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In March 2018 I took part in Larne Half Marathon. A team of us were running together to raise funds for the wonderful charity, Little Hearts Matter. All went well on the day – the weather was kind, the route scenic and the energy of the runners and onlookers supportive and encouraging. It felt like such a great achievement, we raised over £1000 to donate to the work of our chosen charity and that night I went to bed exhausted but exhilarated from the experience.
I had expected stiffness and a few aches and pains to accompany the dawn of a new day – the tell-tale signs that my body had worked really hard to run the 13-mile course just the previous day. What I had not expected was being unable to move my right arm due to severe pain in my shoulder. I couldn’t believe it! My legs were fine, but the excruciating pain I was experiencing was like nothing I had ever known before. I needed help to get out of bed and spent the day wandering around the house trying to mobilise my shoulder and figure out what on earth had gone wrong.
Eventually, as I wept with the gnawing and deep-rooted ache, it was decided by my husband that it was time to visit A+E. Several hours later following checks and scans it was confirmed that I had actually somehow managed to complete a half marathon with a bulging disc in my upper back. I had no idea that there was a problem there beforehand and the impact of running for over 2 hours on tarmac had caused severe nerve damage in my shoulder and neck.
The news devastated me not just because of the physical impact but also because I write a blog called Every Treasure about our outdoor family adventures and didn’t see how I could continue to write about walking and hiking if I could barely move! I knew this injury was something that needed time and great patience to heal, and to make matters worse we had a week-long family hiking trip in the Trossachs, Scotland, scheduled to begin the following day.
I went home, armed with painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication, all of which were to prove completely incapable of tackling the pain. I told my husband Trevor take our 3 sons and go to Scotland without me; knowing full-well that I would not be walking to the end of the street, never mind trekking in the hills as we had planned. Naturally, being the supportive guys that they are, they refused to leave me, and so as I lay on the sofa, crying out with the unbearable depth of the pain, they packed our cases and somehow we made it to our log cabin just north of the beautiful village of Callander in Scotland.
The journey along with the week which followed is a complete blur to me now and was one of the most challenging experiences of my life to date in terms of physical discomfort. I felt like such a burden and all of our wonderful hiking plans were abandoned as I could barely move. I did encourage Trevor to go out for some short walks with the boys, but they felt guilty leaving me, and so our precious week in this idyllic region was a total washout! I suppose we went with hope in our hearts that the rest would help with my recovery and that being situated alongside a river with views across the hills would also be soothing and aid getting my strength back.
On one of our last days there I looked in the mirror, bleary-eyed, pale and dishevelled. My reflection was alien to me and as I looked, I noticed just how drooped my right shoulder was in comparison to my left shoulder. It freaked me right out! I knew the intense agony I was experiencing inwardly, which had cause me to go to an internal headspace which enabled me to cope, but I didn’t quite realize just how visible my injury was outwardly. How was I ever going to recover? Panic ensued and fear crept in as a I wondered if I would ever get the chance to go hiking in our beloved Mourne Mountains again and if my shoulders would ever realign to a point where I could carry out regular, everyday tasks.
A week after our return to Northern Ireland I began to see a super physiotherapist, who seemed to really grasp what I was enduring and who gave me hope that this injury would heal, but indeed, would need plenty of time and patience. I spent the next 9 months going to physio sessions, my heart breaking at how slow the healing process was. I tried to remain positive and upbeat – there’s nothing quite like an injury to slow you down and cause you to delve deep into your character, strength reserves and push you to develop resilience!
One of the problems was of course that for all the ‘character development’, my physical place to find energy and support was outdoors, in the mountains. It was there, in that wild landscape that my recovery from post-natal depression 10 years previously had been supported and that I had learned to live once more after being in a very suffocating and dark headspace following the birth of my second child. I knew deeply and profoundly the power and benefit of time spent outdoors in nature, it is something I advocate on my blog often, and it was the one place my body simply could not navigate in its current condition.
I did as I was told for the coming weeks – stuck with my exercises and physio sessions, took small walks to the end of the street, then to the local park, ate my greens and drank my anti-inflammatory smoothies; then by mid-May convinced my family I could walk along the trail to the Blue Lough. It was madness and there was no way my body was physically ready for it, but I needed to go. So we went. We took it really slow and I stopped many times along that route, adjusting my support sling and trying desperately to disguise my pain. I looked at Slieve Binnian, once of our favourite hikes, and couldn’t imagine ever being at its summit again. But at least I was there, enjoying the wild space along the flat trail, right? It took me well over a week to recover from that walk, and I hadn’t even been carrying a rucksack! But slowly, day by day, week by week my strength was returning. I couldn’t lift my arm above shoulder height, or extend it fully outwards, there was still work to do, but by the end of the summer I was beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.
We returned each weekend that we could to walk a flat trail in the Mournes or around the Causeway Coast which is another favourite place of ours, knowing that I had to keep moving to get my shoulder working properly once again. As we walked, I repeated on a loop in my head the mantra: ‘You can and will regain your strength. Keep moving. Keep going’, the affirming words forming a lifeline of hope for me as they played around in my mind.
Here I am today, 10 months after suffering a rotten injury, still unable to carry a rucksack that contains anything more than hats and gloves, but continuing to hold onto hope. Thankfully, I have 3 willing helpers and a husband who is happy to carry the picnic lunches! I know my body has been limited in some ways, and still continues to grow in strength each day as I get outdoors, even if just for a short stroll to breathe deep and remind myself that all will be well. I take my rest time seriously, allowing my body sufficient downtime and filling it with the right nutrients to ensure I make a full return to strength. But, I also take my playtime seriously too, and spending time outdoors is vital not only for my physical wellbeing but also my mental and emotional health.
For weeks after learning of the damage that had been done to my body, I feared never getting to experience the Mourne Mountains again. It’s hard to believe the anguish that can cause the mind – especially when that very terrain is synonymous with previous healing and holds so many precious memories for us as a family. I know some friends and family considered me a little bit bonkers when I said I was going hiking in the months following my injury, but it’s not as though I was attempting Everest, and I was sore whether I rested or moved, so figured I may as well do what I enjoyed. I was using the gentle inclines of familiar trails of the mountains I love as part of my recovery process and continue to do so, believing in the power of time spent in nature. I can’t lift heavy things, but I can walk, and for that I am immensely grateful.
It’s so easy when in pain to delve into a dark place in the mind, to get weary and down, and I truly believe that getting back out to the place I love most on this earth, albeit in a lesser capacity, that I have kept my mind positive and rebuilt my shattered confidence.
Kelly Hargie is a Belfast-based Mum of 3 who blogs all things family adventure at everytreasure.blog. Kelly’s happy place is in the mountains and she is the organiser of Wild Women Events – an outdoor adventure group for ladies wanting to explore the great outdoors and their wild side!