Category Archives: injury

Hip Arthroscopy Surgery

Two and a half years after a seemingly innocuous stretch turned into a relentless injury, the corrective surgery is finally done.

It has been a long road. To review, in August of 2016 I was stretching after a dance class. I went easily into the splits; then my hip popped out from its socket. When it did, I would later learn, it tore my hamstring about 20% in the center and also tore my labrum. My hip slipped back into socket that night, but the pain continued.

After a lot of pain and no recovery, I sought the help of a doctor. The pain was so constant and unrelenting that it was affecting my personality, particularly my patience with my children. My doctor referred me to an orthopedic. He was awful. He treated me very condescendingly and dismissively, as if I had stubbed my toe and was being overdramatic. His administration of a plasma injection into my hamstring gave me sexual assault flashbacks.

His treatment did nothing to heal my injury or alleviate my pain, so I moved to a new orthopedic doctor. This doctor I loved. With additional plasma injections, we did finally heal my hamstring, but the pain persisted. A second MRI and steroid injections revealed the remaining issue to be the labral tears in my hip joint. We scheduled surgery about 7 months out based on the best timing for my insane schedule.

Leading up to the surgery was its own rollercoaster. I oscillated between rationalizing to myself that I could live with this level of pain and didn’t need surgery and not thinking I would make it until the surgery. A couple successful steroid injections bridged the months effectively, giving me enough relief to function. However, in the final two weeks prior to the procedure, my pain became horrendously inflamed, back to initial injury levels. It even got worse, driving me from my bed at night for the first time.

By the time I was in the hospital gown tethered to my IV, it was too painful to sit for any length of time. I hadn’t slept in over a week because every position sent spires of pain shooting up from my hip. When the anesthesiologist brought me the consent form, I signed it without even a glance. I was so ready for the situation to change. Surgery might be a painful recovery, but at least it would change the pain from this endless circle to a line that progressed in an actual direction.

From my side, the drugs began to climb into my veins, and the world began to float. When they brought me into the operating room, I saw the large, Y-shaped table on which I would be operated. The anesthesiologist said, “Let’s get hammered.” And I was gone.

I had been prepared for Hell when I woke up. I was warned by a friend, by my doctor, by the nurse, by the anesthesiologist that this was an especially painful procedure, that they would basically pull my hip apart to perform it, that often they struggle to manage the pain afterward. I did not wake up to any of that.

I felt the soreness of my punctured muscles and the tenderness of the sutures, yet that was it. I kept waiting for pain to blossom in my hip joint and flare over my nerves, but compared to all the months before of constant firing, it was alarmingly silent. My exceptionally open hips and extreme flexibility got me into this mess; perhaps it spared me the worst part of the solution. I woke to my customary, post-anesthesia tears yet not even in full sobs like usual, and I could barely keep myself conscious, but that was all.

My husband got me home, and I slept. Even in the restrictive hip brace and the squeezing compression devices, I slept and slept and slept. I made up for not sleeping the previous week. The hip pain never surfaced, but neither did I. The anesthesia stayed threaded through me, holding me down in a choking haze. I rode waves of nausea as pain clenched my head until it felt like it might fracture.

I hated the sensation. I hated the pain, but more I hated the haze in my mind, the way conscious seemed to slip through my fingers like water. So I continued to sleep, lost myself in a blur of twisted dreams and nightmares until I actually surfaced.

All told, a couple days with a blurry mind plus a little headache and nausea and no surgical pain is not a bad surgical recovery at all. Sure, the journey is not over, but this is a decent start.

I went to my surgical follow up. The nurse and doctor were both surprised by my complete lack of pain. The nurse didn’t know what to do with me, and the doctor was pretty pleased. I also went to my first physical therapy appointment. My therapist was equally surprised by my lack of pain and the amount of mobility I have. Instead of working up, it sounds like we will be holding me back to allow it to heal.

At my follow up, the doctor walked me through the procedure and pictures. He considered the surgery very successful. He discovered a surprising amount of inflammation in all parts of the hip joint.

He repaired a larger labral tear than he had anticipated.

I also had bone spurs on both the ball and socket part of my joint, so he shaved and smoothed both of those down.

So, my labral tear has been stitched up and anchored down, and my bone spurs have been removed. From here, everything should be gliding smoothly in there.

