“He’s got problems. And we just thought he was a nice little kid. He’s got something in there, like he’s infected. And that’s going to come out again somewhere.”
-Chris Cornell on Mike McCready in PJ20.
Nineteen years ago this week I suffered the most devastating and painful injury of my life. While playing a game of pickup basketball, on an innocuous rebound, I was fouled hard and fell into the legs of a much bigger player. Still not sure about the exact motion to this day but I will be forever left with the results. Somehow during the fall and impact, my right foot went behind my head. The motion of falling out of the air put all of my weight onto the femur and it bent at nearly a ninety degree angle at my right hip.
Crash, snap, scream.
Certain instants you will never forget in your life. The horrified expression on the faces of the other teenagers as I grabbed my leg and threw it back in front of me in retching horror will be one of them. According to the story, adults came pouring out of the building into the parking lot because the awful snapping noise echoed off the inside walls of the gym. An interesting analogy I once heard about the force it takes to break a femur sums up the horror that I faced. The doctor told me that if I took a standard 2 x 4 and wrapped it with pieces of beef was the best way to describe a femur. Imagine the force it would take to break that 2 x 4. Place that load on a thirteen year old, presto, instant pain.
What happened next would unknowingly shape the direction of my next twenty years. Simply put I didn’t panic and I accepted the pain for what it was. Endurance athletes are outliers by nature. Most of us just don’t end up like this. Usually something happened somewhere along the worn path and drove us off the trail. I won’t sit here and deny that the pain was not completely and utterly catastrophic. The burning heat of a million suns, focused in my right leg. Every tiny movement I made I felt the displaced fracture rub back up against the opposite jagged edge in an attempt to provide structure. I yelled, I swore, I pounded the ground beside my head to try and focus the pain elsewhere in my body. Anything to avoid the feeling that was spreading from epicenter of pain in my thigh.
The paramedics arrived to find quite a crowd watching the unfolding spectacle in the parking lot. Word had spread about the sight of my twisted and bent leg and the preceding snap. The paramedics approached with little urgency as the swearing had yielded to a wan and focused young man trying to assimilate the overwhelming sensory stimuli that was bombarding him every second. The paramedics did the initial checks and guessed that some sort of massive muscle injury had taken place. I did my best to calmly pipe in and tell them about the crepitus I felt as they moved me. I calmly informed the paramedics that I had broken my leg. Surely I was mistaken. Puny thirteen year old punk runner telling us that his femur was broken while he calmly waited to go to the hospital? Right. If you take the time to research femur fractures online some people suggest that it is the most painful thing a human can endure. Often times patients will pass out our become nauseous from the pain. How could they have known? Call me a cynic, call me crazy, call me anything but don’t question my knowledge of what is happening in my body. I’m not sure if I believe in heaven and hell or the eternal battle of good versus evil but I am sure that all the pain of the universe was in my tiny leg in that instant as bone continued to grind.
Shelburne Falls isn’t exactly known for its road surfaces so the ambulance ride was less than pleasant to say the very least. In the emergency room my strength began to break down and things became hazy for the next hour. The whole world had a white haze around the edges. IV’s were set, narcotics were dripped. Looking back I now know that the ER staff was just setting my system up for the next shock. My femur was in fact broken(The paramedics had to buy me pizza based on a bet we made in the ambulance)and now it was time to set the bone. At that point I assessed the situation and thought things were borderline cool. Broken leg? Cast? Girls? Maybe miss some school? Perfect. All of those positive emotions washed away in the haze as the orthopedic surgeon set the bone. All of the pain up to that point was minor. My whole world shook to the core as the bone screeched back across itself. Nothing has ever been or will ever be so clear, so focused, so terrifying, so pure, as that pain. After the bone was set I checked out and my life became a succession of bursts. As I passed out I looked over my shoulder to see the jagged remains of my right femur projected on the wall.
In the first flash I woke up in a hospital room with my Mom and Aunt. More pain, darkness.
Flash, a brightly lit room with a table in the center. Crepitus as they moved me off the bed. This was the first time I remembered crying. I was lost in the pain, unable to assimilate and process my surrounding. I remember apologizing to everyone in the room and insisting that I am not normally one to cry. Darkness.
Flash, stereotypical hospital lights overhead as I’m pushed down a dark hallway in the middle of the night. Darkness.
Flash, holy shit! My leg is hanging in the air! Darkness.
In the waking hours I came to grips with my new reality. I razor sharp surgical steel pin was drilled through my right femur just above the knee. Blood and flesh still crusted in the threads. Connected to the pin was some sort of contraption attached to a series of pulleys and weights that suspended my leg in the air at a ninety degree angle. My right thigh was enormous, easily twice the size of my left leg and an alarming shade of purple. Occasionally my leg would involuntarily spasm and I would get the same retching pain from the accident. The nurses informed me that the spasms would last for up to two weeks while the muscle trauma surrounding the fracture healed. My sentence was twenty-eight days, the first fourteen I would not even be allowed to be wheeled out of my room. My view of the world was a window obscured by an air conditioner and a crack of the door that I could hardly see. My family was a group of saints throughout the ordeal but I nearly cracked. After two weeks in bed with my stupid leg hanging in front of me I almost went insane. I was as active as a teenager as I am as an adult so my sentence was driving me mad. Thanksgiving night after my family left I broke down. Some sort of doctor, I assume a psychologist, came to talk with me while I got ahold of myself. The pain of the complete inactivity was almost as bad as the fracture.
After a month I was on my way home in what could best be described as half a body cast. I was bedridden for a further six weeks at home before the ordeal concluded. I’ll spare everyone the details of my recovery. All I’ll say is that I was not supposed to run again until the next winter at the earliest according to my surgeon. (50-70 weeks) I was running six weeks after the cast was off. Insert mutant healing power comment here.
Obviously pain has been on my mind a lot lately. Often times in my race recaps I will refer to my dark place that I don’t really like to go because it scares me a little. These memories and feeling are the dark place. When I reflect on a bad race it was always because I was afraid to go there again. In that instant it was easier to hide than to face it all again. Somehow when all the stars are aligned and things are going really well I can get back there. It’s always ok because I know that it will never be as bad as what I have endured before. Sometimes I love this place, seemingly eager to return to explore the limits. What’s at the end of the universe? As athletes we’re all destined to explore this place in our own way to make sense of the madness.