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Learning my way back from an ankle fracture

May 24, 2022

Five years ago this month I retired from teaching creative writing at a local university to help with this guy . . .

. . . and to check a few items off my bucket list. (A worldwide pandemic was NOT one of those items, but I got it out of the way anyway.)

Here’s something I’ve always wanted to try:

Horse jumping! So much fun! So much to learn!

Coming off a horse due to rider error! Not so much fun! So much to learn!

As soon as I hit the ground–with all the impact absorbed by my suddenly akimbo left foot– I knew things were not good. My active life had changed in a second.

The X-ray didn’t show it, but the CT scan did: a non-displaced fracture of the talus bone in my left ankle.

Sigh.

Several visits to an orthopedic surgeon resulted in . . . not much more than the recommendation I should avoid any weight bearing on the foot for six weeks, and probably give up barefoot running forever.

(My take on the situation? If I hadn’t been running barefoot for the last twelve years, my ankle would not have been strong enough to weather the fall with only a cracked talus instead of each-and-every ankle bone exploding in a million osteoporisized bits.)

Fortunately I already had an excellent team of movement experts (I think orthopedic surgeons specialize in non-movement?) who provided more appropriate therapy (and advice) so that I could continue to heal as quickly as possible, with as little residual stiffness as possible. Thanks, Darcia and Dr. Derrick!

So much to learn–such as how to negotiate life in a boot whilst not putting any weight on booted foot.

It didn’t stop me from crutching it to the sidelines for soccer spectating. (Two granddaughters play for a high school about 80 miles south. I learned to be very grateful that my booted left foot did not interfere with driving.)

AND . . . here’s a major learning breakthrough . . . I learned I would go cuckoo if I didn’t find some kind of movement activity. Right away.

I found one at my local community college which was just beginning its Spring semester.

It’s called Swimming, an activity that–when I was a kid–made me feel like I was drowning when I tried to do “the crawl” all the way across the width of the pool on the last day of any given two-week summer swim lesson session at the Orange Plunge.

I learned via a little online research that there is an easier way to get across a pool: the Total Immersion way of swimming. This method actually makes swimming relaxing, makes it a zen-ish gliding through the water (based on the power of hip rotation instead of frantically thrashing arms and legs).

A logical (?!) next immediate step: sign up for a triathlon later this year, because: Swimming! It’s learnable, do-able, and *almost* as fun as running barefoot.

But the triathlon is not in a pool . . . it’s in the cold waters off California’s Central Coast, which is conveniently where my daughter and her family live.

So . . . there we went last weekend for my inaugural salt water (cold water!) swim. That’s Morro Rock in the background, and in the kayak: my significant-athletic-endeavor-supporter (46 years and counting).

And, of course, me in my lovely new Orca swimming wetsuit hamming it up for the camera. (Photo by the inimitable Tina Davidson.)

In early November I’ll join a couple hundred other triathletes here to swim, bike, and run our way around Morro Bay. Can’t wait!

Hmmm . . . it might be good if I got back to running by then . . . so that’s also what I’m working on, one slow step at a time.

And some muddy steps-at-a-time. (Never pass a mud bog when you can toe-wallow in it.)

And never pass a wildflower without saying “hello.

Other pastimes to while away the hours that I am not yet running: sourdough baking (and devouring).

Spectating at granddaughters’ track meets.

Dragging my early 1970s Nike spikes out of the attic. And sighing. Coulda woulda shoulda.

Consuming pounds of Pound Plus to assuage my non-track-career nostalgia and all-around sense of crapitude because I haven’t been able to run. Since. January.

Staring out the window at all the wonderful California native plants and (non-native, but delicious) citrus trees in my garden.

Having fun with grandsons and grand-dog.

Renewing my NOLS Wilderness First Responder certification in hopes I will one day lead more wilderness adventures. (It was not easy spending three days of responding to wilderness injury-and-illness scenarios in a giant immobilizing boot. I’m glad that’s over. These CPR babies are too.)

Propagating California native plants in my garden.

Admiring California native plants from my car at Irvine Park.

Finally, RUNNING just a little. Then a little more. Then maybe a fast 5k by the time the triathlon rolls around in November?

And, of course, glorious swimming two mornings a week at 7 am at the community college pool. It’s an actual college class with homework, and quizzes, and papers to write, and timed 500-yard swims. My time yesterday: a blistering (or meandering?) 12:40 for 20 laps across the 25-yard width of the pool . . . never once feeling like I was flailing, floundering, or drowning.

Yay for old-lady learning and a healing ankle. Yay, and praise the Lord!

Happy barefoot trails . . . on land or in water!

Twelve Years of Barefoot Running (and still going at age 62)

January 2, 2022
January 2022, Irvine Park, CA

Every January I like to toast with a post here, since this is the month (back in 2010, TWELVE years ago!) when the idea of being shoeless on the trails first struck me.

In the early morning chill at O’Neill Park, standing at a birding-workshop campfire, I noticed a couple of shoeless young men on the other side of the flames. In my typical sad snarky fashion, I poked the arm of the person next to me and snickered some snide side remark about their lack of outdoor intelligence.

Later that day, though, I couldn’t stop wondering about what I had seen.

So . . . in my less-judgy, hungry-for-knowledge fashion, I deep dove online and discovered: barefoot running was a Thing (although I didn’t read Born to Run until a year later, Barefoot Ken Bob’s book was helpful in the early going).

A few (330?!) blog posts later, I am still trotting along: looking, listening, FEELING (loving!) the dirt world of our local Orange County foothills (and, every so often, beyond).

Beyond = (clockwise from upper left) Monument Valley, Cape Royal/North Rim, Navajo Reservation; Buckskin Gulch, Plateau Point, Saddlebag Lake.

