Uncertainty

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, sipping tea out of a favorite mug. I’m wearing a cozy sweatshirt and the view out the window, past the pink begonias in the window box, is of bright sun on still-green leaves and grass. It’s a good morning on a good day, but I’m having trouble focusing on the present because I’m worried about what may or may not happen 5 days from now. I’ll be having exploratory surgery on my knee, and either the surgeon will find something (like scar tissue, a plica, meniscus tear, or piece of bone or cartilage)  that has been causing irritation, or he won’t find anything. If he finds something, he will fix it, and I can expect to be myself again in a couple of weeks/months. If he doesn’t find anything, I will have to accept that the mysterious twinge in my knee cannot be fixed, and I’ll go on as I have been for the past three years.

When I received the Supartz injections this spring, my hope was that a reduction in the center kneecap pain would allow me to do the physical therapy necessary to fix the original twinge-ing pain on the inside of my knee. I was so excited when the injections fully fixed the center kneecap pain! I still had a little pain on the side every now and then, but I continued with a regular home physical therapy routine and felt a significant difference in the strength and stability in my legs. Awesome! My leg muscles acted like a natural brace. But sometimes, moving in just the wrong way would put the knee off level and irritate that inner side. And it didn’t take much: Shifting items from a cart to a shelf at work. Walking from the boardwalk to a beach chair on the sand. The only way not to feel the twinge is to keep my knee completely level and stable at all times, which is unrealistic.

In September I visited a new doctor, who believes that 90% of all sports injuries are non-surgical. I felt that he would be able to give me sound advice on how to proceed. He did an ultrasound in the office, which showed a white blob in my problem knee that didn’t seem to be in the good knee. That was reason enough to order an MRI, so off I went for yet another MRI. I came back with yet again no signs of breaks or tears or anything except some fluid and irritation. Based on my previous treatments, he gave me two recommendations: inject with Supartz again, only from the opposite direction (which he said half-heartedly, because the injection reaches the entire joint no matter the angle at which the needle was placed), or have exploratory surgery to see if there is a plica or some sort of thickening that is causing irritation that could be cleaned out.

So I went back to the surgeon with my new MRI images, and he talked with me for a while. He reviewed what other doctors had recommended and asked me questions to gauge my feelings about what kind of treatment I was looking for. He said that in cases in which physical therapy continually fails, there is likely something else at play preventing full recovery, and that going in with a scope would identify what that something is. It is not a major procedure, but it is still invasive and comes with risks. I said yes.

I’ve been trying to quiet the worried voice that whispers “What if they don’t find anything?”. Because I know how defeated I’ll feel if they don’t find anything. The first time exploratory surgery was recommended to me was in February or March 2015. Back then, there were still a lot of options, and a scope was the last resort. Now that I’ve reached the last resort, I can only wait – with more than a little trepidation – until it actually happens. 5 days.

 

 

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A girl and her dog go camping

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Perfect panorama: View of the Catskills (left), and the Skytop Tower at Mohonk (left of center) from the junction of the Beacon Hill carriage road and trail in Minnewaska State Park.

The road trip I had begun planning back in January had to be postponed until further notice due to a big project that G has at work, so I spent most of the spring thinking about shorter excursions. I had so many ideas for single and multi-night trips, but schedules and weather always got in the way – until a weekend in late June. I worked on that Saturday, but I was going to be off on Monday, and the weather for Sunday and Monday was forecast to be perfect, so I pulled out some maps and decided that I’d take a trip to the lower Catskills and the Gunks.

G and I installed the roof-top tent, I called around to some campgrounds, and I started packing. I obviously don’t go camping enough, because I didn’t know what would be essential, and I spent way too much time running around making sure I didn’t forget anything. In the end, I was sufficiently prepared and used almost everything that I brought. In the future I’ll just have to streamline the packing process.

I got on the road a bit late on Sunday after all of the packing, and I started heading toward the campground in Neversink, NY. Pippin was my co-pilot, although he spent more time begging for me to pet him than navigating.

We rolled into the Neversink River Campground with about 4 hours of daylight left. There were a lot of tent sites available, and I explained to the owner at check-in that I needed one with a completely level area for the truck to park in order for the tent to open up level. He suggested a site that was set back and overlooked the river. It would be a nice quiet spot, he said. I took his advice and headed off with my campground map to find our site. “Overlooking the river” turned out to be “overlooking a stagnant creek teeming with insects”, but it was scenic, reasonably secluded, and had lots of space for Pippin to play.

I had a snack and looked over some maps to decide where we would explore before setting up camp, and I decided to check out the beautiful and easy-to-get-to “Peekamoose Blue Hole” on Rondout Creek. Peekamoose Mt. has been on my list of places to hike ever since I saw its name on a Catskills map a couple of years ago, and the parking for the Blue Hole is at the Peekamoose-Table Trail trailhead, so I’d have the chance to check that out for future hikes when my knee is fully recovered. We hopped back in the truck and headed north east.

I was almost giddy as we entered the southern Catskills. Glimpses of mountain tops emerged from above the trees, and the open spaces gave way to denser forests.

When I pulled into the parking lot, I saw that the Peekamoose Blue Hole is known to and visited by the masses. I had heard about it from an article I read on the Internet, and it was clear that a lot of other people had, too. Discarded clothing lay on the ground, and a row of porta-johns lined a trail down the the river. Ominous signs warned against parking anywhere except the specified lots, and other signs prohibited radios, camping, fires, and the use of glass bottles. Pippin and I got out and looked around. The Peekamoose-Table Trail trailhead was right next to the parking lot and went straight up the side of the mountain. The river was across the street, and the swimming hole was a short walk up the road. A shirtless guy staggered toward the porta-johns and slurred something about waiting for his friend. I did a mental safety check and decided that he was harmless but that I’d keep my distance and be on my guard. He ended up asking bizarre questions when I came across him later (like asking where the Blue Hole was when coming up the trail from it.) Not sure what he was on, and if there actually was a friend somewhere thereabouts, but for most of the trip I had a can of pepper spray at my fingertips and a solid wooden hiking stick in hand to be safe.

