I am a middle-aged train wreck.
I've got chronic migraines (five to seven a week), orthopedic issues from being hit by a car as a teenager, and, as if it couldn't get better, I hit an all-time high -- 263 pounds -- last summer. Until recently, the only truly disturbing parts of the previous two sentences were the words "middle-aged." Anyone see a problem?
Two things then smacked me upside the head. First, while at a Cubs game last summer, I noticed the weight in a players' stats. Then another. And another. Holy Batboy, I weighed more than most of the team! (Individually, thank you, not collectively.)
Then, I lost my best buddy, a 15-year-old sheepdog with whom I'd trained and competed once upon a time. I wanted to start agility classes with my new dog, but I couldn't walk across the house without wanting to take a nap. Running? Yeah, right.
In hopes of presenting a better weight in time for Cubs spring training, I started working out at Push Fitness last fall, twice a week. Just moving was an improvement I could live with, for the most part. Cutting out pasta? That was painful.
When I started to see improvement, in ways I never expected, I volunteered to chronicle my journey alongside the Fittest Loser contestants, ramping up my workouts to match theirs. Someone like me, with my issues, would never qualify for the contest. But if someone who started with an average daily pain level of three on a 10-point scale could improve her health, then there was hope for all.
And then the Push crew introduced me to trainer George Gersch, my guide for this part of the trek.
Meeting George was both painful and liberating. He started with a two-hour evaluation that left me feeling like Barbie. Not the impeccably coifed and attired one. More like the Barbie who had been left in the driveway and run over a few times before an evil little brother dragged it around the neighborhood behind his bike.
"Lock your knee … turn your foot out … push up, push out, roll over on your side, your back, your front, your other side, now turn yourself about." Wait, that was a Hokey Pokey flashback. Sorry. But you get the picture.
I was on and off that massage table so often I felt like the Push Fitness Karate Kid. "Hop on. Hop off. Hop on. Hop off." All I lacked was that trademark one-legged praying mantis move.
In between walking back and forth and standing for a balance-of-body-parts inspection (my shoulders are in the right place -- who knew?), George, who is trained in Muscle Activation Technique, pressed on muscles I never even knew existed.
"Does this hurt?" he asked, running his thumb along a muscle that hugged the outside of my shin. It took a few seconds to answer … I had to unclench my jaw first.
"Yeeesssssss," I croaked.
Turns out that one little muscle is among the many that are collateral damage when your pelvis is out of whack, which throws off your gait, which gives you a wonky knee and, thereby, forces unexpected muscles to pick up the slack. It seems I was a physiological house of cards.
George found areas of pain I never knew existed. I wish I were joking. He found two spots on the back of my knee and more hot spots on the outside of my knee and the front of my ankle. There's also a persnickety ligament running from my hip to my knee on the outside of my left leg and a consistently cramped muscle that runs through my left buttock from my tailbone to my hip. That last, the piraformis, is the bane of my existence.
Once I had the situation assessed, we moved on to our first workout. Nothing drastic. Just the basics.
But as I walked into work the next day, relatively pain free, (I don't expect that to last) I realized the only two "real" exercises George had me complete -- slowly, deliberately and under intense scrutiny -- were the two that I'd been told by my orthopedic surgeons never, ever, to undertake: squats and lunges. He'd taken the two things I feared most -- put them in the center of the table and started tackling my two biggest psychological barriers.
I've been afraid of my knee for nearly 30 years. For the first decade, I wore a restrictive custom-made brace every time an activity smacked of athleticism. For the last two decades I just avoided anything that could remotely damage it, living with the constant worry: Would this cause my knee to blow out and require reconstruction? Would this mean pain for months? How can I avoid this activity, i.e. the resulting problems?
Less than 24 hours after jumping over the proverbial cliff of fear, I actually did the dreaded squats -- on my own -- with the added side step twist, before hopping on the treadmill. Why? Because I could.
Note: After weeks of working out, and significant progress, including doing such things as "walking lunges," I was feeling very strong. Then, away from the gym, I tripped and fell down stairs. What did I severely twist? My bad knee, of course. This time I injured something new, the medial collateral ligament, just to keep things interesting. The journey continues …
• Catherine Edman is the cooperative advertising manager for the Daily Herald. She spent 19 years as a reporter at the paper, frequenting many drive-through windows on the way to cover night meetings, before joining the advertising staff in 2009.