Recovering from the Collegiate Loop FKT

Cottonwood Pass, about to take on the most remote section of the loop, the High 23. Photo credit: Jeff Spencer

This post has been a long-time coming, but it’s felt really hard to write, which is why you’re reading it almost four weeks after the Collegiate Loop Trail FKT. I’m not sure why this has been so hard to write, exactly, but I suspect it has a little to do with the fact that I’m still processing it all. While I have been recovering physically, because this is my first endeavor like this, I haven’t known if what I am going through is normal or indicative of an injury. Not unexpectedly, the Collegiate Loop FKT had a profound impact on my life, on my perception of self and what I was capable of, but also on what I wanted out of life. I’m only starting to understand the extent of what it means for my identity and my future.

But let’s start with the easy stuff to talk about – my physical recovery. The night I finished the attempt, I felt like I could not take one more step. I felt strongly, however, that I needed to get my rental car from where it was parked at my Sunday night AirBnB, so Kris took me to get my car and then headed to the hotel in Buena Vista he had reserved for the night. I had planned nothing logistics-wise post-FKT – I had no idea when I’d finish or if I’d finish, so I’d only planned to up to the start of the FKT. When we got to the hotel, I just wanted to lay down, but I was covered in mud and two days of camping (I got a shower on night two), so I hobbled to the shower and started to clean up. Standing felt too hard, so at a certain point, I just sat on the floor of the bathtub with the shower on, and tried to scrub off the dirt that was caked on my legs. I got most of it off except for an oddly persistent black stain on the inside of both ankles. Giving up, I hobbled to the bedroom, and settled on to my bed to search for a pizza company open this late (it was around 11 p.m.). Earlier that day, I had been debating what I wanted to eat when I finished, and pizza had won over my heart and mind. While Buena Vista does not have many food chains, they did have a Domino’s Pizza, which has a gluten-free crust. They were open, so I placed a delivery order for a veggie gluten-free pizza and sat down to wait for it to arrive.

Already, my legs were feeling the effects of the last four days. They felt red and raw and too big for my skin. While my upper body was mostly fine, just a little sore from carrying a pack and using the hiking poles, my legs (and especially my lower legs), felt like they had been run over with a cheese grater. Although I didn’t fall once, I had scratches from plants along the trail, and the insides of my ankles were bleeding from how often I kicked the inside of them as I got tired. As well, both of my heels were raw and bleeding, having rubbed on the back of my running shoes for hours every day. I didn’t, however, feel any type of acute pain – pain was, for the most part, diffuse across my legs. I was equally hobbled.

That night, I didn’t sleep well, which wasn’t unexpected — I never sleep well after a race. My legs were throbbing, and while I felt a little better the morning after, it wasn’t by much. In the light of day, I realized that the “stains” I couldn’t clean off of my ankles was actually bruising, bleeding, and chafing from the multiple times my foot had grazed the opposite leg as fatigue had set in.

For the first time ever since I started running, I felt completely and totally okay with a rest day. I couldn’t have run if I tried. I resolved to refuel and rest, and after coffee, got on task. Breakfast was a huge sweet potato scramble, lunch a giant curry bowl at my favorite Buena Vista restaurant, House Rock; lunch was followed by two giant scoops of salted caramel ice cream. Enjoyment of this indulgence was diminished by the fact that I wasn’t actually hungry, but the food tasted good, and I never felt stuffed. More concerning, however, was the size of my lower legs, particularly my right one. While it was swollen when I woke up, the edema increased throughout the day, exacerbated when I stayed in one place, and now my ankles were cankles. There was no division between my calf and foot, and my feet and calves were huge. The edema was so serious that it started leaking out of the cuts on my legs, and I was seriously concerned. That afternoon, feeling out of sorts and restless, I left for Denver. I didn’t want to leave Buena Vista (BV), but I felt like I needed to put some geographic distance between me and everything that had just happened. In Fairplay, 30 or so minutes away from BV, I almost turned around and went back, but I kept driving. I felt like I needed to create physical space to get some clarity.

I arrived in Denver and immediately felt overwhelmed – the traffic was insane, it was hot, and there were people everywhere. From the second I arrived in Denver, I wanted to be back in BV. So, in the middle of another restless night, I decided to go back to BV first thing in the morning. That resolved, I slept soundly. The next morning, the swelling in my legs had gone down a little, and I did some googling and found out that this seemed to be a pretty normal part of recovery from multi-day ultra endurance events even though I’d never suffered from it before. It still felt gross. On the positive side, my appetite had returned with a vengeance, and I was starving. I ate a huge Starbucks breakfast, made a quick stop at the source of all good things, REI, and headed back to BV, arriving in time for a late lunch at House Rock (again). I took another rest day, which also wasn’t much of a mental struggle – I was too afraid of my swollen legs to try to figure out what might happen if I tried to make them run (or, alternatively, tried to fit them into shoes). Otherwise, however, I felt fine – I was almost insatiably hungry but not sore in any meaningful way.

