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Barefoot and Bitter: How Osteoporosis Just Took Trail Running Away From Me

October 29, 2016


October is a lovely month to be barefoot at Grand Canyon; last year I celebrated with not one, but two shoeless rim-to-rim crossings: the 21-mile South Kaibab to North Kaibab trek with a group from Glendale Community College on Oct. 10, and then a solo R2R in the opposite direction (North Kaibab to South Kaibab) on Oct. 26.

This October, however, I’m no longer on sabbatical, and even one trip to Grand Canyon was not to be–a bit of a downer, but my recent miles of strong, pain-free, barefoot running on local trails have been a delightful consolation.

And then.


And then I was out late in the afternoon of Oct. 13, marveling at the marshmallow moon just above the bruise-purple mountains, floating free down from Barham Ridge on Coachwhip Trail–a fifteen minute traverse of switchbacks, maybe a mile or so, not measuring, just being in my body, in the now, in my lovely damaged corner of the sagebrush universe, not measuring time or distance, not measuring up or how long, allowing gravity to ease my flight . . . and then there was trouble in paradise.

A tiny twinge began on the outside of my right ankle, not enough to even remember at the end of the run, but two days later it came to mind during a circumnavigation of the rolling Peters Canyon loop and the twinge returned.

Not just trouble in paradise, but hard knocks in Nirvana, problems in the Promised Land, a shitstorm in Shangri-La . . . long story short, it’s a stress fracture of my lower fibula.


When runners can’t run, are they still runners?

I had thought I was beyond the identify politics of “being” an activity. In the shiny endorphin-y haze of nose-breathing-gone-wild
in my recent trail adventures, hadn’t I begun to see my self as “run” more than “runner?”

Hadn’t I evolved to a much higher plane of righteous physical spirituality than the sweaty masses of mouth-breathing mountain bikers that I (reluctantly) shared my trails with?

I was so much free-er than those machinery-dependents: foot skin on soil. Toes on trail. Yeah, stubbing bloody was always a possibility, but the risk increased the reward, identity gone beyond an activity to cellular communion with the refreshing dust, the sublime breeze-in-gray-hair that I created by RUN.

Shirtless, smiling, belly skin slick in the lingering fall heat–as close as I could be to the red dust, rolled rocks, curled laurel sumac, rattle-seeded yucca stalks.

That was then.

Today’s reality: now I walk slow, uneven, although I my aim is to Not Limp as I cross Santiago Creek.

I almost shuffle. Who am I? I sit on a fire-downed pine, straddle it like a broad-backed horse, shove up my jeans past the swelling, past the dark-tinged skin.

My ankle bone has disappeared in the inflammatory pudding that is my lower leg.

Why me? Why not me? Like lightning with nowhere to go, my furious electrical thoughts, sadness, anger, ricochet inside me.

At least running used to release this shit into the Earth, that comforting old friend which has heard, seen, felt it before for millennia.


It’s rained a couple of times this month. A new season has begun: the lush blink of winter in Southern California. All around my log perch needles of green emerge from the dead thatch of last year’s decaying grass: life springing from decay.

My home garden is responding to the recent rain in an explosion of sprouting–lupine and poppy and wild hyacinth and all kinds of cotyledons who are as yet unrecognizable. Maybe some weeds in the mix. Time will tell.


Me and the seedlings: we all go on; we all absorb light, warmth, moisture, nutrients . . . metabolize it into life. Death and decay repurpose what’s left over for what’s to come. It’s an imperfect world that still works very well–but everything hinges on loss. (Whoever loses her life will find it: from Matthew 16)

I try to be upbeat . . . What is this loss of mobility, this pain, but a teacher? What is it time to learn today?

I would not be scribbling here along the Rinker Grove Trail at Santiago Oaks, not too many steps from the parking lot, if I could run.

But I can’t run, and so I sit and take note of the acorns that litter the ground around me. (Why are some so dark? Might they taste different than the more common tan ones? Could I eat a few and find out?)

I return home and do some online research; there is a lot more to acorn color and taste than I had imagined. While all oaks produce acorns, some species are more palatable than others; the nuts are bitter with varying amounts of tannic acid, and for humans to consume them, a lengthy process of water rinsing (called leaching) needs to happen.

What I also find interesting is that bitterness levels vary not only between species but between individual trees.

Hmmm. My next Google search employs the keywords “osteoporosis” and “bitterness.”

I’m due for my annual bone scan next month; last year’s news was disheartening–the bone density loss was continuing at a steady pace since my first broken-rib-inspired DEXA test back in 2009.  I had degenerated further most annoyingly: the osteopenia was now officially osteoporosis.

You suck, old lady.

Crap. Thoughts like that are why my bones are crumbling, according to a variety of both secular and religious web sites.

Sigh. Another reason to feel bad about feeling bad.

