Recently I’ve been scheming with fellow blogger Arionis of Just a Small Cog about sharing stories of things going wrong out on the trails, whether hiking or running or whatever activity one enjoys (could also be biking, walking, kayaking, climbing, skiing). I had enjoyed reading one of Ari’s posts about a long-distance hike on the Appalachian Trail with his son where things did not go according to plan. I was reminded of my own not-quite-to-script trail run in the Grand Canyon years ago. Don’t most people regularly venturing onto trails have similar stories? Tales about those times where you survived, but just barely? Maybe you got lost, or weather closed in, or you fell, or a companion got hurt or sick…? Maybe you even needed a rescue. Having survived, the details of what happened form some of your most-told and entertaining stories, right? Your most epic adventures.
I reached out to Ari and we agreed to share our individual, most “epic trail fail” stories on our blogs on the same day – Tuesday, December 3rd – while asking other bloggers to share their own stories with links back to ours with the tag #epictrailfail. If enough stories are shared, we’ll figure out a way to collect and post them in one place for all to enjoy. (More specific details will be included in the December 3rd post.)
How ironic, then, as Ari and I are nailing down the details of this joint project via email over the holiday weekend that I head out into the snowy forest with my dogs for a run and have a #minortrailfail. And that got me thinking about another recent example. I have so many! I know I worry family and friends with my solo trail running adventures, but my life circs now are such that I either go out with just my dogs for companionship, or I don’t go at all. I’m careful, and have decades of experience. Although I admit, some of that experience is hard-earned. Still, I’ve never had a true near-death experience, and I attribute that as much to good common sense as luck.
As a teaser, here are two examples of minor trail fails, the most recent with photos and video:
**November 30, 2019, I took my dogs up in the forest for a trail run along a creek near home. We run and walk here often; I know the trail intimately, where it’s rocky, or where tree roots try to trip me. With 3-4 inches of fresh snow, footing for me was a little slick, even with YakTrax on my running shoes. Fist-sized rocks that would normally be potential ankle-twisters were buried under the snow and less of a concern. Snow has a way of smoothing over trail features, making running easier. But suddenly a twig sticking up through the snow caught the shoelaces of my right shoe, causing me to fall fast and hard onto my right knee, which – of course – hit a rock buried in the snow. I swore, a lot, but not too loud; I didn’t want to upset my dogs, who looked at me curiously as I kneeled in the snow, cursing. This fall was painful.
After standing up and dusting snow of my pants, my internal dialog went something like this: “Shit. That hurts! Should probably head home. We’re only a mile from the car. Keep moving, keep warm. Like a twisted ankle, it’ll hurt worse if I stop moving; blood flow is good. It’ll swell and ache even more once I stop, at home. I likely won’t feel like running for a day or two. Better run more today, while I can. The boys want to run. It’s a nice morning, snowing lightly, not too cold, sun’s peeking through clouds. Okay, we’ll keep running.” I started moving again, carefully, testing my knee. I had full range of motion. It just hurt like hell. But a minute or two later the pain was subsiding. By the time I got to the point where we accessed the forest and had an option to hang a right and follow an old logging road to add some time and mileage to our outing, I pointed with my right arm and said to the boys, “That way!” The dogs happily complied, and I followed for another three miles. The more I ran, the better my knee felt.
**Back in 2014, before Conall joined my pack, I was running a trail with Finn, a trail I was familiar with, having run it many times. A quiet and cool weekday morning in early June, as far as I knew there was no one around for miles. I was feeling strong and happy.
