[Author’s Note: “I have to write things down to fully comprehend them.” (Murakami) This is my effort to gain some comprehension. I’ve run in the mountains for 32 years and live in the north of England. Reading this piece back reinforces a couple of thoughts. There’s nothing you can do about bad things that happen to you other than accept them and then deal with the consequences. And my years of running in the mountains have given me huge amounts of pleasure and fun. My deepest thanks and love to my wife, Alison, who has been the rock on which the foundations of my recovery have been built and without whom there would be so much less to look forward to.]
December 2016: Home, Ilkley, West Yorkshire
It’s almost five months since my accident and its resulting surgery. I’m kneeling on all fours on a Thermarest on our lounge floor. Just one of many prescribed exercises or stretches. I curse my physio who is supervising my recovery. He’s an Aussie and must take delight in inflicting pain and suffering on a Pommie. I can feel next to nothing in my left knee because of nerve damage, which extends from there down the front of my shin bone. Slowly I press with my hands and slide my pelvis backward. My knees start to flex. I pass through a couple of bands of pain until I reach the limit of flexion. Brutal pain flares in my left knee. I have to hold it there for 20 seconds. Five stretches, three times a day. I’m so wasted after each set I roll over and lie still for a few minutes to regain some equilibrium.
Pain nibbles at me in the area of my right shoulder. My collarbone is still broken. Bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments are all protesting even the gentle processes of bringing them back to life after almost three months of inactivity. Other parts of the body are absorbing loads they weren’t built to handle. My 52-year-old body is struggling to cope, and my mind is fighting, too.
July 1985: The Lake District
I’m shuffling along disconsolately somewhere on the slopes of Red Pike in the English Lake District. It’s normal Lakes mountain terrain but neither too steep nor too rough. I’ve been on my feet for around 17 hours in filthy mountain weather. Although it’s July, the day has brought hours of heavy rain, thick hill fog, and high winds. Two friends are with me. Despite the fact that I started running only in late 1984, the folly of youth finds me attempting England’s Bob Graham Round in the summer of 1985.
Sixty-six miles, 42 peaks, 28,000 feet of climb, and, more importantly, 28,000 feet of descent. I am following the example of the Keswick guest-house owner Bob Graham, who at the age of 42 in 1932 decided to run and walk within the confines of a 24-hour period over a number of Lake District peaks equal to his age; as well as the 370 or so idiots who followed in his footsteps between 1960 and now. [Author’s Note: I’ve written before about the Bob Graham Round on iRunFar for those wanting background. As of the close of 2016, 2,055 people have now completed the round.]
Time bleeds away from my planned schedule. My spare hour is gone, and most of two more. I did just what Fred Rogerson had warned me not to do; looked ahead from around the halfway point instead of taking one peak at a time. The size and scale of the remainder of the challenge threaten to overwhelm me and cause complete mental collapse. If I lose no more time, I’ll finish the challenge in close to 26 hours, which is almost two hours beyond the 24 allotted to finish.
Words are spoken. The gist is, “It would be a shame to waste this opportunity having come so far.” Not long after this critical conversation, through some meteorological alchemy, the weather improves. A weak sun eventually appears somewhere around Pillar, gently illuminating the summit plateau and the occasionally technical ridge ahead, which runs down to Black Sail Pass. I am running relatively quickly, traversing some big, rough mountains. The bad patch ends. It’s been about eight hours since I felt this good. By the time I reach Honister Pass, the next point at which my support crew can see and help me, I have clawed back enough time to make a 24-hour finish a possibility. I barely stop, grabbing a bottle of something and jog to start the climb of peak number 40. On the final road section, I’m falling asleep on my feet but, when I reach the Moot Hall, the watch shows 23 hours and 50 minutes. My first ‘ultramarathon.’ My first run beyond 23 miles. Folly.
Summer 1984: The Lake District
I am 20, and capable of covering impressive distances in the mountains in all weathers, almost always alone. Walking though, not running. I’ve been messing about in the mountains since I was a small child. Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, rebuffed me a few times. The high plateau surrounding the mountain is a bruising place comprised almost entirely of inclined rocks, which feel designed expressly to interfere with human locomotion. As a nipper, the summit is a long way from either Borrowdale or Langdale, the valleys my parents liked for our walking holidays. At age 12 and 13, I learned the basics of navigation, rock climbing, abseiling, and other outdoor skills in Outward Bound courses.
