Freedom in Every Footstep

As I drove into the state forest, layers of stress, anger and disappointment peeled away. My back still hurt, but as I shifted in my seat to try to take the radiating pain out of my right leg, I scanned the tree line for any glimpse of pitcher plants or wildlife. Nature’s beauty and peace always serves as a welcome distraction from pain.

I raced the clock, knowing it would be darker sooner in the forest than in the city. Lightning shot straight down in the distance, but I wasn’t too worried. Florida is synonymous with lightning, especially in the summer. I respect it, but if I freaked out every time I saw a distant bolt, I’d never leave the house. Right or wrong, I was more afraid of the pain in my back that seemed to eclipse everything and rob me of sanity. It’d been nonstop for 27 hours.

Throughout the years of dealing with major spinal issues, I’d learned that 24 hours was my limit for handling pain gracefully. Anything beyond that mark turned me into an angry, depressed and desperate person. A break from the pain— even if only for a couple hours— always made a huge difference. But this was a spate without respite, and I’d hardly recognized myself as I snapped at my wife before leaving for the forest. That was one of the hardest aspects about chronic pain— the days when it got so bad that my personality wasn’t my own and my actions didn’t reflect my true feelings.

An hour after leaving the house, I pulled out $2 for the state forest parking fee, put my phone in airplane mode, and started to open the door to my truck when a crash of thunder signaled a massive downpour. The sky to my left was bright blue with a few clouds, but to my right, a fast-moving mass of dark gray loomed over the trees. “No way,” I said aloud, trying to push back the storm with useless words.

My feet were soaked by the second puddle, which was much deeper than I thought in the split second I hovered above it. The muddy water reached my ankles, and I gave silent thanks to the universe for not putting any ankle-spraining roots under the dark water. After dealing with major health problems for so long, I was always extra careful to avoid new injuries.

I chose a wide fire road over a narrow trail thinking that the extra room might help me see better to dodge roots. By the 3/4 mile mark, I was drenched but happy. The pain wasn’t gone from my back, but the relief I felt as I pushed my body through the forest was immeasurable. Every step reminded me that I was strong and capable, regardless of diagnosis.

I bagged the run at two miles, and the last 1/2 mile was pretty treacherous. I didn’t have a headlamp but I’m not convinced it would’ve made a difference. The rain was coming down so hard that I felt like I was surrounded by curtains. A swath of electric orange in the western sky told me the sun wasn’t done setting, but in my part of the world, the sky was black and wet. Every tree root looked like a venomous snake that I couldn’t see until it was too late. Even subtle shifts in the terrain threatened to twist my ankles or topple me over because I couldn’t discern depth at all through the rain and darkness. But, stopping was hard because the run was fun. Every footfall signaled freedom and ability— two things I hadn’t had for a very long time. For ten years, my body was captive to injury and illness. A decade of chronic pain made a trail run in a thunderstorm seem pretty awesome. I wasn’t home with my legs elevated and an icepack on my back. I wasn’t in a doctor’s office waiting an hour just to be told I needed more pills. Instead, I was flying along a trail, freer than I’d been in a long time.

As I drove home through the deep black night, soaking wet, my muscles were primed for more. “I’m not done,” I said to my windshield, wondering if there was a place I could safely pull over and run a few miles. That too-short trail run was so much like my life of the past ten years— something good that turns into a disaster that then turns into renewal and the potential for more. Since my renaissance, I hadn’t felt done with much of anything. There always seemed to be more miles to run, more planks to do, more stretches to try.

The short distance wasn’t what I’d planned, but I realized that sometimes the best trail run is the one you do just because you can. Or maybe the best trail run is the one that leaves you desperate for more. And maybe, those two are one and the same.

Victoria Stopp

Victoria Stopp

Victoria Stopp is the author of Hurting Like Hell, Living with Gusto: My Battle with Chronic Pain. She’s also a motivational speaker and has given talks on everything from pill addiction to book publishing. Hurting Like Hell, Living with Gusto won gold in the 2018 Florida Authors and Publisher’s President’s Book Award contest and was named a 2018 Editor’s Pick by McFarland & Company. Victoria has been featured on Fox 5 Atlanta, WSRE/PBS for the Gulf Coast, WUWF/NPR affiliate, Spartan Race’s blog, Aaptiv blog, Out Magazine, and multiple podcasts. She fits in as much trail running as possible between book events.

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