On a fun section of easy, winding downhill single track, I picked up my pace, reflecting on how good I felt. Mistake! Oh, the hubris. Suddenly I’m pitching forward, flying like Superman but just inches above the ground, not even enough time to get my arms fully outstretched to break the fall with my hands. I remember thinking in fast succession, Caught a toe; oh shit, that root… just before hitting the ground at the base of a tree, a full-body slam with elbows hitting first that briefly knocked the wind out of me. It’s hard to describe, the quick sense of doom that flashes through your brain when you know you’re about to hit the ground, that it’s going to hurt. It’s awful. I saw the tree root rapidly approaching my head and despite my efforts to slow my fall, momentum brought my face into contact with it. I was at least able to turn my head at the last moment so that I hit with my cheek rather than my nose. Once air refilled my lungs, pain immediately flashed through my face. Did I break my jaw, or my cheek? I lifted my head slowly, then got into a sitting position and carefully assessed the damage. I put my hand to my jaw, pressing gently, moving my mouth. I didn’t feel any sharp or unusual jabs of pain, just an overall dull pain from the impact. Finn stood nearby, wondering why we had stopped, why I was sitting on the ground. I stood up, a little dizzy, and told him we were turning back.
We were about two miles from the trailhead, all of it uphill. Part of me hated wasting a gorgeous trail-running morning by cutting it short, but the rational part of me realized that I was a bit stunned by my fall and shouldn’t be pushing things. I might fall again. We made it back to the car without incident.
My jaw, however – or more precisely the molar at the very back of my upper jaw – continued to cause pain. A few days later I visited my dentist, told him what happened, that I suspected a broken tooth or jaw. He took x-rays, said everything looked fine and sent me home. Three months later, still in pain and the source clearly being that molar, unable to chew on that side of my mouth, I returned to my dentist. Another x-ray, again showing nothing. Finally, after nine months of pain, I returned and asked that the tooth be removed. He wasn’t sure it was necessary, talked about a crown instead, but at $1,000 for a crown and $100 for an extraction, I opted for the latter. Good thing, too. As he started the procedure, my dentist says something I really didn’t need to hear as my mouth is wide open, his dental tool grasping and tugging at my molar: “Oh wow, oh wow!” he says. I’m trying to not panic. I can’t talk – my mouth wide open, his fingers there, him peering in, trying to figure out how to proceed. I can’t ask what he sees. Talk about feeling helpless! Finally, he explains, “Your tooth is fractured down the middle! No wonder it’s been hurting! I’m surprised you could tolerate the pain! I couldn’t have done a crown after all. Okay, I’m going to pull it out now. Are you ready?” That last sentence was followed by several seconds of the most awful pain I’ve ever felt as he pulled first one half, then the other half of my tooth out, root and all. My hands were grasped tightly together, bloodless, in my lap. It felt like the root attached to the tooth – surely it’s a foot long! – was being pulled from deep inside my head, angry and unwilling to leave, fighting the entire way. It felt like my brains were being sucked from my scull and out through my mouth. Suddenly, every old west movie I’d ever seen as a kid, showing a tooth extraction requiring lots of whiskey, made sense. My dentist proudly showed me both pieces of molar, nestled in his blue-latex-gloved hand. I figuratively bit my tongue rather than reminding him, snarkily, that I’d been right all along, that I’d fractured the molar during that fall and he should have believed me. Thankfully, once my broken tooth was removed, the months-long pain almost instantly disappeared. Of all the trail running injuries I might have anticipated over the years, a broken tooth wasn’t even on the list.
Caveat: Trail fails are truly a minor part of the overall outdoor experience, even if they provide fodder for the majority of remembered and oft-told stories. My “fails” comprise a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of trail miles on my legs. Risk is everywhere, and to me, the risks I take running trails are minuscule compared to those of, say, driving a car or other aspects of daily life, especially in a city with its crime and pollution. So please don’t judge me too harshly. To me, the risks are totally worth the experiences gained, for me and my dogs. I couldn’t live any other way.
So many stories! Have you got some of your own?
Check back tomorrow, Tuesday December 3rd, for my #epictrailfail in the Grand Canyon story. If you’ve got #epictrailfail stories of your own, I hope you’ll post them to your own blog in the coming days and weeks, sharing a link in the comments to my Grand Canyon story so we can all marvel and learn.
Featured image: Finn and Conall enjoying the trail that decided to bite me on the morning of November 30, 2019.