Guest Blogger: Michelle's Journey

Michelle is no stranger to critical injuries, but she is so much more than her setbacks. She’s the resilience to find ways to keep moving safely despite critical injuries that would make many want to stay in bed. She’s her good cheer and quirkyness in and out of UFO. And she’s a badass athlete, whether she’s rehabbing, smashing it in Team Training or swinging around in aerial acrobatics. We are ecstatic that Michelle is part of our UFO family and continues with us as she grows and finds new ways to gain strength.


Urban Fitness was right here in my backyard long before I’d ever walk through the doors ready to work out. Neighbors who jumped in with Noah shortly after he opened the gym in 2008 were immediate evangelists. They gushed endlessly about the intensity, the novel workouts, Noah’s charm and enthusiasm. I listened with smug detachment as they sang their songs of praise because, you see, I was a long-distance runner. My legs, lungs and a great pair of shoes were the only equipment I needed. Roads and trails were my refuge; I lost and found myself a million times over on the majestic paths that wind through our beautiful Bay Area. My body was so efficient and the movement pattern so familiar that on a long run my mind was untethered from my physical self. I was free, capable, invincible, strong.


Until I wasn’t.


As the miles piled up, so did the toll on my knees which began a slow but steady protest. I decreased my speed and mileage, acquired custom orthotics and worked with physical therapists but years of imbalanced strength wasn’t to be easily undone. I was no longer a runner. No longer an athlete.


As my ability to run diminished Urban Fitness continued to grow. With a newly adopted dog to walk, I found myself strolling past multiple times daily. This place I’d hardly noticed was suddenly impossible to ignore as groups of people spilled out the doors onto the sidewalk to run, side-shuffle, jump, and throw medicine balls to the uptempo beats of energizing music. I watched, mesmerized, from across the street until the fear that someone might catch me, a has-been-athlete-reduced-to-voyuer, would bubble up. Intimidated, I’d walk home.


My husband noticed the bustling activity on his walks with the dog, too, and began musing about giving it a try. While it was definitely not a place I could ever see myself, I bought him a 30-day intro package for his birthday. He returned from his assessment vibrating with excitement, describing in detail how much he’d learned. His enthusiasm only increased as he jumped into daily group training. He raved about the creative workouts, the coaches and the people he was meeting and training alongside. It was contagious. A week to the day of his assessment, I scheduled my own.


Scheduling the assessment was one thing but mustering the courage to show up was another. As the hour of my appointment approached I contemplated calling to cancel. I walked the single block between our home and the gym as if marching  to the gallows while ruminating on the list of things I was too weak, damaged or old to do. While I’ve often claimed not to know what to expect, I’ll now confess I was pretty confident that the coaches would immediately see my insufficiencies, determine I wasn’t the right type of client, and send me straight back out the door with a pitying look and a recommendation to try yoga. I was utterly prepared to be rejected.


But I wasn’t.



Noah greeted me like longtime friend. “Let’s walk”, he said and over several laps of the block he elicited my fitness story from me. He talked about other “marathoners like me” who trained at Urban Fitness and how much he admired us. He spoke to my accomplishments and drive in the present tense with a forward focus on what I’d like to accomplish. The idea that I wasn’t fully functional didn’t enter his vocabulary nor seem to enter his mind. The movements we worked through to establish my baseline fitness backed it up; it was ‘let’s see what you can do here’ never ‘oh, you can’t do that’. We made a plan for the next 30-days and scheduled out a series of semi-private and group trainings. I left physically exhausted but emotionally restored.


Fast forward two years to July 2015: The workouts have changed me. I can move previously unimaginable amounts of weight in so many different ways: swinging kettle bells, pushing a sled stacked with plates, even (literally) carrying my teammates as I run (yes, run!)around the block. I’ve even taken up aerial acrobatics, training on rope and tissue at Kinetic Arts Center a few days per week. Where running gave me detachment, Urban Fitness gives me incredible presence; the intense workouts require being fully in and aware of my body.  My teammates are among my most treasured friends and I’m part of an incredible badass team. I’m capable, invincible, strong.


Until I’m not.


One morning on vacation I awaken with a stiff neck that worsens rapidly over the course of a few days. I return home and head back to Urban Fitness for a special workout event convinced it’s nothing the coaches can’t help me sort out with some directed foam/lacrosse ball rolling, but even the slightest bit of pressure is excruciating. Alexei whips up a mini program focused on lower-body moves to keep me in the game but the minute I begin breathing heavily pain shoots through my upper back and around to my chest. We all agree it’s time to rest, maybe schedule a massage or see a chiropractor and check back in after a few days.


Two days later, the pain is debilitating and I lose all feeling in my right arm. An MRI reveals two ruptured discs in my lower cervical spine. Without immediate intervention I could lose the use of my arm permanently. We schedule the first of three epidurals to tame the inflammation and I float home in a Vicodin fog, my neck stabilized in a soft collar. The drugs wear off in the wee hours of the night and I lie awake staring up at the ceiling. Tears soak my pillow as reality descends like fog. My injury is grave and recovery will be slow and halting. Best case scenario? At least 12 months.



There’s no way to pinpoint the cause of my injury; no moment when it “just happened” or movement I can blame. It’s the culmination of a myriad of factors over many months; a problematic genetic predisposition, the misreading of small symptoms as minor muscle soreness when it was really nerve pain telling me to stop, my relentless layering of new activities (Spartan races! All that time on the ropes at Kinetic Arts!) into my regimen despite those warnings. The not knowing fills me with terror. That I misread so many signs makes me angry with myself. That getting well comes with no clear roadmap or timelines leaves me feeling desperately alone. I ache with grief.


Urban Fitness is an essential “third place” for me; by definition ‘a great good place’ that anchors my life outside of home and work. I can’t imagine being back on the outside looking in. Thankfully, that’s not a threat. Noah and the coaches make clear that they will be a part of my care team and partner with my doctor and physical therapists to encourage my progress. Though my membership gets put on hold and I can’t lift weight, run, jump or move in any dynamic way I’m invited to come in anytime to do what I can: work through rehab exercises, be in the space, interact with other members, be part of the UFO family.


It’s now July 2016. The one-year anniversary of my injury is approaching. The journey of healing has changed me. In that characteristic Urban Fitness way I learned that very first day with Noah, I’ve let go of what was and embrace myself as the athlete I am today. I train with Alexei in increasingly difficult sessions and have become fluent in the language my body speaks. I’ll soon return to small group training knowing I am safe, capable, strong.


Because I am.