When Shin Splints are Actually Stress Fractures

I am laying in my tent at 5 PM, sweating profusely in the desert heat. Even though I’ve been in the desert for 616 miles now, it hasn’t really been that hot until today. Today is very, very hot.

I don’t really mind the heat, though. It’s my leg that I’m worried about. Around lunchtime today I started to feel a shin splint coming on, and as the day progressed so did the pain. By late afternoon, I couldn’t walk without limping, so when I came upon some trail magic filled with frozen water bottles a little after Kelso Road, I was incredibly excited that now I’d have an opportunity to ice my leg. If my leg continues to get worse, I am not going to have a great couple days in store for me—it’s 35 miles to Walker Pass, the nearest town access point.

So here I am, solo camping, listening to Lana del Rey and trying to eat a Snickers bar laying down without choking, hoping fervently that my leg feels better by tomorrow.

***

Given the heat wave, I set my alarm for 3 AM. The air is warm, and it surprisingly isn’t hard to get up. I slip out of my tent and test my leg. Crap. It feels even worse than yesterday. As soon as I put weight on it, a hot flash of pain sears through my shin, and I cry out. This isn’t manageable pain—probably 8/10 on the pain scale—and I wonder if I have a stress fracture. I wonder how long it will take to heal, and if it will be a hike ending injury. But what can I do? There is no point getting angry or upset right now. All I can do is get to Walker Pass, so I grit my teeth, pop a couple Ibuprofen and resign myself to a two day death march.

Let me tell you, hiking with pain is a completely different experience than hiking pain-free. I’ve had small problems in the past—knee pain, shoulder pain, a little plantar fasciitis—but this time it’s different. This kind of pain makes it impossible for your mind to wander. It never lets you forget about it. You feel every step that you take.

I think of the Buddhist martyrs I read about in history, the ones that set themselves on fire until they burn to death, as a form of political protest. I think I saw a picture of one once, and the crazy thing is they look perfectly peaceful, their faces and bodies never straying from that classic meditation pose. The pain I am experiencing would be nothing to them, I think. Everything will be fine, everything will be fine, I say to myself over and over.

***

Sometimes I can only walk a mile an hour given the limp, if the terrain is rocky and downhill. Multiple times I break down when I don’t think I can take the pain anymore. When I have service, I call my dad sobbing. “Do you think it would be, like, a big deal if I tried to get a park ranger or something to pick me up from one of these dirt roads that off road vehicles use? I keep crossing them, I haven’t seen anyone come down one but they must be accessible because I see tire marks.” I ask. Service cuts out before he can answer, but I know trying to get rescued would be really lame. I know I can make it to Walker Pass.

By 11 AM the next day the end is in sight, and I walk into the Walker Pass campground to find someone taking hikers to Ridgecrest in his minivan. “Is there room for one more?” I say. “Looks like it,” Trail Angel Scott says, “We’re heading to Erica’s house. She’s a trail angel that lets hikers sleep at her place.”

What luck!

***

I stay at Erica’s house for four nights (she is amazing). I am resistant to the idea of going to urgent care at first. If I just stay off my feet and ice my leg for a couple days, maybe the pain will go away, I think. But the pain doesn’t go away, and whenever I stand up it takes awhile before I can put any weight on my leg. So I cave, and go to urgent care, and it turns out I have multiple stress fractures on both legs, even though only one leg hurts. Fantastic. But at least my breakdowns on trail were a little more justified? I was feeling pretty wimpy about how much I struggled hiking with pain.

The new game plan is to fly to my parents’ house in Virginia for a week, try to recover there, and then hopefully be back on trail in the not too distant future. At least it’s not a terrible time to get an injury—I’m almost to the Sierra and the snow hasn’t really melted yet, so I’d probably have to take time off anyway.

I hang out with Prince for another day before flying home. He’s been part of my trail group for a few weeks now. We often hike together, but I’d been craving some solo camping so for the past 80 miles I’d been off by myself. I appreciate that he’s here now, though. We go out to eat, bring donuts back to Erica’s, and watch Napoleon Dynamite. He is enamored by Napoleon’s dance routine at the end of the movie, and decides he wants to learn it. “Let’s make it your goal that next time I see you, you’ve learned the whole thing!,” I say. “You can put on a performance for the group!”

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Comments 2

  • Avatar
    Jordan : Jun 13th

    You’re making your own great travel memoir! I enjoy your writing. Please continue.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Ralph McGreevy : Jun 13th

    Hello Caroline,

    Sorry to hear about your shattering experience and wishing you speedy recovery. Unfairly, women often have weaker lower legs and feet than men usually do, which sometimes leads to fractures and other injuries. This has happened to several ladies who I know well. Please get checked for osteoporosis, even though you are still young. In any case, hope you can soon be back on the trail.

    Reply

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