I freely confess to a first-world aging problem.
I am blessed with exceedingly good health and excellent stamina. Although I am no Michael Jordan in athletic skill, I have always been active and at least competent in the recreational pursuits I love, such as running, cycling, hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing.
Everyone I know with an active lifestyle has had injuries; especially those of us who push boundaries. I run trail ultra-marathons ranging from 50 kilometers to 100 miles. Races are often in remote terrain, with difficult footing, steep ascents and descents, uncertain weather, and sometimes, dangerous drop-offs and other hazards. Last year, a friend broke her leg while running a race in Utah’s isolated Tushar Mountains. During an intense thunderstorm, a boulder careened down the slope and into her leg. She was miles from the nearest aid station, with no shelter and only scant running attire in the cold, pouring rain. Hypothermia and shock lurked. One friend gave her all of his extra clothing and ran for help, while another (an OR nurse) set the broken leg in the field. Happy ending, but one of the heroes lamented later that they all could have died had the rescue not gone well.
Given those hazards, not to mention the pain, I suspect ultra-running is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But so be it. As addictions go, in spite of the injury risk, it’s healthier than many others!
In the past, though, I have bounced back quickly from injuries. After my first meniscus surgery, in my late ‘40s, I was on the stationary bike within two days and running in a little more than a week. The second time, in my mid-‘50’s, my recovery took a week or so longer. Other injuries were similarly short in duration.
So what is my problem?
My most recent and potentially most serious injury is a torn tendon in my foot. It came after I ran an awesome mountain marathon in New Zealand (you see how “first world” my problem is?) and returned to running on late winter ice in Utah. The race fit the pattern of mixed risk and reward. After a punishing ascent from a raging river to slopes overlooking a spectacular gorge surrounded by stunning peaks, we ran for six rainy miles on a narrow trail along a several hundred-foot cliff. Then, the “trail” got worse, and sometimes disappeared entirely as we ran on tussocks, scree, and other delightful terrain. Which explains what happened to my foot.
Serious foot injuries can take a long time to heal, and my recovery time is getting longer as I age. Our feet are also difficult to “rest” unless one becomes a couch potato, or uses crutches or one of those awful “moon-boots.” Not happening.
It took me a while to come to grips with this injury. It wasn’t the physical pain. It was the shocking emotional realization that this could end my trail running career. But so what? I can still hike, bicycle, and do other fun things outdoors with friends and family. Was I just guilty of self-indulgence, or even self-pity?
What dawned on me is just how important trail running is to my self-identity. It isn’t just a hobby; it’s a lifestyle, shared by a close-knit and mutually supportive community. Indeed, most of my closest friendships are with my trail running companions. We spend many, many hours together out on the trails, training for races, exploring new places (read, getting lost), debating politics, and sharing aspects of our personal lives from the mundane to the intense. Sure, I could spend time with those friends in other ways, but it wouldn’t be the same. Intellectually, I understand that this will end at some point. Emotionally, I struggle with the possibility that it might end sooner than I thought. What if I can never run another ultra? What if my friends keep heading out into the hills without me?
But despite the frustration of my current injury and the accompanying uncertainty, there has been a silver lining. Physical and emotional health are two inseparable, equally important parts of an integrated whole, and this injury taught me two important lessons about emotional health.
The first lesson was about perspective. As I sat in the waiting room for an MRI, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. After all, I had to cancel three trail races I was looking forward to running with good friends. Then, I heard another patient talking anxiously about when to time his neurology appointment following the MRI, clearly for a much more frightening ailment. Wow. Who was I to feel sorry for myself? I will get better and run another day.
The second lesson was about adaptation. Shortly before I developed this injury, my trainer suggested playfully that my next challenge should be a triathlon involving an open water swim, a mountain bike segment, and a trail run. I do cross-train on a road bike, but I never took to mountain biking. (For me, trails are for running and hiking; roads are for cycling). And swimming? I haven’t done that seriously since I earned my junior lifesaving status at the ripe old age of 13. I told our trainer I would probably drown, which would seriously extend my times in the second and third events!
My foot injury, though, ironically gave me renewed motivation to expand my exercise regimen. I adapted in ways that have helped me stay in shape, and probably to become healthier because diverse exercise works different parts of mind and body. I faced my fear of swimming and have been slowly but steadily improving in the pool. I cross-trained on my road bike. I refurbished my old mountain bike, and will give that a try. I used our rowing machine to work on my core and upper body strength.
I’m now able to manage some relatively short and easy runs again. The triathlon? Well, we’ll see.
Bob Adler is a law professor who is currently serving as dean at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law. He teaches and writes books and articles about environmental law and water law, and his personal love of wild places mirrors his professional interests. He shares that passion with his wife of 35 years, Michele Straube (a retired environmental mediator and facilitator), and their two adult children Woody (a musician and music teacher in Seattle) and Sierra (a Masters of Science Communication candidate in New Zealand). Together, their outdoor spirit has taken them on adventures in wild places all over the world, from the Appalachians to the Rockies as well as Alaska and Hawaii in the United States; and internationally to the Alps, Africa, the Himalayas, the Andes, assorted Pacific islands, and most recently New Zealand. They recognize that they are still missing two of the “A” continents (Australia and Antarctica)!
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