Everything was going swimmingly — until the third 400-meter interval at the track, and then a twinge on the left edge of the left foot. I cut things short and took an easy day (frustrating), returned to the track the following day and had a fine workout with five timed miles (couldn’t be more pleased) and the next day six miles around the park – all good, until the next morning, walking home along the river, and now the left foot is hurting for real. At 4.25 miles I wave down a taxi. This aborted walk gets recorded in the training log as code red: injury. It might be a stress fracture. I might soon be thumping around in boot or wheeling about on a knee scooter. The Grid for June and July is threatened, and not to mention a trip out west I’d just started planning.
I take five days off, during which time I sink into a funk: sleep late, mope around, watch bad movies, find myself driving below the speed limit. Perhaps I should scrap all my plans to run and hike and go back to the corporate world and get a job, as I’m bored out of my mind. But then I come up with some contingency plans: renew gym membership and swim in the pool, sign up to go bird watching, get back to work on the job hunt, see the Doctor and get an x-ray…
Then an even better idea occurs: Try the foot out on a short bushwhack in the Catskills where the forest floor is covered in leaves and dirt, a soft and forgiving surface, not the relentless cement which made the foot hurt walking home in the city. And since force is proportional to speed, I can limit impact by moving very slowly, which would not be hard to do since bushwhacks in the Catskills are always slow — suppose I target a 0.5 MPH pace: how much damage could that do?
Halcott Mountain comes to mind: it’s just a little over a mile to the summit. An interesting strategy to clarify my situation. In one scenario, the bushwhack goes fine, the X-ray comes back negative, and we’re off to the races again with another June peak scratched off the list. In the other scenario, things don’t go so well – in which case, the summer’s screwed anyhow, so what’s the difference.
“Now bid me run,” says Ligarius in Julius Caesar, “and I will strive with things impossible, yea get the better of them.”
And so with a shout for my loyal page Odysseus the Labradoodle, I lower my visor, level my lance, and ride into battle, to strive with things impossible and perhaps pointless and possibly even ridiculous, but so be it, this is my war, and I shall not give up quite yet….
On the drive up, the late spring Catskills shimmer blue and green like a cloud-mottled Caribbean lagoon, while a smoky layer pours over the mountain tops. Upon our arrival in Deep Notch, it’s become a cool gray morning. The forest is so thick and green, it looks spooky – such a change from the last time I was out this way before the vegetation leafed out.
Into the forest we go, Odie taking point, while I bring up the rear at a creeping pace, one tentative step at a time, trekking poles in hand to take some weight off the left foot. We pull up after a quarter mile: so far so good.
Bird calls ring out from the canopy – it sounds like the usual suspects – and as usual, they’re invisible. I pull out binoculars and motion Odie to be still, but he keeps rustling around in the undergrowth, anxious to be on the move, exhibiting the runner’s restlessness. “You’re scaring off the birds,” I growl, and he looks at me with the dutiful expression of a rowdy teenager: “Sure, I hear you.”
On the move again, heading more steeply uphill, then the slope levels off into a terrace, and here’s the day’s first field of stinging nettles. I tip-toe through the plants, swinging my poles about and whacking at the stems, and the nettles crumple under these blows (for all their ferocious toxin-filled bristles, they’re weak watery plants without a lot of backbone). Then the terrain steepens once again, it’s into a beech thicket, and the nettles are left behind. While the pace remains slow, the left foot still seems OK….
We eventually gain the ridge top, and it’s a nice break to have some level terrain, but it’s very thick up here: waist-high ferns, and freshly sprouting berry canes, some of which reach shoulder high – the problem isn’t so much the thorns, but without being able to see the feet, each step is a surprise (dirt, dirt, dirt, rock) — and of course all the other irritations that go along with bushwhacking, such as trekking poles caught in stems, hat jostled by branches, etc.
Odie scouts ahead: there’s a faint passage through the fronds and canes, as if someone’s been through this way, and after a quarter mile or so the bent vegetation coalesces into a path, which means a break from branches in the face, plus you can see where you’re going. Life is good again.
Soon we’ve found the summit canister, signed in, and sat down on a big rock, where we’re visited by a swarm of flies who find my ankles supremely interesting. For the descent I choose a slightly different route, aiming to shave a little distance off our journey (left foot still OK, but let’s not push it).
The descent is steep. From the top of a band of cliffs, I peer into towering forest that spills down into the valley. Stepping downhill you discover (especially when barefoot) that movement is an interaction with the ground, for when the foot touches the surface, that’s only the start — quickly you find out whether there’s anything’s below the leaf litter to support your weight — or whether your foot is going to punch through between a gap in the rocks — whether the rocks you step on are stable or tilt and shift — and sometimes you step onto a angled bed of moss and the whole thing slides off a rock.
Odie bounds ahead while I totter down a steep embankment, and then it’s on to some wonderfully level terrain, and we’re marching along happily when a small bird (a junco I think) dashes off with one wing held off to the side, as if broken. You tricky bird, we know you’re trying to lure us away! Looking down, I spot a small nest in a patch of blue cohosh about a foot off the ground, and inside two tiny featherless orange creatures squirming around, no bigger than jelly beans. “Keep moving along, you,” I bark at Odie, who’s a natural born killer.
More slow, patient, creeping process. Nearing the bottom, once again we find ourselves in nettle country, and I’m angry because a compass error means an extra quarter-mile moving through these unfriendly plants. And here they’re growing waist high in places. There’s a large fallen tree: I clamber up and teeter across this bridge as far as it goes – and then there’s no choice but to drop back to the ground, and now I’m whacking away for my life, looking around desperately for some path out of the killing zone, as my feet are stinging and the nettles are poking through trousers and tickling my knees. “Get away!” I shout at Odie, who’s sidled up to me and is blocking my poles – “Get away from me!” pleading, shouting, cursing, the tops of my feet on fire.
The nettle zone transitions into a mix of fern, meadow rue, blue cohosh, crow’s foot, wood asters, and others, with a few nettles here and there just to make sure you’re paying attention, and after a while I stumble across some jewel weed sprouts, whose leaves rubbed on the tops of my feet soothe the pain, in fact, after a few seconds, the irritation is gone. From down below, the sound of a passing car: we’re almost back.
Halcott today was pretty slow: the 3.5-mile round trip took over 5 hours. But the left foot didn’t complain, which is a triumph. Two days later for Father’s Day, Sue, Philip, and Odie accompany me on a leisurely stroll up Westkill on a beautiful warm day, and afterwards we clean up some ancient beer cans and gas canisters I’d spotted when bushwhacking Westkill in April.
6 peaks left for June and 12 for July is a lot, but feasible. We’ll find out more following X-ray and Doctor’s visit tomorrow, but for now hope is restored….and the fight goes on!