An Unfortunate Fall
By Kathy Vaughan
Ras and I haven’t been in a good place for a while. We relocated a year ago from a quiet, peaceful existence in the Okanogan Highlands of north central Washington, to the busy hustle and bustle of Whidbey Island. A few days after our arrival, we began working for a yard maintenance business. After a few months’ work, we took off for our record breaking yo-yo thru-hike of the 800 mile Arizona National Scenic Trail. We returned from the exhausting and fulfilling 1,600 mile thru-hike, and began working for the yard service again just a couple of days later. We have continued our weekend ultra adventuring, peak bagging, and trail exploring lifestyle. There are factors that have made our life in these circumstances challenging and frustrating. But through it all, we have stayed on each other’s team and tried to remain positive.
Last week, we had to have our 15 year old Australian Shepherd put down. He had grown up with our 23 year old daughter Angela, keeping her safe and giving her lots of company as she grew up as an only child. It was heart wrenching to say goodbye to him. I had spent countless hours with him on the trails, cozied up at my feet by the woodstove or out in the yard, where he would lay nearby as I did chores. On Whidbey Island, he spent most of his time in the backyard with his sister Puzzle and our cats Dodger and Peabody, while Ras and I spent our days away pulling weeds. It had been so hard to leave him behind each day, especially as he got weaker and more elderly. Most days, Ras and I walked he and Puzzle ½ mile through the neighborhood after we got home from work. Then we would make a bed for him to come lie inside near us for the night. This change of having to be away from Jesse as he aged was very challenging for me.
Ras and I were able to take the day off to take him to the vet to be put down. We snuggled with him and whispered sweet things to him as he died on the table in the clinic. We spent some time with him there, until finally covering him and then leaving the body behind. His soul will stay with us forever. We drove to the beach to sip lattes and process this sad time. We tried to make sense of how we’ve gotten to this point; this hard in-between space of heavy-heartedness, stifled creativity and dreams just out of reach. We talked about how we must keep making forward progress and create the reality for ourselves that we so desire.
To celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary and take advantage of a long Thanksgiving weekend, Ras and I intended on getting out for an adventure. The weather was not cooperating though, and so we settled on a 25 miler on our nearby state park trails. We ran quietly together all day long, enjoying being out but having so much to process. My mother has fallen ill this fall too, having been diagnosed with bone marrow disease. She is on a chemo therapy regimen. Our daughter is away in Madagascar, serving two years in the Peace Corps. I am so proud of her. I do miss her though, and it will be many months before I see her again.
And just when I thought I could shake off these challenging, yet universal life woes, I was surprised by an unfortunate fall during a most wonderful night time run. The pain came suddenly, taking over my ankle as I made contact with the tree root. I crumpled to the ground. It was wet, but soft and I writhed around a bit, trying to understand what had just happened. I was concerned I had really injured my ankle, but Ras was there, comforting me and convincing me that there was no need to panic. I could not see immediate swelling happening. I was hesitant to put any weight on it by standing up. I tried to figure out a way to sit up comfortably for a couple of minutes, evaluating the damage and what to do next. Ras stood behind me so I could lean against his legs. He told me to take as much time as I needed. The pain was tolerable, nothing like the intense pain of acute pancreatitis, which I have from time to time.
Finally, I felt as if I could try to stand. Ras helped me to my feet. I again felt hesitant to put any weight on my left foot. I did not want to create any more damage. I wanted to run again, and soon! I tried to walk with his help. This was too difficult. He squatted down and I climbed on his back for a piggy back ride. He carried me this way up a short climb until the trail intersected with a paved park road, closed down for the season. He knew he could run back and get the car and drive it to the gate that closes off the road. He could then come down and help me up to the car. He got me settled into a somewhat dry spot underneath a large fir tree. Then he took off for the car. I looked at my watch. Ras said it would probably take him about a half an hour. I would try not to look at my watch again. I wanted to get myself settled into this spot the best I could as I waited patiently for his return.
