No Pain, You Must Be Dead

I have always liked to be physically active. Raised in the south, I was no stranger to exercise.

I participated in the usual pee wee football, JV football, basketball, softball thing as I grew up, then settled on tennis as my favorite competitive sport, which kept me occupied all through high school and college and beyond, at least on a fun, non-competitive basis.

Several, I mean several years ago, I blew out a gastrocnemius muscle while stretching for a screaming wide shot off to my left on an asphalt tennis court, and felt like someone had sneaked up behind me and hit me in my left leg with a baseball bat. Think Nancy Kerrigan, although when I turned around there was no Tonya Harding to be seen anywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more painful sports related injury, as I felt a searing white hot heat go up my leg into the depths of my brain and immediately felt like I would never walk again. I did, of course, but to this day I have not stepped back on a tennis court for anything more than a very slow, easy volley.

Have I ever stopped exercising? Of course not. Humans like to move, stretch, and challenge themselves. I am no different from my brethren.

In the distant past, I got into the whole running thing, bought the Jim Fixx books, kept a running journal and spent Saturdays with buddies running up and down hills in Augusta, Georgia preparing for races. We ran 10Ks, ten milers, half marathons, and I even managed to complete one marathon in Augusta back when that was a thing. I have never been so happy to cross a finish line and complete a task in my life. I was happy to be there in the early years of the Peachtree Road Race, back when only ten thousand of your closest running buddies participated. I have fond memories of trudging up the 3/4 mile stretch of road called Cardiac Hill, culminating at the juncture of Peachtree Road and Collier Road, conveniently located just across from Piedmont Hospital, in case you needed to duck in for a quick cath or ablation before you finished this always searingly hot and humid race.

The jewel in the crown of my running days was the completion of the Steve Lynn triathlon on base in Savannah, Georgia. This half Ironman race consisted of a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride and a 13.1 mile half marathon, back to back. I trained for it by running around Augusta, riding my bike up to Clark Hill lake and back on many weekends and swimming laps in a backyard pool. I had a good support team to help me with the logistics of that race, I was in the best shape of my life and I proudly finished it in a respectable time. It was exhilarating and exhausting.

More recently, I have been into hiking. It is as strenuous as you want it to be, as easy and relaxing or as hard and taxing as you choose and gives you the opportunity to get outside, breathe the fresh air, see wildlife and test your skills in nature. I have hiked the Augusta Canal trail at home, the multiple trails at Sesquicentennial Park in Columbia, SC, and the trails at Mistletoe State Park just up the road. I have hiked solo at ten thousand feet in New Mexico on a ridge so high that it felt like I was on top of the world. My wife and I have walked past Mount Rainier in Washington State, enjoyed a walk through Okichisanso Gardens in Kyoto, Japan, and summited a pretty falls in Rocky Mountain National Park. Last January I hiked and up and down Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona, one of the most difficult hikes I have ever done. My heart rate approached 150 as I made the summit after scrambling up a boulder field. The hike was more a rock climb, and I was glad I brought leather climbing gloves instead of poles for that adventure. I had never been more physically exhausted than at the bottom of that mountain, but it was also one of the most technically challenging and satisfying treks I have ever made.

Last March, as my wife and I descended from the summit of a mountain in Table Rock State Park in Pickens, South Carolina, I had a wake up call. I had hiked this trail several times previously and knew it pretty well. I had not brought poles for this hike, which in retrospect was a huge mistake. Roughly halfway down, following my bride as she lead us back to the car, my hiking boot caught the edge of a rock at the top of a large section of rock steps leading to a lower section of trail, bordered on the right by a ravine. Although the fall is not as terrifying to recall now as it was for weeks following the accident, I can still vividly remember my thought pattern as I went airborn.

“Uh oh.”

“I think this is going to hurt me very badly.”

“I’m afraid this fall might kill me.”

“I don’t want to die like this.”

It was one of those accidents that happens very fast but is strung out in your mind in slow motion. As I tripped, I had the sensation that one always has in that situation, that I could put out my arms, regain my sense of balance, make sure my other foot came down squarely on the next step, speed up a little until my center of gravity was okay again, and proceed on down the trail. Unfortunately, this was a real fall, completely in the air, out of control, immediately disorienting to the point that I did not know up from down, right from left, path from stairs from ditch. I was cognizant of the fact that I was tumbling, that I had not yet hit the ground, and that when I did, it was not going to be good. Something would break. I would hear a snap. I might hit my head. I might be rendered unconscious, with a head injury that would be no joke.