My doctor told me it would take 6 weeks to recover from the operation. However, the physical therapist said it is a 12-16 week recovery. I’m glad I didn’t know this beforehand. At this point, the surgery is done, so I will just walk the recovery however long it takes.

I can sit in any position (within the post-surgical guidelines) without pain. I can lay flat without pain. I can stand up in one fluid movement without pain. After over two years, all of that is amazing. I can take that relief and stretch it out into patience for getting back to the rest.

I do hate the brace though. And the crutches. They are so slow and so confining. When I have been fully lucid, I feel trapped and suffocated. But it’s only the first two weeks. I can feel the depression and cabin fever creeping around the edges of my mind. I’m going to curl up on the couch and watch endless horror movies and write blogs and work on my novel. I am going to throw up every sedentary distraction I have against the looming inactivity and boredom. I can do this. I can decide to do this and force my mind into line behind me. I can take control of this from my recovery bed.

So, the surgery happened. I lived, and now, I start my recovery.

 

Christina Bergling

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Unfiltered

My mind is an asshole.

I know this. I have known this since I tried to take my life at age 12. I have stepped up and actually dealt with this since I was 19. And yet, somehow it still manages to surprise me with this truth. Over and over again.

Last Saturday, I experienced one of the worst depressive crashes I have had in years. The degree of depression hearkened back to when I had no idea what was going on in my brain in my late teens or when I was learning how to deal with my bipolar in my early twenties or when I was in Iraq a decade ago.

Years ago, I seemed to figure out how to live with my bipolar, how to balance my life and my mind. It took several therapists, years of experimentation and failure. Finally, with a combination of behavior cognitive processing approaches, an amazing support system, a solid routine, and a high amount of exercise, I seemed to find a way to ride the waves, to level out the sea a bit. It has never been a cure, but it has been pretty effective adaptation.

So effective that I had largely forgot to depths my mind could drop to and what it was like to be raw and unfiltered.

Saturday reminded me. After a night writhing in hip pain on the couch, the depression overwhelmed me from below my exhaustion. It weighed down on me to a heavy and paralytic level I had not experienced in so long. I lay on the couch simply weeping for a couple hours. My husband attempted to counsel me, but I didn’t have words, and I did not want to make eye contact.

My husband has been with me through all stages of this journey. He met me when I was a teenager who was cutting and burning herself. We were friends and casual partners when I was lost and self-destructive. We began our actual relationship after I started dealing with what I am. He was who I came home to after Iraq. He has been with me for half of my life, which has included most of my struggles and traumas. He has seen me that low; he knows the patterns.

He dragged me off the couch, put me in my running clothes, and gently guided me out the front door. Even as I protested that I just didn’t want to through tears. He knew I needed to.

So I ran. Through the crippling pain in my hip and in my head. It took a full mile to be able to make full strides with my leg. It took a second mile to feel like I was actually running. But by the third and fourth miles, I was able to float, to lose myself in the run, to not be in me.

The run helped. It didn’t cure me of the depressive episode; it never does. But it did elevate me out of the dark waters so that I was no longer drowning. I was simply numb. I was still struggling to engage, make eye contact, form thoughts that could be turned into speech. I had zero appetite. Food tasted like sand, but I needed to eat in order to drink a Monster energy drink (my long-time bipolar hack).

The Monster helped. It usually does. It lifted me another level out of the darkness. I could finally interact with people again, which was helpful since I had a baby shower to attend. I was functional enough to help host the party and engage with people, all while being completely honest about how I was feeling and what was happening but without stealing the attention. Interaction with people helped too, helped pull me out of myself.

I made it through the cycle. My husband, running, Monster, and my dear friends substantially abbreviated the episode. But the crash revealed what I was really worried about with my upcoming surgery.

I wasn’t really concerned about the medical procedure or the pain. Sure, those are always worries when going under for surgery. However, the real fear, the true anxiety was the idea of losing my balance, not having access to my crutch. I would survive the surgery. I would get through the pain. My body would heal. The prospect of dealing with my bipolar, my mind unfiltered and unmitigated for six weeks is what truly worried me.

I know that 2-3 days without any exercise cause me to cycle. Nothing like the epic crash of Sunday but depression nonetheless. I know that pain and sickness cause me to cycle. This hip injury has been doing that to me for two and a half years. So the idea of being in pain and unable to reset my brain chemistry was somewhat terrifying.