I meet some fell runners in the pub. I report on my day’s activities, and from my outings, the runners can tell I am competent in terms of skills. They are training to complete the Bob Graham Round–What the hell was that? I wondered–and asked me if I could help on their attempt by taking some hot drinks and things to eat to two agreed locations. The forecast is mixed so I need plenty of kit in case I am sat around waiting. I make both rendezvous then jog down to Wasdale from Esk Hause in my boots and walking kit and follow them for the rest of the day with their support team. They make it.
It is a life-changing day for me, too. Seeds are sown, advice and encouragement are offered. I buy my first pair of Walshes, the only fell running shoe back in the 1980s. I join Ambleside Athletic Club, a then-recently-formed fell running club in the heart of the Lakes. A couple of times a day on my next foray to the Lakes, in the autumn of 1984, I run up and down Loughrigg Fell, a small but complex mountain overlooking Ambleside village. I am walking no longer. It is the start.
8 July 2016: Close to Home, Ilkley Moor
I’m out for a training run. It’s a warm summer’s evening. I plan to run out, do four hard loops with a steep climb and steep descent, then return to the car. An hour and twenty minutes or so. I’m descending quickly on my third loop. Initially the slope isn’t too steep and I’m motoring. Something goes wrong; a slip, a trip, a roll of the ankle. I don’t honestly know. The sort of thing I’ve done hundreds of times in my 32 years of running in the mountains without major incident. But this time it’s different. Somehow, I land on my left foot with the leg in full extension. After landing, I twist violently to the right and land heavily on my right side.
Fuck! I clamber gingerly to my feet. That hurt. I feel around my right shoulder and know at once that my collarbone is broken again, even if in a different place. (I was struck by a downhilling mountain biker in July 2015 while out running and the damage was just nicely repaired.) I test my left leg, which took the full impact of the landing. I can put it on the ground despite some pain. I have no phone with me but I can walk and I need to get off the moor, the uplands which overlook the town where we live, and back to civilisation. I’m guessing I will come across other people as I head for somewhere my wife can come and pick me up.
After about 50 yards, the slope steepens dramatically. The ground is loose. Somehow I keep my feet. My concentration is total. Adrenalin is hammering through my system. I sense dramatic swelling at base of my hamstring and top of my calf, but choose not to look. I need to stay upright. Once on more amenable ground, I encounter a couple out for an evening stroll. I ask to borrow a phone and call Alison. I’m heading for the end of Ilkley Tarn, a small body of water created by the Victorians to allow those who came to take the waters—Ilkley was a spa town—to experience the wilds without getting too dirty. Around the tarn is a tarmac footpath, and I ask her to drive up the path a way to meet me. The couple valiantly agrees to stay with me to make sure I’m okay. By the time Alison greets me, I have been on my feet for about 35 minutes. She tells me later that when she sees me my face is a dirty grey colour. Oddly, there isn’t a mark on me. No cuts, no blood, no bruises, not even any dirt.
I don’t yet know it but the compression of the landing with my leg in full extension has smashed the top of my left tibia into pieces. I will need a titanium plate, eight pins, and a graft of bone from my left hip to secure and repair the bone. I have also ruptured both my posterior and anterior cruciate ligaments and my knee cartilage has two large tears in it. And of course, there’s that pesky broken collarbone. Again, I don’t know it, but things will never be quite the same again.
May and June 2016: Mainland Europe
In my 32 years of running, I’ve run all over the place. The weather in the UK can be shit—a technical term I’ve borrowed from my countryman Nick Clark. Continental weather patterns can be more settled. In and amongst time running in my home mountains, I’ve managed to visit and run in France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain (Mallorca), Slovenia, Croatia, and Germany, amongst others. I’ve enjoyed racing abroad; I find it adds to the challenge. Bigger mountains, different climates, strange languages. Similar people, of course.
In May 2016, I race the Course des Seigneurs with 150 others around 53 kilometers of beautiful landscape in the mountains south of Carcassone in southern France. The race is part of the Trails Cathares Hautes Corbières series. A small field, limited aid stations, three ruined Cathar castles to run through, no one speaking English, plentiful Corbières wine at the after-race meal. It is a warm day but manageable. My well-honed strategies for welcoming in the discomfort and pain of the later miles serve me well. I enjoy myself tremendously.