I took off my Nathan VaporAiress running pack and reached inside, hoping to find a pack of chemical handwarmers. Yes! I had left a package in there. I pulled out an extra Altra buff that was in my pack as well and double wrapped it around my ankle to give it some compression. This felt good right away. I wrapped Ras’ Altra ¾ zip jacket around my legs, put my handwarmers inside my gloves and then put them on while nestling down to wait. The night was quiet. There were stars out and it was not raining. I did not want to catch a chill, so I rocked back and forth, keeping myself moving just enough to stay warm. Ras had hollered back at me as he ran off, “Do crunches if you get cold!”
It was probably about 49 degrees out. It really wasn’t that cold. A half hour wasn’t that long. I was relaxed and unconcerned about how long it would take him. I trusted that he was doing everything he could to get back to me as efficiently as possible. I looked at my watch and it had been 23 minutes. He would be back before I knew it. And then I heard his hoot. Living on our own acreage for many years, we had a hoot we would do across the property to catch one another’s attention, or to call out to Angela. I heard this familiar call and I answered back. Soon, I saw his headlamp coming back towards me. He had brought a couple of extra layers, which I put on right away. He helped me to my feet. It was time to get out to the gate now, and the awaiting car, about a mile away.
Ras asked if I wanted to try to walk out with his help, or wanted him to carry me out, then said those weren't the only options. He continued, "I could bring you some more layers from the car, then I could drive home real quick and get some trekking poles for you to hike out with, or a wheelbarrow to haul you out in, or I could grab the bolt cutters and pop the lock off the gate and drive in and pick you up." These were apparently plans A through E. Ras never mentioned trying to contact a park ranger or any other authority. I assumed this course of action was further down his list, around plan Z or so. I told him I wanted to try putting some weight on my ankle and see how it went.
I played around with the best way to make forward progress, either holding Ras’ arm, or hand, or neither. I moved carefully and soon got into a careful limping rhythm that worked. I held Ras’ hand, the heat from my handwarmers helping to keep his hand warm too. We had been through here a couple of nights ago, when we were out doing our 25 miler. We were each listening to our own mp3 players and just getting through mileage. Now, walking slowly, hand in hand, the experience was much different. I was thankful for this quiet, careful walk, but also filled with gratitude that I had been able to have a long run very recently. It might now be a while.
Up until the moment of the fall, I had been running quite well. I was moving fast, for me, and loving it. Ras was behind me and also enjoying his run. It had only been dark for about 15 minutes or so. The transition from the fading light of sunset to now, when it was quite dark in the trees, was gradual and evocative. When I was a backpacker and in my earlier days of trail running, I would get anxious as the light began to fade towards the end of the day. I felt nervous about being on the trail past dark. I would want to make camp if hiking, or if trail running, I would want to stay as close to my partners as possible. I wanted to be in the middle of those I was running with and turned around constantly if I was in the back.
With practice and a growth in confidence, I have begun to savor and love the night time miles. I enjoy the night sounds in the forest. I love focusing only on what is right in front of me on the trail, whatever it is that my headlamp is catching in its’ beam. I can let go of all of the rest. The focus becomes easier to attain and with some self-talk, I am usually able to open up and run free and less self-consciously.
I had been in this zone when my left foot landed on a big root, turning my ankle. My headlamp was in need of fresh batteries and therefore, the beam was not very bright. I could not differentiate this root from the other trail surface and it caught me completely off guard while running fast. It hurt and it took me down. But it won’t keep me down. I will see how much time I need to take off from running. I hope I can get back on the trails soon. Running trails is my therapy. The longer the mileage and the amount of time spent on the trails, the better.
UPDATE as of 12/05/2016: The Road (and Trail) to Recovery
Days 1-3: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.
Day 2: Evening walk on crutches around the 1/2 mile neighborhood loop.
Day 3: Half mile evening walk without crutches, very easy pace and careful foot placement. The swelling on Kathy's ankle diminishes noticeably and the bruising begins to improve.
Day 4: Return to physically demanding yard service work.
Day 5: Two and a half hour walk/easy jog on asphalt and smooth, non-technical trail.
Day 6: One hour easy jog on smooth, non-technical trail and some asphalt.
Overall, Kathy's ankle is fairly stable, the majority of the swelling has subsided, and she can walk and run easily on it without pain. It's still tender, however, and it will still require time and attention for it to strengthen and heal completely.