For the first time in a year and a half, I had a good hard fall while running this afternoon. (For those who know the area, I ran from the Windsor road parking lot up to the Sunset trail on Mt. Lowe via the El Prieto trail and the Millard campground.) Flying down El Prieto, my mind wandering on to a variety of topics, I caught my right foot on a rock and went sprawling. I had just enough time to twist over to absorb most of the impact on my right shoulder, but my right wrist and knee also hit the ground very hard.
I got the wind knocked out of me, and I lay there, alone, for a stunned moment. The ritual after a fall is always the same: turn off my stopwatch (always the first thing, as we must have a proper time for the run at the end), then start checking for injuries. There’s always that moment of great fear that I have seriously hurt myself, and will be stuck on a trail until someone comes along. And of course, the greatest and most immediate anxiety is that I won’t be able to run again for a while.
Since I started serious trail running ten years ago, I’ve had maybe a dozen minor falls and four or five fairly serious ones. A serious fall is one which causes me to miss at least one day of running as a consequence. I’m not unaware of the far more significant dangers. I was raised on the legend of my grandfather’s beloved first cousin, Walter “Pete” Starr, who famously died from a fall in the Sierras in 1933 after authoring a still-serviceable guide to those mountains. In April 2000, my running buddy Dave Trinkle died in a fall off the Mt. Wilson trail after (typically) ignoring warning signs about a decaying area of trail. These men are often in my mind when I’m running, especially by myself, in remote or dangerous areas. Mind you, I don’t take major risks! But there are dangers in the mountains that I love, and both family lore and my own memories of Dave remind me constantly that I have an obligation to balance that passion for running on dirt with some common sense.
I wasn’t hurt at all today, other than some scrapes and bruises. I did take the lesson of the fall seriously, however. I usually fall going uphill, when I’m less attentive; normally, I’m very careful on descents (which is normally when serious accidents occur.) Today, I fell because my mind was elsewhere. And as I got up gingerly and brushed myself off, I said “Okay, God, I get it. I need to pay attention.” I’m a good pray-er and a lousy meditator. As I ran the final three miles back to the car, I watched my foot placement very carefully. I also recited the one meditation that consistently works for me, from Psalm 46: Be Still and Know I am God. I say the line three times, and then drop the last word, repeat the shortened line three times, and so forth until in the end I’m just reciting, over and over again, “Be.” (I dispense with the “and” and the “know” at the same time.) It works when I’m quiet on the couch, and yes, it works when I’m running.
In one of his most famous poems, former U.S. poet Laureate Richard Wilbur wrote about the legendary Boston marathoner Johnny Kelley. His description of how Kelley worked the course was perfect, a reminder of how it is that I want to run — and indeed must run, if I am to stay safe, sane, healthy, and alive:
Legs driving, fists at port, clenched faces, men,
And in amongst them, stamping on the sun,
Our champion Kelley, who would win again,
Rocked in his will, at rest within his run.
I long for nothing more than to be rocked in my will, and at rest within my run. To remember how to do that well, I apparently need the occasional fall.