From the ashes
A twist and turn – fate plants its foot.
Posted Monday, 6 November, 2006
The trees are thick with heavy green leaves. “Green Mansions” an author called them. The air is thick with humidity and insect sounds. Cicadas saw at their violas in the canopy. Late afternoon sun rarely stabs unhindered through the chlorophyll crush. It mostly falls in mottled pools among the rocks and on the trunks of oaks and pines. Green mansions indeed! With long dark green hallways decorated tastefully with rocks and underbrush.
The trail reels towards me like a video racing game. Buddy’s white tail flags along with his curly black butt bouncing ahead of me on the ridge. He lopes along, tongue lolling in the heat, no doubt wondering if there just might be a couple sheep to herd around the next corner, a hundred years of border collie inbreeding has given him a boundless, compulsive sense of hope. We’re in our element. This is what running is all about – to live by leaping headlong up broken ridges - to breathe – to fly – to exalt.
I was in pretty good shape at the end of August. Then I rolled my ankle.
You could say I was trying to do too much, but more accurately I was trying, (like everyone else in this cluttered American life), to do too many things at the same time. It was going to be a good caper until fate stepped in.
I was working with a handful of kids and moms over the summer trying to extend the momentum from soccer season into a 10-12 week ‘learn to run’ program. You know, give something back, and share the running love, throw my little pebble of hope into the pond of obesity, yadda, yadda, yadda…
I figured, on this fine August afternoon, that I could combine a bunch of tasks by taking the crew over to a local park for a run. In time management this is called doing tasks in parallel. Like many of you dudes and dudettes I was aiming for that elusive master stroke of multi-task consolidation. The self perpetuating myth being that there is some holy grail of efficiency where transcendence happens.
In this plan, I would simultaneously a) coach my crew about hill and trail running, b) spend some time with my daughter, c) get the dog some exercise and d) as the master in over-reaching, get a tempo run in. (Yeah, I’m one of those guys that does intervals around the soccer field during practice or brings my bike to the game – much to the mortification of my children.)
This particular park is a great slice of New England geography. Its name describes its nature; “Oak Ridge”. It is just that; a tree covered glacial hump that was too hard to turn into house lots.
The trail rises steeply, around 1200 feet in ¾ of a mile, up a ridge. At the top a big mound of naked granite squats as a promontory from which you can gaze out on the hellish highways and green boroughs of Northeast Massachusetts. The ridge drops away below the precipice. I’ve been known to go there with a notebook to just to sit and ponder.
As a run it’s got a great difficulty factor but is a little short. If you continue down the back of the ridge and run the entire periphery, you can squeeze maybe 2.5 miles in before you’re back where you started. I schemed that I could point the herd in the right direction and then make a game of trying to catch them on the second lap.
This park crams a number of micro-climates into a small area. When you come off the back of the ridge it descends to a fern carpeted moist forest, like something you might find in the wilds of Oregon. A little further, on the flat bit, there is a mature cedar stand with the old farmer walls, quiet, fragrant and serene.
If you continue on there is a section called the ‘chasm’ that my kids refer to as ‘the mosquito infested swamp’ in memory of one poorly planned hiking expedition. You don’t go there unless you’re an entomologist in hip waders. Throughout the run the surface alternates leafy trail, rock and some washed gravel roads. What it lacks in distance it makes up for in variety and difficulty.
Off we went! Buddy (the Wonder Dog) and I churned up the ridge at a tempo pace with the others following. The Budster and I cooked along, having a blast. August in Mass is hot and sticky, but not too bad in the woods. The deer flies are waning and the mosquitoes only get you if you slow down. In that great New England irony, by the end of August we’re used to it…then the bottom drops out with and exponentially rapid October descent into darkness and frost…that our heat acclimation makes all the more ‘refreshing’.
At around 1.5 miles we came upon my daughter running in the opposite direction. They had taken a wrong turn somewhere before they crested the ridge. Buddy decided this was an excellent opportunity to exchange running partners, not being thrilled with my hard pace on this hot day, preferring Teresa’s more leisurely approach. The nerve! Go ahead, abandon the alpha dog! Defeatist! Slacker!
I continued back up the ridge, figuring I’d loop around and catch them. The happy-in-shape-exercise chemicals were bathing my cerebrum in a warm cocoon of self satisfaction. I was flying and it felt great! I was going full tempo, breathing hard and slinging sweat. Coming down the ridge again, flying along, I planted my right foot and something went ‘click’. I didn’t step on a rock or a root or stumble, the ankle just rolled before I could catch it. In retrospect I had been spending most of my time at the track with the crew and not on the trails I usually haunt.
I didn’t fall down, but it really, really hurt and I was hopping around on one foot going “Ow! Ow!” like some comic character that has dropped the anvil on his toe. I think there might have been some stronger language used as well, but if an old guy curses in the forest, does it make any noise?
I’ve rolled my ankles dozens of times in runs and races. It’s never been a big deal. It happens. I waited for the pain to ebb and limped off down the trail to find the others. And where was that stupid dog when I needed him? Lassie wouldn’t have left Timmy alone in the woods with a hurt ankle!
