Friday May 8th was a gorgeous spring morning in Idaho’s mountains: clear skies; brisk temperatures hovering around freezing; early sun rising above the eastern horizon, breaking through the branches of the tall forest trees. My dog Conall and I were exploring single-track dirt trails that are finally emerging from their long snow-covered winter sleep. A few patches of snow remained, but that just increased the fun factor for our run. (Finn reluctantly stayed home; we’d all run in the forest the two previous days and at 12.5 years old I’m careful that he not overdo things.)
Ten days earlier the boys and I had run a portion of this route. Some of my favorite wildflowers – Douglas’s grasswidow – were just emerging on a secluded hillside then, so I was eager to revisit that place on this beautiful morning.
About two miles into the run, though, I did a face plant.
I’m here to tell you that when this sort of thing happens – tripping while running trails – in a split second reality slows enough for your brain to register that doom is imminent and that Oh shit this is going to HURT! is your last thought before hitting the ground. You know you can’t prevent the inevitable contact and pain, so acceptance – and trying to mitigate the damage – is your only choice.
For a series of seconds after full-body contact with the ground is made, you do a quick internal assessment before moving: Is anything broken? And then, Did anyone see? Because, how embarrassing, right?
Testing each limb slowly and carefully and getting a reassuring lick from Conall, I got up and dusted myself off. Thankfully no one was nearby.
One lesson learned in my years of trail running: get back on the horse.
So we continued our run.
Actually, “getting back on the horse” is just one of many valuable life lessons I learned from my father. In mentioning a horse, he was being both literal and figurative. I was a typical horse-crazy girl child, a passion he indulged as much as an urban parent could. He made sure I knew that should I ever fall off a horse – whether bucked off, or slipping off during riding – I needed to get right back into the saddle. If I didn’t, I risked nurturing a fear that would prevent me from ever riding again. He stressed that the same lesson applied to all risky childhood activities: bike riding, snow or water skiing, climbing trees.
Of course he did. He was an experimental test pilot. Hard to imagine a more risky job. His gift to me was extrapolating the attitude he took into the cockpit every day to the daily challenges I would face in my own life.
Get back on the horse.
Don’t let fear rule your life.
Of course, getting back on the horse also involves knowing how to fall off the horse.
Tuck and roll, he said.
I’m not sure when that particular lesson was first given me by my father, but it was early. Probably while learning to snow ski at age five. Or maybe when the training wheels came of my Schwinn Stingray bicycle around the same age.
The lesson of tuck and roll in a nutshell: In order to prevent breaking bones in arms and legs when falling, tuck your arms in toward your chest, and roll to one side so that the brunt of the impact is on your shoulder and hip.
I got lots of practice as a kid.
That practice has paid huge dividends in my adult life, especially running trails, where tripping is inevitable.
It paid off big time on my Friday morning run with Conall. I tucked, but barely rolled because there’s wasn’t room for that. But by tucking, I didn’t break an arm, and I avoided direct contact between my head and other parts of my body and some large and very hard boulders.
The weird thing about these falls: your brain has plenty of time to register what’s coming and plan a reasonable way to avoid complete disaster (death). In this case, I instantly saw the danger of the large boulders on both sides of the narrow trail. I knew I was going to hit the ground, hard. I knew if I twisted slightly so that my right shoulder hit rather than my left, I could probably avoid contact with either boulder, so that’s what I did.
My instincts didn’t fail me. I landed precisely between the two boulders, most of the impact landing on my right forearm (“tucking” means bending arms inward), followed quickly by my right hip and thigh. I sustained a six-inch long scrape on my forearm – despite wearing long sleeves – as well as a minor scrape on my hip and some slight bruising. But that’s all. Nothing broken.
Unscathed, as trail running falls go.
Five minutes later, continuing down the trail, the pain of the scrape on my forearm disappeared – endorphins are a wonderful, magical thing! – and my focus returned to the beautiful landscape around us. I accepted that I’d suffer later; hard falls like that one tend to cause new leaks in my spinal column, exacerbating my disability with weeks of increased headaches. But you know what? That’s a risk – a benefit/loss calculation – I’m willing to assume. Time on the trails in the forest with my dogs is worth it.
When Conall and I reached the open hillside that was my main objective, I wasn’t disappointed. Douglas’s grasswidows were abundant. Purple is my favorite color, so I was in nirvana.
Conall waited patiently as I took many photos.
Here are some photos of wildflowers seen on that Friday morning run – both before and after my fall.
Life lessons: Tuck and roll. Get back up on the horse. Take calculated, smart risks. Go outside. Live.