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 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.

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.

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.

A Happy Surprise and New Exercises

I got a happy surprise with the results of my lumbar MRI—only one slight, diffuse disc protrusion at L4/L5. Everything else looked fine! After suffering through debilitating back and hip pain for 13 months, I feared the worst. I knew my neck was bad, but I still didn’t expect the MRI to show what it did several years ago—three herniated discs. Because of my neck and the severity of my back pain, I tried to prepare for the worst with the lumbar MRI results. It’s hard to prepare for bad news when it I already feel like so much of my life is either stolen or diminished because of health issues, but I readied myself for one more piece of bad news. Instead, light!

There’s still no good reason for my back and hip to be so messed up. Idiopathic muscle spasms—possibly related to the cervical dystonia diagnosis I got a few years ago?—started torturing me seemingly out of nowhere last year. Sometimes I truly wonder if a fibromyalgia diagnosis is just a doctor’s way of saying she doesn’t really know what the hell is really going on.

In the face of misery—misery that is compounded by pain and spinal dysfunction keeping me from doing the vigorous exercise that makes me happy—I’ve discovered a random piece of exciting news. I can climb stairs without much pain. Lots of stairs. I walked up nine stories a few days ago and felt great. Today, I walked up outdoor amphitheater stairs ten times. Walking down sucks, and if it weren’t for having to walk down, I think I’d walk up a lot more. The building where I went up nine stories has an elevator, but I have major death trap phobia about elevators so it’s not practical for me to ride down. Maybe I’ll reach a point where I either get over the elevator fear or can better tolerate walking down, but until something changes, I like the outdoor stairs. I can walk up them and then walk down a grassy hill to start over.

I started another new adventure this week. I’m now working out with a trainer at the 24-hour gym where I hold a membership. I’ve already found that I haven’t been giving good trainers enough credit. This guy knows what he’s doing and is putting forth a lot of effort to help me correct the ridiculous anterior pelvic tilt that worsens my back pain. I have a second appointment with him tomorrow, and while I prefer independent exercise, I’m pretty excited about having a professional ensure I’m not making myself worse.

Meanwhile, the pain persists. I finally agreed to a round of bloodwork, which is something I’ve avoided for a couple of years now. I got very tired of getting the same old results—low white cell count and low red cell count and anemia—without anybody nailing down a cause. It just didn’t feel worthwhile to open a vein anymore, but I’m ready to look for answers again. I’ve also agreed to a few non-invasive tests, but have yet to decide if I’ll actually go through with them. Sometimes the worst thing about having health problems is the time it takes away from the good parts of life. But I know how lucky I am to live the life I lead, so I’ll just complain a little bit then get on with things.