 

Pippin and I found a group of swimmers enjoying the water. It must have been chilly! We stayed on the rocks above the pool, where a channel of water rushed by and cascaded into the Blue Hole, which was more of a forest green color. Pippin was very worried about the swimmers jumping off of rocks and laughing and splashing as they dragged each other into the water. He was pretty sure that he would be able to save them from imminent death if I would only let him off his leash.

Pip and I didn’t spend a lot of time at the Blue Hole itself. We went back up to the road and took some other paths down to the river to explore some other rocks and banks. Rondout Creek is nestled in a dark, leafy gorge and filled with large rock ledges and vibrantly green moss. In some spots, yellow sunlight spilled through the treetops and made the water and wet stones shine. It actually reminded me of Dunfield Creek in the Delaware Water Gap, and I laughed to myself that I had come all this way when I could have seen basically the same sights much closer to home. It was fun to explore a new place, though, and we made our way back to the parking lot and to the trailhead, where I tentatively made a few steps up the trail. The trail elevation went straight up, and my knee was still very sore from the Supartz injections, so it was literally only a few steps, but it felt like a promise to myself that I would hike up mountains again. I’ll have to take baby steps, but eventually I’ll get there.

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Pippin wanted to get a peek of a moose, but no luck.

Before we left, we checked out a nearby waterfall (which reminded me very much of Van Campens Glen…), and then we headed back to the campground. It was still light when we got back, so I set up the tent. This was the first time since last fall that I had opened it up myself, and I was annoyed as I pulled the ladder up but extended it too far and couldn’t get the right leverage to swing the clamshell base open. I can’t say exactly what noises of frustration I was making along with exclamations of “Come on!” and “Why won’t you open?”, but when I finally succeeded, a round of applause and cheers erupted from the RV campsite next door. I sheepishly waved at my audience and hoped that it was the novelty of seeing a roof-top tent that amused them.


After setting up the tent, I heated up some soup and a frittata that I had picked up from a hometown cafe before leaving. Pip had his finest kibble (with some additions from my frittata), and after dinner we walked around the campground. By the time we finished our walk, I was ready to go to bed. The wind was picking up a bit, so I closed up the window flaps on the tent, and then I crawled into my new sleeping bag while Pippin nested in a blanket of his own. (Actually, I had to spend some time convincing Pippin to nest in his own blanket. Whether it’s the smell of the down filling or the abundant puffiness, he loves my bag and always tries to steal it.)

I bought this new sleeping bag after a chilly camping trip last fall with temperatures that got down into the upper 30s. I was able to use G’s sleeping bag on that trip, but I was only comfortable because I was wearing wool tights, a sweatshirt, knit hat, gloves, and using a sleeping bag liner. This night was not nearly that cold, and I started off with the bag partially unzipped, but in the morning I was so happy to be wrapped in this puffy cocoon. It enveloped me in the perfect temperature once I zipped it up when the outside air got chilly. The low temp that night was about 48 degrees, so I’m not sure how this bag will be in much colder temperatures (like, will it really be comfortable at 25 degrees?), but it is much, much better for chilly spring and summer nights than my old bag was. The new bag is the Marmot Women’s Angel Fire. It should be comfortable down to 25 degrees F, and it should keep me from getting hypothermia down to 9 degrees F. It’s a mummy-style bag with a hood and a glorious collar that snugs around your neck to prevent drafts. I love it!

When I woke up in the morning, I realized that I had forgotten an essential item – a sweatshirt! A snuggly hoodie would have been perfect for walking through the campground to the restroom and to exercise Pippin, but I made do with a long-sleeve tee and my rain jacket to keep out the chill. I had leftover soup and frittata in my cooler, which I heated up over the camp stove. I warmed up after eating the warm food and then realized that I actually did have a sweatshirt stashed under a seat in the truck. Better late than never, right?

I had intended to get a somewhat early start on the day, but the sun was coming out, and I spent some time relaxing. I opened up a camp chair and read “Becoming Odessa”, an Appalachian Trail memoir written by Jennifer Pharr-Davis, the hiker who would eventually set the speed-record for hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s a thoughtful and detailed through-hiking account, and while I have read some trail journals that I personally felt were more compelling, I enjoyed it and would recommend it over Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”.

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Reading, relaxing, and playing with the pup

I also took advantage of the large grassy campsite to play ball and stick with Pippin. He was excited to be spending so much time outside and loved tearing across the grass at full speed.

When I finally decided to head out, I closed up the tent, made sure I hadn’t left any leashes or dog bowls laying around, and pointed the truck east toward the Shawangunk Ridge (aka the “Gunks”).

As we approached the borders of Minnewaska State Park, we were greeted with a magnificent view of the Catskills to the Northeast, which were made even more stunning by the bold green, blue and white colors of the trees, sky, and clouds. I kept telling Pippin “This is what we’re here for!” He was actually there for frittata bits and romps through the woods, but he let me ramble on in my excitement.

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Part of what made me choose this trip was a very old scrapbook of photographs from the archives that my co-worker had been looking through at work that Saturday. The scrapbook was put together by a wealthy family local to northern NJ, and it featured photographs from the 1920 and 30s of vacations across the country, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and nearby Minnewaska in the Gunks. It included pictures of family members hiking, and sitting at scenic overlooks, as well as a picture of Awosting Falls. I had been to Minnewaska State Park once before but hadn’t seen Awosting Falls, so that was the first stop once we arrived.

The Awosting Falls carriage road is a smooth gravel path that is a relatively short distance from the parking lot. We followed the Peters Kill River as it trickled over bare rock until it suddenly dropped away over a ledge. We found the top of the falls!