While I began my barefoot journey hoping for an instant, magic cure for a lifetime of running aches, pains, and outright injuries, I have learned that moving in a healthy way is a life-long path.

A multitude of therapies and therapists later (let’s see which ones I remember: orthopedic surgeon/rooster comb injections; several kinds of physical therapy; acupuncture; Rolfing; Pilates; chiropractic; ART (Active Release Techniques); Matrix Repatterning), I’ve found a good fit with the “gentle, mindful movements” of the Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education. (And also the healing touch of the wonderful folks at Knight Physical Therapy.)

When I consider how sad my running life had become due to constant left knee pain–my pathetic goal was to jog two whole minutes at a time back in the early 2000s–I can’t stop grinning (who cares about a few bugs in the teeth) on the regular 90-120-minute trail running adventures I enjoy several times a week.

Local spider meet-up, 2010.

Here’s something I wrote as a guest blog back in 2014 (wow . . . that’s eight years ago already!); I still stand by these (over-the-top?) enthusiastic musings at Barefoot Beginner: “The joys of barefoot trail running.”

Although I’ve never been one much for running races (it’s complicated, but another one of my less-better angels is my competitive nature), last year I tried a few: the Anaheim Hills 10k on July 4, the Tustin School District Dino Dash 5k on Halloween, and an 18-mile trail race on Dec. 4 (in one of my favorite places, put on by my favorite local race directors at Into The Wild OC Trail Runs).

Gotta love that barefoot logo!

Since I had finished second in my age group in the 10k and 5k, I had delusions of the same sort of “success” in the December race.

Sure, it was three times as long as the 10k.

Sure, it “only” had 4,035 feet of elevation gain/loss (for comparison, going rim to rim at Grand Canyon is around 10,000 feet of down-then-up).

Sure, the race blurb said “course is recommended for an experienced runner.”

Sure, it turned out to be another lesson in humility.

Or reality?

I’m 62, and more inclined to over-dose on dark chocolate than over-train . . . so I might have been a bit less than ready for the relentless hills of the 17.9-mile popsicle/loop from Irvine Park and up and around Fremont Canyon.

The uphills taxed my aerobic engine when I attempted anything more than a walk, and the downhills–which I had been looking forward to as a time when gravity would be on my side–turned tortuous again after about mile eleven.

A fog-o-licious start! Here my smile is genuine; it’s a beautiful day to be out running.

My left knee! On fire again! What in thunderation was going on with my old owie?

Sure, it didn’t hurt to walk down the hills, but at that rate I’d still be out there, so I repeated the awkwardly rhymed affirmation “there’s nothing wrong with my knee, and there’s a lot right with me” and did my best not to limp and throw off the rest of my geezer body.

62 years young.

My “race goal” morphed from “win my age group and take home a cool prize” to “don’t finish last” to “let’s just finish some time today.”

The knee pain has begun; this smile was inspired by the presence of the photographer in the middle of the track.

While the results show I accomplished two of those three goals (112th out of 18, time of 4:42:06), when I closely examined the race results I realized I had been in the presence of greatness: I finished 10th out of 10 heroic women in the 60-69 age group.

How much faster were they? First place–Karen Greene, 60–was done almost an hour before me (with a 12:29 minutes/mile pace in contrast to my 16:07/mile).

My new heroes! Too bad they were packed and gone by the time I (finally) finished . . .

And: yet another lesson in humility adaptability: I had to wear shoes the entire race because of our lovely local ROCKY geology.

And so, for the first time in over a decade, I now sport a black toenail on my left big toe. (Did I mention the race went downhill. A lot.)

On the plus side: I was able to embody the long-distance-runner’s mantra I had read about in so many race reports over the years: “relentless forward progress.” That’s quite a mouthful to repeat–especially when your mouth is full of yummy dried figs and Trader Joe’s dark chocolate–but It Works.

Classic “fake it till you make it” smile. The downhill knee pain is real.

In the middle of a long race, or long project (hmmm . . . the book I’m working on?), the temptation to stop & give in/give up is strong. Especially when old pains return, and everyone else makes it look so easy, and it seems like you’re the only one struggling . . .

But Comparison Lane leads to dark places, so let’s not go there.

A 28,000-acre wildfire swept through these hills and canyons back in October 2007; so much was lost.

After the burn, however, enough winter rain fell to ignite this blaze of poppies above Fremont Canyon the next spring (the same area that I ran in last month):

I was fortunate to be able to spend a day in the company of plein air artist Jim Wodark as he interpreted the scene in a painting he titled “After the Burn.”

And now that painting hangs near my front door.

The Fremont Canyon area holds many memories in its lovely folds; last month’s race added another set.

Not smiling for anybody any more.

It was difficult to keep plodding for hours at my slow pace, ghost pains stabbing my knee with every downhill, toenail-bruising footfall, but I hope the experience of embodying “relentless forward progress” will stick with me in this not-so-new year. (Is it just me, or does 2022 seem an awful lot like 2020-too?)

The fog will lift!

Happy New Year & Happy Barefoot Trails!

Running Away from Frailty (barefoot, of course)

November 1, 2021

I had a fun opportunity to test myself yesterday at the 30th annual Dino Dash–running and biking community events put on by the Tustin Public Schools Foundation.

Since I’ve run a few October 5K races for comparison (the most recent in October 2019), that’s the race length I picked when I sent in my entry a couple of months ago.

This immediately gave a new focus to my training–I needed to work on leg turnover. (I’d call it “speed work” but there are turtles out there moving faster than this granny.)

It was crazy trying to get my feet to fly down the trail . . . more often than not, it felt like slogging slo-mo through jello.

Seemed like all the pandemic sitting was catching up to me . . .