My other 2016 race is the 80k du Mont Blanc. Only my third DNF in 32 years. (One of these was my attempt in 1986 on the Lakeland 2,500s, a continuous circuit of all the mountains in the Lakes above 2,500 feet altitude, a Bob Graham Round on steroids. Almost 140 miles and an amount of vertical I don’t really want to recall.) Late-season snow and too many competitors for the tight, early Alpine singletrack give a really slow start, putting me and hundreds of others way behind the clock. There is no adjustment to the cutoffs. Like many others, I have to run harder than planned for several hours to get ‘lost’ time back. It is blazing hot. Reroutes because of the snow keep us low and overly hot. I am stumbling along the top of the Emosson Dam after 46k, the result of hours of nausea, little if any food, and an unquenchable thirst. Time to quit for once. Use your head.
The comparison between the two experiences leaves me feeling that it is time to explore smaller ultras, to keep away from the insanity and human overload of the Chamonix-area races. (In the last 10 years, I have toed the line in multiple Marathons, Crosses, and Vertical Kilometers du Mont Blanc, two CCCs, and UTMB.) A quieter more exploratory ultra life beckons. Or so I think.
9 July 2016: Airedale General Hospital
The consultant, Mr. Hopton, delivers the hard word after he introduces himself on his rounds. It’s the morning after I am admitted. “I don’t think you’ll be running on that knee again I’m afraid, Mr. Williams. You’ve suffered a very serious knee injury.” After a CT scan, which confirms no vascular damage and a delayed-over-the-weekend MRI scan to get a better picture of the ligament situation, it is off to theatre for four hours of cutting, hammering, drilling, screwing, plating, sewing, and grafting. There’s nothing delicate about orthopaedic surgery. The road ahead is decidedly uncertain. No time for reflection or thought; just a nasty mess to sort out.
May 2007: The Lake District
I’m lying on my back in the ditch beyond the grass verge at the side of Wrynose Pass. My race partner for the day, Clare, is pushing my toes toward my knees to try and quieten the cramps that have afflicted calves and quads in both limbs. The transition from fell to tarmac hasn’t helped. We are at mile 35 of the bewitching behemoth that is the Old Counties Tops Fell Race, a classic route of 37 miles through the Lake District for teams of two that visits the highest points of the former counties of Westmoreland, Cumberland, and Lancashire. It traverses much rough and wet ground, pathless in parts, and the weather is less than optimum; shocking in fact. Map and compass and waterproof clothing are the order of the day. Clare sorts me out and we travel the last miles and finish, arriving in 10 hours and 15 minutes.
I return the next year partnered by Alison and both we and the weather have a better day. We nail the tricky direct descent route off Scafell Pike and we press on to finish in eight hours and 50 minutes. Long racing at its finest. A great day out in the mountains shared with my loved one.
November 2016: Home
Six weeks in plaster followed by eight weeks in a ligament brace protects me from both the extent of the damage and the consequences of it. The left leg bears no weight to speak of. Once the brace is gone and weight bearing begins, I start the lengthy rehab work with a vengeance. The muscle wasting shocks me, too.
The combination of the physical and mental struggles, the constant assessment of the injury and progress, or the lack of, it wears deeply, doubtless for those around me, too, and contributes to a constant bone-deep feeling of tiredness.
I do some work from home whilst mostly confined to the horizontal and this helps pass some time and stave off insanity.
Various milestones pass and these are not without humour. Peeing stood vertically for the first time, the transition to crutches, then a single crutch, the first flight of stairs, the transition from commode to toilet, no crutches, the first attempt to walk outside, the first rotations on a static bike, the first time back behind the wheel of the car.
I find some support from what I like to call the Fucked Up Ligament Group on Facebook. The group’s founder has calculated that the chances of wrecking all your cruciates in the same incident is 0.02%. Here is where you will find some of those 0.02%-ers. People worldwide dealing with their rehab.
But the consultant–and the immediate future–are clear. No weight-bearing through the repaired joint beyond that of walking until nine months pass from the surgery. I obsess over the degree of both my knee extension and flexion. I measure weekly progress in millimetres. It’s easy to overdo things and the effect of that is immediate and dramatic. Patience is critical. I understand the implications of damaging a major weight-bearing joint; they are very complicated and they carry huge loads.
The most difficult aspect to handle is stiffness and tightness in the knee of levels beyond my comprehension. I wake with the knee stiff, and it’s downhill through the day from there. I wake with what feels like a tight concrete or metal band around the knee. Through the day my knee grows tighter, like someone tightens that band every 20 minutes. Inactivity makes it stiffer. Using the damaged joint makes it stiffer. The only time I’m in any way comfortable is when I’m asleep. By evening, the knee is sending signals to the brain similar to those in the aftermath of the accident. “Don’t use me, I’m badly hurt.” The tightness is at such a pitch that it feels like the left knee is inhabited by some malevolent creature and is separate from the rest of me. I talk to the creature in my knee. I swear at it a lot, which helps, but I can’t turn off or reduce the stiffness or the tightness. And the trying-to-heal collarbone contributes its own nagging tune to proceedings.
