THE FALL AND RISE
“This is the race for the loving of the nature, not for the winning.” — C.S. Pandey
A drop off to the left. Watery gunk to the right. Two coordination-challenged legs, dumb and dumber. With 1,500 feet of descent to go, I was running on a dry, solid berm on the trail’s edge when my right foot aimed for a large grassy clump and landed on nothing.
Under the clump wasn’t ground, but air, which I was now falling through. I’d just run off a cliff.
About six feet down, tipping backward, I crashed into a grassy shelf. My head and back slammed to the ground and my right leg crunched butt-to-ankle like an overflexed spring. Pain rocketed through the hyperextended knee like fireworks.
Quickly, I inventoried. I got lucky with the grass—back, arms, left leg, butt, camera were all OK. But the other knee was a mess, screaming and throbbing and swelling. I could barely bend it. How in the hell was I going to make it down another 1,500 feet?
DLS (Dumb Leg syndrome) impacted everyone. Hours earlier, Lars Drageryd, a 22-year-old Swedish marathoner, fell in the same neighborhood and severely twisted his ankle and torqued his Achilles tendon. But slowing down wasn’t an option, as he’d quit his job to take a 30-day train trip across Russia, Mongolia, China and Tibet to come to this race and win. An expert descender, he’d made a furious comeback to catch the leader, Chris Solarz, a 32-year-old Wall Street hedge fund analyst who’s done 500 races, 200 marathons and won at every distance from 5K to 66-story stair climbs (in under eight minutes at Rockefeller Center, for example). For 2,500 vertical feet, the two passed and re-passed each other, cutting corners and aiming for the flat, dry spots. “I usually never fall,” Drageryd said. “But this terrain is so steep and my legs were so destroyed.
When Drageryd went down, Solarz went out of sight. But he had dumb legs, too. “They were jelly,” said the New Yorker. “They buckled 20 times. My hamstring was seizing up. I kept tripping. My ankle was busted up. Something had to give.”
The Swede caught him before the river. Running all-out, inches apart with three paved miles to go, the pair crossed the hanging bridge and stumbled into a minefield of wet rocks and mud. “What do you say we call it a truce and nobody gets hurt?” Solarz offered. “I’m glad you asked,” Drageryd said.
They crossed the finish line together with raised, clasped hands, each saying later that their 5:01 finish at the Everest Challenge Marathon was the greatest race of their lives.
I can’t say that day three was the greatest of my life, but it did lead to a lesson I won’t forget. Maybe it was even an epiphany.
Hobbling half-speed down the mountain, I was seemingly passed by everyone—Walter, Julia, two Irishmen and a Scot, a limping Englishman using hiking poles as crutches, and 69-year-old Bob Boeder of Silverton, Colo., a former Peace Corps Africa specialist and author of the underground classic, “Hardrock Fever,” his five-time attempt to finish Colorado’s Hardrock Hundred endurance run, which has a Himalaya-ish 33,000 feet of climbing and average elevation of 11,000-plus feet.
I was thoroughly depressed, but not from being passed. My knee was so painfully swelled up that finishing the last 30 miles on days four and five seemed impossible. I hate not finishing, and launched into a tirade of self-loathing. Why didn’t I walk? Why didn’t I train more? Why did I ever think I could do this in the first place?
But in the midst of my pity party, I saw a construction worker, about 30 years old, on the roadside breaking rocks with a sledgehammer. It was the kind of thing you see in a prison movie.
Suddenly, I was embarrassed. I’d spent so much of this day—this whole race, actually—obsessing over how much my body hurt that I hadn’t appreciated how fortunate I was. I was in India, in the Himalyas, on this fantastic journey into the world’s most epic mountains. The rock-breaker and I were in the same place at the same time, but I was on an once-in-a-lifetime vacation and he was in for a lifetime of hard labor. What did I have to complain about? A hurt knee? Not finishing?
Was the simple message “think positive” my epiphany? A mile later, deep in thought, I realized I hadn’t even thought about my knee. Yes, it was a mess; I had trouble sleeping the next two nights, but focusing on the pain definitely made it worse. In fact, I came to the conclusion I had actually brainwashed myself into getting hurt.
I got through the 13 miles of rainy-day four by practicing my low-impact barefoot-style running technique and singing a three-hour rendition of the Gene Kelly classic, “Singing in The Rain.” I walked all 17 miles of day five with Solarz, his wife Bea and Chuck “Spittin Image” Terry, a 34-year-old ultrarunner/bartender from Alabama who I’d hung with all of day one, where I noticed that he spits every 60 seconds. For the entire six hours of our last-place finish, we told funny stories, shared “Namaste’s with the kids and took pictures of the funny English-language Indian highway signs (such as “Don’t Learn Safety By Accident” and “Know Safety No Pain, No Safety Know Pain”).
All the while, I thought about the deep pain in my knee (and my hips butt, and back) for about two minutes.
About a month after returning home from the Himalayan 100, my body was back to normal, but my mindset definitely had changed. Now I’m certain, as Pandey told everyone decades ago that running, trekking and adventuring in the mountains is “essential.”
This piece first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.
About The Author:
Freelance writer Roy Wallack has authored several books, including “Run for Life: The Anti-Aging, Anti-Injury, Super-Fitness Plan to Keep You Running to 100” (2009, Skyhorse Publishing).