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The carriage road looped around downhill to the bottom of the falls. It continued to follow the river, but Pippin and I turned around at the bottom of the falls, because we had other destinations in the park and my knee had limited mileage capabilities.

 

Our next destination was an easy hike recommended by the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. To start the hike, I needed to either walk back to my car and drive to another parking lot or walk uphill to the Beacon Hill carriage road. I opted to walk directly there, making the whole day one long loop hike.

I walked slowly and cautiously, utilizing a walking stick to assist up and down hills. Pippin’s leash was attached to my belt loop, so he pranced along a few paces and then paused to let me catch up. He also stopped to greet other hikers and made lots of friends on the busy carriage road to and from the waterfall. The Beacon Hill carriage road, by contrast, was empty. It was a flat walk through the woods that seemed to go on and on, but was actually only about a half mile. It ended in a turnaround loop, and the trees on the far end of the loop gave way to a rock ledge. We stepped out onto the rock ledge and were rewarded with the best view of the the day. We were standing on the edge of the ridge looking northeast and had brilliant views of the Catskills, the Shawangunk Ridge, the Trapps, and the Hudson River Valley in the distance. I had seen magnificent views in the park on my previous visit (along the Gertrude’s Nose formation) and was delighted to find this beautiful spot as well.

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We took our time here, but the sun on the rock ledge was a little strong, so after taking in the view, we headed back into the woods to walk along the edge of the ridge on the Beacon Hill Trail.

I was trusting that the easy difficulty rating of this hike would mean that it would be knee-friendly. It was not. There was some elevation change as the trail climbed up and down, but the main problem for me was stepping on and off of rocks. I relied heavily on my walking stick and went very slowly and carefully. It was a good excuse to stop and take pictures, though.

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Adventure Pom hopped right up onto this boulder for a perfect (no filter!) photo op.

The trail ended about a mile later in a grassy field on the edge of the ridge that was dotted with picnic tables. We chose one in the shade and sat down for a snack and some water. I carried a collapsible water bowl for Pippin, which I filled with water from my Camelback. He lapped it up and lay down in the shade under the table while I had a banana and planned our next steps. The recommended hike looped all the way around Lake Minnewaska, but I didn’t want to over-stress my knee, so I decided to cut across the northern part of the lake for some nice views and head back to the parking lot via a carriage road.

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The first lake view we had was from this old gazebo.

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After climbing down from the top ledges overlooking the lake, we cut across the northern end for this long view across the water.

After taking some last lake photos, Pippin and I took the Sunset Carriage Road downhill back to the parking lot. I didn’t expect much from this last leg of the hike besides a pleasant walk in the woods, but I was delighted with one more view.

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Our last view of the hike felt like it was right in the middle of things, situated mid-mountain and giving a sense of height and depth around us.

After the last view, it was woods walking on the carriage road and then a walk on the paved road back to the parking lot.

My knee was relieved to be finished with the hike, but there was one more important stop to make before heading home – Mexicali Blue in New Paltz, NY. If you ever get the chance to go there, it’s the best burrito place. Period. I picked up a chicken burrito for G and got catfish tacos for myself (to share with Pippin, of course). Pippin scarfed up all of the inner fish bits that I pulled apart for him and then settled in for a nap.

Instead of taking the NY Thruway home, I took a longer, scenic route that wound through quaint towns and gave me some last glimpses of the Shawangunk Ridge.

The trip was both relaxing and invigorating. I relished the time outdoors and the opportunity to step onto trails and feel like I was heading toward a destination. My knee, fresh from a series of injections, was a little irritated afterwards, though not badly, and I felt that it was worth it for all of the good that the hiking did for my soul. And I especially loved the opportunity to hang out with Pippin.

Thanks for camping and hiking with me, little guy! I wouldn’t share my catfish taco with anyone less than you!

Give it a shot…or 5

A few people have been asking me how my knee has been doing, and for the first time since it improved but then regressed in 2015, I can say that it’s doing really well.

It will still take more time, but (knock on wood) I think I am finally on my way to getting back to myself.

The turning point was a series of hyaluronic acid injections. The injections are made into your joint and stimulate your cells to produce more natural lubricant. The needle is inserted into a muscle a couple inches away from the outer side of the knee and then under the kneecap (I think that’s how it happens. At least, the fluid reaches under the kneecap.) The brand I used was Supartz, which came as a series of 5 injections given once a week. It then took a month after the last injection to really take effect, and it could last for 6 months or more.

Injections like these are usually for patients with osteo-arthritis. I don’t have osteo-arthritis, which created some time-consuming run-arounds with my insurance company. After two months of denials and appeals, I decided to pay out of pocket. At that point I was frustrated with the lack of progress I was making in physical therapy, was gaining tons of weight from not being able to do the slightest exercise without setting the knee off, and was having a lot of negative thoughts about never being able to go for a bike ride again, let alone hike my favorite mountains or go for a run with my friends. There was also a nagging thought in my mind that I never really got a confirmed, clear diagnosis of what’s actually going on. I had pain on the inside of the knee, near where the meniscus is (but which does not seem to be a torn meniscus), which was diagnosed as tendinitis, and then had pain under the kneecap, which was diagnosed as patellar-femoral pain syndrome. What if there’s a small tear or something that will never be identified without actually opening it up in surgery and looking?

But I made the decision to go ahead with the shots. I agreed to pay $115 per injection, plus the co-pay for an office visit. About 2 weeks later, I arrived for the first in the series.

A lot of people ask if the shots hurt. The doctor’s assistant administering the shots would talk to me and interject “You’ll feel a bee sting now” or “Just some pressure now” into the conversation. I found that it hurt more if my legs were tense. With the first one, I was lying on my back and kept my toe pointed toward the ceiling instead of letting it fall limply to the side. The result was about 10 seconds of crushing pressure when she gave the injection. The next week I made sure to relax it completely and didn’t feel the injection at all.

