Kerry Mack: Turning a Setback into a Comeback

Kerry Mack

A Spring Break liquid diet is a concept most college kids are all too familiar with. Last April, I was one of those kids—but my situation was a bit different. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in Punta Cana partying with MTV like it was 1999. I was in a hospital bed with morphine, a new disc in my neck and soon a cringe-worthy (but badass) scar. Oatmeal and smoothies were all I could eat—if one can consider that “eating.” I was unable to walk, speak or keep my eyes open. The sickest part, you ask? All I could think about was cycling and running. Moving. Excelling. Crossing a finish line. Through a physically and emotionally tolling experience I learned quite a bit about myself. I also learned that when life throws you a curveball: find a bat and knock that sh*t out of the park.

My story begins last December, just a few days after Christmas. I was in a wistful fog of too much sugar, not being in Manhattan during The Holidays, and four weeks without responsibility. My daily tasks were deciding what to make for breakfast, finalizing which morning talk show I would watch (if I woke up before noon) and burning off those extra holiday pounds. When I attempted to rise out of bed to start my day I couldn’t move. I don’t mean I was so lazy I didn’t care to get out of bed. I literally could not move. My body from the neck up was completely frozen.

I panicked. That was a dream, right? I was a healthy, happy, active 19-year-old girl. I wanted to scream, but I was shocked I couldn’t make a sound. After a few minutes of agony, I was able to roll over onto my side and rise. I was numb physically and emotionally. I could feel in my gut—and neck—something was severely wrong.

My family and I convinced ourselves I kinked my neck and would be fine in a few days. After a week of chiropractor adjustments, Emergency Room visits, and being told to, “Just ice it,” I’d had enough. The pain became so intense I could barely move, and this is coming from a girl who has broken or sprained just about everything. One friend described me as “the healthiest, unhealthy person,” he knew.

Athletics have always played an important role in my character. As a lifelong cheerleader, tumbler and runner I viewed the resilience of my body as a miraculous, yet necessary piece to my puzzle. By no means was I ever MVP. Of anything. But, whenever I felt external stress I would run off the anxiety, flip over tension, or dance until I forgot there was anything wrong. The constant motion I lived in allowed me to not only build momentum and trust in my body. I relied on it for relief when life became overwhelming. Exercise became my meditation…until I couldn’t exercise. Then, meditation became my meditation.

After a visit to an Orthopedic Surgeon, I discovered I had a degenerative disc in my neck that was bulging out into my spinal cord. Essentially, the disc was disintegrating and would begin to cut off blood supply to my spinal cord without action. My doctor, my family, and I were confounded. There was no rhyme or reason for this injury. But, the doctor suspected that it had been in the works due to my long history of high-impact sports. As a result, I was told take it easy and return in six weeks. If the x-rays and MRIs looked the same, I would be in for major spine surgery. My options for exercise were limited to cycling or walking. I decided I would take up cycling. I think I secretly thought after six weeks I would look like Beyonce…

The jury’s still out on that one.

When I returned to Manhattan I took my first indoor cycling class at Revolve. After my 45-minute Body Ride, I was unsure if I took a fitness class or went to a nightclub. I was drenched, dizzy, sore, and on top of the world. I couldn’t wait to go back. I raved about it to everyone I knew. They in turn told me I was insane, and to relax for the time being. But, they didn’t understand that was relaxing to me. There was something about the pulse of the music, the rhythm in my feet and the sweat on my brow that made me come alive. I forgot about my neck, my potential surgery and my parents’ concern. It was as if cycling unleashed a different side of me. Frankly, I wasn’t naturally skilled (in fact, I sucked) and the challenge was intriguing. On particularly overwhelming days, those 45 minutes were my escape. I felt confident in the performance of my body in those moments because I couldn’t bring myself to think about the “what ifs.” In that short time slot, I was giving my all. I didn’t feel like my body had failed me.

After six weeks of “taking it easy,” I felt significantly better. I was no longer in pain and I felt optimistic. I went back to the Orthopedic Surgeon expecting to be cleared for all exercise. Yet, somehow my situation had intensified. My doctor explained that sometimes pain ceases without any real internal healing. I would have to wait nine more weeks until Spring Break when I would get a Spinal Fusion. The doctor would be going through the front of my neck to take the disc out and put an artificial disc in. After, I would have to recover for another 8 weeks. Altogether, this would be a six-month set back. I was devastated. I sobbed and worried my body would never move the same again. I was only 19 and had so much ahead of me!

After a day of tears I decided feeling sorry for myself wouldn’t speed up the healing process, either. I would have to focus on what I could do. For the next nine weeks I could cycle.

The most I could cycle was 1-2 times per week while I awaited surgery. On mornings when I would sign up for an evening class I would look forward to the ride all day. During those nine weeks I didn’t allow myself to think negatively. It was too scary. I focused solely on handling day-to-day matters, remaining calm, and moving my body as much as possible.  I could not turn my back from the momentum I had created in my life through exercise. I could not deviate from my sweat-induced therapy. I needed to hold on to it then more than ever.

I was fortunate enough to heal completely from this freak injury. But, the eight weeks I spent recovering were the worst part of the whole experience. I was itching to get back to running and cycling. Between the two I knew I would be able to clear my head and push my limits. Something inside was telling me that I could come back stronger than ever. I had some badass training ahead of me to match my new badass scar.

I had so much pent up energy over those six months that my first run back was seven miles. No stopping. I could barely walk the next day; I had never been so out of shape, but I didn’t care. I performed similarly during my first indoor cycling class back. When the instructor asked if there were any injuries she should know about I was reluctant to share. Now, I am proud to share my story.

These days, I’ve never felt better. I am running a half marathon in early October, I am running my fastest mile ever, and I still cycle at least once a week. I took the curveball life threw me and knocked it out of the park—and I’m just getting in the game.

– Kerry Mack

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