The sensation is intense, like needles being plunged in and out of nerve endings in the area of my left hamstring. I try to breathe through the burning, knowing this is not the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I attempt to relax my grip so as to become one with the discomfort.
The nurse practitioner gently tugs the gauze packing out of my leg and says “This isn’t getting better. I’m going to ask your doctor what she thinks”.
It’s now Tuesday and I’m in the sixth day of a serious staph infection. I’d been to the ER on Sunday and even after numerous antibiotics and a now open 3.5 centimeter wound in my leg where they dug out pus and infection, an area from the back of my knee moving toward my hip is red, inflamed, taut and warm to the touch. A culture has indicated staph infection resulting in cellulitis. I have no idea how I picked this up, but it’s putting a serious kink in my activity level.
I’m 20 days away from running down into the Grand Canyon, up the other side to the north rim and a return trip to the south rim. It’s a trail run (not a race) that is known as Rim to Rim to Rim, or R2R2R. The route is 44.2 miles long with over 10,000 feet of elevation loss AND gain. Trail runners complete it as a sort of “rite of passage”.
I think I first heard about this when a friend of mine, many years younger, ran it for the first time in 2015. He then did it a second time in 2016. When I read about his account it was the first year that I had taken up running and backpacking. I believe I secretly thought to myself, “That is pretty darn impressive.” I probably googled around on the subject and quickly discovered that this was not something for the faint of heart.
Sometime in 2016 a client shared with me how she had also done R2R2R. I was helping her through an injury as she was preparing for another trail marathon up and down Pikes Peak. I was duly impressed that she, too, had conquered the Grand Canyon. Again, I investigated online about this demonic run, and again, realized that this was currently far beyond my physical capabilities. In 2016 I had done my 3rd and 4th trail half marathons, but less than ⅓ of the distance that would be required to complete the Grand Canyon run.
However, sometime last year I think I first voiced my secret desire to try and do this. I felt that the old biological clock was ticking and I needed to do it sooner rather than later. (I later found this not to be true, at least for me) I confided in my good friend and running partner, Mahting, but pretty much left it at that.
With a hole in the back of my leg vast enough to stick the entirety of my thumb into, it is necessary to have gauze stuffed into the wound on a daily basis. It’s called a wound, like I’ve been shot, or I have diabetes and I now need wound care. Gratefully, a good friend, who is a physician’s assistant has acquiesced in helping with the daily chore. Actually, she didn’t really acquiesce because when I asked for her help she replied, “Oh, you don’t need to twist my arm, I love pus!”. This was a statement that I found to be true of most nuts in the medical community. As a different medical professional shared with me, “We feel like we’re doing real good when we can take pus and infection out of a wound, because it happens right before our eyes.”
I’m now in my home as my friend changes the packing and my wife observes, somewhat aghast, hence the reason to recruit the friend to do such dirty work. “How soon before I can run, exercise, sweat, etc?” I ask.
“Matt”, she patiently replies, “I can see your hamstring, that is how deep the wound is. I don’t think you should be doing any running at this point.”
I begin to fully comprehend the severity of what has been going on with this infection and my leg. I’m fine with possibly not doing the Grand Canyon run and to be quite honest, maybe even a little relieved. I’m very grateful at this point for the medical community, their knowledge and expertise and the fact that if I lived in a different country, this could have been quite, quite serious. I begin to find peace in the fact that the run may not happen. But I decide that I won’t out and out cancel the trip. My whole family and Mahting and his wife are going as well. At the very least it will be a family vacation for four days.
One of the morose attractions of attempting R2R2R is the fact that people die in the Grand Canyon; a lot. Once dumping into the “Big Ditch” and beginning to cross to the other side there is no option of calling ones significant other and asking to be picked up. If there is an emergency it involves a Search and Rescue team and substantial financial resources in order for a person to be pulled out of the canyon. I read at an interpretive sign on the south rim that there are 250 rescues a year in the Grand Canyon. Upon investigation I find that there are rather interesting maps such as this one.
770 people have died in the Grand Canyon since John Wesley Powell and his crew made the first river exploration in 1869. On average 12 people die in the canyon each year by suicide, accidental falls, exposure, drowning, aviation accidents, rockfall and even mules falling on people. This ain’t no walk in the park folks.
I shared with a cycling and running friend earlier this year that Mahting and I were going to attempt to do this challenge. “You’re crazy! You’re going to hate the training involved, you’re going to hate the preparation and you’re going to hate actually doing it.” Gee, what a buzzkill.
In reality I enjoyed the training all summer and even the preparatory 40 mile Grand Traverse race that I had done over Labor Day weekend. But truth be told, I was running on fumes in preparing for this endeavor. I had archery hunted ten days in the month of September in weather that at times was snowy, foggy, rainy and cold. While I had succeeded in filling the freezer full of venison for our family, I had lost about five pounds over the course of the month. I was a little mentally burned out from a long year of running, hiking, camping, etc. I believe now that my body and immune system was effectively wrung out; creating a prime situation for a crazy bug to nab me.
I knew that I had all the base mileage I needed for the GC run, but I felt my remaining training was best invested in runs involving heavy elevation gains and losses. So I spent my time on the trails around Boulder, finding 5 mile loops that afforded me at least a thousand feet of vertical per lap. My last long run was to be five loops around Mt. Sanitas in Boulder. It would be about 27 miles with over 6800’ of elevation gain and loss. What typically has worked for me in past preparation for long endurance events has been topping out my training at 70% of the distance required. With the running, I try and match that number for the elevation as well. It worked fine for the Grand Traverse, so I was comfortable with the R2R2R preparation. And it was during the time after the Grand Traverse that this whole ultrarunning thing became much less mysterious and scary to me. At a point in the summer I had moved beyond the distance of 18 miles in my runs which had been a bit of a hurdle. My body had become accustomed to the steady tap of many hour runs and miles beyond 20 in a single shot. The body is amazing. And I’ve been fortunate to have a body that has always adapted well to hard work and long hours. I’ve also become wise enough in how my body works that at 52 I have much more confidence in my ability than I did 30 years ago. But the staph infection put its grip on me two days before that last long run which in fact would never materialize. I would not have the mental peace of mind that I had put in the proper physical preparation for the R2R2R.
However, I was at peace as to whether it was necesary to accomplish the feat this calendar year. I decided that if it wasn’t meant to be on November 12th, I would just come back in the spring and do it. On October 25th Mahting and I exchanged some messages about my predicament. I assured him I was still on for the trip and going to be doing something in the canyon and I was sure to be rested!
After just over two weeks of no running or physical activity related to exercise the gash in my leg had healed enough I felt that I needed to do a few runs to see what transpired. Eight days out from our run date in the canyon I drove to Boulder to do a few laps on Sanitas. With the music motivating me on the drive up I decided that this was going to happen. I couldn’t go into this with any doubts about completing the run. I just had to decide to do it. And at that point there was no turning back mentally. I was all in.