I feel like one of those space ships in a movie that comes flying through the atmosphere, a burning ball of light with a comet tail streaming out behind it, colliding with the earth and leaving a twenty foot deep ditch behind me as I skid to a halt five feet down the trail. Fear grabs me as images of broken bones flash through my mind, ivory points piercing through my skin and I lay shaking on the ground, afraid to move for fear of what I will see. That should teach me to pinch-off a side ache while trail running.
Kyle and I had set off to find a trail to run that morning, letting the iPhone guide us, which was a foolish choice. She is better with roads. Give her a direction like “riverside trail” or “trail running in Roanoke, VA” and you end up with directions that take you fifty miles away. Finally, after an exhaustive internet search in the parking lot of a Bojangles, we discovered Mill Mountain Park and we headed off in that direction. But we began to feel uneasy when we were nearing our destination and signs began popping up stating: “No Thru-traffic” and “Dead End”. Reassuringly, there were some signs indicating trailheads. When we finally reached the dead end that had been promised and basically ended up in some very rich persons front yard we decided to head back to the trail heads and go from there. Leaving our new/old Subaru at the trailhead and hoping it would be there when we got back we started off down a pink blazed trail.
It felt so good to be back on a trail, all six inches wide of it. The thing about running on a trail in Virginia, even if it isn’t the AT, is that it transports you. The forest is obviously the same, tall deciduous trees with crowns of green fluttering far above us. The ground is carpeted in dead leaves, muffling the noise of our worn out trail runners flapping on the ground. Despite the fact that spring and summer have come and gone and the colors haven’t quite changed yet and there is no undergrowth beneath the dense jade canopy. On these mountains the forest always seems clean and uncluttered, open and spacious. You can see for feet and feet. Not like the mid-Atlantic states where the brush is closing in on you, strangling you at every turn, walling you onto the trail and separating you from the rest of the woods.
The trail welcomed us back to the south with smooth sailing, gradual climbs and switch backs, leading up to a blue blazed ridge trail. Winding along through trees, past fences and over roads, we ran comfortably breathing the cool air. A stupid grin was plastered on my face. Until, on our way back down, I got a side ache. My hand immediately went to my side, attempting to pinch off the pain, bending slightly at the hips, trying to keep moving forward. Move forward I did as my distracted foot tripped on a root and I felt myself loosing control. My hands immediately went down to try and keep me up right, attempting to make it just a stumble fall, pushing my force skyward… but when my hands realized they weren’t going to succeed they tucked back up under my body, putting my best shoulder forward, into the loose rock littering the trail.
The knee on my offending leg curled up underneath me, dragging through the rubble and dirt, trying to protect my chest and my soft underbelly. Mud and rocks sprayed up around me as my shoulder acted like a ship breaking through ice in the arctic, like a bulldozer in a gravel pile, like a plow on an unfavorable farm. When my momentum from tripping down a hill while sprinting finally ran out the world hung in the balance for a split second. It was like everything paused while my body unconsciously assessed all of its parts, reminding my heart to keep beating and the lungs to breath. Breath. Suck in breath. Rattle it in, gasp it in, sob. Immediately life snapped back into movement, and I was shaking. Kyle was bent over, checking my extremities and picking rocks out of my shoulder. I glimpsed down to see deep gashes and dirt caked on the left side of my body like I had just gotten out of a mud bath. But it was my leg that I was worried about.
For a recent thru-hiker my biggest fear is being stagnant, immobile, stuck. I am used to moving, my body taking me places, transporting me for miles and miles. Nearing the end of our hike my fear of falling and breaking was even worse because I wanted to remain active after the hike. What if this was the end, would I be spending days on a couch, limping around and getting weak? I stared down at my knee, feeling pain but unable to tell if it was surface pain or something deeper. My whole leg was shaking and I suddenly felt so protective of it. This was my leg, it was such an important part of my body! Take my arm, but please, leave me my leg!
I limped back down the trail, leg shaking and twinging with every step, covered in blood and soil, feeling punished and thankful all at the same time.