I like to think my brain screamed a warning as the pine-needle strewn trail raced towards my face. But I think in honesty, it was more of a bewildered musing; a confused wondering. What happened to the shafts of sunlight dancing through the trees? The trail winding before me? Why is the Earth rushing up at me?
Usually when I fall running trails — not that I’m prone to it per-say, but, it happens — there is a moment of realization. A tiny pocket of time just long enough for a flickering recognition. To become aware of being off balance, so that if — or when — you fail to recover, it triggers hands to raise, eyes to search safe landing, and body to respond as the ground rises to catch you. Then you pop up and keep moving.
This was not one of those moments. It was something else… a split second of wondering attention, a careless step, a hidden root. And in that blink I was jolted from running joyfully to the startled discovery that the forest floor was streaking towards me. How I got my hands out in front of me, I’m not sure. But it didn’t much help…
It was my knee that made first contact, the sole absorber of my weight on impact. Connecting directly with an unnoticed rock, a seemingly insignificant occupant of the pristine trail.
It exploded from my knee. Or rather, my knee was the epicenter. “Explosion” insinuates an instant, violent intensity; overwhelming, but short lived. After which the dust settles and you’re left to deal with the aftermath. This, this was more like a tsunami. A wave of pain sudden and massive, crashed over me, and continued to charge miles inland.
I rolled to a stop in the brush on the side of the trail, and sat up clenching my leg where the stabbing and searing rolled from. I looked down. Grinning back, widely, wildly, from the jagged tear in my right knee, packed with dirt and debris, was white. Just. White.
My brain scrambled, desperately seeking explanation. As though that might quelch the pain and quiet the alarm. What is that? The tempo of the thudding in my chest ratchet up. Tendon? ThumpThump! Bone? Thumpthumpthump! Knee cap? My heart was a jackhammer, threatening to crack through my rib cage and escape amongst the golden leaves. My breath came in gasps. Too quick. Too shallow. Knuckles white, I clenched my leg. Squeezing my eyes shut. Undo it, undo it, undo it, undo it.
“Emily,” Jeremy’s voice coaxed, his hands pressed down, applying pressure behind the buff he’d pulled from his wrist.
I couldn’t feel it.
I can’t breath. Was that my kneecap? I can’t breath. Was that my—
“Emily,” he repeated, cutting through my spiraling thoughts, “I need you to put pressure here.” My hands replaced his. I dragged in tiny, raspy sips if air as tears broke over the wall and began to slide down my cheeks.
Tying together two more buffs, Jeremy fashioned a tourniquet, cinching it tightly over the wound.
“I know,” he soothed as I squeezed my eyes shut, a moan slipping involuntarily past my lips.
“Emily,” his voice was firm now. I opened my eyes. He held my gaze, clear and calm, but flecked with concern he couldn’t quite hide, “You have to pull it together. We have to keep moving before you stiffen up too much. We have to get to the next road crossing. I’ll help you. But we have to keep moving.”
I’d like to say that I shook it off after a few staggered steps. That I dried my eyes, buckled down, and kept going. That on that beautiful October day, crisp and cool under perfect sunny skies, I finally captured my white whale, the elusive 50K.
I’d be lying.
Instead I allowed myself to be hauled up from the dirt and brushed free of leaves. Then I began to shuffle. Gritting my teeth. Leaning heavily on the tree branches Jeremy’d hunted down. Chiding myself for deciding to leave my poles at home that day. Letting tears stream down my cheeks until they wove trails as well worn as the one I hobbled along. Feeling sorry for myself. Feeling angry at myself. Muttering lies to myself. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine.
Jeremy’s search for higher ground paid off as he found enough service to get a call out for friends to meet us at the next trail head… 1.7 miles away.
The only choice? Keep moving.
I was not fine. My knee hurt. My head hurt. My hands and arms were beginning to ache from gripping my makeshift poles. The same sun shown, but I shivered. My sweaty t-shirt clinging, a cold reminder of the pace I had been moving for the previous 10 miles. The few ascents were slow and arduous. Shuffle step, shuffle step, glance ahead. Shuffle step, shuffle step, don’t look again because you don’t seem to be making any ground. The descents hurt more, and they where endless. Attempting to move down hill without bending my knee or putting pressure on my leg required some creative gait play; overcompensation I knew I’d pay for later.
Slowly, I kept moving.
We met two women, through-hiking the AT, who offered to help clean the wound, but fearing what I’d see if we removed the bandage and longing to leave this day behind, I attempted a smile, thanked them, and continued on. We passed others, runners and hikers alike, who took no notice of my bandage, “walking sticks”, or hobbling snails pace. Amidst of the forests of Vermont, without the trappings of modern conveniences and digital vices, we can still become completely absorbed in our own world and oblivious to the one we share with those around us.
And though I kept moving, I began withdrawing inside of myself, too.
What choice is there, but to grind it out? I channeled my inner yogi, focusing on breath. I heard my Muay Thai coach pushing me to dig deeper. I drew on the familiar feelings of physical and mental exhaustion experienced in the long mountain runs and trail races I’ve done. I tried to listen to Jeremy’s encouragement, willing it to pull me along.
But moving slowly, in a fragile state, it’s hard not to give in to thinking. To sinking under the crushing weight of disappointment… another year falling short of my goal, another injury forcing a solid running season to a screeching halt. And I found, bubbling to the surface, other disappointments. The ones I’d tried so hard to neatly box up and carefully tuck away.
As I made my way along the trail, the grief of my recent miscarriage, my first pregnancy, return. I’d been struggling, more than I care to admit, with finding a way to cope with this loss. And running? Running had been my solace. The mountains, the forest, the quiet calm, the bird songs, the smells of the changing season… this is how I was beginning to find peace. Now what would I do?
Finally, nearly two hours after the fall, we emerged into a sun soaked field where the Appalachian Trail winds down to cross Vermont Route 12 before continuing north. A light breeze bent the grass, carrying on it the sound of farm work and an occasional car.
I’d like to say I left the hurt and the sorrow, the disappointment, there at the edge of the meadow, or that I had shed it somewhere amidst the crisp autumn leaves along the side of the trail.
I did not.
I’m working to tame it, though. To allow it to exist, but not overwhelm. I’m working on letting go of the things I can not control, moving toward peace, choosing happiness, and appreciating the love in my life. I’m working on looking ahead with bright eyes and an open heart.
And so, slowly, I keep moving forward.