Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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"Mostly I run because I am an animal and a child, an artist and a saint.
So, too, can you. Find your own play, your own self-renewing compulsion,
and you will become the person you are meant to be.
- Dr. George Sheehan


After another summer of great adventures Out West, Jim and I are in somewhat of a funk.

Maybe "transition" would be a better word. In 2006 we had to return home more abruptly than we would have liked because of a family gathering in Illinois right after the Leadville race. This year we managed to extend our trip a couple more weeks by going to the Teton race, but it was still sad to leave the mountains.

Coneflower, after getting watered

Part of the difficulty was the long drive home and all the yard work we knew awaited our attention after being gone for three or four months. Part of it was missing the awesome scenery in the Rockies and the nice cool temperatures and dry air we enjoyed all summer. Roanoke had record-breaking heat this summer (about twice as many days over 90 degrees as average, including several since we've been home) and the humidity just sucks the energy right out of us at times.

On the way home we were both wondering -- without telling the other one -- if we'd made a mistake by moving to the East three years ago. We did a lot of research before Jim retired to find the "perfect" place to live and use as home base for our travels. We never could find the right combination of all the factors that were important to us, including cost of living, in the western states. The area that came closest to meeting all of our criteria was Roanoke, and that's where we settled.

View from Tinker Cliffs near Roanoke, VA

I came to terms with that decision when we were halfway through West Virginia on our way home. It was a beautiful early September day, still quite hot, but already a few of the deciduous leaves at the higher elevations along winding, hilly I-64 were turning bright fall colors. The hazy blue ridges stretched as far as we could see north and south, layer upon layer deep, the quintessential calendar photo of the Appalachian Mountain chain.

And I suddenly remembered one of the big reasons why we moved to Roanoke, Virginia. I was nearly choked up by the beauty of the surroundings and wanted the next two or three hours of our drive to go quickly so we could get back "home." Jim felt it, too.


It's been a busy month at home.

Our first chore was emptying out the camper and cleaning it up. That's a faster job than getting it ready to leave in the spring, but still labor-intensive because we were tired from four long days on the road.

The house was fine inside -- no dust, and no mold or musty smell this year because we're in a drought, twelve inches low on water so far this year. Although we lost some grass and plants because there was no one to water them (the bad news), the flower beds didn't look quite as jungle-y as last summer when we came home (the good news).

Before: house and part of the flowerbeds when we left in May

It took us three weeks to pull the weeds in the flowerbeds, water the remaining shrubs, flowers, and grass back to life, load and unload five truckloads of mulch and spread it out where needed, and do other yard chores.

There's a lot of yard work left to do -- hauling more mulch, cutting more firewood for the winter, reviving the lawn, and cutting/chipping a bunch of branches AEP left after trimming trees along the power lines on either side of our yard near the road. When we complained about the mess they left they sent a four-man crew back out to remove a lot of it, but many hours of work remain for us to do. At least we'll get some good hardwood logs for our wood stove this winter -- I always try to find the "silver lining" when something bad happens!

Part of the mess AEP left in our yard

Jim has gotten back into his rescue squad and fire department routine, if you can define emergency calls at any hour of the day or night "routine." Because of the inevitable politics involved in any organization, he had wondered this summer if he'd remain involved with either group when we returned home. But he jumped back into both organizations within about a week, taking calls and working on the thirty-six hours of continuing training he needs every three years.


Neither of us has been running much since our return home. Jim's been in a funk after his disappointing summer race season and I've been dealing with an unknown injury to my left knee. The rest has probably done wonders for both of us physically, but we miss our endorphins!

We've been walking and running primarily on the part of Roanoke's disjointed bike trail system that is closest to our home, the Wolf Creek Greenway. It is flat and we could do short loops there to simulate conditions at the Hinson Lake 24-Hour Race this past weekend. We've also gone to our favorite hilly trails at Explore Park with the dogs and investigated the renovated horse-and-hiking trail along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Tater and Cody explore at Explore Park

I've tried to stay positive about my knee quirkiness, which I assumed was an overuse injury from all the climbing I did this summer in the Rockies. I joked that I "climbed one too many 14ers."

What's been hardest is not knowing since August 13 exactly what is wrong. The problem ("catching" and a feeling of instability, especially when I turn toward the right) was first noticeable in April or May but I didn't get it diagnosed before leaving home. It never got worse until after climbing Mts. Belford and Oxford in Colorado -- and even then, it hasn't EVER bothered me on the trail.

The only thing the X-rays showed that I had taken in Leadville in late August was a decided lack of cartilage in the knee. No surprise there, given my age, family history of arthritis, and 28 years of long-distance running.

But the doctor suspected more - perhaps some loose cartilage floating around or a torn tendon or ligament. I had visions of something hanging by a thread, and feared rupturing it completely.

