Impromptu Camping Trip

blackbird marsh trail
The Blackbird Marsh Trail connects to the Florida Trail.

Our midweek camping trip at the beach was the perfect impromptu escape. Luckily the National Seashore had a cancelation and we were able to make a last-minute reservation on our favorite camping loop near the Gulf of Mexico.

The weather was almost perfect—seventies in the day, sixties at night—but the wind was incredible. Our tent almost took off several times while we pitched it, and the rainfly stood up like a parachute. We finally got everything secured and set off for a two-hour hike on the Florida Trail. We usually hike 4+ hours, but my wife is still in recovery from a hoverboard accident and two hours on her feet was a major victory.

armadillo florida trail
Armadillos are common along the National Seashore section of the Florida Trail.

At the turtle bridge near the northern terminus of the Florida Trail, we saw one of the coolest things we’ve ever seen—a large snake swimming across the water. The snake was incredibly fluid and silent along the top of the water, and as city-dwellers, we were mind-blown.

We finished our hike and made lunch, and my back suddenly started to hurt. Pain shot down my right leg almost to my foot. I worried I’d have a sleepless night, but decided to put my shoes back on and go for a trail run. It doesn’t make sense within normal parameters, but often a run makes my back feel much better, almost like the pounding helps return everything to where it’s supposed to be.

The wind was so stiff that I sometimes felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, but it was a great 45-minute run. I saw a thru-hiker finishing his walk and a mile or so later I was charged by an armadillo who didn’t realize I was on the trail. He took off to root through the remnants of a fallen tree before we played a full game of chicken, and it was fun to watch his short legs propel his oval body toward me.

Running through the campground proved no less entertaining. It’s normal to see dogs tied up at campsites, but someone in a truck camper had their cat tied to their rig. The cat was quite fat and seemed immensely happy. He wore a collar with a bell and was attached to the camper by a harness and retractable leash. I love random animal sightings while running.

altra intuition
My Altra Intuitions got in some good trail miles.

When I got back to our tent, my back pain had greatly receded and was down to a dull ache. I did a few more exercises from my core routine (I’d done the others earlier) and stretched a few key muscles, and even after cooling down my back pain stayed very low. I am a wholehearted believer in using exercise as a weapon against chronic pain.

I cooked fresh salmon, dill, and white quinoa for dinner (we eat healthily even while camping!) and we got into our tent at eight o’clock because bugs were eating up our ankles. I hesitantly stretched out on my camping mattress and was pleasantly surprised to find all the radiating pain completely gone from my leg and even the centralized pain in my back was barely there. The wind blew so hard all night that we thought the tent might collapse, but we both got some sleep and awoke to the sounds of Gulf waves crashing on a beautiful morning.

Sprained Ankle Update

KT Tape
Bright purple with reflective accents– yes, it really is a medical product.

I was miserable Monday and Tuesday, but a very talented massage therapist relaxed the muscles around my sprained ankle Tuesday night. The gastrocnemius and soleus were very tight, and since they form a common tendon (the Achilles), I was hurting pretty bad. Working some toxins out of the calf muscles and massaging the rest of my legs took away more than half the pain in my ankle and Achillles.

Wednesday morning I asked my boss and chiropractor to look at my ankle. He said it looked surprisingly good for the heavy roll I’d given it, but said a few small bones in my feet were locked. I don’t like anybody touching my feet but I let him adjust the mid-foot, and man, what a difference. I was almost immediately pain free and able to walk for 45 minutes at lunch.

Today is Thursday, four days after the initial injury. I used KT Tape to stabilize my ankle and Achilles then gave it a quick test on a 3-mile easy run. No hills, no off-road, nothing tricky. The ankle did great with only a little Achilles soreness.

This was my first time using KT Tape. I’m an athlete from way back when rigid white athletic tape and non-breathable under-wrap were the only answers to taping an ankle. I’m now hooked on the KT Tape. The online videos KT Tape are very helpful in explaining and demonstrating everything for various applications. I chose to do a combination of the ankle tape and Achilles tape, so mine doesn’t look exactly like the manufacturer recommends, but it works for me. Bonus: it’s bright purple, the color of my undergrad alma mater.

The tape survived the 3-mile run just fine, and I’ve been wearing it since this morning and there’s no slippage or friction or anything irritating. The Pro version, which I bought, is supposed to last four days, and hopefully by then my ankle won’t need any help. The roll I bought is plenty big to wrap it a few more times if necessary, though. I anticipate my battle now being more common sense than anything. I have a hard time resting when the weather is beautiful, but I know I still need to ice and elevate the ankle a few times per day. I’m so happy this sprain didn’t turn into anything major!

