The Bad Leg Blues

I haven’t written about this until now, because a) it’s boring, and b) it’s self-inflicted and therefore nobody’s fault but mine. But it’s also instructive – and it might help explain why I’ve been a little quiet and subdued on the front page of late. On top of writing a book and hopefully finishing a house, it’s been one thing too many to handle and stay sane.

Back on February 15, I had a nasty ski fall on Hunter Mountain. I’d just started training for my first attempt at the Pine Hill Arms Triathlon – skiing, biking and running over at Belleyare Mountain – and in the previous week had taken on more than my usual share of downhill racing, uphill biking and regular running. On Valentine’s Day, we got dumped with the first long-overdue snow storm of the year, and with school closed and the roads almost impassable, Campbell and I battled through the blizzard and enjoyed a powder day on Hunter. We don’t get that opportunity too often and, believe me, it was a blast. The next morning, school was canceled again, and I decided to head out to the slopes once more – even though my body felt absolutely beaten from the previous week’s work-outs. It struck me over breakfast that if I wanted to hit the mountain I should take a ski lesson – powder skiing is very different from the packed snow/hard ice conditions that are typical on Hunter, and I had a spare voucher I’d yet to use – but once I talked Campbell into coming out on his snowboard, that idea was moot.

We took an early lunch and Campbell said he was tired with making turns on the ice-hardened moguls and asked if we could go home already. I recall feeling unusually worn myself. But we still had more slopes to conquer! More turns to make! More powder to unravel! The fact that it was subzero, and gale force winds were tearing the fresh snow off the mountain, revealing typically treacherous east coast ice under the surface, mattered not.

The deep snow on the front of Hunter had already been turned to hard moguls an hour before my fall on the west side.

I paid the price that first run after lunch. A hundred feet or so ahead of my son, I whizzed down one of my favorite runs, the ultra-fast but deceptively difficult Way Out and, instead of slowing into a turn on a known awkward patch, tried to turn sharp on it like I was in the gates. The westerly wind had whipped the snow off the surface, and I hit hard ice as I turned. My right leg hyper-extended, pushing my knee so far back I felt something snap. And then I lost control. As I somersaulted a couple of times, I remember thinking, firstly: “Wow, I’m glad I’m wearing a helmet.” And then, “Did I just tear my ligament?” I came to rest with my skis crossed, my right leg bent all the way up to my butt – the agony of the hyperextension now doubled by having snapped my leg back all the way while the muscle had been fully extended in the opposite direction. It took me a solid minute to get out of my bindings in that position (they should by rights have released themselves on impact), my son looking a little worried and trying his best to help.

Moral #1, as if I didn’t know it already: Don’t ski on tired legs. Know your limits and listen to your body.

And then, after taking a minute or two to get my breath back, I ski’d the rest of the (black) run with Campbell, got on the lift at Hunter West, and gingerly ski’d all the way down the front of the mountain. It was painful getting my boots off and walking back to the car, but I still kept my promise to sled on our front lawn with Campbell. I warned the wife that I’d likely be in agony the next few days, iced down the inflammation – and the next morning, the first thing I did was shovel away two foot of snow in front of my office. In other words, I was in pain, but I could walk. According to my amateur sportsman’s internal medicine book, that meant I was okay. I decided to take a couple of weeks off, alternately resting, icing and stretching my leg until the inflammation decreased.

Given the above, you wouldn’t think such an injury would come back to haunt you, would you? Or would you? I did recount here at iJamming! how, a whole week later, I suddenly started getting blinding headaches during the night, ones that only dissipated after I’d been up on my feet for a few hours. Though my primary doctors assured me this was probably ‘post-concussion,’ and would go away in the fullness of (however much) time, my wife – whose brother was cruelly taken from us by a brain tumor that was discovered too late to be cured – insisted otherwise. I went off to Benedictine Hospital for a Cat Scan, which revealed no bleeding on the brain, but did show something unexpected and unexplained: an unidentified “mass.” All the experts assured me that it was probably just a leftover mass from something I’d suffered as a child, like a stroke (a stroke?!), and not likely to be a malignant tumor.

