I like to think that there are two distinct seasons in the last months of the year. Fall is here, giving us the best cycling conditions, the occasional patch of sun and all that social media buzz about pumpkins and getting cozy in jackets again. Then there’s pre-winter, which is colder, rainier, less about squeezing out the last drops of summer activities and more about preparing your gear—and your body—for snow sports. The pre-winter weeks can occur at different times each year, but I’d argue that the “backup” weather change in early November is a reliable baseline.
Pre-winter has a different meaning for me this year. Seven months into my nine-month recovery from two shoulder surgeries, the worst is definitely behind me. When I say “worst of all”, I mean post-op pain, with one arm almost useless in a sling and last (but certainly not least), unable to participate in my usual outdoor activities.
Part of any rehab process is knowing that there’s always someone going through a tougher road than you (Whistler is known for taking an injury lightly, with people peeling off their clothes to show off their surgery scars, all while looking like comes with a long story). I currently have friends who are going through longer, more arduous rehabs. I have friends and family who are battling cancer, either in their own bodies or in the bodies of their loved ones. You never have to look far in your friend circles to hear stories of overcoming extreme adversity, ones that make your own rehab “journey” seem like all you had to do was spend the better part of a year on the couch.
My birthday this year was just a few days before my first surgery, and my partner gave me a book about not only overcoming injuries and setbacks, but taking on challenges that can change your life forever. This book is striking impossible of long-time Whistler resident Don Schwartz, whom I interviewed for 2013 Spades fictional story entitled “Tipping point”. The story was themed around a 20-kilometer Tough Mudder obstacle course, but I found Schwartz’s story far more compelling than the bro-down exercise or corporate team building found in Tough Mudder. Schwartz is a three-time participant in Death Race, that masochistic event in the hills of Vermont that attempts to mentally and physically break down its candidates over several days of grueling tasks and deceptive mind games. The intense training, preparation and brutal physical exertion during the event and the weeks and sometimes months of recovery from Death Race are just one part of the book, and it’s nowhere near the hardest thing Schwartz has ever done.
In 1990, at the age of 20, Schwartz survived a helicopter crash while skiing near Blue River, BC. He left with burns that nearly killed him, but his belief that he would survive was unbreakable. While living in a burn unit in Calgary, Schwartz endured excruciating skin grafts as doctors tried to nurse him back to health. In a way, his intense meditative mental exercises helped him avoid a major reconstruction of his ear and nose largely prompted by his motivation to compete in an international snowboarding event, just a few months later.
But what struck me as one of the longest journeys of his life (there are many in this book) was that Schwartz had to wear a plastic burn mask for four years to prevent the scars from disfiguring his face. These traumatic experiences make the death race easy, at least in Schwartz’s eyes.
Like I said, there’s always someone who’s been through more than you. And these people learned how to recover in a way that most of us could not even imagine.
After reading his book, I realized that I do not have Schwartz’s iron will. I don’t have the patience and determination to finish the death race, nor do I want to challenge the status quo of modern medicine by wanting to get better faster and get back to activities before the doctors say I should. But he is living proof that not only can you survive after knocking on death’s door, but you can achieve more than you ever thought possible. Hitting rock bottom means you can only go up.
Impossible to win is not the only motivational story of survival. But there are few stories that can be so relatable to the Whistler lifestyle and our desire to get back and play in the mountains, where we belong. My own journey back to the life I enjoyed won’t be as compelling in the story, but a small part of Schwartz’s disciplined approach to rehab really stuck with me. I wake up earlier so that I don’t miss the daily physiotherapy exercises. I eat better and drink less (within reason). But mostly, I feel more motivated than ever to get out there and get back to doing what I love most.
Bring on the winter. Let’s go fucking.
Vince Shuley hasn’t looked forward to the ski season like this in a long time. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider, email email@example.com or Instagram @whis_vince.