The story of how I messed up my knees in Colorado begins in the redwood forests near San Francisco.
I prefer every trip I take to include a hike of some sort, if possible. (I haven’t managed this yet when we’ve got to New York, but I think if we go again I will make it happen.) So when we went to San Francisco for my marathon, I found a trail for us to hike. I made sure that we hiked a couple of days before the race, to give my body a little time to rest between hiking all day and then running all morning. The trail I chose was Berry Falls in Big Basin State Park. I chose this ten-mile loop hike instead of going to Muir Woods because I wanted a little bit of solitude, and we found it there. We saw only about six or seven other people during our hike, and it was beautiful: not too steep, the perfect distance, three waterfalls, and glades of redwood trees lit by filtered sunlight.
It was perfect.
Except, once we got back to our hotel in San Francisco, I got out of the car and discovered that something was weird with my knees. They didn’t hurt, really. They just felt…strange. Wobbly and irritated, as if the spaces inside the joint were full of the wrong level of tension. I iced them that night and the next morning, and did some extra quad, hamstring, and popliteus stretches throughout the next day. I also slathered them in Deep Blue. And tried not to be frightened: could I run my race if my knees were weird?
When I woke up the morning of the marathon, they seemed fine. A little stiff, but the strangeness was gone. I ran my race and only thought about my knees a couple of times; it probably didn’t hurt that there were several aid stations with Biofreeze, and I had the volunteers spray both the front and back of my knees.
I didn’t really think about the knee weirdness again. Over the next month, I gave myself some good rest days, and then I started running again. I planned a little weekend get-away for Kendell and me, to dovetail with a trip he had to take to Denver for his job. I walked with friends and I did a few hikes and I started eyeing the possibilities for a late-fall half marathon.
For our trip to Denver, I decided to have some mountain adventures. I went running the first morning we were there, a beautiful little run around Broomfield. Then we hit the road. There was quite a bit of driving on the first two days—we went on the Mount Evans scenic byway (my first 14er!) and drove the whole length of Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, stopping here and there for the small hikes that are near the road (the Tundra Communities trail was my favorite). And every time I got out of the car to take pictures or to hike, I discovered that my knees had that same feeling I’d had in California: wobbly but stiff, not really painful but just…wrong, somehow.
Our last full day in Colorado was our long hike day. I choose the trail to Sky Pond for several reasons, but mostly because it was the one that the most people recommended. I was especially intrigued after reading this blog post by Kate, one of my fellow Skirt Sports ambassadors. I took a bunch of Advil the morning before we hiked, and had Kendell rub my legs, and then we took the shuttle bus to the trail head.
I love hiking on trails in national parks. They are always beautifully maintained, with steps and bridges and cairns. This trail follows that idea and is absolutely beautiful. It includes a waterfall, the stunning Alberta Falls. One thing I noticed hiking this trail is just how different these mountains feel from mine in Utah. Even though technically the Wasatch Front is a part of the Rocky Mountains (the very furthest western part, in fact), there is a different spirit in each mountain range. I don’t exactly have a word for how it is different; the light, and the air, and the smells. More it is just that each mountain has its own personality, and I confess: I fell pretty hard for those mountains, too. A creek runs beside part of the trail, and there are mansion-sized stones scattered around. Despite the knee worries, we were doing just fine; in fact, if it doesn’t sound too strange, I felt like the mountains were glad I was there and lending me some of their strength.
The trail is consistently steep but not excruciatingly so. It leads first to Loch Lake, and, wow. If we’d just hiked that far, I would’ve been OK. It was so beautiful. The mountains I usually hike don’t have lakes and ponds like this, and it makes the experience feel entirely different. I wanted to find a spot to dip my feet in (as I did when we hiked Half Dome) but I we wanted to get to our destination first, and then be a little bit more leisurely on the way back.
Past Lock Lake, the trail gets much steeper. There is a long stretch of steps carved into the mountain, and then you get to the spot I had been both dreading and anticipating. To get to the next lake, there is a scramble, a spot where you have to climb rocks. Climb rocks next to a waterfall—not exactly ON the waterfall itself, but close enough that there is still some water coming down the stones.
I’m not afraid of heights. I can stand on the edge of a cliff and feel nothing but exhilaration. But I was a little bit nervous to tackle that scramble. It’s not something I’ve done very often, and I feel like all of this year’s illness has negatively affected my body’s strength. But I wanted to get to Sky Pond, so I put on my Big Girl Pants and started scrambling.