The MRI and EEG confirmed their suppositions, but the two weeks waiting to have these tests weren’t any fun – my frustration amplified by the fact that while the headaches had by now subsided, my right leg was still sore as hell. In fact, when I went to my doctors about the head-aches, my primary took a look at the leg and assured me it would likely heal itself. And so, after resting it for two weeks solid, I decided to pick back up and see if I could still do the Triathlon, then just three weeks away. It was sore to run on at first, but not impossibly so. I sent in my application for the race and took to my usual stretching regime.

Setting out on the final, running leg of the Pine Hill Arms Triathlon. Do I look like I’m having fun?

Training for the Triathlon, I found that I could still run and ski without too many problems. It was the cycling that was difficult. Too many times as I pushed down hard on my right leg to climb a hell, it felt like that leg was going to go through the floor. In the hope of easing that problem, I borrowed an ex-pro’s touring bike a few days before the race, but it with particularly brutal gears, and when I tested out the hilly course a few days before the Triathlon, I disliked it enough that I tried to find someone to take over the bike portion of the race. (You can do this Triathlon as an individual or part of a team.) No one came forward, and I should have pulled out of the race, but since when does common sense prevail with Type A Personalities? So I pushed myself through the big day with as much of a smile on my face as I could manage. I finished exactly half way up the field; for a first-timer carrying a genuine injury, competing with proven triathletes who do this race (and others) every year, I’ll wear that result as a badge of pride. (And stupidity.) But, still…

Moral #2: Don’t race if you’re not fully fit and trained. You won’t enjoy it, and that defeats the purpose.

I decided to give the leg another two weeks to recover after this. It wouldn’t have been too bad if we weren’t enjoying a belated ski season; there had been another big snowfall in mid-March and it was all I could do not to head out to the slopes and make full use of my season pass at Hunter. But I knew my body needed the recovery. And besides, even though we were getting lots of late snow, ski season would be over soon and then it would be running time again. Late in April, I entered our running club’s first Grand Prix event, a four-miler in Kingston. When, at the starting line, I showed fellow runners how little stretch I had in my right leg, a couple of them looked at me as if, even among fellow madmen who run with injuries, I was certifiable. I then did something I never normally do. I ran slow. I was almost as proud of the ability to do so as if I’d scored a PR.

But by now it was obvious: the leg was not going to get better of its own accord. I’d tried stretching, resting, running, skiing, biking, stretching and resting. It was now ten weeks since the fall and my right knee would still not bend back more than halfway. I went to the local sports therapist. She pointed out what I probably knew, that I was now way off balance: my left leg had been compensating for my right, and the difference in muscle mass was alarming. My right leg was atrophying. When she heard out my tale of the accident, she suggested that I might well have torn my meniscus. Nothing too much to worry about, she insisted; doctors can get in with a scope, fix it up and have you back and enjoying your sports within a few weeks. I looked it up on the Internet, started asking around. She was right: a torn meniscus (the cartilage that runs horizontally around the knee) is not that uncommon, especially among athletes, and fixing it these days is relatively easy. I could live with that.

To convince myself to run slow on the first race of the spring season, I took a camera for company. It helped: I finished the four mile race a full three minutes behind last year’s time.

I went back to my local doctor; he took a look and confirmed that he didn’t think it could be anything worse than meniscus. Hadn’t he told me it wasn’t even that bad, I asked? Yes, he had, he agreed. What more could he say? He was still surprised it was proving so stubborn, especially knowing my propensity for sports. Time to get me off to an orthopedist and an MRI on the leg, which would hopefully reveal the injury. Now the fun would really begin.

Moral #3: Don’t engage with the American health care system unless you have abundant amounts of time, energy, $20 co-pays – and a love of bureaucratic bullshit.

Next: Avoiding bad doctors and how technology hampers.

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