I was not able to get an appointment with a doctor in my large orthopedic group in Roanoke until late September or early October, so I saw a PA in the practice a few days after our return home. He ordered two more X-rays at different angles. They showed the cartilage wear more clearly -- and more positively. They don't look quite as bad as the ones taken in Leadville. The new X-ray of my right knee shows less cartilage loss than the left one that has been bothering me, but it's wearing thin, too.

Survivor of the drought

The PA ordered an MRI, which I got on September 13. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get in to see the sports orthopedist the PA highly recommended until a few days ago (September 27) so I didn't know the diagnosis until then. I was happy to learn from one of our good running friends in Roanoke, Graham Zollman, that this doctor is the one who did Graham's rotator cuff surgery in May -- so he knows at least one other ultra runner and how badly we want to continue our passion. (The PA recommended this doctor because he works with so many athletes of all ages. He specializes in knee  and shoulder problems.)

Although my knee has never hurt or felt unstable while running or walking on trails -- only when walking more slowly at home, in stores, etc. -- I've been pretty careful about both the distance and terrain I've been covering since mid-August. The PA also mentioned the "catching" and unstable feeling could possibly be loose cartilage floating around or possibly a tear in a tendon or ligament, among other things. To avoid making it worse, I've kept my mileage to a minimum (for me).

Lemme tell ya, I'm sure I needed a break but I do miss my endorphins when I can't run or walk fast for at least an hour! Nothing else does it for me. At least I've had a lot of sweat-inducing yard work recently to help burn off calories and frustration.


When I saw the sports orthopedist, Dr. Brent Johnson, last week he gave me news no ultra runner ever wants to hear -- I am essentially bone-on-bone on the outside of my left knee because the cartilage has disappeared. Using the analogy of a car, Dr. Johnson said the tread has worn down almost to the rim on my tire, and the shocks are shot, too!

I want new tires and shocks. While I'm at it, can I get a new chassis, too???

I also have a minor meniscus tear on the inside of that knee. Since neither condition causes me any pain, surgery is not in order. Nor are injections of fluids to lubricate the joint. Yet. He wants me to call him when (not if) I start hurting and he'll re-evaluate the situation.

Asters are tough; so are ultra runners

I'm not real close to needing a knee replacement, but it's probably in my future. Dr. Johnson says there are no guarantees I can do ANY running after a knee replacement, at least with current surgical techniques. So I need to do whatever it takes to prolong the inevitable. He's as anxious as I am for cartilage replacements (kinda like those viscous breast implants maybe?) because he also has knee problems, but the technique hasn't been perfected yet.

Dr. Johnson's recommendations are to continue taking glucosamine-chondroitin supplements (I've been doing that since I was diagnosed with arthritis ten years ago); using acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen for any pain (ditto); doing enough exercising to stimulate fluids in my joints; reducing the number of miles I'm running; choosing flatter terrain to run; and incorporating more cross-training into my routine (cycling, swimming, etc.). I also plan to resume more stretching, yoga, pool running, and  massages. I neglected those things during the summer.

As you can imagine, this diagnosis frustrates me more than having a torn tendon or ligament that can be fixed by surgery. This is a death sentence, much sooner than I'd hoped, for my ultra running "career."

As I was running alone through the night this past weekend at the Hinson Lake 24-hour race I began thinking of Helen Kubler-Ross' stages of grief, which have been shown to be as relevant in other bad-news situations (loss of a job, divorce, etc.) as finding out one is terminally ill.

Hinson Lake 24-Hour Run

Perhaps in defiance, I ran and walked 39 pain-free miles in that race, clearly in the denial stage, until I forced myself to stop. With the diagnosis I'd just received, ten would have been more reasonable, but I felt great. Since my longest run/walk had been only seven miles in the past seven weeks, I knew I was setting myself up for some sore muscles, if not an overuse injury.

The endorphins and adrenaline were flying, the night magical. See?? I can still run!

(I was sore for two days, but not as much as I expected. Jim was, too, even though he was trained for the 50 miles he ran/walked. Neither of us is used to so much flat running.)

I've by-passed the first stage, shock or paralysis. I've progressed to bargaining (if I can just do one more ultra I'll be satisfied). I suppose I still have to work through anger (why me? I need to pick healthier parents next time!), depression (realization of the inevitable), and testing (seeking realistic solutions) to finally arrive at acceptance.

Thank goodness I have many fond memories of 28 years of running, no regrets about ANY of it, a fondness for volunteering at races, a supportive partner, lots of other interests and hobbies to keep me busy, and the hope that I can continue with enough running or walking to keep me fit and happy until I die - with or without knee surgery.

Guess I'm looking for that "silver lining" I mentioned a bit ago. It's not over until it's over.

Next entry: the Hinson Lake 24-hour race and our running plans for the rest of this year

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil