The Hard Part: Coming Back From An Injury

chin up joe penacoli

My friend Joe crashed his mountain bike on a relatively mellow, sweeping right hand bend section of fast-rolling singletrack on July 7, dislocating both shoulders, which meant a summer and fall of walking around in an immobilizing sling. I watched the whole thing via Joe’s Instagram feed, and when I saw him, he had written “CHIN UP” on the exercise ball attached to the sling. Of course, he was down. He was worried that not only was his summer gone, but he wouldn’t be able to ski at all this season in the Wasatch.

He had surgery on July 13, closed reduction of bilateral posterior glenohumeral dislocation, which in non-complicated medical terms, is a big deal — according to one research paper: “Bilateral dislocation of the shoulder is a rare injury. The main causes are electrical shock, extreme trauma, and epilepsy.”

After five weeks of recovery, he asked his doctor, Hey, my other shoulder feels pretty jacked up, too. The doc told him, Hey, you have to have one good shoulder. Meaning he had to get one healed before they decided to deal with the other one. Joe had personally “reduced” it (put it back in place) after the injury.

The toughest thing, at least at first, is probably not the pain, the lasting effects of an injury. It’s not being able to move. Going from ripping down trails to walking around the block for exercise. Climbing easy routes, worrying about re-aggravating something. Getting thera-bands out and doing physical therapy, which everyone knows is about 1 percent as fun as skiing or climbing. Wondering if it’s really healed.

Your friends try to prop you up, which is great, but at the end of the day, you have to deal with it. Over dinner with Joe back in August, I was that guy, trying to be a ray of sunshine and be positive, because that’s what you do when your friends are down. But then I realized maybe that wasn’t what Joe needed and said You know what, it’s OK to be sad sometimes.

On August 18, after six weeks in a sling, Joe posted a photo of his right arm in the sling, and a short goodbye letter below it, beginning, “Dear Ultrasling III…” He got an MRI on the left shoulder on October 11, to see if he needed surgery on that one as well.

Before he got the results of the MRI back, he posted a photo of a trail banking through a stand of trees thick with pink and gold leaves: He went for an easy ride on his bike. His doctor told him his left shoulder had a few common side effects from self-reducing a dislocation, but if the bike ride felt good, go for it. On October 19th, Joe posted this collage of his injury and recovery, 14 weeks of rehab, MRIs, physical therapy, and keeping his chin up:

joe pho collage

When I saw Joe’s collage, I laughed and pumped my fist in the air, happy for that guy who was so glum a couple months ago. He was one of a handful of my friends who broke something while doing what they loved: Syd’s reaggravated calf muscle tear during a race in Central Park, Chris’s wrist injury, Steve’s catastrophic ski accident that broke his tibia and fibia, and part of his knee. Fitz broke his foot and bruised his spleen in a climbing fall.

But no one I know sits around and uses their injury as an excuse to stop moving. Every one of them comes back: Sits out for almost as long as their doctors say, does the physical therapy exercises, walks, then bikes, then runs. Nobody gets fat and blames it on their “bad back” or “bum knee,” and talks about the stuff they used to do. They can’t seem to help themselves. Fitz recently made a film about Roger Strong, whose legs were nearly ripped in half in an avalanche, hanging on by one knee tendon each, and returned to ski the same line exactly 365 days after his accident.

I’ve been lucky myself. I have nothing but minor tweaks most of the time, two shoulders that like to develop pains here and there, a kneecap that doesn’t track like it should. For the most part, I feel younger than I feel old, but if something does happen, I’m thankful to have some role models to show me how to come back. We’re not superstar ball-sports athletes, whose careers can end with a single unlucky move on a basketball court or a field; we’re people who do what we do because we love it, and we can find a way back, maybe a little slower, a little more cautious, but with the same passion.

A couple weekends ago, I sent a text to my pal Lee, who’s in his 50s and has been having trouble with his knee and shoulders lately. And his back. But he’s still faster than me. I asked, Wanna climb some ice Monday, and he texted back,

Short approach like Silverplume? Having an MRI done on my knee today.


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    1. I broke my lower back snowboarding about 5 weeks ago. I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments. Being stuck, unable to do the things you love is miserable. I’ve been doing all sorts of things to try to stay positive, and I refused to stay still. I was up walking around less than a week after it happened, and snowshoeing at week 3 was a questionable move. I went climbing for the first time this week and plan to snowboard this weekend.

      It is frustrating how in the short (it’s felt like an eternity) time I’ve been out, how much strength and endurance I’ve lost. But, it feels great to get back out.

      It’s stories like this and Roger Strong that help remind me to stay focused and not let myself get discouraged, because I will get back out there and keep doing the things I love.

  1. Yes, for me the pain and frustration of not being able to do what I love is always worse than the injury itself. But on the other hand, when I can finally get back out there, I’m that much more grateful and appreciative of the gift that is a life of action and adventure. Kinda like an ecstatic puppy about to pee myself when they open the door and let me out…

  2. I am currently 5 months post-op for a torn ACL. A month ago my PTist told me to do a one legged standing broad jump (and stick the landing) to test the stability of my injured knee. My response, “Sorry, you want me to what?!?” Standing there before taking the jump I felt like I was on a stout trad lead about to attempt a committing move, with a questionable Nut fifteen feet below me as my last placement.

    Coming back from an injury is hard, and really scary. But at a certain point you’ve got to take that leap if you ever want to fully recover, both physically and mentally.

    On the upside, a forced hiatus from something you are passionate about gives new meaning to the phrase, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone.” As those close to me can attest, I boil over with excitement when I talk about my ambitions for next season.

    Thanks for yet another great post.

  3. Dude,

    Your articles are great. BUT they have freaky timing. I’ve always despised the word “epic” and refused to use it. I shared your article on the topic with a friend the day before we set out on a hike/run in less than ideal conditions.

