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Gravity Strikes Back

This was written as a companion piece to Defying Gravity.

Arroyo Burro Trail. Five steep, technical miles climbing three thousand feet to Camino Cielo, the ridge road translated from Spanish as ‘the way to heaven.’ And heavenly, it was. Running had been particularly marvelous. My legs were strong, my mind was resilient, and the late summer views were awash with the dreamy, golden light of possibility. I’d recently written a piece for The CAW about defying gravity—resisting despair on the trail and in life, choosing joy over suffering, writing your own story. “I get to run,” I proclaimed, ebullient with the bliss of endorphins and the momentum of miles.

Until, suddenly, I didn’t.

If you go to Italy and want to visit the statue David, you’ll have two to choose from. One, a full-scale marble replica, looms over Florence’s Piazza della Signoria where the original David first stood. And the original David, the one that Michaelangelo sculpted over five hundred years ago, is kept in a climate-controlled, security-protected exhibit at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze. In this domed hall, Michaelangelo’s David is safe from the tarnishing wind and rain, the burning sunlight, the scuff of birds. He lives in an invisible fortress of machinery scaffolded into the illusion of safety, the fiction of permanence. With computers monitoring every element of both the environment and the statue itself, we believe he is invincible. But, as Sam Anderson writes in the New York Times article entitled David’s Ankles, “Destruction happens in any number of ways, for any number of reasons, at any number of speeds—and it will happen, and no amount of reverence will stop it.”

On more than a few occasions in my life, I’ve bought into the illusion of my own invincibility. Mostly in moments of pride, of hubris—those temptresses of fate. As I made my way up Arroyo Burro that day, I was roaring with it. So wildly, willfully naive. Because gravity, of course, was on the trail that day too. Lurking in the scree-crumbled ascent as my legs tired and my attention wandered. It only took one misstep. One loose rock that skittered beneath my feet, sending me twisting to the ground. A hollow, popping sound reverberated through me as I landed on my ankle. Wrong. It felt very, very wrong. And I was three long, stone-scrambled miles from the trailhead. For several minutes, I just lay where I’d fallen, staring up at the blue, blue sky. How indifferent it seemed. My dog, Tuukka, whined, impatient to keep moving. There was only one way out. I had to get up.

We have a rule in my family: search and rescue should only be called if death is imminent. Mauled by a mountain lion kind of imminent. Broken bones, flesh wounds, mild heatstroke—if you can crawl out, you don’t need the (costly) help. It goes without saying that my ankle injury was far from fatal. It was just going to be a tedious journey back. I covered the first half-mile in about thirty minutes and paused, looking around me.

There aren’t many trees on Arroyo Burro. The occasional oak rambles skyward at the start of the trail, but where I fell, the exposed, dusty sandstone is a hardscrabble ground for even the native toyon, sage, and ceanothus. I stood on one leg, searching for a branch long enough to use as a walking stick. There was nothing. Already, my ankle was swelling, and the initial buzz of adrenaline was giving way to a twangy, broken guitar string throb of pain.

Tuukka was the opposite of a sturdy walking stick. She pulled at her leash, threatening my balance with every limping step. Briefly, I thought of taking two shorter branches and strapping them to my ankle with Tuukka’s leash—a splint. Letting her go at her own pace, trusting she’d wait for me to catch up at regular intervals. But there’s a reason I’m strict about using a leash. Too many coyotes, bobcats, and rattlesnakes in these parts to risk it. Plus, Tuukka’s freedom could be problematic—she only takes kindly to three out of five other dogs she meets. No, I couldn’t use the leash as a splint, not without risking an even more stressful situation than we were already in. Plus, just the thought of touching my ankle made me wince. This was the way forward. Just another step, and another. Quick on the injured ankle, slow on the other foot. A steady syncopation down the switchbacks.