In the end, I’m not scared of surgery or pain; I’m scared of myself. My crash on Saturday reminded me of what I still am and what I might be facing after surgery.

Logically, I know I’ll be fine. This too shall pass. All of that. However, fearing and avoiding facing the full monster inside me is no different that flinching away from a stove after having been burned before. It’s an instinctual avoidance of pain. Getting a taste of that darkness clarified my anxiety. Yet, as terrible as the sample was, it did pass, and that reminded me that even the lowest depression is only temporary.

I’m sure it will be less than I fear; it usually is. Fear is distortion. I know what I need to deal with on the other side of the anesthesia and am being proactive about redirecting my energy during my recovery.

 

(Note: I could not find the artists for the images in this post. If you are or know the artist, please let me know so I can give proper credit.)

Christina Bergling

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Approaching Surgery

Hip surgery is imminent. I went to my preop appointment yesterday in preparation for my hip labrum surgery the first week of December. I signed all the paperwork and went home with the brace I will live in for 2-3 weeks.

Now, it feels real. Part of me wants to just do it and get it over with, get into the pain so I can put it behind me and actually heal. The other part of me does not want to do it at all and is rationalizing how I can live with the pain as it is now.

But, where have I been since altitude sickness on my last 14er? What have I been doing on my way from summer to surgery?

The altitude sickness may have concluded my pursuit of 14er summits for the year; however, it did not end my hiking. Our little group decided to hike half of Pikes Peak in the beginning of October (as opposed to the full summit last year).

We had a magical, euphoric, perfect fall hike. A chilly fog clutched the trail on our ascent to Barr Camp. Then the sun ignited the autumn colors on our descent back down. It was the perfect weather, the perfect distance, the perfect company–simply the perfect hike.

This hike highlighted a very long and successful fitness run for me. I was running regularly, returning to my normal mile pace (slow though it always may be), building up my distances over 6 miles. I was taking multiple barre classes a month and seeing the results. I had returned fully to belly dance and even had begun performing again.

My fitness cadence was exactly as I wanted it. My routine was solid and balanced, and so my mind was solid and balanced in reaction. Honestly, I felt like myself. And I felt pretty fucking happy.

When I hit that blissful point, I knew it was transitory, as it always is. I knew the pendulum was reaching its full extension to one side and would instantly be arching in reverse. It always does. Every time I feel like I have achieved my goal or am where I want, the situation immediately changes. The rug is pulled out, and I fall directly on my ass to start over. That is my cycle; that is the pattern of my life.

In this case, I thought it was because surgery was coming and I would inevitably have to start over after recovery. I was wrong. A debilitating, month-long sinus infection took me entirely by surprise and derailed me just as effectively.

Of course, I tried to fast and run through it and failed exquisitely. The illness finally bent me to its mercy. After three different antibiotics, two different steroids, and so many weeks, I am finally, physically back to more normal. However, all that progress and euphoria and balance evaporated. To reclaim my motivation in the waning window before I go under the knife, I have had to just accept this limitation. I have had to just do what I can.

I did not do that well or gracefully, but I think I have largely made my peace and moved past my frustration. Though being knocked so completely off balance paired with being so annoyingly sick sent my bipolar cycles into overdrive. It had been a while, and I was woefully out of practice, so that was fun for all involved. But again, I think I have regained myself, or at least control of myself.

So, next up, surgery.

At this point, might as well. Maybe it’s easier to go under and jump into the limits of recovery when I’m already below my expectations. Maybe the fall won’t be as far. Or perhaps it’s worse to have squandered these last weeks before I don’t have a choice. Or maybe it sucks either way. I need to just embrace the suck. I need to just do this and get it over with.

I’m not necessarily nervous about the surgery itself. I might have been earlier, but my salpingectomy (Fallopian tube removal) surgery went so smoothly in January that it actually calmed me. I, of course, cried hysterically after anesthesia. I always do. However, that procedure was also laparoscopic, and I healed near effortlessly. I went on a real run in less than 48 hours. I appreciate that was a far more minor procedure and recovery time, but it still gives me somewhat of a preview to pacify my rampant brain.

