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A Bad Break

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Knocked out of Hardrock

As I turned downhill, my legs churning underneath, I glanced up at the powder-white Continental Divide 20 miles westward. Fresh snow …

Illustration by Jeremy Collins

As I turned downhill, my legs churning underneath, I glanced up at the powder-white Continental Divide 20 miles westward. Fresh snow muffled every foot thud, leaving only the sound of my breathing alternating with the panting of my dog, Chief.

That’s when my left foot found a patch of ice. It slid, then caught a rock, bringing my ankle to a sudden halt. The trouble was that momentum carried the rest of me downhill.

A sudden pull. Maybe a snap. Did I hear a tear? Like a split-second sound of sinewy meat ripping apart. I bellyflopped several feet down the icy slope, and stopped. My run was over. So were my plans to run the 2008 Hardrock 100-miler.My ankle sat grossly askew from my lower leg, 45 degrees off-center. On the medial side, a golf-ball-sized deformity bulged and traces of blood seeped through my sock. My foot dangled precariously, as if only the skin attached it to my leg.

I began to crawl down the jeep road, stopping every 50 feet to cry out for help. Silence. Soon my tenderized kneecaps could feel each granule and pebble. My ankle didn’t hurt … yet. I had to reach the main road, at least a mile away. Chief stuck beside me, occasionally licking my cheek to encourage me.

Finally, a local out checking his mailbox heard me. “I thought you were a cat in heat,” he chuckled, while calling 9-1-1. EMTs arrived, strapped me to a gurney, and headed down-canyon toward the hospital. While the ambulance cornered the first of countless tight curves, my body shifted into violent shivers. That is, until one EMT gave me a painkiller cocktail. Sweet Jesus, bottoms up.

I went into surgery right after the doctors reviewed the x-rays. It took a plate, a screw and three pins to set my fractured fibula. The crew also sutured my ruptured ligaments into place. “You’ll be better than new,” the surgeon reassured me, as I popped Vicodin like breath mints.

Two weeks later, I lie on the couch with my bare foot elevated. It looks like Frankenstein’s forehead, with 20 staple scars down both sides. My 14-month-old son walks by, pointing at my crutches. “Those are Dada’s extra legs,” I tell him. He just started walking a week ago—and I am anchored.

Beyond a large window in the living room, I trace an evergreen-lined ridge up a mountain, a singletrack trail just visible near the top. I’ve been up there; it’s Nirvana. This is pure torture, hobbled while looking at it, like visiting the Coors Brewery after leaving rehab. I can’t have alcohol with these painkillers, either.

I check my voicemail one morning, finding a message from a dear trail-running friend who knows about my injury. She launches into a blow-by-blow of her “glorious 20-miler” that morning. I punch “7” on my phone’s keypad and delete her message before hearing the rest.

At the local gym, I make sure to wear old race T-shirts—Wasatch Front 100, Spring Desert Ultra, Mountain Masochist 50—as a reminder of my goals beyond recovery and physical therapy.

But right now those goals seem as implausible as me building a time machine and returning to the fateful day of the injury. How can I plan to run 100 miles, over multiple mountain passes, when it’s a battle to get across the tile floor to the toilet?

Then I recall a quote from a legend of our sport, Ann Trason. After one of her epic wins in the late 1980s, a TV broadcaster posed the obvious question, “How do you run 100 miles?”

Ann shrugged. “I just run from tree to tree.”

“Could it be that easy?” I wonder quietly, three weeks after the break, as I limp forward on a morning walk. My dog runs to sniff an oak sapling 10 feet ahead.

Garett Graubins is former senior editor of Trail Runner. He’d gladly trade a temporary handicapped parking permit for a race bib later this summer.