 

Sprays and serums and needles, oh my

 

1st shot done

After the third injection, I noticed that I could walk the dogs down the road without my knee bothering me. I was so, so excited, as was my physical therapist, and she added a new exercise into my physical therapy routine. That didn’t work out so well. The knee pain came back, and then I had the added irritation of the sore injection site. So I took it easy for the rest of the series. The irritation ended up getting so bad that just fabric brushing up against the injection site burned like it was on fire. For the final injection, they used a slightly smaller needle, which would create less irritation, but it was a long time after that before I felt comfortable stretching, applying pressure to, or exercising that muscle.

 

Pippin liked to help me ice when I got home

I was advised not to exercise for 24 hours after each shot, which meant that I needed to find parking closer to work so I wouldn’t have to walk several blocks. For the first few weeks I lucked out with a paid spot right across the street from work, but then I really lucked out when the library director saw me icing my knee in the staff room before my shift and assured me that I could park in the patron parking lot for the duration of the shots.

I followed all of the post-injection directions to a T. I felt that the kneecap pain was not as bad, but things still felt off, since the injection site was so sore, and the original nagging twinge on the inside of the knee was still there.

After a couple of weeks, I tried to do a little hiking. The knee didn’t feel back to normal, but it didn’t blow up, either, which it would have done before the shots. Progress! I continued to pay very close attention to form and how I felt while walking, and I decided to try and add some hamstring and hip exercises into my home P/T routine. What a difference! We had been focusing primarily on the VMO quad muscle, but I think that actually created a bit of an imbalance after several months. I needed to work more on the other muscles in the upper leg, and once I did, I felt nearly immediate results. A week after this, I had a checkup with the doctor, who was happy to see that I was happy. Later that day, I had physical therapy and agreed with the therapist that I could continue on my own at home without coming in for P/T. Yay! I was on my way to recovery! Two days later I woke up with the inner part of my knee twinging, which it did on and off for a few days with absolutely no provocation. I was getting frustrated, but I kept up with the new physical therapy routine, and it’s been feeling great, with no random twinges, for about a week now.

I even jogged across the yard after the dogs the other day with no twinges, which is a major success. I’m not going to try running for many months, but I feel like I’m on the right track. I’m going to keep up with the P/T and get my legs evenly strengthened. I’ll exercise with a combination of walking, very easy slow hikes, and short periods of very light cycling. After a month of that with no pain, I’ll add in running drills, starting with the ones with less impact and gradually adding drills with more force. Only after doing that successfully for a month or two will I try running again, and that will be easy jogging mixed with longer periods of walking.

I still feel that it’s a possibility that something else may be going on inside my knee, and after all of this I might end up back at square one, but I had to try all of the non-surgical options first, and I think I might really be on to something here. I might finally be on the road to recovery!

Denied

My doctor suggested that I receive injections in my knee to create extra lubricant to coat the cartilage under the kneecap and make it glide smoothly. The injections last for 6 months and could give me the opportunity to do the physical therapy exercises necessary to fix the root problem without causing more irritation. At first I was resistant to the idea, because I didn’t want to do anything invasive that might cause issues down the road, but lately I’ve been extremely frustrated. In general, the whole situation has gotten progressively worse over time. Months after the marathon, I was able to do a variety of exercises to maintain fitness without adverse effects, but 2 and a half years after the marathon, I find myself unable to do even low-impact activities like light cycling without causing a months-long setback. At this point, the shots might really be the best solution.

So I told the doctor that I’d like to go ahead with the lubricant injections. And the insurance company denied it. And the doctor’s office appealed the denial. And the insurance company denied the appeal. And now it’s going into another appeal, and it’s been almost two months. I am so frustrated that if I don’t hear anything within a week I’m just going to pay out of pocket and get it done.

On a more positive note, last year I read an AT thru-hiker’s trail blog and recently started reading her regular-life blog. It turns out that she was diagnosed with runner’s knee way back in 2004. I don’t know the particulars, but she managed to heal it and get active again and thru hike the Appalachian Trail 7 or 8 years later with no knee issues. So I guess there’s hope for me.

Fiddling Around

It’s been an adventure of quite a different sort around here lately.

Passersby might suppose that we are harboring a particularly mournful cat in the screeching throes of death, but really, I’m learning to play the violin!

Those who knew me before recent times remember a Broadway fangirl who would play favorites from the “Scarlet Pimpernel” or “Les Mis” on any piano I came across. Once I began grad school, though, I fell off the musical bandwagon. I was busy with studying, working full time, maintaining a social life, and running. And besides picking out tunes occasionally, I just didn’t have the drive to practice piano anymore.

Fast forward 10 years or so.

I’m having lunch with a friend who’s the manager at my local library. We’re talking about unusual items that her library loans and which my library is thinking about loaning. She mentions the violins. I stop her mid-sentence – “The violins? You loan violins?!” And just like that, I realized how much I enjoy music and that I would totally love to learn the violin if I had access to one. (This comes as no surprise to my sister, who recalls my furtive attempts to sneak her high school violin when she wasn’t home and play around until I could figure out a tune.)

The day that the violin was ready to be picked up from the library, I raced from work to get there before closing so I would have it for the weekend. I brought it home so happy and excited, and when I picked it up and tried to figure out how to tune it, I realized that it was a lost cause. A year and a half of various people over-tightening strings and moving the bridge out of place made it so that the strings wouldn’t rest in the proper place. It was impossible to play. I disappointedly brough it back to the library and let my friend know that it needed to be serviced. And I told myself that since I had recently taken up a completely different hobby, it would make sense to work on that before jumping into something new and time-consuming like the violin. So I put it out of my mind.

Fast-forward to my birthday, when G made this happen:

My very own violin!

