Running, Renewal, and a Pretty Good Month

cheaha sunset
Gorgeous sunset at Cheaha.

I’ve had as good an October so far as I had a bad September, health-wise. It’s been a almost six weeks since I’ve needed a chiropractic adjustment (although I have to twist, roll, and traction myself daily), and I’m back up to running multiple times per week and lifting weights. Until a few days ago, I was sleeping pretty well, too. Chronic health problems are often cyclical, and I was reminded of that a few days ago when my hips and low back felt locked and painful and self-care wasn’t cutting it. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to cause the issue, and I’m hoping a quick trip to my beloved chiropractor will fix my woes.

I bit off more than I can chew with work, and some of that stress is probably contributing to my tight muscles and sore back. The teaching semester will be over in about five weeks— not that I’m counting— and getting down to one job plus writing will be relieving. I don’t know if it’s age, health issues, or what, but I just can’t work as many jobs as I used to without feeling overwhelmed.

I had a business meeting at an office about twenty miles from the state forest, and I knew a good run in the clean air would help clear my mind. I saw an awesome rattlesnake and enjoyed the solitude. I had to stop a few times to try to work the kinks out of my back, but otherwise it was a great run. I hope I can get out there again soon. And speaking of awesome runs– I had a great one at Cheaha State Park in Alabama. The mountain views, the morning mist…it was one of those days when it’s great to be alive and aware.

Feeling Better, Looking Ahead

bayou sunrise
Sunrise over the bayou while I ran at an hour when I’m usually still in bed.

I had a rough September, starting with a flareup of cervical dystonia. I’d been working out pretty hard for a couple months, and I suspect some of the exercises I did were too much for my neck. As I began to recover, I got a cold, and the next day got the stomach flu. It was almost comical except that I felt awful and got super dehydrated.

Now that I’ve been close to 90% normal (my normal), I’m increasing my exercise again. I got up at 5 this morning and went for a run, happy to avoid the 90-degree temps that will come later today. The sunset over the bayou was enough to encourage me to stop and enjoy it even though I knew I had limited time to run before the heat rose to a miserable level.
As I regain running strength, I’m alternating ten minutes of endurance training– slow, steady pace– with five minutes of speedwork– fast (for me) pace but not sprint. I’m comfortably up to 35 minutes of running each session, and I’m sure I could do more, but I don’t want to relapse into another battle with neck spasms.
I bought a new peanut, which is essentially two lacrosse balls joined to form a torture device. I hate using it, but it’s highly effective at breaking some of my cervical and thoracic spasms. I was super stiff and headed toward immobility last night, but the peanut came through for me and I feel much better this morning.
I’ve also gotten more dedicated to rolling, which I intended to mean I’m rolling twice every day, but what actually means I’m rolling about five days a week. I use a solid foam roller and it’s helping a lot to reduce the tension in my legs and back. Rolling the outside of my thighs makes my eyes water, but, like the peanut, the results are totally worth the temporary discomfort.
One of the weirdest, lingering effects of my September health issues is a major shift in my appetite. I lost four pounds when I had the stomach flu, and I’m pretty sure most of it was fluid loss. However, since then, I’m alternately ravenous for random food (like beans, rice, and salsa for breakfast!) and unable to finish my meals. I’ve been a mega-portion eater for many years, so this shift is very odd. I’m giving myself some leeway and allowing, within reason, whatever meals I want. I draw the line at pure crap, like the serious cravings I’ve been having for milkshakes, but I admit to eating corn chips and Mexican food for breakfast this morning.
I’m not one to wish time away, but I’m really looking forward to October. I hope the ridiculous high temperatures will finally drop. I can’t wait to actually feel cold when I walk outside. This October marks three years since my back started giving me major trouble, but I’m not dwelling on that anniversary. I’m ready to do some serious hiking and backpacking when the weather cools off, and I’m certain October will bring the cool breezes and nights that I crave.

