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Broken, and nearly beaten: Overcoming an injury while fell running

The isolation and solitude that we seek is our undoing when we get and injury while fell running. In most other sports you can stop as soon as an injury occurs, you hobble to the side lines, stop competing or dismount and call for support. Not so when you are on the fells. When miles from the nearest road, you have little choice but to get out your map, and look for the shortest, easiest way back to civilisation. While some injuries and circumstances can result in an extraction by mountain rescue, niggles or more minor injuries require a long, painful and tedious self extraction, with plenty of time to think of the folly that lead to injure yourself in such an isolated place.*

The Cairngorms plateau is worlds apart from my home fells. In the Lake District, you are never more than a few miles from a road, albeit, not necessarily the road you set off from. Villages, towns, farms and settlements are scattered along the network of roads that run amidst the fells, providing a reassuring safety net for when it all goes badly wrong. The Cairngorm plateau is a vast, high wilderness, a huge barren stretch of land prone to the harshest of weathers. A wrong turn can lead an unsuspecting hill goer into the depth of the plateau, not to be seen again until they either turn back, realising their folly, or journey across the plateau, a mammoth undertaking. Within this plateau lies a chain of five mountains: Cairngorm, Ben Macdui, Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Braeriach, separated by the Lairig Ghru valley. These hills form a route of some 20 miles on rough paths, scree and boulders, the Cairngorm 4,000s,

The first 10 miles were straightforward. Along forest trail, boulder fields and steep slopes, I traversed, eating and drinking well, and keeping an eye on the time, as the first two peaks slipped by. I check my watch, half the distance done and four hours in, I was feeling good. What only feels like a few steps later, I felt a sickening lurch to the side, pulling me to off balance, driving me to the floor. I lay there, stunned, feeling a sharp pain in my ankle and all along the left side of my body from the fall. I curse at nothing in particular and wait for the throbbing and stiffness to abate so I carry on my run again, hoping the injury wont slow me down too much. Time wears on, and the pain intensifies. A glance at the ankle shows it already swelling and turning a livid purple colour. I haul myself to my feet, still confident still I can continue. I collapse back to the ground, the pain exploding through my freshly mangled ankle. It became clear in that moment that my focus should not be on if I could continue the round, but how I was going to get back safely.

I struggle to my feet, and begin to limp back the way I had come. There was no short cut, no road I could limp down to, and call for help, no house I could shelter in until help arrived. I must traverse the same 10 miles, on rough trail, scree and boulder, that I did when running here. Distances felt skewed as I made my way back. Features that had felt so close took an age to arrive, filling my mind with doubt that I was even going in the right direction. People I had passed earlier began appearing. It was clear what happened, one look at the blackened ankle and pained expression on my face as I shuffle past tells them exactly what has happened. A few gave sympathetic looks and words of support, one reties my bandage, a further one mutters to his friend “that’s what you get for showing off” a bark of laughter and they disappeared behind me.

My first significant obstacle arrived. A small stream, its bed one huge slab of slippery, algae covered rock. How easily I had jumped this on the way, barely even noticing its presence. I prised my shoe off and, without daring to look at it, slid my foot into the water. The numbing of the cold water helped numb the pain and allowed me time to think. I knew I could not cross this alone. I needed help. Some time later a young couple walked into view, coming in the opposite direction. I waved frantically, desperately hoping they would not walk on by. Once close enough, I explained the situation. One of them looked at my ankle and visibly winced, “should it look like that” she said, by this time the discolouration had spread across my entire foot and to my shin. You could barely tell it was an ankle, so swollen and discoloured. They each took me by an arm and almost bodily lifted me over the stream, I tried to mask the groan of pain as my ankle bumped back onto land. Concerned, they offered to walk with me, sacrifice their day in the hills to make sure I got back safely. I adamantly declined, promising that, if I got into trouble, I would call for help. Unconvinced, they left, as I hobbled on homewards.

It was several hours later when I reached the summit of the first hill I had climbed and my final for the day. By this point, the hobble had deteriorated to a pitiful shuffle, the pain of each movement jolting up my leg. My mind had completely shut off, my vision downcast and slightly out of focus. All that was left was a desperation to get off the hill and get home. As much as I wanted to stop, I knew that, if I did, I would not be able to get going again. Determined I ploughed on, trying not to think of what 10miles of walking on uneven, rocky terrain was doing to my ankle. I was exhausted, the pain sapping my strength. I had been hobbling for close to nine hours at this point, and I had quite simply had enough. A group of hikers stopped for me, one retied the bandage on my foot, another gave me some sweets before disappearing off, going the same direction I was. Around ten minutes later, I found them, sitting waiting for me. They insisted on coming with me. By this point, I didn’t even have it in me to protest.

Their patience knew no bounds as I limped slowly in their wake. They talked to me, talked at me, talked around me. One gave me some sweets, one gave me pain killers. It was exactly what I needed. For too long I had pitifully shuffled in silence. I began to open up, joining in the conversation, learning about these new companions. 16 hours later, and around 12 hours after I had torn my ankle, I arrived back at the car. I thanked the group, and, after assuring them I would be fine, we parted ways. Arriving home, I bodily fell out of the car, my entire leg immobile. I dragged myself into the shower, washed as best I could and slumped into bed, beyond exhausted. My ankle would turn out to have a bad tear, and it would be several months before I could even walk normally, let alone run, but, at this point I was thankful. Thankful for the help I received along the way, thankful for the weather for holiday gout and, most importantly, thankful I was no longer on the fells. Broken, and nearly beaten

*Note: If injured, and don’t feel confident call mountain rescue. I chose not to in this case (and in hindsight, am unsure if it was wise not to) as the midsummer day provided near constant daylight, the temperature was warm and the weather dry. The forecast showed this to continue for the next few days as well. If you are uncertain of the weather, your ability to get down or just need assistance, calling mountain rescue before you get into serious trouble is always the best option

Looking down the Lairig Ghru, the valley that bisects the route

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