5 days after unwrapping this beauty, I took my first lesson, and it’s been nearly daily screeching ever since. My musical repertoire now includes classics such as Hot Cross Buns, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Old McDonald, and Happy Birthday. Hey, everyone has to start somewhere, right?

I’m so excited to get back into playing music again, and it’s definitely been an adventure. I’ve realized several things: I completely forgot how to read sheet music, I had only retained a vague understanding of musical theory, and the violin is a lot more difficult to play than the piano is. Most notes are formed by pressing a string on the neck of the violin and drawing the bow over the lower portion of that string, but the frets to place your fingers for the notes are not marked at all, and bowing takes a lot of practice to sound like anything other than a dying animal. Part of the difficulty is also that holding the bow and violin is awkward and unnatural, since the placement of your arms and fingers does not mimic any other movements that you usually make, so there’s no muscle memory. But this makes the experience such a fun challenge.

 

Practicing and working on improving my skills helps to fill the gap left by not exercising or training for races. And it’s exercising my mind, too. I had forgotten how to read music, but I studied the notes and dowloaded an app that helps me practice identifying them. In just a few days, I’ve mastered the treble clef once again, and I enjoy the feeling of looking at more complicated songs and knowing that I’ll eventually be able to work up to them.

Looking back over the past couple of years, I can see that I made choices to pursue my passions in the outdoors, and I was reaching down into myself through raw, physical exertion and determination. There’s an artistic and creative side of me, though, that has been hovering just beneath the surface, and it’s taking the opportunity now to show itself. It’s inspiring to uncover this part of myself, and I can’t wait to see what it can do.

Ever on.

Accepting limitations

The best feeling for me as a runner, cyclist, and hiker has been knowing that you can do anything that you set your mind to do.

I’ve strongly felt the sentiments inspired by the motto “faster, higher, stronger”. All kinds of athletes feel this drive to push their limits and achieve success. It is so freeing, empowering, and inspiring to know that the sky is the limit. But lately, I’ve been feeling that I may be better off staying close to the ground.

I found that I could always go faster and get stronger, even in spite of setbacks. There were always new goals to set and horizons to reach. Half marathon? Done. Cycle 60 miles to raise money for a new library? No problem.  Full trail marathon? I did it. On the long training runs/hikes in the woods preparing for the marathon, my heart had already set its sights on ultra races, and the siren song of the trail called for an epic thru hike.

But as weeks, months, and years go by without my knee recovering from that marathon, I have to be realistic in my expectations and honest about what I really want in the long run.

So, here it is: Honestly, I will never be an ultra runner, and I will never thru hike the Appalachian Trail.

Maybe those endeavors seem too big or dangerous or difficult to seriously consider in the first place, but they were real possibilities for me, and admitting that I won’t be able to pursue them just sucks. After all, I’m used to building and chasing dreams, not casting them off.

So now I’m stuck in a bit of a no-man’s land where I feel the sadness that comes with abandoning dreams but am still trying to remain positive about my recovery and hopeful about the future I do have.

It turns out, luckily, that acknowledging limits is not giving up. As I said, I have to be realistic in my expectations and honest about what I really want, and being the fastest, highest, and strongest that I can possibly be for a short period now isn’t as important as being active throughout my whole life.

Honestly, for me, a lot of the appeal of these achievements has been that they’re achievements. They are quantifiable accomplishments that I can be proud of. But what I’ve really, truly, taken away from these activities has been the experiences. When remembering my first half marathon, I think back so much more on the feeling of coming up to the finish line and giving it all I had on the boardwalk along the ocean than I do about the medal they put around my neck for finishing.  And I think I can get a lot of positive and fulfilling experiences without chasing “sky’s-the-limit” type goals.

I do not, by any means, want to lessen the incredible accomplishments made by bad-ass athletes, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that I don’t need those accomplishments to derive happiness from my outdoor pursuits. I don’t need to hike thousands of miles to camp under the stars and wake up to the sounds of loons calling. I don’t need to run 30 miles to get a runner’s high. And section hiking sounds pretty awesome and is waaaay less physically damaging.

So far, I have been rewarded with 2 years and 3 months and counting of inactivity for running 26.2 miles in one morning (ok, one morning and half an afternoon). I’ve missed out on hundreds of miles, races with friends, mountain adventures, backpacking, triathlons, duathlons, and so much more. Running a marathon was such an incredible experience, and I deeply wanted to go back and try it again injury-free, but I’d rather not risk a long-time overuse injury again if I can help it.

I will always want to push my limits and try to improve, but I think that I can put hubris aside and channel that drive into a variety of activities. I may not be able to be the best at any one thing, but life can be incredibly full and satisfying in so many other ways…

And, it goes without saying, that there is more to life than outdoor/physical activities. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how grateful I am for my general good health, fulfilling job, and loving family and friends. My time off the trails and on the couch has given me the opportunity to read, write, and craft, and there’s a lot to say for all of that, even if I am antsy to get moving again. 🙂

Ever on, my friends.

Planning a road trip

One of my best memories of 2016 was a cross-country road trip to Colorado. We camped along the way in a roof-top tent, which was a great experience, despite some minor drawbacks, and I loved seeing the country that way. Now that 2017 has rolled around, instead of making new year’s resolutions, I’m planning this year’s epic trip.

I started planning after G commented that he definitely wants to visit a particular bucket-list destination sometime this year. He usually leaves trip-planning to me, so I started Googling and reading up on what the vacation would involve.

It turns out, quite a lot.