For over a year I’ve been reading books and internet articles about the interconnectedness of our minds and bodies. “Mind is body,” one researcher noted.

For those who are interested in this rabbit trail of interesting-ness, I commend the books of Dr. Joseph Sarno. and the TMS wiki.

Now for a round-up of my most recent findings (feel free to skip if you are pain-free, and please know I am bitter towards you now as well).

This is a Christianity-identifying site on mind-body-spirit and illness called “Faith and Health Connection.”

It has a section on depression and osteoporosis which reads, “A study of several research efforts including thousands of people by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers has shown a clear connection between depression and a loss of bone mass, leading to osteoporosis and fractures. The results, say the researchers, show clearly that depressed individuals have a substantially lower bone density than non-depressed people and that depression is associated with a markedly elevated activity of cells that breakdown bone (osteoclasts).”

“God inspired writers of the Bible to share his truth and principles about the connection between our emotional and spiritual health and our physical health.  Take a look at the following verses related to this topic:

“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Proverbs 17:22
“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones .”  Proverbs 14:30

Next: an exhaustive list of mind-body illness connections that reminded me of a sort of “horoscope” — you can pretty much apply anything on it (the “Barnum effect“).

But, like a negative horoscope, it was morbidly entertaining; here’s what it said my osteoporosis was trying to tell me:

Osteoporosis: Feeling there is no support left in life. Mental pressures and tightness. Muscles can’t  stretch. Loss of mental mobility.

On to a similar encyclopedia-type site; on it I found “COMMON MIND-BASED CAUSES” subtitled “Osteoporosis/Brittle Bones”:
“Inflexibility, rigid thinking, fixed ideas, unwilling to change, lack of structure, unable to support self, weak from supporting others, feeling inferior, bitterness, hate, resistance to standing up for yourself +/or attachment to external source of structure/support.”

As a bonus, this site offers custom calming thoughts–here’s the one I am supposed to use for this bone-crunching malady:

“CALM CURE THOUGHT: I am flexible and stand strongly in love.”

Then there’s the “Can Cannabis Cure Bitterness” web page–very timely in light of California’s upcoming vote next week on legalizing marijuana. This author provides a really long, thoughtful, far-ranging treatise on bitterness that does not even mention Mary Jane (1970s slang for other old people to enjoy) until the end.

Did I find myself in all the above-referenced references?

Let’s just say that all this close-to-home stuff about bitterness is making me even more bitter that I am bitter and thus destroying my lovely strong barefoot running self from the inside out.

F*** you, Bitterness! I’ll forgive you when you stop eroding my bones.

To end on a less-bitter note: a friend posted a quote on FB a few days ago that has stuck with me in all my current non-running angst: “Build a life you don’t need a vacation from.”

Another blogger liked it too and came up with all kinds of advice along these lines.

“A life I don’t need a vacation from” sounds good right now; I’m thankful that even though my trail running days in our local wildlands are on hold, I can step barefoot outside my back door and still experience some of the lovely local flora of the California Floristic Province, one of our planet’s biodiversity’s hotspots.

Here’s what I found sprouting and growing this morning (both California native plants as well as veggies):








Happy Non-bitter Trails!

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Caveman Hiking permalink
    July 4, 2017 8:08 am

    I’m sorry to hear of your osteoporosis, but your blunt discussion of coping with your injury was inspiring to me. And I’ve peeked ahead in the blog to see that you’ve recovered and are going strong, so I know there’s no quit in your vocabulary.

    I’ve recently had my first encounter with Gout, and although that is far easier than what you’re dealing with, it sucks to see our bodies no longer performing like they did when we were kids. There is a lot of truth in the old saying that youth is wasted on the young.

    Finally, your stories of barefooting the Grand Canyon are wonderful. At this point I’m able to go comfortably for about 6 miles…beyond that my feet get sensitive to the point I’m no longer comfortable barefoot…so to hear of the distances you go is encouraging. Did you find that your ability to travel distances barefoot increased over time? Did you find your feet got increasingly sensitive the farther you hiked? I’m wondering if 6 miles is my maximum, or as I stay with it I’ll find I can go farther and farther?

    • July 4, 2017 2:32 pm

      Thanks for kind words. My goal with this blog is exactly what you wrote: to inspire folks to keep moving (barefoot, if that works for them) and enjoying our beautiful world.

      That’s awesome that you can go six miles shoe-less-ly! My “motto” of sorts is “if it’s not fun, put shoes-or-sandals on.” Why go barefoot past the sensation-enjoyment threshold? But . . . YES to your questions! My feet continue to adapt (as long as I keep hiking/running without covering them–long winter weeks indoors at work are less ideal than long summer days off), so I am definitely still exploring the limits of what my aging-but-capable mind-body is able to accomplish.