Then the hamstring (left side) became disgruntled with the whole “let’s run fast” experiment, and so I took my legs/hips with their sketchy attitude to my favorite un-dis-gruntler: movement educator Darcia Dexter of OC Feldenkrais.

A few weekly sessions of Functional Integration later, I was ready to do the Dino Dash.

Barefoot, of course.

With a new running shirt, too.

With a huge plug of runners bottlenecking the start, I took advantage of the race timing system that would wait until I crossed the start line to begin my particular time.

Even then, it was a creative puzzle to weave through and around all the families and kids jogging and strolling their way along Tustin Ranch Road. So much positive movement energy! Lovely!

There were a few comments along the way–and even some cheers–regarding my lack of footwear, to which I always replied with a double thumbs-up and a big smile.

As I gleefully loped under the finish arch, I saw the timer show 32 minutes.

Galloping gremlins! This had to be wrong . . . I knew I was slower than pre-pandemic, but this was ridiculotamous!

Oh yeah–I had waited several minutes to give all the other Dino-Dashers a horde-start.

Now I had to wait till I got home and had internet access to check my real time. (Nope. My flip phone doesn’t do stuff like that.)

Here’s the real-sults:

So . . . slower than two years ago, but still fast enough to qualify as a U.S. Track and Field Masters All-American.

A quick-change, and then St. John’s inspiring Reformation Day church service (complete with organ-and-trumpet-and-choir rendition of “A Mighty Fortress”) and, eventually, on the couch to peruse the Sunday paper.

Helen Dennis has written a weekly column called “Successful Aging” for 20 years. I always learn something important; yesterday was no different.

In an interview with Dennis, Stanford geriatrician Dr. Walter Bortz had this to say about “Successful Aging”: “The real enemy of old age is not disease; it’s frailty.”

Dennis went on to encourage readers to “stay strong and fit to push out to the oldest age possible . . . [like] the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who engaged in fitness exercises with her coach until her mid-80s, doing push-ups, planks and squats, despite her bouts with cancer. . . . Try to prevent frailty.”

While the sheer fun of barefoot trail running is my major motivator, it’s good to know I’m also engaged in the serious anti-frailty business of “push[ing] out to the oldest age possible.”

And, after the Dino Dash, I have some new role models: Sharon Lotesto, who Dino-stomped to a win of the 5K Women’s 70-74 age division with a blazin’ time of 25:40, and 88-year-old Lee Digregorio, who Ginsburged that 5K in 1:04:49!

Happy (Anti-Frailty) Trails (or roads . . . )

Another Grand Canyon Adventure: Does She Survive? (Barefoot?)

October 10, 2021

This week, between grandkid-care and elder-help, a five-day wedge of free time appeared. Hmmm . . . maybe I should head back to Grand Canyon for some barefoot escapism.

It was an anniversary celebration of sorts—ten years since I spent three weeks at the North Rim as National Park Service Artist-in-Residence in June of 2011. What a glorious time that was . . . an experience that changed the trajectory of my writing and adventuring life (although I had no idea then).

That’s one perk related to the stacking of decades—my 60s have become a perch to survey the beauty and wreckage of a lifetime of little decisions layered up like the red and orange cliffs of Grand Canyon.

So, yeah, time for a quad-busting 28-mile hike through some metamorphic and metaphoric schist . . . plenty of miles and hours to ponder: at what age to do we begin to admit we’re not as (young, strong, name your own fading nemesis) as we used to be.

Facts

The North Kaibab Trail (NKT) winds 14.2 miles down through Roaring Springs Canyon to Bright Angel Canyon to the Colorado River.

As it meanders, the NKT plunges more than a mile: from an elevation of 8,241 feet (Kaibab Plateau) to 2,460 feet (Colorado River).

If a mile equals 5,280 feet, the NKT beats that: it drops 5,781 feet,  with over half of that in the steepity-stepped upper five miles.

Me with a backpack on this trail is like you heading to the gym and doing 12″ box step-ups (or downs; you gotta do both eventually) for 8-10 hours while holding a 25-pound dumbbell. Some kind of fun.

Challenges

1) Pack just the right amount of gear for two nights in Grand Canyon—too much stuff/weight creates extra misery on the hike up-and-out; not enough risks hypothermia or a hunger-bonk.

2) Drive 500+ miles to the North Rim through the rain while trying to avoid hydroplaning speedsters (I witnessed a bad crash on I-15 south of Las Vegas. Please slow down in the rain, peeps!)

3) Arrive; decide whether to go barefoot or not.

4) Start putting one foot ahead of the other.

5) Try not to die. (Or be over-dramatic.)

6) If/when you make it out, sort through a gazillion photos and emotions and try to condense them into a blog post somewhat shorter than 28.4 miles.

More (barefoot related) facts

— I made it 8 miles (out of 14) downhill without shoes. (The other six miles were wearing my old faithful Merrell Pipidae Wrap sandals.)

—  On the way up-and-out: only 3 miles barefoot, the rest in my (old, faithful) Merrell Vapor Glove shoes.

Q: Why wear shoes while hiking at Grand Canyon? (When it’s WAY MORE FUN to hike barefoot?)

A: Speed of travel. (Which is directly correlated to the NUMBER OF ROCKS on the trail. 99% of the 14.2 mile trail is strewn with limestone chunks, shale shards, and the above-mentioned sharp schist. And maybe a bit of mule poo.)

Fact(s)

The average set of hiking boots weighs 3 ¾ pounds; the average running shoes weigh 1 ¾ pounds. No shoes weigh: well, you do the math. https://www.hikelight.com/9footwear.html

Did you say “math”?

2,000 steps in a mile means hikers in boots will lift 7,500 pounds per mile. Hikers in running shoes? 3,500 pounds.