I dread only the recovery. Not even the pain. I can deal with the pain. I have been for two and a half years for this injury; at least surgery recovery pain might lessen and lead to actual improvement. It is the physical limitation of the surgery. All the ways I went off the rails by having a sinus infection amplified, the removal of my balance and my therapy.

To combat this anxiety, I am proactively choosing to focus on other things. I have scheduled lazy time with several friends. I plan to fast hard on the couch, and I plan to pour all my time into my writing (which has unexpectedly been neglected for the fast two months).

Until then though… I’m capitalizing on not dying and not being cut open. All the running and all the barre classes. My daughter and I choreographed a horror heavy metal belly dance number I want to get recorded. I am back to cramming as many activities in as possible before spending my holidays relegated to the couch.

Wish me luck! (And expect more frequent posting.)

 

Christina Bergling

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Surgical Options

Now looks like a good time to start over. Again. It seems like I have done nothing but physically start over for the past four years, and (if I’m honest with myself) I think I’m having a small adult tantrum about it.

When I was violently ill through my entire pregnancy, I thought it would get better when it was over. When the birth was rough, I thought it would be fine after I recovered. When recovery stretched out into years, I thought it would normalize eventually. When I pulled my hip, I thought I could run through it and get better. When I tore my hamstring (and apparently my labrum), I thought I would suffer the couple months and be back to normal. When my hamstring finally healed after 18 months and two PRP injections, I thought it might finally be over.

Yet here we are.

Nothing has been debilitating or unbearable, just an endless string of discomfort and inconvenience, of tasting recovery or “normal” just to be shoved back to square one. And perhaps the root of my suffering is the resistance to the idea that this is my new normal, my foolish attachment to how I should be after all these changes.

Maybe this chapter of my life is about a series of physical recoveries, rather than the mental and emotional recoveries in the previous chapter. Maybe life is all just a series of events and recoveries.

Or maybe I’m just whining.

I went to my orthopedic for my steroid injection follow up today. At my previous appointment, they injected steroids into my hip joint to troubleshoot my continued pain. Though my hamstring showed healed, the pain continued as an unusual presentation for a labral tear. The shot helped. A lot. For about a week before its effectiveness started to fade.

Since the shot seemed to indicate the root of the pain, we discussed options. I could do nothing and live with the current discomfort level. I could do maintenance steroid injections until they lost effectiveness. I could do PRP or stem cells to stimulate healing, despite the lack of evidence that the labrum can heal itself. Or I could have laparoscopic surgery.

I found myself torn between the extremes, as always. Nothing or surgery.

Typing it out, my logic does not make any sense, but my instinct was to do nothing. To just continue to deal with it. It seems ridiculous after lamenting the issue for nearly the past two years. It seems like it should be an easy answer to finally fix it. Yet it was the idea of recovery that tempted me to stay with the pain. Though I am known to develop Stockholm Syndrome type attachment to my pain.

I didn’t want to face another lapse, another step back after it took this long to regain this ground, after how many times I already had to retread. Spoiled complaints of the mostly functional. Yet beneath that is the fear.

Exercise and endorphins are the foundation of my precarious little balance on life. It sounds silly to say that two weeks on crutches could be unbearable, but… I know that if I don’t exercise hard enough in 2-3 days, the depression starts to swell and my thoughts begin to twist and contort. I know that it’s just one step back towards that darkness. So the idea unnerves me, and my self-preserving instinct is to just not. To just run through it.

Truthfully, I still want to do that now. Just keep running and tell myself the nerves will give up.

More superficially, I am frustrated to release the progress I’ve made. I’m reluctant to go back to adding miles and shaving off seconds, to rebuilding the muscles and conditioning that abandon me so immediately. I finally got back to where I thought I left. I even just said, foolishly aloud, that I was finally almost there so it must be time for something to send me backward.

With this injury, the universe takes what I say way too fucking literally.

However, after being scolded by at least three people, I know that all of this is my stupid, irrational fear and obsessions clouding an easy and obvious decision.

So, next step, surgery…

 

Christina Bergling

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Healed

It has been a while since I posted! Honestly, I was exhausted of posting the same thing (plus I was painfully busy). Trying and failing to lose weight. Trying and failing to recover from my hamstring injury. The same circle for over a year and a half. It had to be as mundane to read as it was frustrating to endure.

However, I can finally say with some measure of confidence that I have progress on both fronts!

