August 30th, 2015. On this day two years ago a dog ran into my bike. I crashed. I was mad that a dog put a big kink in our awesome cycling vacation. Little did I know at the time how much a seemingly “minor” injury would change our lives. Yet here I am, two years later and still recovering. We just finished up our first vacation since then, a celebratory (gorgeous, fun, really hard and frustrating) road trip to southwest Colorado. But first, let me back up…
Since my last post, I’ve been pushing my training both physically and mentally. Shortly after that last post I somehow, accidentally on purpose, registered for the IMTUF 100 miler in Burgdorf, Idaho. This meant it was time for another big training push, and a lot of planning and logistics to get organized for an out-of-state race.
Over the last few weeks some URT folks have done some great training runs together. We went up to Rocky Mountain National Park to run the North Inlet – Tonahutu Loop, followed by the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and finally the Four Pass Loop around the Maroon Bells in Aspen, Colorado. These three gorgeous backcountry marathon-distance training runs didn’t feel like training. They were just playtime with friends and spectacular wildflowers. Last summer I ran the North Inlet-Tonahutu Loop in RMNP, but I couldn’t have handled either of the other runs. Between simply getting to the trailhead in Aspen, or the numerous big water crossings of the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop, or the hours spent on rocky, technical trail, both loops pushed my limits even this year.
Normally when I run it improves my symptoms, maybe because my brain is getting increased oxygen and dopamine levels. I don’t have to think, I just put one foot in front of the other. With sustained technical running, however, my brain can start to struggle with the effort to maintain focus. Towards the end of the Four Pass Loop, I was getting a migraine and feeling pretty mentally exhausted. We came to a creek crossing that involved stepping on one rock, and jumping to another. The six people in front of me had no trouble, and although I probably could have done it the week before, that day I couldn’t do it. I froze. Coach Cindy came back out on the rocks saying, “You’ve got this. Just jump. You can do it. I’ll catch you.” My whole body started shaking as the panic set in. I turned back to the shore, put my head down and started crying. My brain was done. There was no more pushing. Coach Cindy came over and hugged me, and took my hand. We walked through the water together and got our feet wet. It was not a big deal. There was no reason for the tears, and yet when I reach that level of mental fatigue and the panic sets in, there is no stopping the tears.
After Four Pass Loop, we stayed overnight in the area, and the next day we drove over Independence Pass (again, since we had driven over to get to Aspen) to hike up La Plata, a nearby 14,336′ peak. We started the hike and I was in a fog. About a mile from the summit I told the group I was turning around. With the way I was feeling that day, I knew the descent would not be fast and I needed to turn back while I could still get down on my own. As they continued up, I slowly and cautiously picked my way down the mountain. Although I’ve summited 50 of Colorado’s 14ers, it is not something I can easily handle now. Once the group returned to the trailhead we headed to Twin Lakes to cheer on friends running the Leadville 100, and that is where Josh picked me up to start our vacation…driving back over winding Independence Pass for the third time in three days, and already in a bad mental state.
Our road trip involved a visit to friends in Glenwood Springs, followed by a drive to Telluride where we spent two days. We then drove around to Silverton for a two night backpacking trip. The drive was terrifying, and there was a lot of gasping, shrieking, and trying not to cry on our way to the Highland Mary Lakes trailhead. (Yes I realize a lot of people aren’t comfortable with narrow roads, but prior to my crash, I had driven myself up some pretty sketchy 4WD roads with no problems. I would like to take this moment to thank my husband for not simply leaving me on the side of the road somewhere.) After a very cold night, and feeling like my head would explode with the sound of the rain on the tent, we bailed on the planned second night and headed back into Silverton to stay at a bed and breakfast. We managed a beautiful hike/run the next morning to Ice Lake and Island Lake, then I napped, soaked in the hot tub, and unsuccessfully tried to psych myself up for the next drive.
We stopped several times along our 4 hour drive, including a brief stop in Ouray to stretch the legs. Josh helped me stay vertical as we (very slowly) hiked 1/4 mile to see Lower Cascade Falls. Mercifully, we finally reached Salida, and stayed there for the night. That night I was symptomatic enough that while brushing my teeth I needed to hold on to the counter to keep from falling over. All of the driving had really taken a toll, and three days later I am still recovering. Was it worth it? Hopefully the pictures are enough to say yes, but it definitely wasn’t exactly the wonderful, relaxing, quality time together that I had both hoped for.
A TBI friend shared this post with me on the last day of our trip, and it seemed fitting:
As far as I have come, and as many things I can do now that I couldn’t a year ago, I am still far from “normal”. Yes I can run, but I continue to struggle with symptoms. I crack under any perceived stress or pressure (hence crying at the water crossing), and struggle with cognitive fatigue, disorientation, nausea, anxiety, light and sound sensitivity. So what do I wish others knew about traumatic brain injuries? I will say this – I’ve run ultramarathons – 50K, 50 miles, 100K, and 100 miles. On my bad days I feel FAR worse than I ever felt during or after that 100 miles. The fatigue and mental fog can be crushing. Recovery is slow and frustrating, and sometimes your brain doesn’t cooperate with your plans. It is important to keep trying. Surround yourself with people who will push you to try; and be willing to catch you when you fall. There may be days when you don’t have what it takes to try and make that leap, and that is okay. Just walk through the water and get your feet wet. As long as you are still moving forward it doesn’t have to be pretty. As long as you are still moving forward, you’ll eventually get there.
Running IMTUF 100 means getting on a plane and flying to Boise, ID. We will stay there for a day to try and recover before tackling the 3 hour drive north. I’m much more concerned about actually getting to the start line than of the race itself. Although this race is much more technical than my last 100 miler, and I don’t know if my brain will hold up. There is a good chance that things will go very poorly, but there is only one way to find out.
So here is to getting through the last two years, and here is hoping the next year brings even more improvement!
TBI to the NEXT 100 miler …16 days to go.