      Keep wandering: six miles to who-knows-how-far? Just keep it fun 🙂

      • Caveman Hiking permalink
        July 4, 2017 2:50 pm

        Thank you… Your answers are encouraging. And funny how similar our philosophies are… I always carry my Luna sandals with me and if I stop having fun I put them on (as I did at the 7.1mi mark of Sunday’s 8.4mi hike). I was telling a friend about barefoot hiking (and getting that “you’re crazy” look the whole time), and I pointed out that I’m not doing this to hurt myself, but to enhance the hiking experience. So when it stops being fun…

        I’m curious: Do you find your feet get more sensitive the farther you go? I’ve made an interesting observation: when I get home after a long barefoot hike my feet are very sensitive for a while and I notice things i don’t normally notice like the fuzziness of the carpet. Have you experienced increased sensitivity?

        And what would you say your current maximum miles are before going barefoot becomes uncomfortable? Or do you have an upper limit?

      • July 6, 2017 1:21 pm

        Do my feet get more sensitive as the hike/run miles wind on: yes, to a certain extent. It very much depends on the trail surface; some gravely stuff can be downright annoying after a while. Much earlier on in my barefooting “career” I found it odd that my soles would feel a sort of “buzzing” sensation for quite a while after I got home from a hike/run. Haven’t had that happen for years, though. There’s a lot of brain involvement with this whole getting-used-to-no-shoes thing that I find fascinating. Here’s a favorite analogy (that I stole from someone, but I’ve used it a lot to try to explain the brain’s role in all this).

        Suppose you’d been born deaf, then had some kind of medical procedure that gave you a sense of hearing finally, so your family takes you to a concert (maybe Beethoven’s 5th) to celebrate. Except you’re miserable, because your brain can’t make sense of any of the crazy sensory input that it has never experienced before. It’s downright painful.

        Analogy: If people have never let their feet sense the ground, of course going for a barefoot hike will cause a sensory data overload (which the brain will label “pain” to get you to stop doing it). Over time, the brain figures out that this “trail music” is actually pleasant/pleasurable, and ta-da . . . barefoot hiking/running becomes much more enjoyable.

        Hope this helps.

        As far as your last question, about a maximum, it depends on soil temp (too hot or too cold = no fun) and texture. There’s a place called Saddlebag Lake in the Sierra Nevada that has a trail around it; part of the trail is through a talus slope. Ouch. The day I hiked that, my “maximum” mileage wasn’t very far. On the other hand . . . as long as ground temps and terrain are agreeable, I could go on and on (like this note).


        Thea 🙂

      • Caveman Hiking permalink
        July 9, 2017 8:49 am

        Thanks for your reply. Early in my barefoot hiking career (and I’m a total noob compared to you) I too noticed the buzzing in my feet after a long hike. It is interesting to think that is the brain creating those sensations due to an abundance of new stimulus. I have been dealing with tinnitus and learned the “ringing” one hears is the brain filling in high frequency sounds due to lack of stimulus caused by high frequency hearing loss. The brain is amazing!

        Regarding max distance, I guess the old saying “your mileage may vary” applies. Surfaces and temps do make all the difference.

        I did my first barefoot backpacking trip this weekend: 7.2 miles / 2700ft elevation gain peaking out at 11,000 ft. I estimate I did about 5mi barefoot, and that included the steepest sections and toughest surfaces. It was interesting that due to my focus on each step I didn’t notice how hard I was working and although my pace was slow, I took almost no breaks (one mile we climbed 1000ft., 30lb pack and all). Slow and steady wins the race. Coming out I did very little barefooting; the down was too difficult.

      • July 9, 2017 9:15 am

        Congrats on the BF backpacking! You make some important points: 1. Brain=amazing 🙂 2. Focusing on foot placement transforms the effort-expended experience. Also: my history of hiking barefoot downhill matches yours . . . it’s way tougher than going up! (Something to do with gravity/more forceful landing impact while going down-trail?)

        But way to go on the shoeless backpacking miles. . . and the best part is “no camp shoes needed” 🙂

        (It cracks me up to see the care that backpackers take at the end of the hiking day to transfer their feet from hiking boots to camp shoes/sandals, making sure their bare feet NEVER touch the ground. I guess I used to be this way too, but now it just seems silly to worry about getting your feet dirty. While. Backpacking. 🙂 )

      • Caveman Hiking permalink
        July 9, 2017 3:29 pm

        It is funny how so many people avoid putting their bare feet on Terra Firma. But I do tend to wear sandals in camp for a couple reasons. First, if others have camped there before there is an increased chance of dangerous objects around (broken glass, sharp metal, etc.). Second, I tend to be less mindful of where I’m stepping when I’m in camp (something to work on I suppose) so I’m more likely to not see something pokey and/or stub a toe.

      • July 11, 2017 9:47 pm

        I agree . . . I tend to step on more stuff when “not running” because I’m not paying as close attention!