Barefoot geniuses? Zero (0) extra pounds per mile.

The Tradeoff

Every silver lining has to have a cloud; hiking barefoot at Grand Canyon, through all the schisty rocks, takes a lot of attention to Where. You. Are. Stepping . . . for each and every one of those 2,000 steps per mile (which might become 4,000 steps-per if you’re rockin’ the rocks and trying not to lose toe skin).

After the hike . . . no blisters, black toenails, or ripped skin. Yippee!

Sigh

So at some point, both on the way down and then back up, I had to make an executive decision to speed things up a bit and get shod. Less fun, more safety in not hiking past dark, etc.

Almost famous

Since not everyone can do the math, but everyone can gape at something that defies societal norms, you can imagine the stares and comments I got throughout the barefoot portions of those 28.4 miles . . .

Stupidest comment: “If you beat them [your feet] up enough, then they’re OK with it?” (This line of reasoning is wrong for so many reasons.)

 Best question: “How do your feet feel?” (Exactly! I do this because my feet love the feel of the real: dirt and damp and sand and mud and puddles.)

2nd stupidest common comment: “Doesn’t that hurt?” (Why would I do it if it hurt? That would not be very smart, now, would it?)

Most common: “I could never do that/I can’t even walk down my driveway barefoot/etc.”  (Yeah, you could. You’re just trapped in the Big Shoe Paradigm.)

Most clever . . . NOT!: “Where’s your shoes?” (I’ve been looking for them all day. Let me know if you find them. I’ll be here all week.)

Watchin’ the River Flow

Spending multiple nights at Bright Angel Campground allows hours to sit under my favorite tamarisk (that’s a native plant lover in-joke: these are invasive plants, but shade is shade?). There’s a special shrub that makes a green cave on the edge of Boat Beach. I’ve sat here many times with this mental soundtrack: Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow.”

If I’m lucky, as I stare upstream (a swirl of chocolate milk after Tuesday’s torrential downpour), gray or blue or yellow apparitions will emerge around the bend:

One-two—four—inflatables, a yellow catamaran. And . . . could it be? Yes! A wooden dory! Old school! Adory-ble, and handmade and piloted by a male Taylor.

The boat folks offered me a beer, asked me to take a group Polaroid (which, like being offered beer by strangers, offered quick transport to the 1970s), then most of them left to find water for their five-gallon jugs at the Boat Beach spigot, or to find ice-filled cups of famous Phantom Ranch lemonade at the Canteen. (Taylor spent a long time bailing, then pumping, then sponging, muddy river water out of his gleaming wooden craft.)

Mud therapy

 I didn’t dare step down into the murky (sometimes deadly) unknown of the Colorado River, but found plenty of soothing mud on the banks, plus refreshment for my backpacking-stressed feet and ankles in Bright Angel Creek.

Terrified

Tuesday’s rain that caused the flash flooding that murked up the usually green Colorado River also lubricated fissures in the cliffs.

This can lead to rockfall.

This did lead to rockfall—overhangs giving in to gravity’s tug, no warning, nowhere to run if you’re under the wrong scarp at the wrong time. The North Kaibab Trail had way more piles to scramble over than I’d ever seen.

Was anyone there to witness the sharp “crack!” concurrent with the crush of tons of . . . you get the picture. Oh, schist.

So when I came upon a pile that seemed way too recent, I weighed my options. What to do? Turn around? (But I was only three miles from trail’s end!) Hustle through and bloody my shins or slip over the near-by edge? Go carefully and get fallen upon?

It was decided. I would get out my camera and video record my clamber over and through. You know, so my grandkids would know exactly how Grammy met her Maker, maybe win some money on America’s Funniest Videos.

As I minced through the rock-mosh-pit, I felt something bounce off my head. A tiny bounce, maybe less than a pebble but more than a speck. Enough to scare the schist out of me and speed me on my way. (And, yep, I did catch the little chip falling in my video. As well as me shouting, “Oh, shoot! I gotta get out of here!”)

That was when I started to plot a new Canyon Exit Strategy: I could hike out the other side (seven miles to the South Rim) and take the 212-mile shuttle bus back around.

Or not.

I would just pray, and sing brave hymns, and do my best to not take delivery of a chest-freezer-size boulder or his toaster-and-microwave-chunky friends, all much denser than appliances, of course.

Then it happened: a dark loaf of bread abruptly thunked from above just a few seconds before I would have been under it. “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” I sang, quaveringly, unwilling to use adverbs usually, but my voice was pretty quavery at this point . . .

What went wrong

While my muscles never felt all that painful during the hike (and they really aren’t today either), and I never allowed myself to get out of breath (nose breathing works well for that), during the hike out—especially during those last STEEP five miles, I kept getting overwhelmed by the feeling that “I just need to stop. Now. Forever and ever. Amen.”

Of course for the first seven miles back up, as I do on most long hikes, I had taken a break every half hour to remove my backpack and eat and drink. Eventually, though, that felt like too much work, and I’d just slump on a rock for a few minutes, then will myself up and moving again. Praying, of course.

I need a mantra.

While I felt buoyed knowing family members had promised to pray, my pack felt unnecessarily massive, stuffed with stuff I never used, and the two-person tent was way too heavy, but my one-person tent had failed when I set it up at home (the shock cords had over-stretched. Can I blame that on the pandemic?), and rain was in the forecast, otherwise I would have gone tent-less.

Hence, a mantra-chant: Strong, balanced. Balanced and strong.

Strong because: 14.2 miles times 5,781 feet in elevation gain times 25 pounds on back = stay strong, girl!

Balanced because: bending your neck to look up at thousands of feet of cliffs can bring on the dizzies. As can looking down into the variously deep abysses along any old Grand Canyon trail. It’s also key to stay steady as you step on and over so many rocks, both planted and precarious. So: balanced.