Sprained Ankle and Sore Achilles Tendon

ice sprained ankle
I wrapped my ankle with a soft icepack and a bandage, then elevated it while Otis watched from the couch.

I don’t often have a so-called normal injury, but when I do, it’s a tough battle to force myself to take care of it. I worked on some posts about chronic pain and insomnia this weekend (which I’ll publish soon), then ironically got a relatively great night of sleep. I woke up Sunday morning ready to run. The weather was beautiful, I’d actually gotten some rest, and my back and neck were behaving pretty well. I decided to go 9-10 miles, depending on how I felt on the road.

I took off on terrain I’ve run on for years and was quickly bored with the usual sights and sounds. On a whim, I ducked behind some fenced-off private property (no location details here, but don’t try this at home, kids) and discovered a network of hidden trails in the middle of suburbia. Birds sung loudly, the air felt fresher, and all I could see were trees—real, hardwood trees! I had no idea how long the trails would last, but I hoped for at least five minutes of traffic-free running.

As I rounded a corner under a canopy of oaks, I realized I’d been in the woods for at least a mile. I was thrilled. So thrilled that I stopped paying close attention to the leaf-covered ground ahead. I ran at a 7:30 per mile pace, fast for me on a long run, and felt carefree. My feet landed on soft ground and I couldn’t smell smog or see any cars. I looked up at a cardinal in a tree and my right foot came down on a small stump. My ankle rolled so badly that I felt my fibula slam into the ground. I heard and felt a “pop” but instinctively kept running. Continuing to move was my way of assessing damage.

A few steps later I decided, despite the pop and severity of the roll, nothing was badly damaged. Pain shot up from my ankle to my knee on initial impact, but the sharpness dulled to an ache as I kept running. “Stupid,” I said aloud. “Watch where you’re going.” I was lucky, for sure, but I also make a habit of running in grassy medians and through debris-strewn parks as much as possible to help keep my ankles strong. I’m pretty sure Sunday’s outcome would’ve been a lot worse if I hadn’t spent lots of time strengthening my ankles.

I managed another eight miles after the trail ended and returned home full of excitement, energy and nagging concern for my ankle. I drank coconut water and described the trails to my wife, who smiled but expressed her disapproval at my adventure. She was right—I should at least tell her where I’m going if I decide to cover new ground. Oh, well. Live to die another day.

I spent the rest of the day like normal, throwing toys for the dogs, reading magazines, and stretching my tired body. My Achilles tendon ached, but my ankle didn’t show any swelling. I pinched along the margins of the tendon and it was sore, but everything seemed relatively in order. Then, as is the case with many sports injuries, nightfall brought pain and stiffness.

By the next morning my ankle and Achilles throbbed. My foot, ankle, and knee were stiff, and I tried everything I could think of to remain in denial about the injury (although I ordered some K Tape, so I wasn’t in complete denial). I have chronic pain—not normal injuries! I don’t have time for normal injuries! A sprained ankle and a sore tendon seem so alien.

The ankle felt unstable, so I bought a cheap drugstore compression sleeve to add support. I was able to walk around the neighborhood, but that was probably stupid. I felt worse after the walk. I hoped to run this morning—not quite two days after the initial injury—but when I woke up (yes, I slept again!) I knew it would be a very dumb idea to run. I probably could, but what if I turned the ankle again? I’ve seen friends with horrific Achilles injuries, and I don’t ever want one of my own. I put the compression sleeve on and set out for a walk. Too much pain. Time for plan B.

I ended up riding my bike around the neighborhood, but if I put the bike into a gear that offered much resistance, my Achilles screamed at me. I managed 25 minutes and headed for home. I couldn’t believe that all of my chronic pain issues were finally, blessedly feeling under control, but I was sidelined by an avoidable, normal injury.

As soon as I finish typing I’ll wrap my ankle in ice and elevate it for 15-20 minutes. I’m trying not to jump out of my skin about being unable to run. My perspective is weird—on one hand, I’ve dealt with horrific health issues that kept me from running (or doing much of anything) for a long time, so a few days off for a sprained ankle shouldn’t be a big deal. But, because of those stolen years when pain and bad health kept me down, I don’t want to lay off another day. More down time seems unbearable.

