Green on Green
Contemplating injuries in the North East Kingdom.
Posted Friday, 18 June, 2004
The sun warms like a heat lamp on my neck and shoulders, silhouetting my frame in shadow across the picnic table. A dry breeze comes and goes, like the trucks passing in the highway behind me, turning the maple leaves over and exposing their silvery bottoms.
The panorama that unfolds before me is a slice of what is known as the ‘North East Kingdom’. It looks as quasi-spiritual and Tolkien-esque as it sounds. Deep green on green. So alive with trees that the whole view seems like some giant sleeping green animal stretched out to the horizon. You can almost see the land breathing.
The broad shoulders of the Green Mountains amble away into the distance towards New Hampshire. Farms form rectangle strips of lighter green like Band-Aids on the hills. White houses speckle the landscape here and there like squared lifeboats in a frozen green seascape.
There is only the sound of bird song and the wind ruffled leaves.
Vermont is a beautiful place in the early summer. It is amazing how a place so bleak in February can be so alive in June.
Down there among the trees are wondrous, hidden jewels of places to run, but I’ll not pluck those jewels today. I won’t run today. I won’t run tomorrow. My knee is far too tender to take my weight. Maybe on Thursday I’ll give it a test. With any luck I can slowly start up again by the end of the week, but I’ve learned the hard way, more than once, that it is better not to rush these things. Injuries demand respect if not fealty.
If you’re a mid-packer with any experience you know how these things usually happen. You get too cocky, you try to do too much too fast and your body says “Sorry dude, time to take some time off”. The body does not negotiate or listen to reason.
This time it was not the normal, expected fit of runners’ hubris that cut me down. It wasn’t a contemptuous lack of stretching. It wasn’t a taking-for-granted skip of the warm up for old tendons. It wasn’t too much too fast. Although, knowing myself, it could have been any of those things.
This time, ironically enough, it was a mosquito that stopped me in my tracks.
A mosquito – a distracted swat – a momentary lapse of attention – a telephone pole all-of-a-sudden, unavoidably right there in front of my truck – an air bag exploding – blood gushing from my nose – and when the adrenaline had drained, an ache in my knee from slamming the dashboard at 25 mph.
The random nature of this injury does not exempt me from the predetermined injury cycle. The cycle is well known to those of you who have lived it. Injuries are as much psychological as physical.
First there is the ‘denial’ phase, where you try to pretend you’re not really hurt. You’ll miss a couple days of training but you won’t have to compromise your goals or let go of that race you have scheduled, right?
Then there is the anger. “Why did this have to happen to me now?!”
Then there is the sense of loss and grieving. (This may be punctuated by depression and over eating!)
Finally there is acceptance and, if everything works out, rebirth.
Ironically even those of us who have surfed this cycle many times are fated to go through it each time again, like Prometheus and his tortures.
The sun at 4:00 PM on my shoulders is not even close to setting. In the North East Kingdom Helios has another five or six hours to ride this time of year, and he gets up early too.
A thin haze rises from the valleys, softening the view. The smell of dairy farms is everywhere for a hundred miles in every direction. It is a sweet/sour smell that makes me think more of the fecundity of this land than of cows.
Down among the sultry foliage I can see, in my minds eye, beautiful dirt roads waiting to be run. There are canopied lanes with dappled sunlight playing shadows on ancient trunks as I pass by, breathing deep and smiling. Hidden there, I know, are turn-of-the-century covered bridges that will echo my footfalls with a hollow ‘thunk-thunk’ over clear, cold rivers.
There will be no run today. For today I’m in the final phase of my injury; acceptance and anticipation.
Two weeks ago before the telephone pole so rudely leapt in front of me, I was on the track spinning out fast long workouts. Pushing hard twice a week, I was feeling strong and fast, (for me).
I’ve seen the pattern before. If it wasn’t the telephone pole it would have soon been a protesting tendon, crying ‘uncle’ from the abuse. I was probably already on that track of hubris that leads only to one place, to the inevitable wake up call of the injury.
Injuries aren’t necessarily bad. They reveal your weakness and limits. They tell you when it’s time to slow down.
Like so many of you mid-pack career runners, I’m an old pro at being injured. I’m getting better at it. I only tried to run through this one once before I settled in to the inevitable time off.
That’s denial for you. Denial makes it seem more logical to hop on one leg for five miles than to take a couple days off. In the process you take a one week injury and tweak it into a three week injury by running on it. Why are we so stupid and pig headed? What would make me think I could run on a knee that had a weak spot like a gear missing some teeth and somehow, miraculously, it would just be ok?
As I sit and contemplate this beautiful Vermont pastoral afternoon, I think I know why we do it. We have to try because we are overwhelmed by fear of the loss. How far a mental journey is it to that dark corner of your mind where some small voice asks; “What if this is it? What if I’ll never run again?” That’s scarier than all the stories Stephen King wrote over on the other side of those mountains.
For me, sitting here, I feel the tangible loss of those peaceful lanes I imagine hidden, meandering amongst the old growth below. I have remorse for them today.
Even the short term loss of habit is hard. You miss that daily work out. I’m sure there is a physiological impact of missing those happy running chemicals that usually bathe your cerebrum. You miss it all, like the loss of a close friend and you grieve.
Then there is a flicker of light from those dark corners of misery. A recollection of injuries past that laid you low for months and years but always resulted in rebirth. Each time progressing from the slow early totterings you emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of your injured body with a greater appreciation of what is really important.
Maybe not the first month, maybe not the second, but at some point you’ll be raising your hands in joyous triumph at the wonders that your legs and lungs can perform once again.
Think of people with real challenges, like Denny Chipolini who lost his leg and fought his way back. He is now one of the happiest runners around and using his experience to inspire others. That puts a banged up knee in perspective.
Whatever your injury, you can use it for a recalibration of your soul. Use it to figure out just what is important to you in all this? We mid-packers may never get the trophies, but the act of running rewards us everyday, and we should savor that.
My advice is to savor these gifts every day, and when you do get injured, whether through hubris or happenstance, ride out the waves and focus on the inevitable rebirth that is your unique opportunity as a runner.
Maybe next week I’ll stop by here and run blissfully along those hidden lanes. If not next week, then maybe the week after, or maybe next month…que sara sara.