Dirt Road Running and River Tubing

red dirt road
The T described by the shuttle driver was an intersection of wide dirt roads. Perfect for running.

I planned to run eight miles on forest roads yesterday morning and meet friends for a day on the river afterward. Despite careful planning, I realized my chosen route wouldn’t work when I found out from the kayak shuttle driver that my friends’ drop-off point was going to be more southerly than I thought. If I ran the route I chose, I’d come to the river north of them, and I was pretty sure I couldn’t catch their kayaks with my 99-cent tube. The shuttle driver saved the day by giving me fantastic directions for a pig-trail route to catch up with them further south. The new plan made me a little uneasy but sparked my curiosity. As my friends boarded the shuttle, I repacked my bag, ditching my iPod in favor of a compass and adding extra Gin Gins in case I got lost and hungry.

The shuttle driver’s directions were spot-on, even though he failed to mention a few turnoffs that made me more than a little nervous. Every time I passed another trail, I wondered if he’d forgotten to mention a turn. I decided to run out for an hour, and if I didn’t find the river by then, I’d turn around and follow my footsteps (and compass) back to my truck. I love adventures, but I hate going off road without a map. None of the forest maps I own—not even the official Forest Service map—shows the route I was on yesterday.

jurek endure bottle
Rationing my water from one of two 10oz bottles on my Jurek Endure waistpack.

At the eighteen-minute mark, I found the T the driver told me about. “You’ll come to a place where you’ll either have to go left or right,” he said. “Turn left.” I’d written his words down on a tiny piece of paper and stuffed it in my waistpack so I wouldn’t risk my memory playing tricks. I turned left like he said, and within ten minutes I was at the river.

Unfortunately, my friends were way upstream, so I had time to kill. I turned around and ran a bit more, than came back to the river and talked with a family who’d arrived via shuttle for tubing. What I witnessed—and the conversations I had with that family—is too powerful and emotional for me to talk about yet, but suffice it to say I felt the convergence of tragedy, unfairness, hope, and resilience. Rather than wait for my friends, I decided to hike further upriver and process my encounter with the family of strangers.

I found another unmarked trail, this one narrow and crisscrossed by spider webs, but it was a decent hike. I followed the route upstream for a mile until I hit an impasse. A huge patch of wetlands suddenly appeared, and I don’t think I could’ve even made it through with snake waders and boots, let alone in running shorts and sneakers. I dipped down off the trail onto a sandy beach and sat under a cypress tree in the river. My back and neck were really bothering me and I hadn’t slept more than three hours the night before, but the cold water felt great. I wished I could figure out a way to float on my back and completely relax without being carried by the current.

blackwater river
My riverfront view as I waited for my kayaking friends to paddle downstream.

My friends arrived eventually, better late than never, and their kayaks were loaded with food and supplies. It was great to see them paddling their kayaks toward me, and I sat with them on the beach and pigged out for a while before we headed downstream. I’d run with a deflated tube bungeed to my waistpack, and once I got it blown up, we took off down the river. Note for future adventures: tubing on a 99-cent piece of crap is a lot slower than going down the river on a kayak. I ended up getting towed a good portion of the way by three generous friends who switched off paddling duties as I clung to the tails of their kayaks. I told them I’d be fine and would catch up eventually, but they stayed with me anyway. Five slow miles later, we floated under the last bridge before the river becomes non-navigable, and I walked up the bank to my truck. Changing into dry, cotton clothes felt great after being wet literally all day.

It was a very successful trip in terms of nothing going wrong, but I was so ready for something crazy to happen that when it didn’t I was almost a little let down. I’m excited about the future, though—after seeing all those pig trails, I’m ready to go back and explore more uncharted territory. I’m going to take my GPS and make my own map of the trails. Who knows? Maybe I can sell copies of the map (to that one other person besides me in the whole world who would want to hike there?). Better keep my day jobs.