Following my latest PRP injection several weeks ago, I returned to my orthopedic for a follow up. While my injury was definitely improved, the pain lingered. My doctor offered further injections, but I requested an updated MRI to see where we were and if any progress was being made. Last week, I had the MRI with additional contrast this time (which I mostly slept through), and today, I got my results.

The MRI revealed that, compared to my previous MRI over a year ago, my left hamstring appears NORMAL. Meaning I have actually healed!

My two hamstrings looked the same on the MRI. All the time and pain and resting and injections have ultimately done something. I had a mini celebration when my doctor told me and then had to struggle to focus on the rest.

So why am I still in pain? The MRI also revealed a tear and some other issues in my labrum. However, I do not present with labral tear symptoms. The pain should be in my groin rather than at my hamstring attachment. So we did a steroid injection into my hip joint as troubleshooting. If it has an effect, it must be an odd presentation of the labral tear. If not, perhaps to physical therapy to work out the last of the pain.

In any case, MY HAMSTRING IS HEALED!

As far as weight is concerned, I think fasting is my answer. I have been fasting (as described in The Obesity Code) since January-ish. I have lost 20 pounds with no rebound. I don’t think or obsess about food. In short, I feel like myself again, physically and mentally.

The fasting suits the binge and purge nature inherited from my eating disorder days but reapplies it in a way that it balances my body’s insulin rather than destroying my mind and body. It just works for me. It is so much simpler and easier than I thought. I am saving a shit ton of money on food, brain power on not having to plan, and soul on not torturing myself by counting the calories in every bite.

FREEDOM!

And it’s working. Slowly and steadily. To the point that I don’t care anymore. I’m just happy.

Some days, the fasts are not easy. Some days, I don’t succeed. But I just let those days fall away and try again the next week. I can have pizza and beer until I’m sated and know that my Monday morning fast will balance me back out.

I think this might be my solution. It was a long and maddening journey to get to both of these points, but I’m happy to finally see them.

PLUS I am running more and faster again. I might even be able to fully get back to that. This is a running blog after all…

Christina Bergling

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Doctor vs Doctor

It was been 19 months since I went into the splits and tore my hamstring. Yesterday, I went to a new orthopedic.

I began treatment with my first orthopedic about a year ago, last January. He gave me a steroid shot and sent me to physical therapy. After dry needling, massage, and strength training did nothing or potentially made it worse, he finally sent me for an MRI. He told me I had a minor tear with no details. He gave me a PRP injection then told me we were at the end of my treatment.

I had this initial PRP back in May. It cut my pain in half, so a vast improvement, but then it just plateaued. It was better but not recovered, improved but not healed. I was fine to deal with it. Besides, my doctor had given up on me and told me there was nothing more he could/would do for me. However, when the pain seemed to increase again and it was driving me from my bed at night, I decided it was time for an evaluation. If nothing else, to verify I wasn’t making it worse.

I understand that hamstring injuries are notoriously slow to heal. Yet the lack of any progress and appearance of regression concerned me. Also, my doctor’s treatment (or lack thereof) left me with so many questions. Was I doing something that could be making it worse? At what point should I be worried? I had to know, so I got the referral for a new doctor.

After just my one visit yesterday, I can say that my experience with this doctor is a night and day contrast to my previous orthopedic. I did not know the extent of my dissatisfaction with the first until receiving the superior treatment from the second. Allow me to compare the two experiences.

My first doctor and his nurse were very rushed and impersonal. They asked questions but did not seem to actually listen to the answers. I spent extended periods in the lobby and patient room, waiting. I told them in my first visit that I was there to resolve my pain. I then repeated this every visit, yet they never wanted to treat my pain. They only wanted to get me back to activity.

Conversely, this new doctor and his nurse were extremely friendly and attentive. At each stage, I waited for normal and reasonable amounts of time, yet they continually checked in on me to communicate a status update. They were so attentive that it was startling. They also both connected with me. They looked into my eyes when they spoke to me. They responded to the previous thing I said. They waited for me to speak as if they wanted my answers.

I felt so much more comfortable at the new office. I felt like I actually mattered instead of being dismissed and ignored.

When my first doctor got my MRI results, he told me I had a minor tear. That was it. Despite any queries, he only said that and also that the technician probably would have never seen something so insignificant had he not pointed it out. He and his nurse seemed to trivialize and minimize my injury at every appointment. Their dismissive demeanor made it feel like they either did not believe I was injured or doubted its severity.

