This morning, I woke up wanting to write. Unfortunately, the words just wouldn’t come. So, I did what I always do when I’m “stuck.” I run. I laced up my running shoes and headed off into the woods. Shortly after I settled in, my mind slowed, my body calmed and I could hear my muse. In the quiet of my thoughts, the subject that bounced around inside my head was why I run. It necessarily conjured a memory I rarely think or talk about, but is one that drives who I am as a runner and person in so many ways.
I’ve always been a runner, except for one long stretch when I let me get in the way. I was in a climbing accident in my early twenties in which I broke my back. I won’t go into how it happened other than to say that I made a very costly mistake. But, we make mistakes sometimes. I’ve come to learn how to forgive myself for mine, this one included. Anyhow, I fell about thirty feet climbing a mountain called Poko Moonshine in the Adirondacks. It’s true that one’s life passes before their eyes when something like that happens. I don’t remember the fall other than recounting my life from beginning to what I thought might be its end. When I landed, I was violently brought back to reality. I knew in an instant that my back was broken. I had landed on my feet and then fell face down. I couldn’t move, and the pain was excruciating. With one arm under my body, I slid the other up and stared at the bloody palm of my hand. The skin had been scraped off. I’m assuming it happened as I scrambled to grab hold of the rock or rope to slow my momentum.
Despite how my hand looked, I couldn’t feel it. Either from the shock of the injury, or because I hyperventilated, my hands and feet went completely numb. When I realized that I couldn’t feel them, panic set in. I’d come so far to escape where I grew up and be free from the homophobic chains of my family. All I could think was what if I was paralyzed, I’d have to go back. I felt defeated and terrified in that moment. The look in the eyes of my climbing partner only made my fear worse. This happened in the days before cell phones. He had no choice but to leave me face down in the dirt while he went for help. I’ve never felt more alone, vulnerable or afraid in the moment he took off. I can still smell the earth pressed against my face as I helplessly watched him disappear into the woods.
The short of it is that I fractured two vertebrae and suffered permanent injury. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t feel pain and my toes are in a constant state of numbness. Some days are better than others. It’s just something that I’ve had to learn to live with. Whatever you do upon reading this, don’t feel sorry for me. The truth is that I’ve learned some extremely important lessons because of it. There was a time after the accident when I let myself be the victim. Even after I healed, I didn’t go back to running because it was too hard. I gained weight and got increasingly unhealthy physically, mentally and emotionally. Succumbing to the victim mentality cemented me in a place I didn’t want or need to be. It created a perpetual cycle where the unhealthier I became, the more my injury plagued me.
Fortunately, the siren call of running grew louder until one day I laced up my shoes and finally found my way back by putting one foot in front of the other. I love to run. While my running will always be limited by my injury, it remains a gift that I will treasure for as long as I’m able to put one foot in front of the other. It comforts me, helps me think, makes me strong, tests my boundaries and is a place that I find refuge in. It’s that thing they call “the runner’s high.” Peace.