Generally speaking, it's a bad sign when the doctor is so baffled he can hardly keep from swearing.
"Did you fall on your knee?" he asks incredulously. "Was there some kind of trauma?" I can see by his furrowed brow that he's trying to piece together the events as I just explained them to him: I'd been running fast on the rail trail, felt my IT band tighten, felt an electric current jolt through my quad and then heard an ominous paper-tearing sound in my left knee. I hadn't mentioned falling because I hadn't fallen. At least not while running.
|SUPing with an angry knee: not a good idea|
"You fractured your patella. Look," he instructs, pointing to a thin grey horizontal fissure in my ghostly knee cap. In the Xray my patella looks like a half-moon, pale white and floating on the screen. I have to squint to see the break, straight and faint as a pencil mark. Even cracked, there is something dainty, almost precious, about my patella, this clam-shell bone that's done hard work everyday on my behalf but I've never seen before, the unsung laborer of long-distance running, a little wedge of love inside my knee.
When the doctor turns back to me, he's smiling. I can tell from his face that this is good news. Fantastic news! Much, much better than finding out I've torn my ACL or meniscus or some other mysterious but essential tendon in my knee that would require surgery and months of recovery. The doctor goes on to explain that my patella will heal on its own, if I'm careful and rest for the next four to six weeks. "Don't even think about running," he commands, as if that's even a remote possibility. As if I haven't been limping around on a broken knee cap for two weeks and can barely bend it.
"But what can I do?" I ask. I can't help it. A hint of desperation is creeping into my voice. "Can I ride a bike?"
"No, I don't want you torquing it."
"Can I hike?"
"Nope. If you fall on it, then I will be putting screws in it."
"Can I walk to town?"
"How far is town?" I can see him trying not to laugh, to look serious and doctorly.
"Close," I say. "And it's flat."
"OK, you can walk to town," he concedes. "But whatever you do, don't trip on the sidewalk."
"How about swimming?"
"You can swim if you need a little cardio"—understatement of the century—"but not breast stroke. And put one of those floaty things between your legs." Then he turns to his nurse tech and says with an exaggerated sigh and mock exasperation, "These runners are the worst!"
I'm so overjoyed I forget to ask him about physical therapy or Advil or icing. He pats me on the back with a grin—glad for once, maybe, that he doesn't have to deliver bad news—and I practically tear out of there, flush with my good fortune. I broke my kneecap, hooray!
I've known for a while that most ultra runners have a high pain tolerance, but even I'm shocked to hear that I've been walking around on a broken patella for two weeks. No wonder it feels like someone took a hammer to my knee.
As bizarre as it is, my injury makes sense. Unlike tearing your ACL, which is so common I could spend the next six months straight reading about it on the internet, fracturing my patella in a freak running-slash-paddle boarding mishap seems like something I would do. It reminds me of the time I went mountain biking and peed right on poison ivy and the rash flared up in all the worst places. (That doctor laughed in my face, too.) Or the time I jumped off a ladder and impaled my butt on a door knob and broke my tail bone—the day before going to Baja to sit in a hard plastic sea kayak and paddle for two weeks. Breaking my patella is not as funny as those incidents, but it's definitely funnier than the time I crashed my snowboard into a tree stump and broke five ribs in my back, half an inch off my spine.
Even so, it sort of seems in bad form to mock my own injury, to be glad for a broken bone rather than a torn tendon. Like maybe I'll jinx myself and something worse will happen. I guess this means I'm officially an ultra runner now: I'm injured, physically and mentally.
Of course, here comes the hard part. Sitting still. It's only been two weeks, but I swear I can feel my muscles in my left leg turning to jelly, atrophying by the second. There's a disturbing jiggle in my glute that wasn't here before. Without long runs to fill them, my days stretch out blank and empty. I wander the house, shunning the mountain outside my window, which is blazing in-your-face gold with the turning aspens. I have endless hours to sit and write. Too many. If there's a sitting-down disease, I'm going to get it.
I'm trying to be cheerful, grateful. There are much worse things. Ebola, ISIS. Comparatively, this is but a blip in my training schedule. As a friend wrote today, "It's a great opportunity to s l o w d o w n." I know she's right. I know I should look at this enforced six-week hiatus as an unexpected gift, a rare break from my own self-imposed endurance mania. Today I made a list. All the things that make me feel good, ways I can add structure to my days to fill the hole that running has made. Sit in the sun. Write. Organize the house. Help others. Eat well. Edit my photos. Volunteer. Do I fill the hole with one of these things, or little bits of all of them? Already I miss the mental simplicity of running, the singularity of the effort.
But I will be back. In the meantime, I'll go on a cleaning rampage at home and work a little mental voodoo on my knee, pouring all my best thoughts into my broken bone, my wise-ass laughter and all my restless chi into my beautiful, beloved knee.