I learned yesterday from my new doctor that this same MRI showed that I had a labural tear tear in the same hip. The outside of that hip also showed inflammation, most likely from the injury I had before the hamstring. He told me my hamstring had a partial tear, approximately 20%. However, he said, the tear was not on either edge, instead it was in the center of the hamstring, making it extra difficult to heal.

All information that would have been useful A YEAR AGO.

My first doctor told me I could have a steroid shot and gave me one. He told me I could have a PRP injection and gave me one. Then he terminated my treatment, deciding he was done and there was nothing else he could do for me (another indication to me that he did not consider me actually injured).

This new doctor explained my six different options and quoted me the out of pocket price for anything not billed to insurance. I could:

  1. Get a new MRI
  2. Get one or more PRP injections
  3. Get stems cells from a donor
  4. Get stems cells harvested from me without anesthesia
  5. Get stem cells harvested from me with anesthesia
  6. Have the reattachment surgery

Not only did he provide me these options with price tags, he then walked through the pros, cons, and his experience with each choice. He told me that surgery would be his last resort because, with my injury, it could potentially sacrifice the 80% healthy hamstring to repair the 20% damaged. He told me he would prefer the biologic options (PRP, stem cells), but PRP has the most data and evidence behind it. If he did stem cells, he would recommend harvesting my own to eliminate risk of cross-contamination or rejection.

Then he encouraged me to ask questions and share what I thought I would like to try first. I opted to start with another PRP injection, which he then provided me at this same appointment. Then he set a follow up appointment to check how the PRP took and determine next steps.

Yet, with all this, the most glaring and important distinction between the two doctors and my experiences with them was the administration of my PRP injections.

At my first PRP injection, the nurse took my blood and spun it down in the room with me. When the doctor came in, he had me bend over the examination table. This aggravated my injury and felt very awkward. The nurse jabbed the ultrasound into my butt while the doctor stabbed the needle into my tendon. Afterward, he informed me this was all he could do for me. When I told him I really needed something for the pain, that the constant pain was affecting the rest of my life and making me short with my children, he reacted as if I had never mentioned pain and was drug seeking. He gave me Tramadol. As if being unconscious would solve my problem.

Yesterday, the nurse took my blood. While she was waiting for it to spin down, she checked in on me and told me how much longer I would be waiting. She set me up laying on the exam table on my stomach with a pillow. When the doctor came in, he covered me (as much as he could) with a paper blanket. He informed me he was going to start the ultrasound and placed it gently against me. He told before he marked for the injection and inserted the needle. He communicated each step before taking it. After, he sat down with me, and we discussed recovery and expectations and follow up appointments. He shook my hand before leaving. Then the nurse came in and set up my appointment before walking me out.

The two experiences of the exact same procedure were so different, so polarized. After the first one, I felt very uncomfortable and unnerved, generally unhappy. Being bent over the table, stabbed, and then dismissed so impersonally made me feel violated somehow. It never sat right with me and doused any hope I had that the injury pain might actually subside.

In contrast, I left yesterday’s appointment feeling optimistic. I felt like the doctor had actually heard me and I once again had options. And even if my circumstances do not change and the injury does not heal, I at least feel like someone gave a shit and tried. It was simple subtleties and seemingly insignificant details that made me feel violated and dismissed versus cared for and treated. I don’t think anything unethical or inappropriate happened at my first shot and I don’t necessarily doubt my original doctor’s medical knowledge, but I do see now how wholly unsatisfied I was with the treatment I received from him.

These experiences reminded me how individual doctors are and how unique a medical experience can be. Getting an injection is not just getting an injection. The circumstances, environment, and care are crucial factors. I am hoping a more favorable experience cultivates more favorable results as well.

For now, I will be on the couch, willing my body to heal itself.

 

Christina Bergling

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Ascending Pikes Peak

Yesterday, I hiked my first 14er.

At some point, my husband got the idea to do all the 14ers (mountains with summits over 14,000 feet above sea level) in the state. There is debate; however, the most agreed upon number is 58 14ers in Colorado.

We decided to start local with the mountain that sits along the west edge of home: Pikes Peak.