The reality is, those of us with chronic pain still get routine injuries, too, and we have to treat them with respect. Time to ice my ankle, dammit.

Broken Ironman Sleek

black ironman sleek midsizeI love my Timex Ironman Sleek. It’s the fourth one I’ve had. My first one died after several hard years, including some rough duty when I worked as an EMT. My second one got water behind the crystal, presumably from swimming in it daily for several months. My third one almost turned me off from buying another– the watch was fine, but the band fell apart. I hoped it was a fluke. Unfortunately, it was not.

The Sleek perfectly fits my thin wrists and is so light and comfortable that I can wear it for long runs, camping trips, and even sleep in it without it feeling cumbersome. My current version, mostly black with a few gray accents, is my favorite Sleek so far. I was very unhappy when I took it off after a five-mile run today and discovered that the band was torn. The watch probably won’t even last for tomorrow’s run.

I’ve had it for a couple of years. Possibly three years, although I’m truly not sure. But I’m gentle on things, and I didn’t expect a second Sleek to have a not-so-durable band. I’ve never had to replace the battery and have no other complaints about the watch. But, due to the Sleek’s design, once a band breaks, the watch becomes useless. It’s a pin-free band molded around the body of the watch, which is nice to look at but not practical for someone who wants to keep it for many years.

ironman sleek broken band
The break in the band goes almost all the way through both sides.

Perhaps my expectations are too high, but I feel that paying $40ish for a watch is enough that the band should be more durable. I’m debating whether or not to buy another Sleek and have read several reviews complaining that the bands break after only a few months of use. Months? I definitely don’t want to deal with that kind of financial and environmental waste. But every other watch I look at either seems too bulky for my small wrists or has a similar unibody design, which is doubtfully more durable than the Sleek. Y’all have any input? What are your feelings on the Soleus brand? How about Asics collaborating with Seiko?

Running, Progress, and a Plastic Pony

I woke up at 7:59 this morning with my back in alignment and my neck mostly mobile. My wife and dogs snored lightly in rhythm, and as I took stock of my body and nothing hurt, I knew it would be a great day.

I decided to go for eight miles instead of ten, partly because I’d recently fought a sinus infection and partly because I wanted to get back home ASAP and deal with my visions of waffles and bacon (although I eventually ate roasted chicken and mixed greens).

The air was colder and windier than I’d hoped, but the sun made my goose bumps lie flat, and by the fourth mile, I was actually sweating while wearing shorts in February.

plastic pony
My new friend.

I rounded a corner near a cemetery and the bright yellow butt of a plastic pony stuck out of the dirt like a beacon. I didn’t know how badly she was wounded, but I knew we needed each other. I tugged on her back legs and plucked her like a mushroom out of the dirt. Dirt dulled her sheen and filled the swoop between her pink hair and yellow face. The turquoise paint that colored her eyes was partly worn away and she had linear cuts through her plastic flesh. One of her ears was almost shorn off. She’d obviously been hit by a mower, but she was beautiful.

I ran with the little plastic pony in my palm, the space between her legs and belly perfectly suited for my fingers to grip her securely. I resisted the urge to talk to her as the miles ticked by. I didn’t just feel good—I felt great, like I didn’t really have chronic pain anymore. I felt like a normal, healthy runner, and I smiled with every footfall. A real, entire night of sleep is rare for me, but last night I’d scored one, and the difference in my body and mind was incredible.

I dodged potholes and broken sidewalks and thought about the last couple of years of rebuilding my writing career that I threw away for a long list of stupid reasons. I thought about how those same years haven’t been good to my body, despite my addiction to health food and exercise. I’ve busted my ass and scored new writing and editing jobs, but I still work in healthcare to pay my bills. I used to obsess over wanting to rewind my life to that moment when I walked away from a potentially awesome book contract, but recently I realized that the anxiety over what could have been was literally killing me. My body hurt anyway, but when I thought about what I’d given up, my muscles went into lockdown and I slipped into misery. My fingers curled around the plastic pony and I realized I’d buried myself headfirst in dirt and hit myself with a mower. You dumbass, I thought, not for the first time.

Of course I’d known for years (and beaten myself up for it daily) that I’d made poor choices and possibly squandered the rest of my life as a writer, but only recently did I understand that I have to move on. Not just want to move on—I have to move on. Maybe a combination of friends’ Facebook-posted internet memes—I particularly like the ones that tell you to go after what you want no matter what—and my erratic health helped me see the light. While I may never forgive myself for some of my questionable choices, the worst choice of all would be to give up again just as I start to rebuild.

