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Going Downhill Fast

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“Just how much running are we talking about?” The ER doc peers at me as he asks.

Prescription in hand for a shoulder spasm—the apparent result of a Quasimodo-like uphill running pose—I am bargaining. I have an advantage. The doctor is thinking mellow suburban 5Ks with a golden retriever in tow. I’m staring down the barrels of two Euro mountain-race entries: the Mont Blanc Marathon, with 9,800 feet of climbing, then, later in the season, the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix, 62 miles and 20,000 feet of vertical gain.

I’m behind on training. We need to get to yes.

I skip the sum of vertical, the fact that my running is on remote trails and the reality that it’s often too much even for my hyper-spastic dog.

“Mostly stuff in the woods,” I say. “I go slowly.” I maintain an earnest expression.

The trauma case next door is groaning; the physician needs to move on. He dispenses a perfunctory green light, and I’m gone. I hit the pharmacy, gulping a muscle relaxant on the way out. At home, the sequence plays out like an award-winning fire drill. Ninety seconds later, the dog’s riding shotgun and the tires are spitting gravel toward the trailhead. Back in the house, my civvies are in a heap by the front door. In the car, I’m playing the White Stripes.

I’m lethargic, though, as I grind up the Brookside Path  in the Northern Presidentials, New Hampshire. May cause drowsiness, the label read. Do not operate heavy machinery. Am I a heavy machine? Cautious, I drop my speed. No more injuries. In three weeks, I want to be on a plane for Chamonix.

Eventually, I find my groove. I round a hard corner and hit a junction. I’m staring right at the asses of a smartly dressed L.L. Bean-type couple. Too close to say anything without inducing coronaries, I glide silently past. They’re oblivious. I could have snagged that Clif Bar she had in her hand. Confidence restored, I pick up the pace.

An hour later, it’s game on. Two summits behind me, I’m screaming down the rock-strewn, fall-line Valley Way on Mount Madison. I have always loved running down technical terrain. I am Bode Miller. I am Mario Andretti. Friends have pointed out that I sometimes make racecar noises at these moments.

There’s a Zen paradox at the heart of downhill running. “I almost don’t think at all. I just respond to what’s in front of me.” That was the speed climber, BASE jumper and trail runner Dean Potter, talking about rock-hopping as a kid, in the river that’s just north of me, in Randolph Valley. He was right, and it applies to running downhill, too. When you’re just responding, the clutter of life falls away and you focus. Dean, who died last year, wrote, “My body naturally goes where it’s supposed to.”

Except when it doesn’t. Inside my skull, Pfizer’s patented molecules have turned on the smoke machine. I misstep, hitting a greasy water bar.

The Theory of Relativity says time slows when you fly. That’s been proven true, and now I find another data point. I get lots of time to process exactly how stupid I was. You finessed it with the doc, and this is what you get … Never seen the ground from this perspective … That rock sure looks sharp. Here it comes.

Thwack!

“You again?”

The ER doc is walking out as I arrive. His shift just ended.

From my days as an EMT I know I have at least two broken ribs. The bleeding into the chest cavity I will find out about soon.

For once, I have the perfect rejoinder.

“Yeah,” I mutter. “Things went downhill.”

Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix, France, where he runs the trail running tour company, Run the Alps. He completed the CCC trail race without a single hospitalization.

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.