We started in Manitou Springs at 4:30 in the morning, headlamps and the glowing moon illuminating the lingering night. We parked downtown and made the trek in the dark to the parking lot at the base of Barr Trail.

I have experienced the terminal miles of Barr Trail numerous times descending from hiking The Incline. I have run it, walked it, fallen on my ass on it. I have made my way down in broad daylight and the dark and in every kind of weather. Yet, in the darkness, in the opposite direction, the perspective on the trail was extremely altered. Everything looked different, felt different yet familiar simultaneously.

Immediately, my younger sister and her party took off up the trail. Yet from the first few crunching steps, my husband began lagging. He set a very slow, methodical pace. I assumed it was from his lungs and the altitude (he has a history of pulmonary aneurysm, pneumonia, and altitude sickness). So our small group began a rhythm of hiking up and then regrouping.

As we carved our way up the side of the mountain through the battered trail of switchbacks, the sun gradually began threatening the horizon. Beyond the twinkling city lights below us, day menaced. At one point, the bright moon still lingered over the peak we would climb as the sun broke into the sky opposite it. For the a brief and surreal moment, we cast two shadows on the gravel.

By the time daylight fully broke over the mountain, we had passed both the bail out and the turn off points for The Incline. We were officially in uncharted territory for three out of four of us. The path showed far less abuse from far fewer boots. And the sun ignited fall all around us.

Fall is my favorite season. And fall can be potentially disappointing in a place like Colorado where it is summer then winter then they alternate and then repeat. Most years, it seems like it goes from hot to snow and unfortunately back again. Lazy, meandering transitions like fall in the South amazed me. Yet on the side of Pikes Peak, fall was all around us.

 

Leaves crunched beneath each of our footfalls. The sweet smell of their decay played on the air. A thin razor chill hung on the edge of the air. The sun blazed through the quivering golden aspen leaves around us. It was quintessential fall, and it was fucking euphoric.

As the naked peak began to loom grander and more ominous over us, we meandered along gentle rolling trails through an aspen valley. I caught myself just floating, lost in the mountain air and the seductive scenery. It was undoubtedly my favorite section of the hike.

My husband continued to struggle even through the flat or declining sections. Despite the fact that he is not an avid exerciser, this performance was very uncharacteristic for him. The previous year, he ran a 15K with zero training nearly as fast as I did running 3 times a week and sometimes over 10 miles. I, of course, feared for his lungs again, yet he said his legs were just not working. That it was just a struggle that it should not have been.

We made it to Barr Camp at the halfway point (6.5 miles from the base) and broke for an early lunch. My sister and her party had stayed waiting for us an hour (to make sure my husband was still alive). They broke off again, and we started as well after food, water, and rest.

The trail changed after Barr Camp. The gradual, curving stroll through the aspens began to actually climb the side of the mountain. The switchbacks stretched long to the point of annoyance, where at every crest there was more of the same length of trees.

The trail did not really become hard, but at this point, it did become more boring to me. I was too enamored with the mesmerizing aspen sunrise. Thin gravel carvings between mirrored trees just could not compare. We continued our steady pace of climb and regroup as the sun began to heat the chill off the mountain.

We reached 10,000 feet and kept plugging along.

Treeline proved an elusive mistress. Every row of trees appeared to be the last only for another set of siblings to appear behind them. The monotonous switchbacks just wound back and forth slowly. We could feel the air thinning with each cut across the mountainside.

While the views around us became more pedestrian forest, the views below us grew more impressive. We could pick out the other mountains we knew, Garden of the Gods, the parts of town we lived in, the east edge of town, Kansas itself.

Then treeline and the A frame finally happened.

At this point, we stopped for another legitimate break, taking off the packs that were drawing tension up in our shoulders and knotting in our lower backs. I could tell the instant my body needed calories. My legs got heavier while my head got lighter. I felt like a new person after some energy blocks every time.

The hike became a different trail after treeline. I regretted wishing to get there. The first 10 miles were a delightful easy little stroll up the mountain. The last 3 miles were not.

Looking back, my body is exactly the same with a half marathon (I have officially run 2 and several training distances that long). A 10 mile run is great. At multiple points in my running life, it has been my absolute favorite distance. However, 13.1 miles has always been horrible. I’m great for the first 10 miles; then the last 3 are an absolute struggle every step. Maybe my body just wants to stay under 10 miles.

