Dean Potter was one of those rare men who found himself inextricably drawn to the world of what lay people call “extreme sports.” In an interview I watched with him, he said he doesn’t like the term BASE jumping, an acronym that stands for the four categories of objects off of which you can make your jump: Building, Antenna, Span and Earth (a cliff, for example). Dean was less romanced by whatever it was he was jumping off of and focused a great deal of developing technologies for “wingsuits,” basically turning the human form into a kind of flying squirrel via a suit that looks like a sleeping bag. What drew Dean Potter into my awareness is the completely unique fact that he also developed a pack in which he could enclose his mini-Australian Cattle Dog, Whisper, to go jumping (he called it “flying”) with him. You can watch his mini-documentary about this here, for $0.99, it is a beautiful short film walking an ambiguous line with eyes wide open.
In this interview, Dean is telling a story – the way surfers and climbers and rafters tell their epic adventure stories – of how in his worst moment he fell towards his death and just out of sheer luck grabbed a hanging rope on his way down (Hollywood style), basically sliding down it to a ledge and burning the skin off his palms, breaking some bones. “But I’ve never been seriously injured,” he says. This is something you’ll hear from guys like this, who have broken their orbital bones, spent days or weeks in hospital, burned the skin off their hands, like my brother Gabe who has broken the bones in his feet so many times on rafting and tubing trips in rivers that you don’t even ask anymore. They’re not being “tough,” these things that count as injuries to nearly anybody else are not “serious” to those who are living this way of life. I say it, too. In my years in Thailand I’ve broken my hand, my foot, my nose (3 times), received over 100 stitches in my face, toenails coming off, and had swollen shins for months at a time. None of this is serious injury to me. It’s barely even an injury, because I fight through all of it, train around anything and everything.
This isn’t a post about how tough I am. I don’t consider any of this “toughing it out” because that’s not what it feels like. Training in spite of something means your effort is towards resisting the urge to stop, but that’s not my experience. I honestly just barely think about any of these things, other than being annoyed by the pain or inconvenience of not being able to clinch because I have stitches in my face. The point of this post, rather, is kind of an inventory of what can become a constant, and therefore largely meaningless, presence of bodily harm. People ask me all the time “how do you fight so much?”, with the unspoken question being, “don’t you get hurt?” My honest and immediate answer is, “no, not really.” But the more objective answer is, “yes, all the time, so it’s pretty much all the same either way.” I just had 3 fights in 5 days up in Chiang Mai (not a record by any means) and this is what my right shin looks like:
It doesn’t hurt. It’s squishy and puffy in different areas, so I just use my heat treatment methods on it and because it doesn’t hurt to kick I just keep kicking on it. So far they’ve looked like this for a bit over a month, deflating and re-inflating (readers, please refrain from offering medical advice). When I broke my hand there was no way I was going to the hospital because I wasn’t going to stop training, so why pay a doctor for advice I have no intention of following? Instead I just kept movement going, and training around it, and fighting for 4 months. It’s about a kind of transcendent attitude toward the body, that you are arcing past what the body is, and what it can do at any one particular moment, all the while trying to take enough precautions and treatment to make sure that you can bring your body along with you, that you don’t leave it behind.
My first big cuts, 28 stitches from Lommanee Sit Taehiran
A few souvenirs from my first fight after breaking my hand, courtesy of the “Farang Smasher” Nong Ying Pettonpung
I’m currently dealing with a Staph infection in my knee. Staph, in the form of boils, are pretty common in this part of the world, as the bacteria thrives in the warm and humid climate. I’ve had a few bouts of this but never on a joint before, so I was unprepared for how painful and risky it is to have the infection so close to tendons and joints, which can also become infected. In a rare call, I decided to see a doctor to make sure it hadn’t spread into the tendons or joint already and I had to cancel my fight (which was to be the next day). I’d already been on antibiotics for 3 days, just over the counter, and thought it would have resolved enough for me to fight, that’s how it usually goes. But that’s not how it went. So the doctor assured me it was still on the surface (the pain must be from the kneecap pushing on the pocket of infected pus from behind it) and gave me a significantly stronger antibiotic. What’s strange for me is that this thing is so tiny, just a marble inside my skin, and due to the risk of blood infection I have to take my training way down. I went to the gym the next day just to move around. I can’t knee, obviously, and it hurts to bend the knee or put much weight on it, so I’m doing some minimal, light shadowboxing (I’m working on my conversion to southpaw at least in part) and whatever conditioning is possible without aggravating the area. While jabbing at a heavybag, my trainer Pi Nu leaned on the ropes of the ring, looking at me. He shook his head and asked me, “why your body no good?” indicating that this infection is a sign of a more general lack of health. “Why you not come to me, I open for you,” he added, complaining that going to the doctor was unnecessary. “I do many times, I can do for you,” he said, his voice becoming more annoyed as he carried on. His son Bank wiped his chest with a towel and chimed in, “she did, ” he said, “you weren’t here.” It’s true. I came by the day before and Pi Nu was out with family – it’s a holiday. Pi Nu immediately resigned his complaint, but the point of that story is that it seems that going to the doctor made a fairly typical issue more serious than it needs to be. Having grown up as a fighter and living at this gym for over 30 years, Pi Nu has seen a lot of everything. He actually is experienced and qualified to deal with tons of things that those of us who find ourselves experiencing them for the first few times might seek a doctor for. I went to Pi Nu to drain my cauliflower ear, and from that learned how to do it myself, which is how I deal with it now. These “injuries” go from needing medical intervention to being a matter of first-aid pretty easily. Again readers, no free medical advice please – and yes for visitors to Thailand you should treat infections aggressively and early.