One more word

After a hairy encounter between my big ol’ backpack and a cliff protrusion that knocked me just a little sideways (in a place where sideways usually leads . . .  way down), I added “Aware” to make up a three-part rallying cry: Strong. Balanced. Aware.

And I liked the “aware” because it reminded me to stay aware of the moment, of all the tiny beauty surrounding each step: multi-colored trail rocks winking diamond eyes in the sunlight, mosses sighing green in crevices, butterflies cavorting (sorry, there’s no other way to describe their erratic joyful air duets over the seep willow blossoms). I’m at the Grand Canyon again! Woo hoo!

And then there’s this trail idea: Both shale and kale are made more delicious by their surroundings—they are too sharp until put in proximity with olive oil and/or salt and/or wildflowers and/or butterflies. Then? They become stuff to savor.

The October Hordes

So many people on the trail. It’s called “Rim to Rim Season.”

I don’t want to talk or write about it, but it does make for a feeling of “safety in numbers” when hiking solo. Solo but never alone. I met a married couple a few miles before the end of the trail headed down on Wednesday. I first came across them in The Box (previously mentioned place of many rockfalls); they were slumped on the side of the trail. Of course my WFR (Wilderness First Responder) training kicked in:

“Everything OK?”

“Yeah, we’re just taking it easy. How much farther?”

“I’m not sure. I think we have two bridges to go.” (There are four bridge crossings of Bright Angel Creek in The Box.)

“All right. Thanks.”

And I went on my way, only to be discovered by them as I sat, a bit slumpy myself, a few twists of the trail later.

“Everything OK?”

“Yeah, it just seems like it’s taking forever.”

“Fourteen miles. And we’re almost there.”

And so it went the last couple of miles as we leap-frogged each other, hiking and slumping and chatting and FINALLY crossing the last bridge and soon after witnessing the blessed vision of Phantom Ranch.

During one of our chit-chats, they told me their brother-in-law had to cancel at the last minute, and they had already bought him a steak dinner for tonight.

OK, Thea, don’t shout “Yes!” until they offer it. Waaaaaiiit for it.

“Would you like to have it?” they asked.

“Uh, sure. Why not. Thanks.” (Ha. I was not nearly that nonchalant IRL.)

As luck and trail magic would have it, they had not one, but TWO nights of steak dinners to give away. (Approximate retail price: $50 a dinner.)

Plus the pleasure of company.

The downside—the Phantom Ranch Canteen is no longer open for indoor dining (Covid protocols, etc.) so we ate outside at the picnic table near their historic cabin in the balmy October twilight, Bright Angel Creek murmuring its approval a few feet away. Not much of a downside.

In other news: Sarcopenia

“One of the most striking effects of age is the involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength, and function, termed sarcopenia. Muscle mass decreases approximately 3–8% per decade after the age of 30 and this rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60. This involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength, and function is a fundamental cause of and contributor to disability in older people. This is because sarcopenia increases the risks of falls and vulnerability to injury and, consequently, can lead to functional dependence and disability.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804956/

Let’s not do the math, but I sure could tell there were muscles missing missing as I battled chilly rain, slippery cliff-hanging trails (the infamous Redwall Switchbacks), and just good old-fashioned “I’m-62-years-old” fatigue the last couple of miles up the North Kaibab.

By now I was pretty much too tired to eat or drink—not an ideal mindset, according to every hiking guide ever. I couldn’t reach my water without taking off my pack, which was WAY too much work at this point (well, not taking it off, but heaving it on my aching back again).

Even my trail snacks seemed disgusting (please-no-more-nuts-or-nut-bars-or-meaty sticks-or-dried-fruit). Usually, at this point in a hike, I begin fantasizing about the amazing dinner awaiting me at the North Rim Deli (elk chili, anyone?)—but not today.

I had lost interest in food. I was in trouble.

At this point, God sent a variety of trail angels my way: friendly fellow hikers who asked how I was doing and offered water and words of encouragement about how close I was to the trailhead. (“Close” being a relative term when one gentleman’s “only 800 more yards” sounded great until my bonking brain realized: Crap! That’s an entire half of a mile! At 8,000 feet in elevation! And I live at sea level! And I never did any training for this hike with weight on my back, just my typical, care-free, barefoot trail running along rock-free gently sloping local trails! Did I mention this was all done at sea level?!)

So I did my best, counting off 20 steps. Over and over. And over. Until I saw this beautiful sight:

That’s right, the old trail register table at the final switchback.

Then I counted to 20 a zillion more times. STILL no trailhead sign in sight. I was gassed. Dog-tired. Tuckered out, even. I found a rock (if you’re still reading, you know how easy that is at this place). Slumped my slumpiest. Started writing my epitaph: “Here lies Thea. She almost made it.”

“Hey, don’t stop yet! You’re almost there!”

Yet another Grand Canyon angel—a stranger, not strange, a woman about my age shouting encouragement. At me. For no reason other than to help me make it out.

And I did.

Barefooted coping with bad air days and other summer stuff

August 26, 2021

The raging Western wildfire smoke finally found us down south in Orange County this week; above is an early morning “mountain view” from a few days ago. With local air quality in the yellow or “moderate” range, I remain grateful it’s not nearly as bad as what our northern neighbors are choking on in the red and purple zones (unhealthy and very unhealthy, respectively):

What a horrific summer for so many . . . not only in Northern California, but all over the world. If I were to try to begin a tragedy list, I’d only dig myself into a black hole of current-events-despair.

Call me an ostrich, but I’d rather go for a run (even if it means masking up to protect my lungs from smoke/particulate matter).