“Uh oh.”

My wife told me that I flew past her (thank God I did not take her down with me, for that would have been truly unbearable) pitching and rolling. I remember her calling out, but not what she said. I had the sensation that I was going to hit a rock step, the ground, or tumble into the ravine sometime very soon. I did not have time to figure out how to brace myself, how to hold my arms to break my fall, how to orient myself for minimum damage when I hit. It was all just too fast. I was at the mercy of gravity and inertia.

“I think this is going to hurt me very badly.”

Seconds that seemed like minutes went by, and I knew this was it. I was going to come to ground soon. I did not know if I was going to be okay. This scared me very badly. What was going to happen to me. How could this happen? This is not supposed to happen to me. It was then that the fleeting thought that scared me most of all came into my spinning head.

“I’m afraid this fall might kill me.”

What would it feel like to die on this trail at this time after this fall? Would it be painful? Quick? Would I know, at the bottom of this tumble, that I was dying? Would I see nothing but black and not wake up again? How would this affect my wife? My God, how would she get me off this mountain? How would she do that?

“I don’t want to die like this.”

I know that I am going to die. I started this blog a while back to deal with my feelings about being sixty two, thinking about my father dying at more or less this same age, and how I was going to move on into the next thirteen years and beyond. I wanted to explore how it was going to feel to become an old man, crotchety and opinionated and feisty and relatively fit (I hoped). I knew all that, but at the moment of this horrendous fall my brain was facing, at what seemed like the speed of light, what it would feel like to experience my own death, an accidental death, a traumatic death for me and for my wife. It was at the same time surreal and vividly real.

I did finally stop tumbling, and came to rest (that is a very soft way to say crashed painfully to earth) on the right side of my head, my right wrist and forearm and right leg. I was stunned and disoriented but I knew I was alive. I tried to pull myself up as my wife scrambled down to assist me. I was off balance, felt nauseated and very sick, and could get no further than on my knees, wobbling, swaying, my brain saying get up, idiot, you’re fine, and my body saying, man, that was really, really, really bad, dude. I was bleeding but I did not know where from. Turns out, a couple of small chunks had been torn from the top of my right ear, and there was stray blood on my hands. My right leg was on fire and numb at the same time. I did not know if anything was broken. In true injured physician fashion, I began to assess myself through my wife’s eyes!

“Is my head bleeding anywhere? Any cuts? Anything else malformed, bleeding? Are my pupils reactive? Are they the same size? Am I making sense? Are my words slurred?”

I can easily say that in all these times that I have played sports, participated in races, hiked, and otherwise done something physically taxing, this spring’s tumble on a mountain trail was the most frightening injury I’ve ever had. I got away with mild abrasions and contusions to my head, ear, hands, and wrist, and had one hellacious deep bruise over most of my upper right leg that took months to heal and that is numb and intermittently  uncomfortable to this day. I did not break any bones. I had no open bleeding wounds. I did not lose consciousness. I did not have a concussion.

My wife swears that two of my guardian angels, always vigilant, swooped down at the first sign of danger and gently laid me to rest (thanks guys) at the bottom of that pile of rocks with only minimal injuries. (Oh, did I tell you that my glasses were still on my face, not a scratch on them, my backpack was still securely in place on my back and I was still wearing my cap when I was finally able to stand?) A fall like this could have easily fractured major bones, lead to compartment syndrome in my leg, caused a head injury, a broken arm, loss of consciousness or death. At minimum, it should have put me in the ER if not in the hospital. At worst, it could have killed me.

Ten months later, I am writing this.

So, no pain, no gain, right? Not exactly. As you get older, if you stay active, you WILL have pain, discomfort, sadness, illness and injury. As a nurse told me one time in the emergency room after I had broken my leg sliding into second base, “Hey, it’s the active people who get out there and do stuff every weekend that get these kinds of injuries!”

As for me, I have plans to fly to Arizona two weeks from today. My wife and I will be hiking on a big ridge just south of Phoenix, as I glare back at that mountain that resembles a camel, and start planning the next adventure.

Let’s face it. If you don’t wake up tomorrow with some pain somewhere, well, you must be dead.

 

3 thoughts on “No Pain, You Must Be Dead

Comments are closed.