    The result of the adventure was 2nd-3rd degree frostbite on all 10 of my toes. 2/3 of the way through the trip my running buddy commented that our adventure was actually approaching EPIC proportions. I’d have to agree at this point.

    Now, I’m sitting at a desk with my blistery mess of feet propped up, reading this story. It really hits home.

    Thanks for the writing, I really enjoy it.


  4. Thankfully I’ve never suffered an injury like that. But earlier this summer my climbing partner/boyfriend got injured in an epic climbing accident and spending all summer with him recooperating, both physically and mentally, was rough. But despite having 1 broken foot and a broken ankle on the other leg he didn’t let it get him too down. He got a waterproof cast after surgery and we spent the entire summer whitewater rafting in something like 5-6 different states and 9-10 different rivers. We did a little climbing together this fall after the casts came off and some ice climbing this winter already and he’s bouncing back great. I only hope I could do the same if I was ever in his situation.

  5. Can totally relate ! I’m mending a BAD ankle break from late June (still). Must have stepped in a hole while running playing in my outdoor soccer league game. It happened so fast – felt a twitch, heard the cracking sounds. Broke 3 bones, with open wound. Thankfully went into shock instantly, as it didn’t really hurt. And ambulance was there quick and EMTs started pumping good meds into an IV. As my surgeon says, if you didn’t break it, you tore it. And I’m a super active gal, indoors and out.
    After 3 surgeries and 9 days in the hospital, had to stay off the foot for 3mos. ?! Then started PT to work to put weight on it. I’m up to 10hrs/per week in therapy. I’ve been working my tail off now for over 3mos, and still walk with a hike stick (cane). I’ve made my way thru walker, knee scooter, crutches. Stairs are still tough – can go up, but not down. And no running yet. Good news is that doc says I should be able to get back to most of my sports/activities, but it may ‘bother’ me, aka hurt. I’m glad he’s a great surgeon. Looking at possibly one more surgery for fixing a ligament that wants to be part bone (scar tissue) – limiting my dorsi flexion range of motion. And if so, or at another point – want to get some of the hardware out .. I currently have 2 plates and 11 screws in there ! (a mix of titanium and stainless steel.)
    Friends and family and coworkers have been great at cheering me on. But I feel out of the loop b/c I have to think first about my ankle all the time – and be selective about my outings/events. Crowds are not good for me yet. And I have to live vicariously thru my active friends for now. I’ll get there – I’m dedicated to PT and a tough chic. But it’s frustrating at times. Especially since I can’t walk my dog (lab mix) yet – for the fear of him pulling me down. I also work part time for an outdoor outfitter (in addition to my fulltime engineering job) — my sidejob management and coworkers have been stellar at letting me take my time in coming back, but it’s hard to say I’m still not ready – I can take care of myself mostly (laundry is a challenge, being in the basement), but not of others really yet (wait on custys, climb shelves/ladder, carry product, etc). Can’t risk re-injury and don’t want to be a liability either !
    This recovery is taking alot longer than I ever anticipated — not that anyone ever gave me a timeline, since everyone heals differently.
    Thanks for letting me vent. 🙂

  6. Injuries are SO HARD. So many of my friends and clients don’t realize their own fragility until an injury sets them back. Which is probably the worst part of it all- knowing that this body won’t last forever. That’s why it’s SO important to take loving care of our bodies, both to prevent, and to nurture an injury! Thank heaven our bodies know how to heal!!

  7. Since I have imbalanced emotional chemical levels in my brain to deal with already, it’s interesting to see how I reacted to some of my injuries at the time (albeit mine are minor compared to others’).

    -Severely, severely sprained my ankle bouldering days before I left for a month-long mountaineering trip. Thought I may have even broken it. I was so incredibly depressed. Solved by tying my boot as much as possible for a week and getting through it.

    -Dislocated my shoulder skiing into a mountain for a week of ice climbing. I laughed. Friends laughed. I really don’t know why I wasn’t upset. Went home and broke out the thera-bands for a while. Then got back to ice axe pullups and bouldering eventually.

    -Aggravated my IT band to where I couldn’t run or bike for the months leading up to quitting my job to bike across the country. Again, incredibly depressed. Friends thought I might need surgery. Rested, stretched a shit load and eventually worked it out. Rode the first week of the tour on tenterhooks, physically and emotionally.

    -Broke my wrist taking my skateboard off of a jump. I quit skateboarding. Took up trad climbing.

    Get after it.

  8. Always cheesy, but still true;

    What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger……and maybe in some cases it also makes you smarter.

  9. I empathize with your friend. I had 2 knee surgeries last year – right in oct, left in dec (this week is my 1 year anniversary of officially being off crutches!) and you hit the nail on the head. The pain subsides but knowing that you are on the DL from the sports you love – and consequently realizing that you will lose all the fitness and strength you’d built – is really hard! But the drive to thrive and jump back into our sports is bigger than the sorrow and self pity. We do come back!

    3 weeks before my 1 year first surgery anniversary, I ran my first post-surgery half marathon. It was slow and it was hard – but it was a start! And it’s only gone up from there.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  10. Hey Brendan!

    We exchanged facebook messages awhile ago. I’m dealing with a pain-in-the-ass injury right now (fractured kneecap) that is royally screwing up a trip to Nepal, and will result in surgery when I get back. I’m looking at a long road and bummer of a summer slowly recovering and getting back on my feet. I was poking around your site, looking for a piece of writing that I could look to for some guidance and of course I found it. Also I live in the Front Range now, so if you’d ever like to grab a beer let me know 🙂 (I’d say lets climb at some point, but that’s looking a bit far off right now).

    Thanks as always and keep on writin!

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Article by: brendan