I won’t be plotting out every single thing we do, but a multi-faceted trip does involve a lot of basic education about where we’ll be going. Here is some of the preliminary planning I’ve worked out so far:

I plugged in the main destination on Google maps and looked at the suggested route to see what else there may be to see along the way. I checked my “destinations” bucket list  to see if we should hit up any other must-see sites, and there were quite a few sites that I thought would make the trip fun. The stops quickly added up, and after calculating which days we would do what, I realized that this trip needed to focus more on features closer to the main destination and less on specific sites along the way. This probably seems like it deprives the road trip of the “on the road” aspect, but I feel that it leaves room for spontaneity. Now we can spend time stopping for breaks in random little towns we happen upon rather than bee-lining for the next stop. Some of my favorite road-trip experiences were in places we would have never known about if we hadn’t stopped for lunch or fuel or just on a whim.

I looked for campgrounds that will accommodate our needs. With the roof-top tent, it’s important to be able to drive into a campsite onto level ground with enough room to open the tent out on the side. I also looked for options besides for-profit campgrounds, like camping on public lands and whether or not camping permits are required. Also, timing is really important when making reservations. Almost all of the RV sites are already filled up for 2017 holiday weekends in this area, and getting a camping permit can take several weeks in some parks.

Are dogs allowed? That’s the most important question to ask if I want to bring my favorite fluffy trail buddy, Pippin. Not only must we find a campground that allows pets, but I have to take into consideration whether or not dogs are allowed in the parks or on trails that we might want to use. As it happens, one of the state parks I want to visit on this trip does not allow pets of any kind. I either have to change the possible activities we’ll do, leave Pippin at home with a sitter, or plan on buying a camper with a/c that can run for him while us humans are off adventuring.

The activities we plan on doing are weather dependent, so I built an extra day into the schedule as a rain date. If the weather is good, we’ll  have that extra day to enjoy the awesome scenery and parks in the area.

Research is really important in determining when to go. I read blogs and information sites recommending what to avoid, like mud and mosquito season.  I had a certain week in mind until I also checked weather archives on Weather Underground. I researched the temperature and precipitation in that location for the same day of the month going back 10 years, as well as the monthly precipitation, and I decided that doing the trip the following month would give us a better chance of good weather.

This trip will definitely take us well out of cell-phone reception range, but it won’t be uncharted territory. We just need to be prepared to navigate with print maps and iPad downloads.I already found a website that gives step-by-step directions of the logging roads to our main goal using a specific Delorme atlas, so I know what to buy/download.

There are a couple of things to consider before setting any plans into action, such as what vehicle and camping gear will we need and be using. We’ll need to decide if we’ll go with the roof-top tent or a more substantial camper. A camper will be better for cooler temperatures and may allow us to bring Pippin, but it may also be more involved in terms of requiring more fuel and special camping needs like water hookup or waste-water disposal.

I also need to read up more fully on the destination’s rules and regs, which, in addition to camping and pets, may includes vehicle height/length, campfires, and more.

I also have to check out accessibility and amenities. I plan on taking a different route home, which may take us through some remote areas. It will be a good idea to know where and when to fill up on gas to get in and out safely.

I still have a lot more research to do and decisions to make. This was only day one of planning! But now I have a rough idea of what the trip will involve. In the weeks and months to come, I’ll revisit last year’s trips in both the roof-top tent and a 4-wheel camper to go over the pros and cons and what we might want to change for 2017’s adventures.

Ever on!

The Main Event: In which I hang off the side of a mountain for fun


A couple of months ago, G nonchalantly asked if I had any interest in going to Telluride, CO with some of his friends who wanted to mountain bike there. My answer was “OF COURSE.” I had never been to Colorado, but everything I had heard about it made it seem like pure magic. Mountains, endurance races, mountains, aspen trees, mountains, rock climbing, and did I mention mountains? There was no question that I wanted to go.

I did a little research about Telluride itself. An old mining town that was once notorious for its saloons and brothels, it is currently a thriving ski town located picturesquely in the valley of a box canyon.

I would not be joining the guys mountain biking, so I looked up what other activities I could do. Hiking seemed to be the natural choice, but I nixed that idea due to the fickle state of my knee.

I came across some websites about what is called the “Via Ferrata”, a phrase that means “iron path”. It’s a hiking path that traverses a ledge sideways across the face of one of the mountains of the box canyon. Hmmm. Walking straight on a trail instead of climbing up. That could work, right? The kicker for the Via Ferrata though is the “iron path” part of it. Somewhere in its geologic history, the ledge that the pathway follows broke away from the mountain, leaving nothing to step on to, until endurance runner and rock climbing legend Chuck Kroger came along. Unbeknownst to any authorities, he installed a system of steel cables and steps and handholds in the national forestland to create a safe passageway across the mountain. Where the path drops off, there are rungs to hold on to and a cable to attach a harness to.

The Via Ferrata was completely illegal when it was completed about 10 years ago, but authorities in the national forest have since allowed adventurers to use it. I found two mountain guide organizations that lead hikes over it and decided that if I did nothing else for the entire trip, I would traverse the Via Ferrata.

About a month before the trip, I called up San Juan Outdoor Adventures to make a reservation. I made it for myself, with the possibility of adding another person or two at the last minute. I chose this guiding company because they offered so many conveniences to make it run smoothly. Included in the trip was gear, pick-up and drop-off at my accommodations, and even snacks during the hike. They had me at snacks.

When the trip was finally upon us, G and I drove out to Colorado while the rest of the group flew. We towed a trailer with all of the guys’ bikes (mountain bikes and dirt bikes) and stayed overnight in campgrounds in our roof-top tent along the way. We only stopped when necessary (besides a brief but mandatory detour to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison) so we could maximize our time in Telluride, which was a good idea because there was so much to do once we got there!

On our first full day, two of the other ladies went horseback riding with me. I hadn’t been on a horse since I quit lessons when I was 5 years old, so it was a little scary when we headed right into the trees to ride along creeks and through aspen groves. It was almost like hiking, but without trashing my knee!

I was so excited about the riding and everything else there was to do that the Via Ferrata took a backseat in my mind. Telluride was filled with things to see and do in celebration of the July 4th holiday, and on one of the days, G treated us girls to a drive on Jeep roads over Ophir Pass to Ouray, where we had lunch with more awesome mountain views and hiked to Cascade Falls.