8 mile run
Fun run!

I stared into the shabby eye of my new pony as I rounded out the eighth mile of the morning run. I realized I’d pulled my own head out of the sand when I decided to reclaim my health and writing career. Lots of days I feel like I’ve been hit by a mower, but so what? Life is short whether I feel well or not, so I might as well live it wide open.

Hiking

I love to hike. Getting outside and walking for hours is one of my favorite ways to clear my mind and put aside worries about chronic pain, money, and whatever else is bothering me. My wife and I’ve had some interesting hikes lately, the most recent of which involved hunting season and unhappy rednecks “running dogs” where we wanted to hike. Despite that unpleasantness, we had a great afternoon and even found a tiny cemetery from the 1800s.

No matter what’s going on in my life, I always feel better if I spend time in the woods. We live within a few miles of several sections of the Florida Trail and have seen every mile of it in the panhandle, but we’ve also hiked all over the United States. Both of us were hikers before we met, and I still solo-hike from time to time. Here’re some pictures from some of my latest adventures.

ft pickens florida trail
The view on a clear and sunny day on the Ft. Pickens turtle bridge near the northern terminus of the Florida Trail.

I’ll hike anywhere in any weather. Some of my best memories are from a 2001 Appalachian Trail group hike in miserable rain and cold. I don’t miss the bone-chilling nights, but the memories of that hike are eternal. My chronic health problems make it more difficult to deal with extreme cold now, but I’m still up for almost any adventure. Visiting a much-loved friend in Massachusetts this fall provided some excellent hiking scenery.

fall leaves
I looked up through the trees while hiking a trail in Milton, Massachusetts. The fall foliage was breathtaking.

 

Most people prefer the Gulf side, but I like the sound side at Ft. Pickens inside the National Seashore. I almost never see anyone else out there, and solitude is good for my mental health. I like to be able to sing out loud without witnesses.

sound side ft pickens
The sound side of Ft. Pickens is gorgeous.

Gift Guide for Athletes

I recently became an “Expert” with SheKnows Media. I’m grateful for the opportunity to not only get more of my work in front of readers, but also for the chance to make chronic pain patients more visible.

My first Expert piece is a lighthearted gift guide for athletes. I compiled a list of gifts in various price ranges and made sure to throw in a pain relief section, since I’ve never met an athlete who doesn’t have at least a few aches and pains. In the future, I hope to not only speak to regular athletes, but also to those who suffer from chronic pain and conditions like fibromyalgia. Here’s the link to the post: Gift Guide for Athletes on SheKnows

Review: Fitbit Flex

I don’t worry about my activity level—it’s always high when I’m well enough to exercise—but I’m a sucker for data. I have an awesome, old Garmin Forerunner for tracking runs, and my iPod Nano can track runs with its built-in Nike+ app, but I wanted something more basic that I could wear all the time. I’m interested in knowing how active I am throughout the day, not just during exercise. My mom has a Fitbit Flex and likes it a lot, so when I saw a decent sale I got one for myself. I chose bright pink because it was $10 cheaper than the other colors.

fitbit flex
The smaller sized wristband clipped at midway leaves me lots of breathing room.

When my Fitbit Flex box arrived, I found a small black tracker, two sizes of pink bands, a tiny wireless dongle, and a small USB charger inside the package. I have a prepaid iPhone 4 and can’t use much data, so I opted out of the Fitbit phone app and instead chose Fitbit’s MacBook-compatible program. The interface is user-friendly and easily customizable, and I checked it out while my new Fitbit charged.

From what I can tell, the Fitbit Flex works like a basic pedometer by detecting movement and translating that movement into an estimate of how many steps the wearer takes throughout the day. You can calculate your stride length and input your numbers for better accuracy, and add which arm you wear the tracker on to avoid dominant-hand movements counting as steps. From Fitbit’s website: “Changing this setting to “Dominant” will decrease the sensitivity of step counting and should reduce any over counting of steps when your body is not moving. The “Non Dominant” setting will increase the sensitivity of step counting, and we recommend this setting if your Flex is not counting enough steps.”