Once out in my local hills (with my snaky braid stuffed awkwardly under my cap), I can get lost in the sights and scents of fire-recovering coastal sage scrub hanging on as best it can, waiting for winter rains.

Around these parts, for the plant kingdom, this is a feat similar to the East Coast’s clever deciduous forests in winter: leaves are shed, growth slows or stops, and there is a sense of collective breath-holding, waiting for the next season of refreshment: spring thaw in the East, winter rains here.

That’s why I get more than a little pissy when ignorant folks talk about all the “dead brush” and “fuel” in our fabulously adapted local-native-plant ecosystem. (Well, the non-native invasive annual grasses are dead, but that’s a rant for another day.)

Nobody in Massachusetts starts calling for chain-sawing all the trees down in January because they’ve lost their leaves, right?

So . . . enlightened Californians . . . let’s remember that “drought deciduous” is just as real as “winter deciduous” and treat our amazing local ecosystems with the respect they deserve.

In other local news: it’s snake season. Here’s a beauty I met on an evening run earlier this week:

Red diamondback rattlers are my favorites . . . here’s a poem I wrote about them that was originally published in Deep Wild journal, and then republished on the ASP (Advocates for Snake Preservation) web site here.

There’s one spot my path crosses in our summer-dry hills where there is usually water, a riparian riot of green, and . . . this week . . . a Great Blue Heron!

The peace and beauty available just by getting outside and paying attention . . . such a gift . . . feel free to open your own mind to the restorative boost your own local wild places can provide. You can cope or cop-out, as this article explains; I vote with my (BARE) feet for coping!

Happy Trails!

PS This is the second summer in a row I did not make it to Grand Canyon, so I started looking through a file marked “Favorite Images” and found plenty of fond memories to tide me over until . . . next time . . .

[Photos: sitting near Upper Ribbon Falls; running Rim-to-Rim June 2014; walking Rim-to-Rim October 2012; favorite North Rim back-country camping spot; creek crossing while backpacking the North Kaibab Trail June 2019]

Freedom to Race 10k Barefoot

July 10, 2021

Trapped at the finish line!

There I was, boxed in behind a stroller traffic jam during my moment of (non)Olympic glory as I blazed around the Canyon High School track and across the timing pad in a scorching 1:07:34 in the Anaheim Hills Firecracker 5k/10k on Indepedence Day 2021.

(The stroller folk were from the 5k event.)

Gotta admit that was not an Olympic medal performance, but it was still a great morning to be alive and running for 6.2 miles in the company of 184 other 10k-minded folks who were probably as perplexed as I was to find the weirdest race swag item ever in the race-sponsor goody bag:

After a dismal season, the Anaheim Ducks hockey team seems to be extra eager to get rid of player figurines . . .

Ever wary of being late, I arrived at 5:30 am for the 7am start, and after a leisurely hour+ warm-up of walking and jogging around the area, I was able to relax at the start line and then nose-breath for the first couple of miles (inhale for three steps/exhale for three steps).

When the race location, Anaheim HILLS, began to manifest itself, I switched to mouth breathing the rest of the way (three steps inhale/two steps exhale). Finally, when the finish line seemed like it actually would appear, I went to 2/2 (puffy cheeks–see photo above!) and pushed myself the last quarter mile or so.

Although I’ve only raced 10k a few times, it seems like a difficult distance to run “hard”; I felt much better able to focus in the few 5k’s I’ve run in the last several years, since it doesn’t seem nearly as tough to push myself for less than 30 minutes.

But to choose to feel awful and out of breath for over an hour? Type 2 fun, for sure.

As the pandemic here in So Cal loosened its grip, I’d been looking for a celebratory running challenge, and when a search of “July races in California” turned up this one just a few minutes away . . . I went for it.

Went for it indeed . . . what was I THINKING?! Why would I want to run six miles on yucky pavement? (by far my longest stretch of non-dirt running in the past 11 years).

I was grateful to end up with only one tiny blister on my left foot/second toe.

Feet after 10k on pavement.

Let the barefoot freedom ring!

In other shoe-less fun–it was nice to have my solo hiking/running routine changed up this week by surprise-visitor-from-Argentina: Christine!

She’s an inspiration: freelance writer, yoga instructor, ukulele aficionado, student (and performer) of a variety circus arts . . . this kid is amazing.

I “introduced” her to my favorite OC trail . . . but when she saw the wood railings, she remembered this was where I had already brought her several years ago, the last time she was in the area.

Oh well . . . following James Taylor’s directive, “I guess my feet know where they want me to go,” we ended up at a nearby blackberry patch I had never seen before, sampling the organic generosity of a local plant wizard.

Watch out for thorns!

A couple days later, I was able to introduce Christine to a “new” (to her) park where we were happy to discover peacocks (not pictured) and acorn woodpeckers and Egyptian geese and foot-massage-sprinklers.

And colorful poison oak:

During the pandemic I’ve been reading a book called “Older Yet Faster” and working on my running form; the authors are kind enough to provide critiques, so I asked Christine to video me so I could send them a few seconds to look at. Here’s a screen shot of the airborne phase, which has no diagnostic value but sure looks fun.

The verdict from the authors: I’m doing all kinds of stuff non-optimally (from arm swing to foot strike to . . . you get the picture).

Dang.

Their advice: to go back to the basic info in their book and keep working. Which I may or may not do, since I’m pretty happy with how my running is going. (I think I was only looking for affirmation when I submitted my video. Now I have to deal with exactly how much more time/effort I want to commit to following the Older Yet Faster program, which it seems I have misunderstood/misapplied thus far. Sigh.)

Each day this week has been warmer than the one before, making pre-dawn running seem like a good idea. It’s my favorite time of day on our local trails . . . pungent with California native plant perfume and bird song.