 

The time difference from the east coast was kind of rough on me. Every day I awoke feeling pretty fresh and awake at 5 am, but I was so excited by everything that I usually couldn’t get to sleep before midnight. I knew that it would catch up with me eventually, and it did – on the morning of the Via Ferrata hike.

When my alarm sounded at 6:30, I fumbled around to turn it off feeling simultaneously like I was in a fog and like I had just been hit by a truck. I tried to sleep in a little, but I ended up just lying awake feeling groggy. The trail guide would be arriving at 8 am, so I finally dragged my sorry butt out of bed and headed upstairs to get some coffee.

G’s buddy had decided the night before that he wanted to join me (coincidentally, his name is also G – from here known as GB). He was already up and finished with breakfast as I tried to force my mind into alertness with caffeine. Then I scurried around and tried to get my gear together. When the guide knocked on the door, I wasn’t quite ready. I finished filling my hydration pack, grabbed my climbing gear, and scooted out the door, feeling totally unprepared.

Somewhere on the way I realized that I had forgotten the cord for my prescription sunglasses to catch them if they somehow fell off. This annoyed me and added a level of unease. I was pretty quiet on the drive there as GB and the guide, Tyler talked, and I wondered about whether the hike would irritate my knee and if I was steady enough on my feet to capably handle the unprotected parts of the trail. I wondered if the coffee I drank would hit me in the middle of the trail where I couldn’t do anything about it. I wondered and felt apprehensive.

When we reached the trailhead, we began gearing up, and I was able to take care of unresolved coffee business before getting on the trail, which made me feel a little better about starting out.

Ready(?!) to start the Via Ferrata

Tyler rigged up some ropes to mimic the steel cable we would be using and showed us how to clip in. The gate on one of the carabiners on my lanyard stuck a little, so Tyler swapped it for his. The lanyard is a device specifically made for via ferratas that connects your harness to the cable. If you fall, extra rope uncoils to prevent snapping of the rope or excessive shock to your body.

After our tutorial, we were ready to begin, and it got real.

The first bit of trail crossed a waterfall and went immediately up. So much for babying my knee. I had been acclimating to the altitude for a couple of days, but I was still huffing and puffing on this short but steep climb. Tyler asked how we felt when we reached the top and I replied “tired.”

Luckily, that was the most strenuous part. We looked out at awesome views of nearby Bridalveil Falls cascading down the opposite slope and the town of Telluride in the valley. It was incredible. Tyler reminded us that we could stop for views at any point, but while walking we had to watch our foot placement.

The path was narrow and had a lot of loose debris that we had to be careful not to knock over the edge onto rock climbers below.

We were outfitted with harnesses and lanyards with carabiners, but honestly, they were useless on 80% of the hike. The cables were only installed in the absolute most dangerous sections. That meant that if you weren’t careful of your footing, you actually could fall off the mountain.

I took this very seriously and was extra careful while walking. That also meant that I stopped for pictures every few minutes, making for a very slow hike.

The slow pace might be what saved my knee, because the technical terrain was certainly not sparing it. I couldn’t help but wonder when it would blow up and leave me limping, but it never did.

Around 12-12:30 we arrived at Kroger’s bench, a metal bench installed at the east end of the “main event” (the main event being the scary section with nothing but rungs to hold on to).

Here we stopped and snacked on trail mix and granola bars. GB and I snapped some pictures and chatted with other hikers. The guide checked his gear. I took off my rain jacket and stowed it in my pack, but I put it on again after seeing two guys come right back after starting because they needed an extra layer.

The main event rounded a curve, and the other side of the cliff, not yet touched by the sun, was wicked cold in the wind without a jacket. We enjoyed the views as we waited for the other hikers to suit up and get a head start.

When it was time for us to start, I was a little scared, but mostly just excited.

Tyler went first and demonstrated how to place your feet in the corners of the rungs for the most stability. I grabbed hold of the rungs and began making my way sideways.

It didn’t take me long to get really, really scared.

After about two or three moves to the left, the rungs dropped down several feet. For a split second I froze. GB later told me that there was one time when he could see fear in my face, and this was it. I watched Tyler move down with ease, but being 6 inches or so shorter than him, I had to reach further, and I couldn’t figure out how to shift my weight properly to do it. Talk about trial by fire. This was just the beginning of the scary stuff!

Tyler gave me some tips, and as I executed the moves with 400 feet of air below me, he said “That’s Contortion Corner.”

“Good name,” I thought. I grasped the next rungs, and I was more confident. The moves weren’t as tricky, and I was thankful to see that I was past the crux moves at the beginning of the route. Trial by fire, yes, but it wasn’t too much of a blaze.


I was still terrified, but I was actually able to concentrate pretty well. I slid the carabiners on the lanyard along the cable and found a stable position to hold on with one hand while moving the ‘biners over the bolt with the other hand.

Every once in a while I would doubt the traction of my shoes and rely extra hard on upper body strength. “Trust your feet” I reminded myself, as I so often do in the climbing gym. I wasn’t wearing rock shoes, though. For this adventure I had resurrected my Brooks Cascadia trail runners, which hadn’t seen the light of day since I wrecked my knee running a trail marathon in them 20 months earlier.

The Cascadias were a tad flexible for this activity. Light hiking shoes probably would have been better, but despite my doubts, the trail runners had plenty of traction.

I also had good traction with my hands thanks to lightly-padded cycling gloves (heavy padding would have been too bulky).  Knowing how sweaty my hands get, I didn’t want to risk slipping off the bar, and some half-finger gloves really did the trick.

I won’t pretend that I wasn’t scared. My legs were shaking around Contortion Corner, and I was vividly aware of the consequences of falling every time I looked down at the next rung to place my foot above the abyss.

