Friday, August 8, 2014

Foot injury- Out of the boot

I’m finally out of the boot (i.e. “walking boot”), and have taken my first tentative steps on local trails.  These past 6 days mark the start of a transition period- testing out the foot to see if the stress fracture has healed completely.  Happy to say so far, no alarming pain, but I'm still not ready for backpacking.
First dayhike.  Western States Trail near Auburn, CA.
I had a tough time figuring out when to stop staying off my foot completely.  I spent an extra week wearing the boot over what the doctors suggested.  I decided I wanted to wait two weeks after it stopped hurting at all, 7 weeks total since getting off the PCT.   It helped that I went and visited my parents in Wisconsin.  It was easy to relax there.  Mom took me shoe shopping pretty much every day- I had a heck of a time finding new "sturdy and supportive" hiking shoes like the doctors recommended.  Now I’m back at Steph’s house near Auburn, CA, taking it one day at a time.

Day 1
The first day without the boot, my foot felt strange, stiff, and unfamiliar.  Like it wasn’t really my foot.  I tried not to panic when I feel the twinges of tightness and nerves.   With every tentative step, I keep expected the sharp stabs of pain to return that would indicate the healing isn’t done.  But they never did. 

I decided I didn’t want to hike that first day.  Instead, I went kayaking and paddled my heart out.  Oh the pent up energy!
Kayaking on Loon Lake in CA.
Walking on the shore of the lake to set up camp, I laced my feet into my new supportive hiking shoes.  The shoes felt oppressively stiff.  I couldn’t feel the ground.  I was wobbly and off-balance.  Oh how I missed my zero-drop, comfortable trail runners.  Even more I missed feeling agile and strong.

At the end of the day, the darkness of doubt flooded over me.  I was fearful those twinges were really the bone whispering that it wasn’t done healing.  I poked and rubbed the bone and tried to feel what was going on in there under the skin.   Was this the so-called phantom pain, or normal tingliness due to the callus and calcium buildup at the site of the injury?  Is the foot ready to start easing into hiking or does it want more rest?  I got frustrated because I don't know.  I hated that I don't know for sure.  I should know, right?

Day 2
Day two without the boot I was too afraid to take a hike.  My foot felt so strange just from walking around the house.  My foot reminded me of a plant that withered due to lack of rain.  All skinny, shriveled, translucent.  A tiny fragile creature.   Where had my muscular, weathered and calloused, boulder-hopping, mountain climbing feet gone?  How could I have been the strongest than I'd ever been my whole life, hiking 940 miles on the PCT, and then just 7 weeks later, be so weak and uncomfortable.
Was it really only two months ago that I was skipping across boulders in the Sierra?
It felt like I was inhabiting an unfamiliar body.  Doubt flooded my heart.  What was I still doing dreaming of the PCT?  Maybe I should give up, find something else to do.  I felt so lost.  Tears streamed down my face.  Then I got three emails from three awesome friends asking "how are you doing and how is your foot?"  How did they all know to check on me?  My mom told me on the phone that my uncle experienced the same tightness when he took off his boot.  And then Still Waters talked me through my fears.

I resolved to go for a hike the next day.  I was grateful that Arizona offered to walk with me.

Day 3
On my first 3-mile dayhike, I slowly ambled along a flat section of the Western States Trail above the American River.  I felt like I was learning to walk all over again.  I kept waiting for the stabs of pain to return, but they never did.  I thought about how lucky I am to have ended up here, so close to this awesome place, and I thought about of all the trail runners who compete in the 100-mile endurance run along this famous trail.  In contrast to those incredible athletes who'd journeyed on this trail before me, 3 miles shouldn’t be a big deal.  But those 3 miles were (mentally) exhausting, and took all the bravery I could muster.  When I made it back to the trailhead, I was incredibly relieved. 

Day 4
Another day of rest.  I walked less than half an hour on the way to go swimming in the pond.   I didn't want to overdo it.  I massaged my foot and iced it.  The stiffness was a little better.  My optimism renewed.

Day 5
For the second dayhike, I walked 4.8 miles and lost/gained 1200 feet in elevation.  No sharp pain, but my balance was off.  I felt like I was a baby learning to walk.  The tamest stream crossings had me stepping gingerly, testing each rock.  Side trails beckoned with the sounds of waterfalls, but I dared not go down, not trusting my feet on the steep paths.  Where is the line between being careful and being fearful?
Carefully checking the stability of each step on a tiny stream crossing.
I went for a new personal record for slowest hike ever.  I picked blackberries until my hands were sticky with purple juice.  At the turnaround spot, I swam in the refreshingly cool water of the American River.  I remembered to savor every moment and to be appreciative of where I'm at right now.
Going for a swim in the American River.  Smiles not miles.
In the evening, my foot felt random tingling twitches and the muscle felt a little sore.  I rested, iced it, and massaged it, feeling glad I didn’t hike any further.

Day 6
Third dayhike.  6.2 miles.  I was more in the moment and more in my body.  I still kept listening for a sharp stab of pain that would tell me the stress fracture hasn't healed.  But all I got were twinges and stiffness.  The twinges have me concerned but my other, non-injured foot is stiff and twingy too.  I can't be certain if it’s the new shoes or from not walking for 7 weeks or if the stress fracture hasn't healed completely.  I wonder if I'm being overly sensitive or a hypochondriac or if I'm in denial of an actual problem.  I can't tell yet so I poke at my foot and ice it and do google searches for "phantom pain stress fracture."
Stopping for a rest break to ice by foot with my frozen water bottle.
I understand now why thru hikers don’t return to the trail after a stress fracture.  Recovery requires so much patience.  I wonder why I can't give up on the idea of returning to the PCT this year.  Why I can't go do something else for a while.  It would probably be different if I had a home or a job to go back to.  But the PCT is all I can think about.
A broken wing isn't stopping this butterfly.


  1. It takes time to heal and more time to have confidence in that healing. Each day will be better. Thanks for the blog, we had been wondering about you.

  2. You've been in my thoughts and was happy to see this post today. Unlike so many you are being wise and taking time to acclimate. Confidence will come. I'll be heading to WA around the 22nd if you'd like a ride or if you want to join me for that adventure.

  3. That butterfly photo and its caption was the perfect way to conclude this post!!

    So glad to hear the boot is off!! The next phase begins!!

  4. I was wondering how you were doing. Glad the boot is off, you're back to hiking and the dream of hiking the PCT is still alive. And so you begin again...

  5. We have been waiting for this blog to see how you are doing. Wondering if you will get back to the trail, or try again next year. Whatever you decide to do, you have the support of the Nature Ramblers at the State Botanical Garden.

  6. We hope you get back on the trail soon, healthy and happy. Skypilot and Mulestomper