When to say Uncle
The small donkey was tough, and a strong climber. My guide Kenaw, a 32-year-old Ethiopian man, the donkey’s owner, and I made our slow way to the top of the local mountain where a 12th-century Coptic monastery stood, carved out of stone under the direction of King Lalibela. I had dismounted for a 100-meter stretch of very steep, very sharp rocks. We’d have to negotiate that on the way down, I noted. My hiking poles were in storage back in Addis.
Shit. Oh well.
After the tour, the views (we were at 11.3k feet), the pleasantries we shared with the tribes we passed and those selling souvenirs on the steps, we made our slow way back down. I already had one bad knee from two accidents this past summer and fall, and my brace was doing a fair job of stabilizing. I stepped carefully, the steep slope and very sharp rocks making for slow going.
Just as Kenaw turned to say that he was pleased that I was doing so well, my left knee cranked suddenly. I pitched ass over teakettle, headfirst into the sharp rocks. I slammed my right knee smack into a very sharp high point, then crashed my left shoulder and my left palm.
Be hard to express how much that hurt. I watched the blood rise through the big tear in my zip-off pants and waited for the pain to subside. It didn’t. I had a deep gouge in my knee. The swelling was impressive. We still had a long way down. I forced my leg to move to check for breaks. None. Just plenty of other damage.
In three days I’d be starting a challenging eight-day horse ride through Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains.
One thing I’ve learned about injuries like this: you move. Unless it’s broken, stiffness will render my limb immobile unless I keep moving. So I got up and kept going until I had the confidence that my knee would at least work. Then I rode the rest of the way down.
The local clinic, such as it was (Ethiopia has one doctor for about every ten thousand people, so do the math), took an x-ray and sent me on my way. I had kinesio tape, had packed a second brace (prescient to be sure) and that was that. You pays your money, you takes your chances.
That was right around Thanksgiving. Two days ago I took a hike up a volcano to see the Danakil Depression, which was a challenging hour and a half in the dark over looping and sweeping lava. I made it, with my hiking poles. Then, the same thing down, but at the end of a 17-hour day, with two hours of sleep to bolster me, I was dead on my feet. I made it. Barely. Let’s just say that when the local tribespeople laid out a long fat mattress on the black lava flows with my thin blanket and water supply to sleep outside under the stars (Heaven by any other definition) if a hyena came by to inspect my carcass, I had no idea. Apparently I stank badly enough to be left alone.
But here’s the thing.
I recently committed to climbing Kilimanjaro for a charity in February. As much as I know that most of the climb is mental, and I have done it before, there is a point past which the body can’t be pushed. The first time I had seven months to train, and I took that very seriously. This time I was willing to chance it even though I had barely a month.
Given the shape my knees were in when I got down from the volcano hike last night, I am at least two or three months of PT away from even starting a serious training program. So it was with real sadness that I had to put myself on Injured Reserve until the next charity climb.
This isn’t an issue of age. It is far more so a recognition that any very serious athletic undertaking - whether it’s Kili or Everest or your local Tough Mudder - has to be treated with the respect it deserves. As does your body. While I am built for endurance, and fare far better than most when it comes to long hikes and demanding programs, I also put in the preparatory work to be able to best ensure not only a finish, but one in which I can go on to other things right away without time in the local hospital in recovery.
Increasingly as a nation we are pushing ourselves harder and harder, to prove….what? An intelligent Medium article from last August spoke to the hordes of middle-aged folks entering endurance sports. While Paul Flannery, the author, gets deeply fed through his running habit, what troubles me about the trend is its extremity. It seems to me that the compulsion to push harder and harder is fear-based, rather than simply being intrigued by a goal and working towards it.
Combined with the increasing trend for folks to take on feats for which they are woefully unprepared (this year’s Everest debacle) and those who sign up for adventures for which they are not skilled enough to accomplish and then become liabilities for others who are (my Canadian wilderness horse trip this past summer), what troubles me is that we don’t seem to understand when enough is enough. When it’s time to back off and take a fucking rest already.
There is no question that with time and PT, and some dedicated pool lap running, my knees will recover. I had no problem on my epic Bale Mountain ride, and the hikes that we had to complete were challenging. My riding partners allowed me the extra bit of time it took for me to get up or down the mountain. That’s what professionals do. If someone is slightly gimpy, nobody bitches and whines if it takes them a touch longer. That’s the difference between experienced folks and rank rookies. My group all had their times in the barrel, from Montezuma’s revenge to various other complaints. I had a full-blown urinary tract infection which my riding partners helped me laugh off even as I had to deposit three drops at a time all day long like a territorial dog. We all just made space for them or swapped meds or did what it took to ensure that folks recovered quickly.
Pros. My god how I love to ride with pros.
Rookies push past their endurance. Rookies worry too much about how they look and whether or not they can get the ‘gram photo or bragging rights. Pros understand that the body has seasons. It’s a right remarkable piece of work, the body, and when treated with love and respect will give back beyond our wildest expectations.
True athletes treat their bodies with the utmost regard. They learn their limits, how to listen to the body’s moods and idiosyncrasies, and take the time to heal when necessary. Rest - deep, adequate rest - is an essential part of training. I’ve learned a long time ago that when I have a serious injury (which in this case includes a broken back, smashed pelvis and multiple bone breaks) that the therapeutic time given to rest, yoga, pool time and concentrating on stretching pays off in spades. I often end up stronger and more flexible than before. Again, age isn’t necessarily the issue. Whether or not I listen to the body is the issue, and respect what it’s communicating. Our bodies are exceptionally eloquent in this regard.
I have had to let go of my BHAG (Big Hairy Ass Goal) for 2020, and regroup. I am still heading to Africa to ride and scuba dive. But no Kilimanjaro. That’s not a loss. If anything it’s a reminder that the mountain will still be there when my knees are better. Or, I’ll point myself somewhere else I haven’t been. Either way, learning to say Uncle, sit myself down and take a break are essential elements to staying in the game for the long run. Extreme athleticism, for my money, is a recipe for disaster.
Top athletes suffer far more than you and I may realize. This article speaks to that fact, how we revere those who sacrifice themselves on the Hall of Fame altar. I can’t speak to what drives those of us weenies who will never see a podium, but nobody is handing out hero buttons for your shattered knees, ankles, your torn tendons, your agonizing rehab. Nobody gives a shit, frankly. That’s a harsh truth to realize when so many of us are pushing ourselves even harder to prove….what? That we aren’t forty or fifty or sixty? That yes, we can grit our teeth and finish the race with a compound fracture?
I’ll be 67 in January. This was a tough year on my knees. Time to back off, do sports that move me but don’t further injure, and give my body the love it deserves. I have a horse ride in Siberia in late summer, a house to sell and a new place to find in the meantime. Plenty of time, and life, to rehab, retrain, rebuild and come back and climb another day.