After a couple minutes I could jog a little and went off to continue my search. Eventually I found them. “You guys took a wrong turn.”
“We just followed Teresa. What’s wrong with you?”
“I rolled my ankle, I’ll be ok.”
Looking down at the offending appendage, “It’s swollen; you’d better go home and put some ice on it.”
“Yeah, I’ll be ok; It’s just a rolled ankle.”
My first thoughts were predictable. It will ring familiar to all you old and scarred road warriors. “Darn, I was having such a great run.” And “Crap, I didn’t finish my workout and I’m going to be behind on my plan.” It never occurred to me that I might have hurt myself.
By the time we were in the truck and driving home it was really starting to swell and ache. I stopped and sent Teresa into the grocery store for some frozen peas. There is nothing better than frozen peas for an ice wrap. I could tell by now that I was going to need them!
I took a handful of “Vitamin I”, packed it in frozen produce and reclined on the couch to wait it out. When my wife came home we had the following discussion:
“Oh my God! Look at that! What have you done now? I’m taking you to the emergency room. C’mon let’s go.”
“I’m not going to the emergency room. I just rolled my ankle. It’ll be fine.”
“It’s not fine. It’s all swollen. You’d better have it looked at.”
“No, All they’ll do is tell me to take anti-inflammatories, put ice on it, stay off it and elevate it…Which is what I’m doing.”
“Look at it. It’s probably broken.”
“I’m not going to the emergency room at 9:00 on a Friday night in August. It’ll be a zoo. We’ll be there all night.”
“I don’t know. It looks bad. You should go.”
“I’m ok; if it’s worse in the morning we’ll go. It will probably be fine tomorrow.”
The next morning, with my foot the size of a football and purplish-green, My wife supported me as I hopped on one leg into the emergency room. The verdict was a bad sprain with an ‘evulsion’ where the ligament tore off a piece of bone. I hate it when she’s right.
I got some crutches that my daughter promptly confiscated to play with – jockeying laps around the house as I lay on the couch. I got a bottle of Vicodin that I didn’t use (make me an offer). I got a pretty green gel-splint to stabilize it and be my official totem of injury for a couple weeks.
I discovered over the next month that when traveling through airports you can meet interesting people by wearing open sandals with your business suit. It also makes security a breeze. I made many new friends.
But, alas, I had to go through the injury cycle of letting go. Letting my fall races go. Letting my conditioning go. Giving ground tenaciously, but giving ground nonetheless. With each failed and painful effort at running and each ice pack the weeks stretched until I let it all go and resigned myself to the sport of focused overeating and self pity!
I did one session of physical therapy. I don’t like physical therapy. I’ll take the one meeting to get the diagnosis and recommended exercise and stretching routine, but once I’ve sucked them dry of their clinical knowledge I can do the rest myself.
The guy I got was great. He knew his stuff and understood my need to rehab myself. He scared me a little when he squirted a big glob of lube into his hands and came at me. I did not get ‘the happy ending’, but I can honestly say I did get the best ankle massage I’ve ever had.
He taught me something as well. When you stretch out those ankle ligaments it really screws up your balance. (I had been wondering why I was walking into more walls than usual.) It’s not so much a question of pain – it’s that the control system that I’ve been using for 44 years every time I plant my right foot is now calibrated differently. I’ve got to re-program all the wiring from the ankle to the brain. Old dogs must re-learn old tricks or fall down.
I believe in happy endings. I’m not there yet, I’m actually just starting, like a baby taking their first smiling, tentative stumbles. It’s strangely refreshing to shuck the conditioning mind set and molt into a recovery psyche. It reminds you of all the gifts that you have been given.
Tomorrow will be 3 months and the fall season has been erased. I’ve found 10 pounds and lost my base. I ran a 5k with Teresa (and that dog) Sunday, (giving me 3.1 miles for the week!) I was muscle-sore on Monday! But the ankle is ok.
Here’s the happy ending…
I was out in Phoenix this week. The guys said “Join us for a hike up Camelback in the morning.”
Somewhere my orthopedic surgeon is shaking his head and cringing while the physical therapist is wringing his hands and “tsk tsking”.
Of course, I said “Great!”
What a glorious morning in Phoenix with the sun just up and the cool dry air. We attacked that red rocky slope. Hey, hadn’t the therapist told me I needed to exercise the ankle? Help the tendon re-learn? Surely this would be excellent ankle exercise.
No I didn’t end up in the hospital. (although reports said someone had fallen off the previous week and died) We had a great hike and my legs and joints felt super. Just as I had given up on this thing ever healing enough for me to run comfortably it surprises me by feeling better. Isn’t that the way it always works? Just when you let go – the gift is given?
Ironically I guess I have just about the right amount of time to go from a zero base to Boston in April! See how the gifts keep coming? Who’s with me?
What do you take for granted? Are there times when you’re out on the road, fighting gravity, felling miserable and thinking “this just sucks”? When that happens, I counsel you to do what I do; relax and let it go. It may be drizzly and cold and you may feel like crap, but you’re out running! You’re living and enjoying a great gift and you should glory in that. Even if you have to stop every once in a while and take a breath, each wobbly footfall is a gift to you. And that, as I tell the kids, is good.
See you out there!