Pi Nu called me into the ring to do this horrible push-up, sit-up, plank routine that he loves. He pretty much wanted me to keep Bank company, as most of the boys weren’t training for the holiday and it’s always easier to do these things with a partner than alone. Bank asked why I hadn’t run in the morning and Pi Nu answered for me, explaining about the infection in my knee. Bank looked at me for a second and asked how long I’d been here (meaning in Pattaya, at the gym). “Three years,” I answered. Bank nodded and then added, “I’ve never seen you hurt (jep).” “Jep” (pain) in this case means missing training due to injury. You’re not hurt, you aren’t in significant pain if you’re training, so what Bank means is that he’s never seen me not able to train. I’m noted for this at the gym, for training with bashed shins and stitches, things that the boys are more than happy to sit out for. They call me “Cyborg Petchrungruang,” or “Terminator,” and the boys love to poke at the squishy pockets on my shins because they find it funny that I don’t squirm when they do so. (I’ve also learned that if it does hurt to touch it, don’t ever point it out to Pi Nu, because he thinks it’s really funny to “check” with a hard thumb-press on the knot.) At one point I was changing position between moves and I touched my infected knee to the ground for a second, barely putting any pressure on it at all. The pain of that contact shot through my whole body and I basically fell over, cussing in a way that Bank found pretty hilarious. But here’s the thing: there’s a disconnect between whatever discomfort my body is experiencing and what my mind and motivation feel is possible. It wasn’t like this at the beginning. When I first arrived in Thailand and was fighting once per month, begging my trainers for a second fight and wondering if that was even possible – 2 fights in a month, can I do that? (I now have a personal best of 7 fights in 31 days) – I don’t think I could have done what I do now, not even close. It’s like building up callouses. Dominick Cruz recently was on a Joe Rogan podcast and he talked about how his knee injuries had kept him out of hard training and the octagon for nearly 2 years. His cardio was fine, his strength was fine, but he said he couldn’t take impact the way he could when he was sparring and fighting. His ability to withstand impact had “gone soft,” he said. Ability to withstand is acquired, like the incredible line from the incredible movie Man on Fire, “there is no such thing as tough; there is just trained and untrained.” So I train to be hurt because I train hurt, yeah?
Not nearly as dramatic as the photos above: this Staph infection kept me from my business
I don’t do this out of any desire to be badass or whatever. I do it because the discomfort of stopping is worse to me than the discomfort of any of the inventory of injuries I’ve listed above. I get to keep doing what I love to do, so this is preferable to me. It’s a slow evolution, like a tolerance. Returning to Potter flying with his dog, his fear of injury was clearly less than his fear of not flying. Rope-burning all the skin off the palms of your hands is far less severe then missing that rope all together, right? But Potter is this incredibly interesting example of this kind of “extreme” mindset, which from the outside is (I believe inaccurately, or at least incompletely) called an addiction to thrill or adrenaline, because he introduced his dog into the madness. If he were jumping off of a mountain, the injuries he might incur from that are something he and his body and mind have to deal with. You put your best friend in a pack on your back and do the exact same thing and suddenly all that “I’m trained to handle this” goes out the door. Worry for yourself and worry for a body, heart and soul that isn’t you is a potent complication. Sadly, Dean Potter was killed on one of his flights. His dog Whisper was not with him. He didn’t take her on the riskier jumps. But this is the thing: he didn’t put her in a pack on his back because it would be way cool to jump with your dog. The way he explains it, he would hike with Whisper, bring her home and then go on these 7-8 hour climbs for his jump, then come home exhausted and take Whisper out on another short hike. He knew she would absolutely love those 7-8 hour climbs; she’d only hate 3 minutes of the day, when they had to jump. He weighed the facts of it and decided something that I completely side with: those hours of hiking with your best friend, that time spent together in sharing this epic adventure, those are the part of it that matter. For people like Potter, an injury is only serious if it keeps you from the thing you are doing. When Bank says, “I’ve never seen you hurt in 3 years,” he means that nothing has kept me from doing what I do. So, for Dean Potter, a broken orbital bone means he spends more hours working on his flight suit development and flies later; that’s not a serious injury. But not having the correct design for the pack that fastens Whisper to his back, so he can’t bring her yet – that’s an injury; that hurts.