For every bit of the main event, though, I was able to keep my head and appreciate the sheer awesomeness of it all. Looking past my feet to the valley floor hundreds of feet below me was unbelievably beautiful and both humbling and empowering at the same time.

This was not conquering the mountain. It was stepping up and attempting to be worthy of its harshness and ruthless grandeur. Because nature, by nature, is not calm or peaceful or benevolent.

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When we reached the end of the main event, we paused and took in what we had just done.  Had we been hiking the full Via Ferrata across the entire mountain face, we would have looked over our shoulders at the exposed wall and its rungs and then continued westward on the footpath. But the full Via Ferrata involved a lot of downhill hiking at the end. When I had booked the reservation, the owner of the guide company recommended only doing the half-day hike to make it easier on my knee.

So after the exhilaration of completing the main event, we went right back and did it again in the opposite direction. Not only was this ridiculously awesome, but the guide was able to take our pictures as we made our way back across the main event on our own.

When we all reached Kroger’s Bench again, Tyler opened up a black canister at the edge of the bench with a log book inside – the trail register. Every hiker who comes through should sign the register. GB wrote our names and a short message for himself. For me, in shaky adrenaline-fused print I wrote:

A badass librarian was here!

The rest of the hike was just as beautiful as it had been before, but all of my trepidation was gone, making it even more fun. I took more pictures than a hollywood paparazzi and practically glowed. And to top it off, my knee didn’t blow up. (It wasn’t perfect, but the “bad pain” I’m used to getting never materialized, and icing it back at the condo warded off any lasting pain.)

The end result? An awesome, awesome experience that ranks up there with running my first marathon (just without months of training or a lasting injury…).  My trip to Colorado was magical, as I expected, but the Via Ferrata was truly the “main event”.

 

Cool kids sleep in the air

Later this summer, we’ll be packing up and heading out on a road trip to Colorado. The journey to this magical land of epic mountains, endurance racing, and aspen trees will take a full three days of driving, and we plan on staying in campgrounds along the way.

But in no ordinary tent shall we sleep. Nope. The cool kids don’t lay on rock-strewn ground all night – they sleep in the air.

Introducing, the roof-top tent:

It’s a 3-person Tepui Autana tent that mounts onto bars on a vehicle’s roof rack. It unfolds out, and the part that extends out is supported by an adjustable ladder.

One of the things that will make this tent helpful on the road is an annex attachment that isn’t shown in the pictures. It is a full enclosure with a doorway out and a window to access the vehicle that zips up around the extended part of the tent around the ladder. This gives you a room with some privacy that you can stand up in to change, as well as space to put some belongings, chairs, etc.

With a mattress and tons of space, it’s practically luxury. I love the higher vantage point as well. It’s not exactly a tree house, but close!

And Pippin approves. He’s spent a night in it with me, and every time we set it up, he goes to the ladder and asks to go up!

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Pippin loves the new nest.

The set up and take down is doable for me, although it’s a little tough, especially in the dark. G has both processes down to about 10-15 minutes each, but it takes longer for me because I’m too short to reach things easily, like the spring wires that hold the awnings out and folding up the ladder after it’s lifted onto the roof.

I can’t believe how neatly it packs away. It doesn’t take up too much space on top of the vehicle, which will make traveling backroads and low-clearance areas easier than with many camper options.

The only problem I can foresee is if there are strong winds. There are a lot of flaps of canvas that can get caught up in gusts, so I’m hoping we don’t see too much of that!

Overall, though, this tent looks like it will be great for our trip there and back. I can’t wait!

Not running, but always a runner

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Cut out the early morning jogs. The meet ups with running buddies. Pushing through that last mile. Exploring on foot. Racing in a sparkle skirt.

Cut it all out and see what’s left.

Last week, my friend E ran the Boston Marathon. I found everything I needed to track her and kept tabs on her throughout the day. I watched the elites battle for the win and watched E’s pace change as the weather grew hotter and wondered what it was like for her. After over three and a half hours, I watched as her little figure on the tracking software turned onto Boylston St., and I felt with a thrill the excitement of the home stretch and the promise of that finish line.

I may have cut all of the running out of my life, but what’s left is still a runner.

I’m also a cyclist, librarian, climber, and archivist. This past year and a half, the free time I’ve gained from not running has allowed me to actively pursue these other interests and to broaden my professional skills. It has made me more well-rounded and more effective at my job.

But I still ache to lace up my shoes and go for a run if the weather’s nice or I feel stressed. I ache to watch friends run races while I’m stuck on the sidelines. I ache to run and hike again, and I can’t help but feel guilty about it sometimes. I feel whiney when someone asks how my knee is doing and I start going into detail about how it was good last fall but I returned to exercise too fast and now I’m back to the beginning and probably won’t race again for at least 2 years. I feel whiney because, in the grand scheme of things, running really isn’t all that important. I’m still generally mobile. I’m healthy. I can enjoy life. So many people out there have devastating problems, and I am lucky enough to have so much love, support, and happiness.

I recently watched a rock climbing video about a climber who was tackling a personal challenge on a climbing route in Spain. In the video, he put into words these feelings I’ve been having about running:

“Climbing doesn’t really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time it gets complicated when your whole identity is wrapped up in it and you put all this value into something so simple and meaningless as climbing a rock…It’s like challenging your self worth.” -Ethan Pringle in Ethan Pringle and La Reina Mora (5.14d)

The acts of running or climbing don’t necessarily have significance in and of themselves, but they are things that we choose to apply our time and talents toward, and as we draw significance from them, they become part of what makes us human.

I’m thankful that I have the life I do, with the luxury to pursue my interests and hobbies for fun, and I’m lucky to be a runner at heart.

While running isn’t important in the grand scheme of things, it’s part of my identity and how I share my life experience. And if that’s what you’re left with after stripping away everything else, it counts for a lot.