The next morning, the swelling was even better, and while I didn’t feel like running, I definitely felt like walking, so I convinced Kris that we needed to walk to breakfast instead of drive. I was ready to get this recovery show on the road and really missing the mental space I get from running. What I’d just done, 161 miles in less than 4 days, felt big, yet I didn’t feel like it was a big deal. To me, then, the FKT was a thing I did, it was really really hard, but it was done, over, and now I felt a bit lost. Even though it had just been two or so months of planning, the CTL FKT had occupied the front or back of my mind that entire time, and now that it was done, there was empty space. I needed to figure out what was next, but I didn’t want to rush to do that before I’d processed what had just happened and what it meant for my life. I knew running would help me to process this, too, but I wasn’t willing to jump into running and injure myself for real.

So I took that third day easy again, but I was relieved to see that my coach had put some running on the schedule for the subsequent day. I woke up the next morning ready to run. I didn’t know what to expect as I’d been walking in sandals for days. From the second I put on my trail runners, my right achilles felt painful. That pain wasn’t replicated in my left leg, so this panicked me a bit, but I resolved to take my still swollen legs for a spin. The first few steps were slow and painful, but with the exception of what I thought was pain in my Achilles, everything else felt great. I ran around five miles, and while I was exhausted at the end, it was a good exhausted feeling. My Achilles pain scared me, as Achilles injuries are no joke, but the pain subsided the second I took off my running shoes. My left leg was almost back to its normal size. In contrast, my right leg was closer to normal size in the morning, but by the end of the day, especially if I’d been standing, it would swell again to double its size. The next morning, I ran again, 8 miles, and again, everything felt fine except for my Achilles. I was mystified by the pain that seemed to disappear when I took off my running shoes, and I was also scared of what it might be – was my Achilles torn? Much googling of Achilles injuries later, I was in the throes of an existential injury panic, and my coach suggested that I cross train and rest for a few days until I was back in Alabama.

I stayed in BV until the day before I had to catch my flight back to Alabama, where I’d start work the next day. If I could pick any place in the world to live, it would probably be BV and not just because of my favorite restaurant, House Rock (so, hey, major university, perhaps it’s time to open a campus there?). BV was relaxing, beautiful, and a true vacation. My time there did end, however, and I headed to the Denver airport and into a work crisis, which consumed my last day in Colorado. My left leg had completely returned to its normal size and fitness, but my right was still swollen, perhaps no longer in a way that was noticeable to others. The Achilles still hurt in real shoes, but I’d started to become convinced that I had bursitis (instead of a tear, partial tear, or even tendonitis). There was a bump on my right heel, and my heel area only hurt in shoes that rubbed on it. I was still super scared that it was a real injury, however, and that kept me treating it like glass and refusing to do any strenuous activity that wasn’t running. A little less than two weeks after the completion of the FKT, I had a sports massage, which finally worked out the remaining fluid in my legs, and they returned to normal size. Two weeks to the day after I completed the FKT, I went to the orthopedist who confirmed that I did not have any Achilles injury and even called the bursitis self-diagnosis into question, bringing my attention to my heels where the backs of my trail runners had rubbed them raw. That, the doctor suggested, was the cause of the Achilles pain and the reason it only hurt in shoes – otherwise, he did a full check-up and cleared me to start training in earnest again.

That was a huge relief. Prior to this, I didn’t know if I could run safely (and, I needed running because this is when I process things), so the all-clear from the doctor was also when I started being able to get excited for what was coming next. Time is a great healer, too, as is another big new goal – an FKT attempt of the Camino de Costa Rica.

Heading out on the trail. Photo credit: Kristopher Cargile

Physically, I’m recovered and training in earnest again, but mentally and emotionally, I’m still processing the FKT.

I still miss being on the trail, every day. The FKT was hard and terrible at times, but it was also simple and clear. It wasn’t easy to do, but it was easy to know what to do. Life doesn’t offer many opportunities like that. They say that the disjuncture between experiences, say your vacation versus your work life is what helps you to value the vacation, and while I’m not so sure that isn’t just a capitalistic attempt to quell disquiet from an unfulfilled life filled with work, I certainly do miss the simplicity of life during and, to some extent, after the FKT. Everything and everyone felt more real. Stripped of everything that is my armor in my professional life – heels, makeup, sheath dresses – I felt realer too. There is nowhere to hide out there, and that includes hiding from yourself and your thoughts. I didn’t have any grand revelations while running, yet I did realize, with absolute clarity, that this was where I belonged.

As someone who has, for a better part of her life, been trying to find the place where I belong, I can’t shake an almost persistent sadness that I’m not on a trail, somewhere, right now. And that, I think, has been the hardest part of returning from Colorado – now that I found my space, how can I incorporate this fully into every aspect of my life, my scholarship, my world?

I’m still working this part out.

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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