Happy Trails! Where will your free feet take you next?

A barefoot beginning: I tackle the first 20 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail

April 23, 2021

What I did yesterday: Hiked the first 20 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 10 drizzly, chilly hours. (From the Mexican border–yep, that’s The Wall in the above photo–to the Lake Morena Campground in San Diego County.)

Water consumed: 2. 5 liters.

Water left in pack after 20 miles: 2 liters.

Weight of 4.5 liters of water: 9.9225 pounds.

Snacks/trail food consumed: Lots, including raisins, nuts, tuna, Rx bars, string cheese, chocolate chips. (Sounds gross, but it all tasted great.)

How long I planned this: Only a few days ago, after realizing 1) I had three whole blank calendar pages this week with no grandkid activities, and 2) the weather was going to be nice and cool. (Make that almost too cold . . . as I began at 6:30 a.m., my feet went numb almost immediately, and I had to wear sandals for about an hour to start. But . . . WAY better than having the ground surface too hot. Way. Better.)

What I learned: The voices in my head as I begin a new day’s adventure are full of doubt & fear and need to be ignored. (“You could: Cramp up. Fall down. Fall off a cliff. Sprain, strain or break something. Get lost. Get found by a wild _____ (fill in the blank with assorted reptiles & mammals, including humans). Run out of water. Drink too much water. Be too cold. Too hot. Succumb to hypothermia, hyponatremia, hypochondria.”) (And don’t forget: “Etc.”)

How I feel today: Accomplished as well as awesomely sore & stiff . . . and eager to tackle more miles.

Magical, meandering miles . . .

Hardest part: Watching Steve drive north from the border wall in our 1972 Dodge camper van, knowing I had to travel 20 miles on foot before I’d see him again.

Easiest part: Miles and miles of the most barefoot-friendly trail I’ve ever hiked on (and I’m way over the 10,000 mile mark after 11.3 years of this). Super smooth, compact sand. And the whole day felt like it was downhill (in a good way) until one steepish climb about four miles from the end. But, as I reminded myself quite a few times throughout the day, this hike is a walk in the park compared to the main corridor trail across Grand Canyon, which is about 23 miles long, with 5761 elevation loss followed by 4380 elevation gain if you hike north to south (or vice versa for south-to-north).

Ouchiest part: Yeah, there were a few chunks of granite here and there. Unable to “leave no trace” completely, I left a bit of toe-skin behind, on a few cheese-grater rocks half-submerged like icebergs in the trail. Chameleon icebergs, if that awkward metaphorical combination works. Rocks the color of the trail dirt . . . you get it. Moving on.

Best-est part: All the California native plants in bloom! WOW! It was all I could do to NOT STOP every few feet to snap yet another photo of more lovely flowers. See this checklist by Tom Chester for a thorough recounting of them all. Below: spectacular chaparral pea vines dangle their giant pink blossoms.

ALSO spectacular: The smells of the wet dirt and chaparral plants. Mmmm.

Mountain blue curls

Scary part: When I was rubber-necking at some flowers (chaparral pea? wild lilac?) and tripped. And landed on my right knee, which landed in a narrow niche of soft dirt between two rock chunks. Yikes.

Also of concern: just enough poison oak crowding just enough miles of lush & overgrown trail to keep me on high alert for. Ten. Hours.

Better than blisters part: Hiking about 18 (out of 20) miles without anything on my feet, with only a couple of toe-bumps that drew a little blood but not much and didn’t hurt after so that doesn’t count right? Feet felt great at the end. Plenty of tread left of these old soles. Not buying another pair any time soon.

Back at the campground. No blisters here, but plenty of trail stain.

Wettest part: My pant legs, since all the plants were soaked with the day’s chilly mist, which then soaked my pants, which made for some scary-cold moments when the breeze picked up (see comments above regarding fear of hypothermia).

Most social part: Hiking the last hour with Jim G from Denver . . . a nice young man who is starting a new chapter in life with a great adventurous attitude as he tackles all 2650 miles from Mexico to Canada.

Most anti-social part: The exquisite, media-free enjoyment of nine hours of silence, except for eavesdropping on the conversations of wren-tits, spotted towhees, quail, and other chaparral neighbors.

My shuttle awaits . . .

Most integral part of this section-hiking operation: Steve, for being such a cheerful shuttle-logistics-all-around helper (for 45 years, but who’s counting?) Flat tire in the cold-dark-night-before at the campground? No worries:

The goal: Continue hiking the PCT in sections, as time/health allow. (As barefooted-ly as possible, of course.)

Happy (long-distance, barefoot) trails!

(P.S. I hiked on Earth Day, which gave greater gravitas to my usual OCD routine of looking for micro trash. What an immaculate trail: 20 miles, and this (below) was all I found (except for the dozen empty plastic water bottles at a dirt road intersection . . . one of the informal water caches that PCT “Trail Angels” provide.)

(P.P.S. The raisin was mine . . . I dropped it during a snack break. “Leave no trace.” (Also: who flosses while hiking?!)

A Spring In My (Barefoot) Steps

March 31, 2021

“The first bud of spring sings the other seeds into joining her uprising.”
― California poet Amanda Gorman (found at Spring Quotes on Goodreads)

March has almost marched past; let the wildflower uprising begin!

Another sign of spring in Southern California: the last rains of the year. There will be no more puddles until winter.

The rains are gone, but the masks seem to be here for a while longer.

A snowy egret in Santiago Creek . . . also reflecting on Spring things?

Paying attention to the ground surface is obviously important when barefoot hiking/running. There are rewards other than keeping the toes un-stubbed: rock art sightings!

Our chilly March brought days of rain down here, glorious snow up there in the San Gabriels.

Ah, the irresistible water selfie. Narcissus much?

