Wednesday, January 21, 2015

When the heart says yes, but the body says no

The snow falls effortlessly, slowly gathering on his gray head as he sits on the roof of his house. It's quiet, save for a dog barking in the distance. He appears stately, as almost a statue, until he slowly raises his head skyward, opens his long mouth and howls.

Soon the others emerge from their houses, shaking off sleep and greeting the day. Bright-eyed and eager, they join his lonely song, a cacophony of 16 dogs singing, and they say "let's go." But there is no going for me.  They see me and stop their chorus in unison. They eye me, all looking at me expectantly, waiting. When are we going. There is no going for me, and that is heartbreaking. Heartbreaking beyond what I'm able to convey. Days like today are what mushers - and sled dogs - live for.

I'm not one to let pain stop me. I joke often that my middle name is "tenacious." A very special person once told me that I train and race dogs "against all odds." I pride myself on that.

But sometimes, things happen that force our hand. Like a football player with a sudden injury forced to sit out the season, I now mull over the "should haves" and "if onlys." I should have worn the back brace. Regret is a bitter pill.

A bone density scan showed degenerative disc disease in 2007. I get it honestly. My mother's mother had rheumatoid arthritis, her fingers curved in deformed "S" shapes. Still, she crocheted. My aunt had back surgery when I was young. I remember hearing stories of her in traction. My mother has the tell-tale signs of her mother's genetics as well. And, two years ago, I saw my first rheumatologist.

For the last two years, I've struggled with the glaringly obvious effects of this "disc disease" - what I call the result of a life well-lived. Backpacking, long bouncing rides with my mountain bike, and miles and miles of cross-country running in college undoubtedly jarring tiny fragments into my L5. The last nine years on the back of a dog sled undoubtedly further eroded bone, like water washing away rock. This erosion. Spine turning to dust.

I was in denial. This past spring, I took up trail running again, determined to be stronger for the upcoming dog season. It hurt like hell, but with my back brace - a black nylon support wrapped around my waist - and firmly gritted teeth, I could bite through the pain. I worked up to four mile runs, sweated out sets of crunches to firm my core and stabilize the spine, muscles forming support for bone. I was determined. Tenacious.

Friday, winter finally set in. Excited, I loaded nine dogs in the dog trailer, strapped my sled to the roof, and we headed to Punderson State Park for our first run with the sled. I met my friend Ron there with his dogs. In my haste, I forgot the back brace. I never went without it last season on any sled run.

The trails were gorgeous, and despite the lack of a good base, I hooked six dogs for a 10 mile run, then another.

My six dogs with Ron and his six leading ahead of us
On the second time out, I noticed my sled kept tracking to the right. To compensate, I rode with more weight on my left side. I also noticed during that second run that the area in my back with the herniated disc began to hurt. Our second run was short.

When we returned to the staging area, I hobbled through the pain to unhook, unharness and put the dogs away. I put the rest of my gear away, but mentioned to Ron that I was in a lot of pain. I felt better on the 40 minute drive back home, but as I started to get out of my car once at home, my left leg practically gave out from under me. Breath-taking pain shot through my back and down my leg. I limped inside.

Saturday morning found me in excruciating pain and unable to walk. I ended up at the emergency room where I received injections of morphine and toradol, both powerful pain relievers. I filled scripts for vicodin, two kinds of muscle relaxers and an oral steroid for inflammation, and was on bed rest for the remainder of the weekend.

The best laid plans of mice and men. And mushers.

At the time of this writing, I am still awaiting results from x-rays. But the tech allowed me to take a peek at them after I had them done, and what I saw wasn't pretty. Spinal stenosis - a narrowing of the spine - with a possible fracture on the vertebrae, and undoubtedly, sciatica - a pinched nerve that shoots pain down the leg.

For the safety of my dogs, other mushers' teams and myself, I have withdrawn from my favorite race, the 90-mile Midnight Run. I am able to walk now thanks to medication, and I am still debating on running the IronLine and Copper Dog 40, which are shorter, six-dog class races.

My heart wants to be out there on the trail with them. More than anything. But my body says no. And the argument that has ensued between the two is heartbreaking. 

Where my heart longs to be