Taking the Leap: Hiking Post Injury

When I got ready to ski on Monday, January 18th, 2021 I did not know that it would be the last day I walk pain-free for months. Later that day I fell, and as I fell I heard my left knee pop. In the seconds it took my torso to hit the ground my brain did some quick math: pop = torn ligament. Weeks later my surgeon would gesture to different blurry white lines on an MRI, “this is your MCL, and now back here you can see a bit of the PCL,” then moving to the center of the image, “this is where your ACL used to be.”

Surgical scar atop Mt. Sanitas, approx 6 weeks post-op.

After a major injury, there’s an initial wave of shock. Plans must be canceled, work left incomplete, and pain managed. Following that wave, you gradually enter a steadier state of healing where it’s easier to be deceived into thinking that you’ve done it. All the processing? All the lessons? You’ve figured it out. All that’s left is to exercise until your body feels like it did before and does the things that it was doing. While this thought process is comforting for a time, it’s also not an authentic reality for many people. The hard truth is this- you may never be the same as you were before the injury.

Injury is as much a mental game as a physical game, if not more.

Like many folks, I was determined to return to the activities I loved as quickly as safely possible. To my surprise, I found that even when my therapist cleared me, I was hesitant to try new things again. When the time came to lose the crutches, she had to convince me that I could bear my weight. Even though I desperately wanted to walk freely and was physically able to do so, I feared it.

The immediate lesson my accident taught me was not to trust my body. The thing I relied on to do most everything had failed me and could do so again at any moment. While cognitively I recognized this as a poor and inaccurate takeaway, I still felt it.

I had thought each new milestone in returning to my life would be joyful, but ultimately most of them were unpleasant.

Nearly four months after surgery I slipped and fell for the first time. It was a small fall, landing on my butt on a muddy decline, and though I was physically fine I did not stand up right away. Instead, I cried. It wasn’t pain that made me cry, but fear. Though I was fine, for that split second not only was I falling, but I thought that I was going back to the place I had been. That my ACL would again be gone.

Summit of Mt. Sanitas, approx 6 weeks post-op

The day after the fall my knee swelled up again. It was tender to the touch and was sore as though I’d run a marathon. My physical therapist told me that it was normal. My body had attempted to protect what it saw as a weakness by tightening all adjacent muscles so fiercely that it caused damage greater than what it would have been if I’d just fallen limply. She also told me that this response would lessen in time. It has improved, and I have fallen many times since then.

Understanding your limitations following an injury is important, but at some point, you simply have to leap.

The grass is greener on the other side, even if the journey is scary, trust me. I do not regret pushing through the fear and discomfort, just as I do not regret taking to the slopes that snowy Monday. Even if that means a great deal of public crying. I firmly believe that a life without pursuits may not be worth living. It took practice to trust my body, and ultimately find joy in its movement again.

Nearly one-year post-op and on the precipice of an AZT attempt I find myself facing a similar set of obstacles, and flickers of doubt linger as to whether I am asking my replacement ACL (formerly a quadriceps tendon) to do too much too soon. Can I trust it? The professionals in my life say it’ll hold, and I’ve done what I can to mitigate risk. So now I leap.

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Comments 3

  • pearwood : Mar 4th

    Go for it, Whitney!
    Herniated disk repair (outpatient) in 2017. Infected disk cleanup (big time inpatient) in 2019. Bunion repair and arthritis cleanup (outpatient) in 2020. The surgeons say I’m good to go. (Back surgeon has hiked parts of the AT.)
    Yeah. Coming back after an injury is not fun. Take your time and listen to your body. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
    Blessings on your way,
    Steve / pearwood

  • Quinton Peters : Mar 5th

    I too am one year out from having surgery, a tendon in my ankle being repaired. I have had the exact same experience. You’ve done an excellent job explaining all of the issues that come with these types of injuries.
    I will be starting the PCT in a month and every time I have a tiny bit of stiffness a wave of anxiety hits me telling me this will take me off trail, even though there is nothing wrong with my ankle.
    Best of luck. We both just have to win this mental battle, we’re stronger that our minds let us believe.


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