I feel like I’ve started an ultra but no one can tell me where the finish is, or how many problems will befall me as I navigate the miles, twists, and turns. The ultra as a metaphor for life has never felt so apt and never had such resonance. The good news is that, so far, there is no bad news; no reverses in the recovery.
But of course I have plenty of time for worrying, reflecting, and thinking.
October 2009: Wasdale, The Lake District
I’m approaching the summit of Kirkfell in the Wasdale Show Fell Race. This is classic fell racing. 2.5 miles in total with 2,400 feet of climb in 1.25 miles. I’ve survived the ridiculously steep climb. Turning to descend, the first few hundred yards are on the gentle summit slopes, then suddenly the ground falls away and the tiny outline of Wasdale’s spidery network of dry stone walls is visible far below. There’s no time to enjoy the view, though, as complete concentration is required to maintain balance and speed on the steep descent. I’m passing a few people and the enthusiasm this generates results in more speed until I feel like I’m flying down the mountain, passing people all the time. I imagine the spectators can see the smoke trail I’m leaving through their binoculars. Brakes off, brain off.
It takes a while to recover some equilibrium at the finish. Like many fell runners, I conclude there is no better way to have fun with your clothes on than blasting up and down a short, steep fell-race course. It’s the epitome of freedom. Despite my years of ultrarunning and racing, this is hands down my favourite race.
December 2016: Home
Running isn’t my whole life. But it has been a big part of my life for 32 years. An early Bob Graham Round, my Lakeland 2,500s attempt, regular fell races, years of ultras, 10 years as a trustee of a grant-giving charity dedicated to young athletes, a couple of years as Secretary of the Fell Runners Association (the body that manages the sport in England), over 10 years and counting as the Secretary of the venerable Bob Graham 24 Hour Club, 46 hours straight of race coverage at the 2013 UTMB with the iRunFar team. Thousands of hours and miles of training and racing. Hundreds of hours of related activity. This alongside a 20-year legal career and the last nine years in a senior role in the UK’s largest regional cancer research charity.
Running in the mountains always feels like time well spent. Alison runs in the mountains too, allowing us to have time and adventures together. But where do I go from here? Because here is suddenly a very different place.
Perspective, of course, is everything.
I wasn’t glued to iRunFar’s coverage of The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships in early December, but even some minor attention to the Twitter feed showed that one of the classic battles in ultrarunning took place between Zach Miller and Hayden Hawks in the Marin Headlands. The short film that followed confirmed the gladiatorial nature of what had occurred.
Then Zach penned his own thoughts on the race, and I was immediately struck by the words he used in describing his effort:
“My legs seared with pain. Every stride seemed a struggle. Each foot strike brought a new wave of pain. My breathing grew labored, the finish line closer, and the pain refused to dissipate. Finally, I reached the road, a welcome sight for it meant that the end was near.
“I had come to compete, not only against my fellow runners, but against myself. I was there to test my limits, to give it my all, and to see how fast I could get from start to finish.”
I smile as I read, because I suspect that any of us could write similar words because they are just as applicable to our own experience. Those words describe how I feel toward the end of pretty much every race in my 32 years of racing. Different effort levels, different end results; shared experiences. If I need it confirming, it reminds me that all that effort has never really been about the outcome.
Like many off-road runners, I expected to continue running–and running ultras–for many years, certainly into my sixties and hopefully beyond. This, of course, is a story in progress as I have months more of rehab ahead and who knows what will happen with the knee. But the mind likes to run ahead, sifting, analysing, debating alternatives, and trying to find some order amidst the chaos. The mind makes me deal with the chance that I may have already run my last miles.
June 2016: Chamonix Valley
A few days after the tangle I got myself into at the 80k du Mont Blanc, Alison and I take the train from Chamonix down to Servoz at 800 metres altitude. We are heading for the Refuge de Platé, perched high on a limestone plateau west of Chamonix. It’s a favourite spot. Limestone abounds, the clints and grikes remind us of our beloved Yorkshire Dales and it is rarely busy. On its south side, the plateau is protected by huge Dolomite-like crags. I’m using the overnight trip to test my Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 to see how it goes with a load of Alpine trekking gear.
