You can ask the mountain
But the mountain doesn’t care
I’ve forbidden myself to run until November. Coming into my last race I was carrying four injuries: strains to the proximal left hamstring tendon, distal left posterior tibialis tendon, and left gastrocnemius, and a strange undiagnosed pain in the fifth metatarsal on my right foot. All of these became worse during my last LSD run and even more so during the race. The gastroc injury is probably nothing; if that were the only issue I would just keep running. The tibialis tendon pain is also minor, although, to quote Drake, “like a sprained ankle, boy, I ain’t nothing to play with.” It requires rest, but I’m fairly confident that it will solve itself with some strengthening of the glute med on that side. The other two, contrarily, could be real problems.
The reason I worry about the metatarsal pain is that I don’t know where it came from (no memorable trauma to that foot), and it doesn’t seem to get better with time. These are classic signs of a stress fracture. WebMD will tell you that rest will heal a stress fracture, which sounds great, but when was the last time you heard about Yao Ming? I’m probably just being paranoid over a bone bruise or a poorly fitting shoe, or perhaps I just forgot kicking whatever it was that I kicked, but the pain occupies a corner of my mind nonetheless.
The most serious injury, though, and the real reason for the 4 mph speed limit, is the left hamstring. I first injured it in June, at the very beginning of my summer distance training. I was running a Sierra/History trail loop in the Watchung Reservation, which always seems to take me an hour, and I saw myself behind pace with a mile to go. The last mile is slightly downhill on reasonably smooth surface, so I opened it up as far as I could and basically sprinted until I felt the stiffness behind my hip. I slowed down, finished the run, and hoped it would be okay.
My leg didn’t feel too bad when I woke up the next morning, but after driving to work I could barely walk. Ouch. I cut back on training for a few days, decided it felt better enough, and tried to press through. The muscle and tendon held up well enough through the intervening months for me to train and eventually to race, but they never felt quite right. On top of this, there are two very clear training indications that something is wrong. First, my top pace in mile repeats last spring was just over 5 minutes, and now I’m struggling to get below 5:30 for even one mile. Second, my left leg can barely lift 40 pounds on a single leg hamstring curl, while the bar actually lifts up off my foot from the upward acceleration when pulling that weight with my right. What does all this mean? Left hamstring strain leading to muscle weakness leading to proximal hamstring tendonitis leading to “Oh crap now what?” I’d even bet that the other left leg injuries resulted from a breakdown in my stride as the hamstring tired on long runs. Now I’m just hoping that three weeks off will let me heal enough for the leg to withstand mild running and strengthening.
Rest may heal my body, but what about my mind? Sitting around in the evenings is driving me stir crazy. My sleep is suffering, and I can almost feel the daily uptick in my blood cortisol and thyroxine levels. My wife is sure to reference me as an irritating and obsessive jerk any moment. Ugg.
These are the feelings that sent me fleeing to the South Mountain Reservation today. We were blessed with beautiful fall weather in North Jersey, low 60’s with a few clouds, dry air, and brilliant sunlight. I’ve been meaning to explore the reservation as a close-to-home training backup to the Watchung, so after entertaining my (now three-year-old!) son with a hayride and pumpkin patch in the morning I set off for Washington Rock. Stopped short by the “Authorized Vehicles Only” sign, I left the truck at the dog park and walked among the oaks, maples, and beech trees.
I’ve read many passages by runners claiming that running is “meditative”, and a scathing reply from a runner/monk who claims that the others have no idea what meditation is. I’m no expert in meditation, but I tend to agree with the monk. Meditation is about stillness and reflection. Trail running is about motion and engagement. But what about trail walking? The challenges of a technical surface disappear below my 4 mph speed limit, allowing me to disengage from the immediate and apprehend the slow rhythms of the trees, the breezes, the deer, and the chipmunks (I admit it, the little stripy guys are one of my favorite animals). As I walked, I watched brown and yellow leaves drop from trees and float slowly to the ground, their photosynthetic work complete. I scared up a white tail doe, and warned an eight-point buck that I could catch him if I got hungry (false bravado, given the injuries). He stared back, uncomprehending and unconcerned, never having had to worry that a running human might actually pose a threat. He chewed the cud of whatever plants he’d been eating, storing fat by the moment. I told the chipmunk that I knew he was tiny, no matter how much noise he could make in the fallen leaves, and he rustled across the forest floor anyway. I spread my fingers on lifted hands to sense the soft movement of the air, smelled the dust of the fallen leaves crunched beneath my feat, felt the weak warmth of the autumn sun on my arm as it played over the newly scarred skin, a memento of a misstep during my last run. I tried to empty myself and allow the void to be filled with the timeless flow of life over the earth. I tried to fill myself with the unhurried and unworried preparation that the animals and plants were making before the coming winter, building nests, storing energy, pulling back to roots, dying with secured eggs prepared to hatch when the seasons turned.
I am human though, unable to escape worry and distraction. As a species, our ability to project possible futures is a great and defining tool, but a bother also. I know no peace, because I know my present is built on an unsustainable construction of culture and infrastructure for which I bear no responsibility. I know my future will unfold amidst an unpredictable torrent whose currents I cannot affect and whose waves can pull me under in a moment or lift me up and shatter me against the rocks. I know that the coming winter is the least of my problems.
It takes great strength to find serenity. What makes it so hard is that this strength is the strength of inaction, of weakness even, of letting go. It’s not a strength of doing, of making a better future, because those efforts can easily fall in vain. Nor is it a strength of faith, which would promise that tomorrow will be okay, when in truth it might not be. Serenity is the strength of accepting the torrent, accepting the waves and the rocks. Serenity is the courage of living your life and striving for goals in full knowledge of their present and future irrelevance.
 For anyone who is new to distance training, this was sheer stupidity. I was begging for the injury that I got. There’s no reason to sprint out the last mile of a training run when I couldn’t keep pace for the first seven. Far smarter would have been to coast in, feel bad about the slow time, get a good night’s sleep, and rock it the next day.