        Your mention of broken glass brought to mind a favorite Barefoot KenBob video:–H0


  2. Laura Morgan permalink
    November 11, 2016 5:44 am

    So sad to read the post, Thea. I hope your research uncovers some hope… Kind wishes, Laura

    • November 11, 2016 11:30 am

      Thanks for the well wishes, Laura; I’m happy to report that–one month after the stress fracture–the swelling and pain are considerably reduced, and I’m walking more and more freely each day 🙂

  3. November 1, 2016 4:09 am

    Dear Thea
    Sending you warm and healing wishes.

  4. Gina permalink
    October 31, 2016 9:19 am

    Hi Thea. I am still trying to wrap my thoughts and feelings about this shocking news. It hurts my heart and soul on levels. Personally, momentum can be a bit of an addiction for me. It follows then (in an acknowledged selfish vein) that for you (through whom I’ve been living vicariously these last months of healing from my heel injury) to be afflicted so, I just cannot let this set (excuse the pun :). So, I pulled out a counterattack of Bible verses that are not only informative but, I believe, salve and strength as all of His promises are yes and amen. While I do not presume to have any idea of God’s ultimate will in this (though I know His heart is for healing and wellness for our entire beings – a word study on “shalom” would drive the nail), I am rooting for full healing and beyond. Here is a mild barrage (list below) of what I am hoping for you – praying for you, starting with Isaiah 40:30-31 30Though youths grow weary and tired, And vigorous young men stumble badly, 31Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.

    May your soul be lifted in surprising ways as He reveals His wonders and deep love through all the suckiness of the pain and loss.

    Much love to you, Thea.


    • October 31, 2016 10:12 am

      Gina! Thanks! I really appreciate your encouraging/uplifting/healing words . . . my soul has already been “lifted in a surprising way” through your thoughtfulness 🙂

      Thanks for the “mild barrage” of Scripture as well!

      Happy (hobbling) trails,


  5. Robert Gulnick permalink
    October 31, 2016 6:15 am

    Dear Thea…it distressed me to hear of this condition. Although you owe us nothing in terms of posts at this time, I very much wish you as much recovery as you can manage, and I hope
    that you will continue to chronicle the colors of wildness in your part of this country.
    Grace and Peace, Rob

    • October 31, 2016 10:17 am

      Dear Robert–thank you so much for your concern; what a gift to hear from you! We’ve never met, but are somehow linked by my compulsion to “chronicle the colors of wildness in my part of this country” (I love how you phrased that 🙂 ) and your willingness to read these chronicles.

      Already the grace and peace are happening as I hear encouraging words such as yours 🙂

      Happy (colorful and wild!) trails,


      • Robert Gulnick permalink
        October 31, 2016 11:57 am

        Thea…thanks for your comments. Remember, that the title of your blog is Barefoot Wandering, not Running. It must be fine to live with that sun above you, and that orange dirt below you; a setting so geologically primitive, yet still allowing so much life, large and small. It’s possible that running through nature might cause us to miss things better seen by wandering…best wishes for your recovery, and in your literary travels…Rob G.

      • November 1, 2016 6:45 am

        Your words were most welcome; that was a good reminder about my affinity for “wandering” . . . something I can do even when running is not possible (and even if the wandering is more with words than footfalls). I also appreciate your reminder that the sun and dirt are gifts not to be taken for granted. Tuesday cheers! Thea

  6. lynnehartke permalink
    October 30, 2016 3:16 pm

    I am so so sorry to hear about your stress fracture!! I hope you continue to find other areas of beauty as you recover.

    • October 30, 2016 8:00 pm

      Thanks for the well wishes, Lynne; it always amazes me how “other areas of beauty” appear when injuries slow me down 🙂

  7. October 30, 2016 3:01 pm

    Dear Thea,
    I’m so sorry to hear about your ankle and osteoporosis. You are in my prayers. I can’t help but notice how eloquently you have written about your experience though. You make me realize that it is just a matter of time, whatever I try to do to stop or slow it, I will lose running, lose music, lose breathing. I’m reminded of a quote from Pema Chodron: “Since death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?”
    May you continue your writing and get back your trail running, even if for just a few precious moments.

    All the best on this new journey,

    • October 30, 2016 8:07 pm

      Hi Scott–

      Thanks for the kind note, and prayers.

      You’re right–I did enjoy myself way too much “getting eloquent” in my blog post about my injury angst 🙂

      “What is the most important thing?” . . . such an important question! Thanks for bringing it to mind on this rainy Sunday afternoon (that’s right: rain in Southern California! such a blessing! and no El Nino in sight 🙂 )

      I was able to wander slowly along a very short portion of one of my favorite trails today, before the rain, and was extra thankful I could even do that much.

      My “new journey” of slowness is not something I would have chosen, but I hope it will be a good time of learning.




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