Our route climbs up through the forest above Servoz to Ayères des Rocs. Then the way steepens and becomes rough, heading for the base of the enormous band of cliffs called the Rochers des Fiz. The only way through is a delicate via ferrata passage, Le Dérochoir. In years past, I have turned back on several occasions because of rockfall and repair work. But this year all is well. The rock scenery is spectacular.
From the ridge crest, the way ahead involves a descent into Le Grand Pré and a further climb over Col de la Portette before a descent to the Refuge at 2,032 metres. But the descent slope, facing north, is 1,500 metres of steep, crisp snow. We have Kahtoola Microspikes but no harnesses, axes, or rope, all of which I perceive are essential to descend safely. A guide with a client in tow coming up the slope confirms my assessment.
We must reverse Le Dérochoir, which we deal with calmly and competently in the circumstances. Deal with the immediate challenge. Then it’s time to analyse and assess. Just like a race. Truth be told there is only one sensible option for an alternative route to the refuge. So we take it, accepting the extra effort involved—a significant descent and re-ascent plus another five miles—and get cracking.
We arrive at the refuge around 6:00 p.m. We are the only guests. It’s almost guaranteed to be so in late June. The busier summer period begins in July. We dine with the family that runs the refuge and they include us in their birthday celebration. There is birthday cake, red wine, and beer. French, Italian, and English fly around the dining room as we all manage to make ourselves understood.
After dinner, we venture outside onto the hut terrace. It’s chilly. The evening light casts its magnificent spell in front of the refuge, illuminating the higher mountains in ethereal oranges and pinks. After the rigours of the approach, all is calm and peace descends on weary minds and bodies. We watch the light fade. This is life.
December 2016 and January 2017: Home
The truth comes, with time.
Facebook (of all things) turns up a memory from late 2015 written during my recovery from the incident with the mountain biker, which broke my collarbone the first time:
“It was just me and the lamp up there this early morning. The brisk wind was blowing me helpfully up the hill. The air was sharp enough to discourage dallying. As I picked my way through Rocky Valley, the first glimmerings of light started to dispel the dark night. Lower Wharfedale came into gentle focus. Despite the twinkling lights of Ilkley in the valley below, I was able to pause and feel like the only human on earth. It’s moments of quiet beauty like this that help heal the wounds and restore the spirit. This is my landscape, the one I have spent years learning to move through as efficiently and quietly as possible. The perfect start to any day.”
Was I running? Or was I walking? Why the question? It matters not; the experience would have been the same. The natural world cares nothing for your pace.
None of this endeavour has ever been about the running; it’s only about the mountains.
The sight of the Langdale Pikes and Bowfell, knobbly yet noble, when approaching the Lake District from the south; the magnificent profile of Blencathra throwing down its ridges to the valley floor when heading for Keswick along the A66; the first glimpse of Mont Blanc, stunningly white, bulky, yet still elegant, when climbing up the Arve River valley from Geneva. Sights to gladden the heart, quicken the pulse, and nourish the soul; landscapes that never fail to inspire whilst in their midst; and that leave me gently bereft, knowing that I must and will return when it’s time to head for home.
Running has allowed me to spend more time in their presence, enjoying the mountain environment in all its wonder. More miles, more mountains, more time outside. I’ve seen many a sunrise and sunset wild enough to render me speechless, hundreds of views that made me stop and stare, lived through storms that could have taken my life had I not been adequately prepared and clothed. It isn’t the running that brought me these experiences; it is being in the mountains. Not even a question of being in the right place at the right time, because in the mountains the next experience or revelation is only ever moments or steps away.
I must reassess; come to terms with the damage done; deal with a change of pace; re-introduce myself to some skills long laid to one side; plan more; visit places long postponed in favour of races or training.
This month, I accept the news that the collarbone needs surgery, more metalwork, with equanimity; just like an ultra, the coming discomfort must be welcomed in.
I remind myself of the saying: “Don’t look back, you’re not going that way.” There is so much left to do. It will be some time before I am back in the mountains; but a good thing about mountains is that they aren’t going anywhere.
Kilian Jornet, the man for all seasons, a man who truly enjoys the mountains, points the way: “I think my big moment is always tomorrow.”
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- What has a career–however long or short yours is so far–of running and enjoying the outdoors given meaning to and shaped the trajectory of your life?
- Have you experienced a life-altering injury that has changed your relationship with our sport and the outdoors? If so, how have you and do you cope?
- Do you think that, as Kilian Jornet says, our big moments really are always tomorrow?