The David’s ankles, like the rest of him, are made of marble. Sculpted from the lower portion of a single seventeen-foot tall, 25,000-pound block of mountain’s bone, hewed and chiseled and sanded into a masterpiece. Michaelangelo engineered the David to stand in a straight line over gravity, but his careful equations of weight distribution failed to account for the movement of the earth he stands upon. The ground beneath our feet is never certain. Barely, but measurably, as decades turned into centuries, the David started to lean. Millimeter by millimeter, his weight shifted and the narrowest part of the statute—his ankles—weakened, thin fracture lines webbing through the marble. It’s a small imperfection, but this sliver of a flaw threatens the David’s entire existence. The evidence is indisputable: if he loses his balance, even slightly, he will fall.

I seldom run with other people. It’s not that I don’t understand the reservoir of strength, laughter, and shared vulnerability that’s found between close-knit running pals. But I’m too insecure and easily embarrassed to put myself side-by-side with someone who actually runs well. I usually just end up feeling like I’m slowing the other person down. Besides, I enjoy letting my mind wander over the landscape, allowing my pace to be fluid, stuttering to a pause when I find something particularly beautiful or curious.

But as I hobbled over the sandstone outcroppings, I cursed my solitude. Not because another person could have done much of anything to help, but because I wanted someone to tell me we were getting closer, everything was going to be fine. To tell me that someday I’d laugh about this misadventure, re-tell it as a battle story. My inner pep talk wasn’t doing the trick. Even Tuukka was tired. She plodded along beside me, panting heavily in the glaring sunlight. I paused again, sitting on a curved rock and pulling my water bottle from my vest. Tuukka drank thirstily, then lay in the shade at my feet. We had another mile and a half to go, and some of the pitches were steep, but soon the trail would widen. “We’re getting closer,” I told her. I told myself.

Most renderings of David feature him in the mythical moments after he’s slain the giant Goliath with his slingshot. Goliath’s head rests at his feet while David gazes triumphantly at the kingdom he’ll inherit. But Michaelangelo chose to capture David in the moments before battle. His muscles are tensed, slingshot held over a shoulder and a stone clutched in one hand, his eyes trained on the horizon where the enemy looms. The David is forever readying himself for a battle he only faces in stories. But in our world, in this story, he is entirely unprepared for the real battle that awaits him: the battle against gravity. Because it’s not a matter of if he loses his balance. It’s when. Be it an earthquake or a clap of thunder or even just the slow stampede of millions of tourists’ footsteps walking past, the David will succumb to ruin.

Past the power lines, and then up and down a rambling series of foothills. Houses, now, with acres of avocado and citrus orchards. And there, two women approaching. I stepped to the side of the trail as they passed, standing again on one leg. They glanced at Tuukka, then at me.

“Oh no, you’re hurt,” said one. She peered at my leg. “Ankle?”

I nodded, trying to look brave, stoic. Made of marble.

The other one knelt, getting a closer look. She whistled through her teeth.

“Yikes,” she said, then glanced up the trail. “That damn scree up there. Dangerous stuff.”

She stood, and I muttered something about being careful. Maybe I was telling them to be careful, or maybe I was wishing I had been.

“You going to make it out?” the first one asked with a jaunty smile, and I nodded again. Of course I was. As they hiked on, she glanced back. “I’d take the shoe off if I were you,” she called. “Before it gets too swollen.”

If you’re ever unfortunate enough to find yourself in this kind of situation, I urge you, do not remove your shoe. Just loosen the laces. For one thing, taking it off unbalances the height of your legs, so limping becomes even more difficult than it was with two shoes on. For another, you’re subject to the elements. In the unyielding sun of an August afternoon, the trail was incredibly hot. Scorched-earth, walk-on-my-toes and pick-up-my-feet-quick kind of hot. I made it less than a quarter of a mile before I stopped again. But when I tried to wiggle the shoe back on, I discovered the third reason to avoid removing it in the first place. No matter how much I tugged at the shoe, my ankle was now too swollen for it to fit. Even if I bent the heel, clog-style, there was no way it was going to do any good. Only one thing to do. I took off the other shoe.

And that’s how I arrived home, two and a half hours later than I’d planned—swollen, barefoot, bleeding, scratched, scuffed, and horribly sunburned, shoes slung over my shoulder like David’s slingshot.