Some March days were downright warm; then the layers came off and the park bench beckoned.

Last weekend we ventured out for a first-in-a-year camping trip. Our 1970s-era Honda Trail 70s helped us putt-putt over the rough roads to the hiking trailhead of the Oak Woodland Natural Preserve, 60 acres dedicated to a grove of immense, and immensely old, Valley Oaks. Unlike Orange County’s evergreen Coast Live Oaks, these are deciduous.

My heroic tree-hugger hubby of 4.5 decades.

Being especially fond of both loop hikes & literary full circles, since I began this post with a quote from the Goodreads spring quotes pages, I’ll end with another California writer, John Steinbeck, on spring in California:

“In the deep spring when the grass was green on fields and foothills, when the lupines and poppies made a splendid blue and gold earth, when the great trees awakened in yellow-green young leaves, then there was no more lovely place in the world.

“It was no beauty you could ignore by being used to it. It caught you in the throat in the morning and made a pain of pleasure in the pit of your stomach when the sun went down over it.”
― John Steinbeck, The Wayward Bus

In my own back yard, the lupines and poppies are leading a local spring wildflower uprising, inducing a most welcome “pain of pleasure” whenever I glance out the window to take a break from my endless pandemic laptopping.

Farewell, puddles. Hello, flowers and whatever comes next.

Happy Springing Barefoot Trails!

“Inspiration At Every Turn! The Passion and Enthusiasm of Self-Discovery” (a re-blog of Mr. Campfire’s latest post)

February 26, 2021

It was fun reading Phil’s post about my workshop presentation for adventure guides at Grand Canyon several years ago . . . it made me want to get outside and WRITE right now, so I’ve “re-blogged” it . . . something I don’t do too often. I hope you have fun with my list of writing prompts to get you creating outside. Happy Trails!

Take time to escape...

Self discovery and inspiration are a thing for me. I wake up hungry for them every day! I have an insatiable appetite for adventures and feasts of savory experiences that leave me inspired. The relish to these inspirational experiences is seeing others being inspired in new and exciting ways to create amazing experiences and memories.

Passion!

Enthusiasm!

Self Discovery!

Inspiration!

Sounds like some pretty powerful ingredients and stunning recipe for adventure. Mixed properly and allowed to marinate at the right time in the right place, these ingredients react upon each other to form a catalyst for an explosion of imagination and inspiration.

It is truly a wonderful thing for me to literally experience inspiration with every step. And to add watching others experience new inspirations is absolutely thrilling for me!

So in this blog I will give some examples of watching these ingredients mix and the resulting “explosion of inspiration.”…

View original post 1,071 more words

Eleven Years of Barefoot Running Fun

January 31, 2021
Grand Canyon National Park, Cape Royal

Back in January 2010, I attended a Jon Young “bird language” workshop with a group of like-minded Orange County nature leaders. It was a chilly morning, and as we warmed our hands around a fire at O’Neill Park, I was struck by the odd choice of footwear by a couple of wool-pants-wearing, 20-something young men: nothing. Nada.

They were . . . barefoot? In mid-winter?

This struck me as moderately hilarious, and I elbowed the docent next to me and whispered some kind of witty-to-me comment about where this next generation was headed.

After an interesting several hours learning about bird language from a certified bird magician (or maybe just someone who’s spent a lifetime paying attention . . . I loved reading Jon Young’s book this past pandemic: What the Robin Knows), I drove home not with birds, but shoe-less-ness, on my mind.

A deep dive into web research-and-stories cleansed me of preconceived notions about the stigma of naked toes, and once I applied myself to a further peeling back of layers of advertising baloney sausage regarding the necessity of supportive and/or cushioned walking, running, and/or hiking shoes . . . well, as Paul Simon might sing, here I am, still barefoot after all these years.

Grand Canyon National Park, Plateau Point, photo by Nina Rehfeld

Those first heady years of weekly, then semi-monthly, blog posts about my barefoot adventures have mellowed into a blog publishing “schedule” bordering on semi-annual.

Has it all been said? Are there no more adventures to be had now that I’m 60 +, retired from teaching, pandemic-limited in travel, bereft of my Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute adventures?

(I was an instructor with the GCCFI from 2015 until its late-2020 defunding-demise, and many of my memorable adventures since 2011 happened in the context of participating in GCCFI-affiliated backpack trips and workshops.)

Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim, “Writing on the Edge” Workshop, 2019

I hope not.

I hope I never forget that each day I am able to swing my bare toes over the edge of the bed and touch them to the floor is a gift.

Each time I wander our local hilly trails is a blessing.

Each run I complete in one piece, few to zero bloody toes, is a cause for celebration.

Oops . . . where did that rock come from?!

(For so many years I was chronically injured runner . . . but things started improving once I got rid of shoes and made learning about running a life-long practice–not to mention God’s gracious answering of my desperate pleas to “just let me be able to run for five minutes” . . . “for a half hour” . . . “for an hour” . . . you get the picture. There’s no hunger like a runner’s coming back from injury . . . )

And, even at my most gimpy, when my knee/hip/foot/calf pain made running impossible, I’ve always been fortunate enough to be able to place one foot in front of the other and walk barefoot, somewhere, even if it was just to the mailbox, or corner, or path around a local park.

Santiago Oaks Regional Park

SO . . . there went eleven years of blogging about Barefoot Wandering and Writing.

I remain grateful for strong, capable feet. I hope to never take for granted every step they carry me somewhere–new or familiar–where there is always something to notice and smile about. And share.

Grand Canyon National Park, North Kaibab Trail, Barefoot Rim to Rim, October 2014

Happy Barefoot Trails! There’s no time like NOW to lose your shoes (even for a few minutes . . . and then . . . build from there)!