester City goalie, famously broke his neck during a Cup Final and played until the end.

I currently have an injury. As well as my usual chronic pain, I have something very painful in my ankle that has been around on and off for a few months now. I know how Macey feels. A strange thing happens. When I leave the door for the day I switch off the intolerable pain. Throughout the day I am careful, but kind of don't notice it. Some things I don't even attempt or purposefully underperform in order to ease the strain. The whole story of my day is whether I will actually make it through.

A strange thing happens. when I finish work and come home I keep my shoes and socks on so that I can complete any small chores I have to do. Only after I am ready do the shoes and socks come off. If I have any strapping I take that off too. It's almost a ritualistic process, in the same way as warming my deformed and arthritic up on a morning is a ritualised process. I stomp my feet around the kitchen floor, enjoying the cool of the tiles and pleasant slap as I exaggeratedly throw them onto the ground. Then I sit down and massage them, pulling and stretching them for a few minutes. There is no such thing as diving out of bed and rushing to work for me.

Anyway, the moment that my socks come off is the moment that the switch goes back on again. I'm not special, it's not a trick or even a skill. I don't consciously make it happen: it just happens. Over the next half an hour it is like someone turning the pain volume up slowly until it blares through my feet. Oddly, even though I don't enjoy it at all, I kind of like to experience it. It's like getting a bad report of something that you are totally expecting. I know the normal level of pain and this half-hour process is a report on whether I had a light or heavy day and what I have to do in terms of recovery.

After that I take some painkillers and, most days, nap for an hour.

My point is that it is amazing how it is possible to play through the pain, whether you have an unlucky condition like mine, or whether you are Dean Macey with your eyes on the Gold Medal. It's an astonishing and mysterious physical and mental feat, to ignore the most fundamental of distresses and just get on with what you've decided to do.

Dean cried when he got the gold. It looked a lot like relief to me.

I think I know how he felt.

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