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Jesse Thomas: My Career Is Over (OK, Not Really)

Professional triathlete Jesse Thomas writes about acknowledging the worst-case-scenario fear when it comes to injury.

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But sometimes it feels like it.

*Editor’s note: Jesse Thomas wrote this “Triathlife” column for the May issue of Triathlete magazine. Last Saturday, May 3, Thomas returned to competition for the first time since his foot surgery and earned his fourth-straight Wildflower Long Course Triathlon title.

I walked into our room and saw Lauren sitting on the bed, head down, deep in thought, her left hand rubbing the outside of her knee. She looked up at me blankly, almost through me. After a moment, she focused, caught my eye and said, “My IT band is broken. My career is over.” I looked at her knee, paused for a second, looked back up at her and replied. “Bummer. That sucks. Well, it was good while it lasted.” Then we both got ready for bed.

It probably sounds like a callous way to acknowledge the end of an athletic career that included 15 All-Americans, two U.S. Championships and a seventh in the world in the 5K. But the conversation we had wasn’t taken literally by either of us. It’s a sort of ritual, a short song-and-dance coping mechanism that we’ve developed during our time as athletes. It helps us deal with the tumultuous physical and emotional ups and downs that come with getting injured, coming back from injury and, more generally, the pursuit of sport at the highest level.

Lauren’s career, of course, was not over. Her IT band was tight after her fast track session that morning. So I stretched and massaged it—this is standard trade for husband-and-wife pro athletes—and she took the next day off. It was sore for a couple of days, so she ran easy. By the end of the week she was back on the track and had forgotten that her career ended four days ago.

It’s important that I remind myself of the ridiculousness of this story, of how quickly the direction changed from train wreck to right back on track. Ninety-five percent of the time our ailments and injuries evaporate within a week, just like Lauren’s did. But since my foot surgery about a year ago, I’ve ridden the same emotional roller coaster every couple of days. It took longer than expected to get off crutches, then out of the boot, then back to walking, etc. Now I’m back running, and if my foot is sore after a run or workout, my mind doesn’t say, “Jesse, that was a great workout, you’ve made incredible strides since your surgery.” It instantly projects to the most extreme negative potential outcome of the current moment: My career is over.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought that in the past nine months. Do I actually believe it? Of course not. If I did, I certainly wouldn’t be spending all this time training like I am right now—I’ve got episodes of “New Girl” to catch up on. There are a thousand more likely scenarios than “career ends,” most of which involve a little soreness, a painful massage or adjustment of some kind, and bam—I’m back in a day or two. Like I said, it hasn’t even been a year, and I’m expected to have all kinds of phantom pains at least that long. But for some reason, every time I hit a speed bump my mind skips that logic and goes straight to the only outcome that means it’s all over.

So if our careers aren’t really over, why the song and dance? Because there is, of course, always a chance they could be. In Lauren’s case, she’s had an IT band injury that cost her a year, and not just any year—an Olympic year. And anyone who follows track and field knows that Olympic years basically count for four years. So you could say Lauren’s career once ended, or at least took a long, unpaid sabbatical, because of an IT band injury. And anyone who’s passionately pursued any long-term goal—athletic or otherwise—knows that when you put your all into a dream that doesn’t work out, it plainly sucks a lot. The year that Lauren missed was the hardest of her career—the hardest of her life.

It would suck a lot if my career was really over. I would be more than just bummed. I’d be SUPER BUMMED in all caps for emphasis. And even though the risk is remote, I think the weight of that possibility is why my brain instantly goes to the darkest place in moments of doubt. It’s like trying to speed by a black hole without getting sucked in. According to Stephen Hawking, that’s impossible, no matter what your bike split is.

So this ritualistic thinking about an athletic ending is just a way to acknowledge that fear, no matter how remote the chance that it actually materializes, and to acknowledge that stupid trick that the mind can play on us. And by acknowledging it we can stop our minds from dragging us into a fear cycle, make the conscious choice to disregard it, and proceed in pursuit of the goal despite the possibility of failure. In that way, we CAN speed by the black hole. Where you at now, Stephen Hawking!?

Acknowledging that worst-case-scenario fear also helps both Lauren and I realize that even if the “worst” happened (our careers ended) in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Yes, my dozens of fans would riot in the streets, by which I mean that my mom and her friends who read my articles would riot on one street in Bend. Lauren and I would have to find other professions, we’d be forced to not exercise all day, every day, and not go to bed at 8 p.m. on Saturday night because we have a big session Sunday morning. As terrible as that sounds, nobody dies, we won’t starve, and my baby son, Jude, probably won’t be forced to sell Picky Bars in the streets for money—unless it becomes a successful marketing strategy. We will go on as a family, and probably thoroughly enjoy the next phase of our lives. And after the sting of the disappointment wears off, we’d realize that the journey was all worth it anyway.

RELATED PHOTOS: 2014 Wildflower Triathlon

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