Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

This Is Not The Way I Planned It

This is not the way I planned it. We haven’t hiked in two weeks now. But things happen for a reason and it is better to be injured now and sick now than when calendar winter is unleashed and comes barreling down the road at us.

I had hoped to get a jump on winter as we didn’t do the past two. The first winter I had a difficult problem with a tendon in my foot that made each descending step feel as if it I were stepping on a nail. It started in the summer and never got better until Susan Atwood got her healing hands on me in the spring and worked the offending tendon healthy.

Typically I die going up hill, but once on a peak I’m fine, even if there are other peaks to go because the lengthy pain of a long climb is behind me. But in that first winter I’d struggle to the top and then on the descent I would limp home. Often times my descent would take even longer than the climb took. That first winter I will never know how I hiked at all, never mind getting 41 peaks done. I suppose I can blame it on my stubborn Irish side.

Then again, I’m used to pain in my legs. I grew up with a lot of it. From eighth grade through my senior year I was in four different full leg casts on my left leg and numerous immobilizers. I underwent two surgeries. This was because of a growth plate problem. In those days simply laying your fingers on the head of my tibia would have me screaming. In high school people got used to seeing me on my mother’s old crutches.

Later in college, when I started running a bit at the University of Kentucky, I had a problem with the anterior tibialis in that same leg. It is the muscle that runs down the front of the shin. The solution was simple, a fasciatomy. I received a local and the doctor took the scalpel and split the skin on the front of my shin. Because I was a student athletic trainer at the time and studying sports medicine I wanted to watch the process. I was fascinated! He split the fascia holding the muscle in place. (He also relieved the pressure around the peroneal nerve.) Then he left the fascia open and stapled my skin closed. Simple as that. I was walking within a couple of days. However, that first surgery didn’t take but a second one did the trick and since then that problem has been solved.

I can remember hiking from Mt. Jefferson through to Pierce a couple of summers ago with a woman who had done the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. When we finished she was tired and limping with sore legs. She noted that her legs never felt that way after a hike and she nearly always felt fresh. I told her my legs always felt that way after a hike. In winter they are so sore at the end of the day I often times need help getting my boots off. I sometimes wonder just how I will hike the next day but by the time morning rolls around and I hobble out of bed and get dressed my feet and legs feel better.

During that first winter, with my foot problem, well, let’s just say there were more than a few nights when I woke up crawling to the bathroom, literally crawling.

Last fall I didn’t get much hiking done either. Just weeks before winter began I was treated for Lyme Disease and over the first month of hiking I hiked through exhaustion. Eventually the medicine worked and I was fine but that first month was a test.

The goal this year was to get plenty of hiking done in the months leading up to winter so that I could hit the season running. That hasn’t happened but I’m not worried. For me it will simply be business as usual. My first hikes simply will have to be slow hikes. But what’s the hurry? I live up here now and don’t have to hurry back to Newburyport.

There is a bright side of this, as there is to nearly everything in life. By the end of last winter I was mentally exhausted. My hikes were no longer fun and I dreaded going on them. But that’s the price you pay when you set a goal to hike 96 peaks in 90 days. I have run five Boston Marathons in my life, the last being when I turned 29; have done three Ironman distance triathlons, the last being when I was 29; and I can’t remember any of those endurance events when I didn’t say “screw this” at some point during the pain of it all. And yet after it was all over, the pain was a distant memory.

(*By the way, for those of you wondering, back when I was marathoning and triathloning, I was no slim specimen then either. I have always had a football player’s frame with the dreams of a distance runner. Talk of conflicts!)

So the bright side of missing some hikes this fall is that I didn’t want to make myself hike when I didn’t want to before winter started for those days will surely come. The cold or flu bug that I have now and the injuries to my calves and my leg sprain has seen to it that I will at least be mentally fresh.

I’ll most likely give my body a couple of more days of rest and then hopefully hike three days in the week leading up to winter. Then when December 22nd rolls around the aches and pains will be here to stay until spring comes.

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