The sleep-tracking feature on the Flex intrigued me, since chronic pain often leaves me sleepless. My back pain has majorly decreased lately, which means I’m sleeping a lot more, but I still don’t sleep as well as I should. I hoped the Flex would help me analyze how often I stir around and disturb my sleep, but it didn’t work out for me. The first night that I put my tracker into sleep mode, I obsessed so much on having something around my wrist that I couldn’t go to sleep. Even without neuroses (yes, I can be a bit obsessive to say the least), the sleep tracking feature isn’t particularly sophisticated and can be prone to flaws, but I still wish it would’ve worked for me. It’s possible to lie still while wide awake and have the tracker register that you’re sleeping soundly, but when I’m in pain I don’t lie still, so that wouldn’t have been a problem for me.

If any of the Fitbit features are something I don’t want to use, I can easily remove them from my dashboard so I don’t have to look at them daily. I took off the sleep box to avoid reminders that I didn’t track my sleep. Another one I removed was the weight information and food tracking. I don’t have any desire to track my calories. The water-tracking feature can be helpful, though, especially since I’m prone to dehydration. It’s a serious concern for athletes in Florida.

My major gripe about the Flex so far is its sensitivity. It’s supposed to be compatible with an active lifestyle, but I’ve found that a lot of my daily movements put it into sleep mode. Sleep mode activates when you tap rapidly on the tracker for a few seconds. For me, it also activates when I mow the grass (vibration from the mower, I guess), pat the dog’s belly, or ride over bumpy terrain on my bicycle. I’m an old drummer and still have a habit of drumming my hands on the counter or my thighs, and that, too, sends the Flex into sleep mode. Not cool.

I saw a Black Friday sale that would’ve made it a lot cheaper than what I paid (even though I got mine on sale), and of course that was aggravating. I have concerns about the durability of the bands, and the expense of name-brand replacement bands is ridiculous. The bright pink has already gotten a bit dull after a couple of weeks, so I ordered a few off-brand (read: way cheaper) replacement bands, but I don’t appreciate having to do that. Can you imagine if we had to buy new watchbands every month? Fitbit needs to work on durability for sure.

I’ve worn the Flex while running several times, and it’s been fine. The tracker and band are lightweight and comfortable. Sweat sometimes collects inside the band, so I always take out the tracker after a run and make sure it’s dry. The Flex is water-resistant but not waterproof, which is annoying, but so far I haven’t had problems with sweat or shower water ruining it.

Despite some drawbacks, I like the Flex. It’s a great reminder if I’m working on the computer to get up and move around instead of melting into my chair. My mom and I are “friends” on Fitbit’s online program, and we can see each other’s step counts and cheer each other on if so inclined. I upped my goal to 15,000 steps per day from the stock 10,000, and I’ve found it pretty easy to reach 15,000, but the tracking software allows me to see my most active hours of the day rather than just displaying my number of steps. Which reminds me—it’s time to conclude this review and do my lower back a favor and go for a walk.

Nutshell Review

Pros: lightweight; choice of colors; easy and user-friendly online tracking program; comes with two sizes of bands; creates a good reminder to get up and move around throughout the day.

Cons: too sensitive—can go into sleep mode accidentally; bands aren’t durable and color doesn’t stay fresh; replacement bands are expensive; can be hard to snap onto wrist.

Eating to Fight Chronic Pain

Some of y’all asked what I’m eating these days. I thought it’d be easier to show some pictures with captions rather than making a boring list. I’m a true believer in fighting chronic pain and fibromyalgia with whole foods as the primary weapon. I stay away from processed food and almost never eat refined sugar. I don’t adhere to one specific diet but instead choose foods that make me feel good rather than those that make me sick. I almost never go out to eat, but when I do, I’m finicky about which restaurants and what I order. In general, I stay away from wheat, dairy, added sugar, and processed meat.

food for chronic pain patient
I like hardboiled eggs and raw veggies for lunch.
healthy dinner
A few nights ago I baked chicken, a Korean sweet potato, carrots, and green beans for dinner.
healthy restaurant food
During a rare visit to a restaurant, I ordered stir-fried chicken breast with Chinese broccoli. It was delicious!

Core Workout to Combat Chronic Pain

core workout for chronic back pain
I do a core workout almost every day to fight chronic pain.

Keeping my core muscles strong has been a lifesaver. Not only am I able to run again, but I’ve started sleeping again because I’m not in as much pain when I lie down. My low back and pelvis and hips were in so much pain for more than a year that I was terrified it would become a lifetime issue.

I already deal with chronic pain and felt like I couldn’t stand a new addition to my pain resume’. The core exercises help my pelvis stay in proper alignment, which relieves the once-constant pain in my back and hips. The picture of my notebook shows what a daily core workout looks like for me. I change things up each day but always do the basics.