Unfortunately, for my husband, his entire hike was a forced battle for every step.

The temperature was obviously hotter after treeline, in the direct sunlight, yet the drafts were colder and more abrasive. Though even at the worst of moments, we got impossibly lucky with the weather. The weather was literally perfect. Cool enough with barely any snow toward the top. Finding an October day like this in Colorado is nothing short of a miracle.

The views below were breathtaking, but the scenery around us was barren and mundane. Rocks and boulders stacked forever to the summit.

Our pace slowed and slowed. The air thinned and thinned.

The first mile past treeline was fine. It was slower, but it was not terrible. Not exceptionally steeper. However, the last two miles were hell. I really have no other way to say it.

No longer did three of us wander ahead then wait to regroup. Now, everyone was requesting breaks, taking a step they could not follow through with movement, breathing deep against a dizzy spell. I do not know if it was the altitude or the over 11 miles already stacked on our muscles or that it was the first 14er summit for all of us. Perhaps it was all of the above.

The hardcore people passed us, of course. This is Colorado. People run this route annually for the Pikes Peak Ascent half marathon then up and down for the full marathon. In one of the fittest cities in the country, even a compulsively active person can be proved completely out of shape. We marveled at the fact that any body could perform such a feat multiple times, and one of us removed participating in the event from their bucket list.

We trudged on. That is the most apt way to say it. The steps were slow and heavy. The breaths were deep and labored. The muscles burned. The thoughts revolted. And yet, we trudged on.

The absolute worst part (for EVERYONE) was the very final stretch, horrendously dubbed The Golden Stairs. At this point, we had made our way to the final boulder field approaching the peak. We could hear and see the cog railway moving along the top of the mountain. We could even hear the tourists milling about above us, most likely spectating our sad ascent.

The switchbacks jagged severely and rapidly across the waning mountainside with larger and more fierce rocks to overcome. These 16 “steps” felt like they were never going to end. For an eternity, it felt like we were so impossibly close and so depressingly far from the end. Like we could reach out and touch it yet never actually reach it.

Then it was there. The summit. The end.

We had fucking made it.

Directly at the terminus of the trail, the four of us circled together in a group hug. Some of us may have cried (me absolutely). I said how proud I was of them. And I was. So proud of all of us.

In all honesty, on that hike, our group enjoyed the perfect chemistry. No one got irritated or bitchy, even at our lowest moments. The levity was an appropriate balance. The support was amazing. No one got left behind.

My sister and crew finished a good two and a half hours before we made it to the top. It took us just over 10 hours to go about 14 miles from car to summit. Thankfully, we had two separate pick up cars.

Looking back at the hike as a whole, it was not hard. It was actually quite easy as far as hikes go. Base to treeline was easy. Everything until the last two miles was tolerable. (The last two miles were HELL.) It was just long. So long. Over 13 miles just in up. Yet that all just managed to accentuate the accomplishment.

In the wake, I find myself changed. I have such a completely different perspective on something that has loomed over me most of the days of my life. I grew up in Pikes Peak’s shadow. I have been up the highway to the summit plenty of times. Yet nothing was like actually learning the mountain the way we did with each step, actually experiencing the entire length of something I saw every day, something I ignored many days.

I have had many experiences in my life that utterly shifted my perspectives on everything. Accepting being bipolar. Going to Iraq. This was the first one that occurred entirely externally. It felt like a metaphor, like a physical experience of all the perspective shifts I have experienced on the inside. I was able to see something familiar from an entirely different angle. Everything changed, and everything stayed the same.

I have a pretty decent view of Pikes Peak at the end of my street, and every time I have been outside today, I am just dumbstruck thinking that only yesterday I was up there. Right there at the top. I walked up that entire mountain.

And what is the one thing I have no mentioned? My hamstring. That’s right. I have not mentioned my hamstring because it was a nonissue. It is a nonissue. There were certainly moments of discomfort and tightness along the trail. I did not sit very often because it hurt. Yet my hamstring was not a hindrance. That is a HUGE change from earlier this year when I could cry rolling over in bed or standing up out of my car.

Today I find that I feel like nothing happened. My hamstring does not hurt at all. I am not even sore (though that could be waiting for me in the morning). I must be doing something right with all these workouts. It must be doing something.

But none of that matters as much as the fact that my hamstring does not hurt.

Christina Bergling

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