The human ankle is made up of a delicate network of bones, tendons, and ligaments, all working in symphony to stabilize the joint and balance the load as your legs propel you forward and your feet catch you from below. Given the grapefruit-sized protrusion on my own ankle, and my inability to bear any weight, the diagnosis was clear, if underwhelming: a level-three sprain—torn ligaments with corresponding peroneal tendon dislocation. “It’s a nasty sprain, but not uncommon,” said my doctor as he probed at my foot. It’s true. A sprained ankle, particularly for someone darting over the trails regularly, is nothing to write home about. Arguably, it’s nothing to blog about either, but here we are. I was relieved it wasn’t broken, but my doctor said it would be easier if it were. “This kind of injury can take longer to heal than a break,” he added. “You’re going to have to be patient.”

Truth is, every injury takes longer to heal than you’d like. Only when you’ve been injured do you really get it. Gravity isn’t just pain. It’s not just the fall. It’s also the healing.

As one month turned into three and I still couldn’t hobble along for more than a mile at a time, I found myself wishing the experience of not-running would teach me something. Anything. There had to be wisdom in forced stillness. Healing had to add up to more than sitting around, feeling useless. But I couldn’t find it. The problem was, running had been the solution to just about everything. It had become such an inherent part of my day-to-day existence that in the time leading up to my injury, I’d started calling myself a runner. Running, as a verb, was something I did; but being a runner, transforming the verb to a noun, was a greater feat. It takes a long time to become anything at all. And when you finally reach that place, grabbing the title feels bold, and not without an element of risk. It feels so monumental when you claim an identity that you forget—identity is illusory too. It’s limited by expression and interpretation. Identity is the statue we build of ourselves and it, too, will crumble. To suffer a loss of something you do is challenging, but not impossible. But to suffer a loss of being is to grieve.

Someone once told me, “I have learned to sit still enough, for long enough, to see the trees move. But I am still learning how to sit still enough to see the mountains move.” When the David collapses, it’s going to feel seismic, momentarily shattering the illusion of permanence great art represents. But widen the view, spiraling outward like a bird climbing to new heights, and maybe—just maybe—it’s the movement of mountains. Marble forged from limestone heated in a crucible of earth and fire, layers pushing up through shifting tectonic plates. Climbing higher, into a mountain through the millennia, until one day, a piece of the mountain is harvested. Cut from the source and carried to Florence, where it’s sculpted by an artist’s loving hands into a new shape. Then the marble mountain fragment stands as a mythical hero for centuries. Millions of lives pass before him, and the world is transformed, as it always has been. Until one day, he comes crashing down. The marble shattering, white snow. Fragments of stone which, one day, millennia from now, may yet again become mountain. From destruction to creation. From ruin to growth.

At one time, feeling utterly alone in my despair, I searched for stories by other runners who’d been injured. I needed more than the slow tick-tock of days accumulating into weeks, the feeling of my body weakening, the fear that I would never be the same. Truth is, I was far from alone, and in the words of others, I rediscovered hope. Sometimes, we need to hear the hard stories. We need to read about ruin and its impact. We need the reminder that if there’s such thing as a good injury, it’s one that reminds us of the miracle of movement. I, like so many runners before me, had to endure not-running to see it: the satisfaction and sense of purpose I found on the trails wasn’t about being a runner. It was about falling in love with it. Loving running, even when I couldn’t touch it. Loving it even when it was nothing more than the nowhere-space between a memory and a dream.

Some runs are triumph. Glorious excursions of mind, body, and spirit. Others, you snot-rocket all over your own arm. You fall. You break. You succumb. But there’s only one way out. You have to get up.

What I’m trying to say is, gravity will always—always—win. Nothing is exempt. The deep can always get deeper, so, you keep learning how to play in it. Finding movement, even in stillness. Finding stillness, even in movement.

Here’s what I’ll remember, most of all, as time wears on and immediacy gives way to distance—not the pain, not the fall, not the black-hole of healing, but this: moving along Arroyo Burro, step after aching step, with Tuukka at my side. The sky was so blue and so endless. It didn’t matter how fast we went, or that it would be our last adventure for some time. We were already home.

What I’m trying to say is, whatever you build will be ruined. So make it beautiful.

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