Going up was actually really fun. There was one little spot where I felt like my legs weren’t long enough to manage, but Kendell was behind me and he helped heave me up. When we were about halfway up the scramble, though, the weather changed abruptly. It had been a little bit cool but sunny, but then all of a sudden some clouds rushed in and it started to hail. (Look how blue the sky is in that picture...and just after Kendell took it, the clouds came out of nowhere.) I just kept going, though, and finally made it to the top.
To Sky Pond! (Actually, this isn’t even Sky Pond. Because I was overwhelmed with adrenaline or just because I’m an idiot, I didn’t realize that this is Glass Pond. I didn’t realize until we finished hiking and I could look at the map on Strava that we didn’t even go all the way to the pond we set out to see. %#&*(&@^^@*+=_@! This makes me annoyed at myself! But it also is a reason to go back to RMNP.)
OK, Glass Pond! It was SO COLD. The clouds kept moving across the sun and then pulling back, but the hail didn't stop. We sat on a rock that sheltered us a little bit from the pelting hail, but eventually decided to go back down. When I stood up to go, my knee wobbled…and then I FELL. I fell face-first into the piney bushes I had been sitting by. I caught myself and didn’t bang anything, just scratched my hands and my face, but somehow, somehow…that fall made me freak out. Maybe because I was thinking about that spot on the scramble where my legs had been too short. How would I get down that spot? And the wind kept blowing and the hail was biting my skin and I just said “OK! LET’S GO NOW!” so we headed back toward the cliffs.
I was really in full-blown panic when I started scrambling down. My breaths were raspy and my heart was pounding, my hands shaking. There were probably 15 people also going down, so I waited in the line (and this, of course, is the drawback of hiking in a national park: it’s beautiful, but don’t expect any solitude as everyone else wants to see the beauty too) until it was my turn. Kendell went first, just in case, and then I started down.
I scrambled down backwards, with my chest and arms towards the rocks, and despite the hail and the panic, the wind and the slick rocks (they were considerably more wet than when we had scrambled up), I was doing OK—until I got to that spot, the one made for people with lovely long legs. Kendell made it down just fine, and he was standing on the cliffs below me, his hand trying to guide my foot to the next spot. My right leg was bent literally as far as it could bend, and then my left leg was reaching down, and my legs were just not long enough.
Kendell wanted me to just drop, but I couldn’t. The panic rose up in me again and I said “I can’t, I can’t!” in a really panicked voice. Then the guy who was above me said, in a very calm, deep, manly voice, “Excuse me, ma’am, can you use a hand?”
He reached his hand out for me and I totally trusted that this stranger, who I could only identify by his boots and his red jacket, would be strong enough to haul my fat self back up. But: he was! I thanked him and hugged him (which I’m sure embarrassed him), and the woman hiking with him said “it’s OK, sweetie, you just take your time” like I wasn’t old enough to be her mother.
I still had to get down that cliff though.
So this time, I attempted it going forward, with my back towards the rocks, and that was easier. I could sort of see where to put my feet, and I could see Kendell right there to catch me if I fell, and I made it.
I made it off the cliff.
The crowd above me and the one below me started cheering and I totally burst into tears, those post-panic tears that are cathartic and get rid of all the rush of chemicals your panic caused.
Then I had a snack and we started back down.
We still had one other lake we wanted to hike to, Mill Pond, and despite the rain (the hail had blessedly stopped), wind, and panic, I was feeling happy. I took about three steps down the trail, and then—something crackled.
It didn’t really hurt.
It was just utterly wrong. Something deep in my right knee, something horribly crackly. I froze mid-step. Carefully shifted my weight. Thought about that impossible way I’d just bent my knee on the cliff. Was afraid to take the next step.
But it was fine.
Nothing else crackled, so I just kept going. I mean…what choice do you have other than helicopter extraction?
We finished the hike. We stopped at Lock Lake for a while, and then took the spur trail to Mill Pond, and they were beautiful. I’m not even sure I could say which one I loved more. On the way back to the parking lot, we saw a female elk, right next to the trail, and I stood and watched her for a good five minutes before she very peacefully walked across the trail right in front of me, so close I could’ve touched her (I didn’t try to touch her).
It was a challenging, beautiful, magical hike and I’m so glad we decided to do it (even if we’ll have to go back again to get to Sky Pond).
We had to wait for about twenty minutes before the shuttle bus came, and it was another twenty minutes before we got back to our car. When I stood up at the parking lot, I realized: that crackle? Well, I’m not sure why I wasn’t hobbling the whole way down, because now, after sitting for so long, my knees were useless. The left one was stiff and swollen, and the right one—the one that crackled—wouldn’t bend at all.
And that, dear reader, is how I injured my knee. No dramatic fall or twist, just a gradual building-up of tension and stiffness and then the mysterious crackle. I’m not yet sure where my story goes from here…only time will tell.