Bad to the Bone
You can go down fighting, but you’re still going down
Photo by Igor Tavella
My friend held an X-ray up to the window in my small third-floor apartment in the Dolomites, looking deep into my bones. I looked right through them, to the east face of Antersaac, a glistening brioche against a turquoise sky.
In the four and a half weeks since breaking my fibula in a skiing accident, I’d spent entire days staring at that beastly siren. I’d anthropomorphized her rock faces into human ones. Mostly I watched her personality shift, as continually and fluidly as the planets turn.
In morning light, she was a white-streaked peach. Midday she slumbered, peaceful but not resigned. Sunset was the great awakening, with alpenglow like none I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. She’d shine from the inside out, the deep pink of a country ham.
Two days earlier, I’d strapped on crampons, limped into her folds, and survival skied her west couloir, an invisible line from where my friend and I now stood.
The friend took the film away from the window and studied it mid-air. She must have seen this done on TV. She works for the Forest Service.
“Ah. I see the fracture.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
I’d come to Italy for six months to learn ski mountaineering. I thought it could give my body a break from running 12 months a year. Running was everything to me, but it was stale. This was my first planned break in nearly 20 years.
I reasoned that, if nothing else, I’d rack up some bomber red blood cells and possibly score an Italian lover. The problem was, as always, with the lover. Without meaning to, I’d fallen wildly in love with ski mountaineering.
Last week, a real doctor had grilled me.
“You cannot walk, and you’re asking if you can ski?”
He again studied my X-rays, taken three weeks earlier in the ER.
“Sure. Go ahead and try,” he said, laughing. “You will see how much you can ski!”
I leapt off the table and hugged him.
I skied every day after what I took to be that green light. Some days were almost normal, others horrific. I could block out the pain, but sometimes when I tried to turn or to weight the ski, the leg just wouldn’t, leaving me confused or tumbling down the mountain. Perhaps somewhere deeper, my mind was protecting the leg.
Yet each morning, when I gently maneuvered my broken leg into a ski boot, I sang with joy. I was outside the window, participating. Not elegantly. Not even well. I was covered in bruises from the times my leg gave out. I finished last in a few races. By the end of the season, one quad was a grotesque meatball of muscle, and the other, a Slim Jim. But I completed the season, and I’d rekindled my enthusiasm to run.
Returning to the States, I tried to switch back carefully. For the first week, I ran six miles a day, a pittance of my former 120-mile weeks. Running felt so good I ignored my lopsided stride. I ignored the sharp pain the imbalance caused in my back.
Running is different things for different people. For me, it has always been the place where I have to be the most honest with myself. My relationship with running is always changing, but one constant is how it forces self-examination. Especially when I’ve been resisting.
The second week back, I started running 10 miles each morning. I
lied to myself that this was a conservative approach.
Then one day after a run, I felt a horrible pain in my back. It wouldn’t stop. I went to see my doctor.
“Phew. I thought I broke my back!”
“Oh, you did.”
“You said bruising?”
“Your bones are bleeding, on the inside. Many doctors consider it a fracture. I am one of them. Although it’s not something that shows up on an X-ray.”
I couldn’t believe it. I’d skied mountains and finished races on a broken leg, and now I was flattened by a few 10-milers?
“But when can I start running again?”
“When there is no pain.”
I hadn’t been without pain in months, maybe years. I’d spent my life maximizing pain, not avoiding it. I knew how to be bruised and broken, how to laugh when I wanted to cry. But how to exist without pain? I couldn’t imagine it. Would it feel like sleep?
I had to confront my biggest fear: of the sidelines.
Could I find stillness without resignation? Peacefully let nature run its course? I had no choice. This time when I thanked the doctor, I stayed seated on the table.
Jenn Shelton can be found fracturing bones and sentences in the American West. This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.