Tuesday, August 14
Into the Sun
Some weeks ago we'd found this race. "The toughest course in the Pacific Northwest," we were told. I wasn't sure I'd be in competitive shape; she wasn't sure about the combined distance and vertical. Still wanting an excuse to play, we volunteered our aid station prowess, figuring we'd run some miles the day after; with a six-thousand foot climb in the first nine or ten miles, it'd offer a good fitness check for upcoming fall races. Of course, then I went and broke myself.
A few days after our enchanted adventure, the thirty-thousand feet of vertical gain that week tempted me into thinking I was ready for anything. The loop beckoned: me, these legs vs the mountain trails I know best. I'd this idea that fast I'd run, faster than ever I'd run, faster maybe than any before me: these are the trails I know best, think of most, call my own when no one's around to correct me otherwise. Being more mountain goat than man, stronger and tougher than others of our constitution, I'd a particular connection to these particular high places. So I ran - and I ran hard. Lightheaded and yet lighter afoot I ran; breath gasped hard and fast and how these legs ached with a fire that raged on into the sky. Into the heavens I ascended; five thousand feet gained in the first eight or nine miles and views for miles and miles and miles, all the peaks out before. Glacier Peak was an island unto herself, and so was I atop this sea of rocks.
I'd climbed into the sun in less than two hours and already knew (barring injury) a personal best was almost assured. By the time I reached the last of the enchanted lakes I knew a record was within reach. By the last of the lakes, the record was guaranteed, the only question remaining 'by how much?' Into the last switchbacking descent I flew, faster and faster and faster, more and more of this speed in the hands of gravity and gravity alone. One last switchback... and I found myself sprawled across the ground. Too wide I'd taken the corner, too fast, too little controlled; through the air I'd hurtled, onto my knee, my elbow, my wrist. Hobbled I the last hundred and fifty meters to the bridge, to the watch's stop, to the record: I'd my time, and plenty of blood to show for it too.
That was near two weeks ago now; I haven't run since. Ice and ibuprofen and a leg propped up on the couch have been my constants, all these strangely empty hours. Six-to-eight weeks seems to be the most common timetable, and that just to running again on smooth flats. Fall races for which I'd trained and planned are out; a twelve-hour race isn't realistic when I'd be ahead of schedule were I able to run a (pain-free) flat twelve-miler by then. I'm cranky, she says, without those miles to center me. Yes, yes I am. I need to run, and right now I can't. Some things don't change.
But: aid station volunteering. I needed to see the sun, needed fresh mountain air. It'd hurt, I knew, but my mountain craving? I needed the fix more. Three miles we hiked in, near enough seven hours of aid offering, followed by the hike back out. Views for miles - craggy ridgelines, wooded slopes, a creek rushing easily a thousand feet below. "Misery loves company," he told us, "and my misery's all alone." Were my knee not buckling intermittently simply hobbling around the aid station, I'd have offered to join him then and there; it was envy I felt, not sympathy. A bit of perspective, though: other volunteers brought three children (dust bunnies their chasing companions the whole day through) and their bulldog, Charlie; of us all, Charlie the best sense, rousing himself for food or the occasional distraction, but otherwise enjoying bits of shade and the sweet summer breeze, a day spent perfectly relaxed, lounging. I may yet learn such easy satisfaction - and to ignore this sadly twinging knee.
It's true, there's never a good time for an injury. While early summer would still probably have been worse - I'd not have had any true alpine play time this year, were that so - it's only in the last few weeks that the highest trails have completely opened. The longest, hardest runs I'd planned for this summer were all planned for August and September. Add in that we're in the little of moving - tangentially, do you have any idea how impossible packing and moving boxes is with one good leg, one bad leg, and a pissed-off lower back is? - and I'm quite certain this is the worst possible time for an injury. I've been sorely tempted to just spend the day on the couch with a bottle of whiskey on more than one occasion, is what I'm saying.
Some things don't change: I'll probably always prefer to push the pace than enjoy the view; I'll likely never be much good at moderation or restraint; I'll probably always need to run. But other things do change. This might be the first injury I ever successfully let heal before running on it, the first injury I don't make worse by trying to come back too soon. This is almost certainly the first injury that hasn't led to a marked increase in alcohol consumption, or to a dramatic decrease in the quality of my diet, or to terrible insomnia... or any of the other checkboxes, the ways I usually fall apart when I can't run. I've extra time, sure, but I'm filling the hours with packing and icing and reading, and with two weeks down, I can only hope there's only four to six weeks ahead. My knee's already buckling less when walking, so there are some signs of progress, even if the last few days of packing and moving have been a bit of a setback.
We'll run that toughest course next year, probably... and if we don't, I bet our feet'll still find a way to learn those trails. We've big plans and bigger ambitions, and this summer isn't our only. I'll heal; she'll continue getting stronger. This isn't the life I ever imagined when I was younger - and for that, I'm grateful. Even without the running, it's so much better. And it only keeps getting better. "I am... the most contented I have ever been," a friend wrote. "Does it just keep getting better or do we all age into plateaus?" The sky's the limit, I think, and as much as I like being in high places, it's the climbing I love most.
(I'm pretty sure I can take a few more minutes off that record next summer, besides.)
Life is good, is what I'm saying. Hope it's the same for you.