I might sometimes talk about spirit. But our spirit, mind, heart, soul are inextricably linked to our physical body, at least in this life, and as we are living it at the moment. Our eyes might be our windows onto the world, but it is our feet that connect us to the earth we live on. Well, yes alright, that connection is all too often mediated through layers of concrete (pavements) or rubber and plastic (shoes). But you know what I mean.

Our feet let us stand, they let us walk, run, jump, they give us motion and balance.  They quite literally ‘ground’ us.

Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair. Khalil Gibran

Now, nobody (as far as I remember) has ever called me beautiful, or indeed is likely to in the foreseeable future (you can never be sure, maybe I will grow old very gracefully). But in all truthfulness I have a very unbeautiful pair of feet. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Still, no-one, no-one at all, would or could ever say that I have nice feet.

I forget about them as much as I can.  I ignore them. I hide them away. And yet, as an ultrarunner, these unloved, neglected, unappreciated parts of my anatomy are my ‘workhorse’. Our feet hit the ground about 500 times per kilometer. They take the brunt of the impact. This repetitive pounding can take its toll.

The North Face Utra Trail

Photo: my foot during UTMB 2009

I’ve written already about the Manaslu Mountain Trail Race and the freedom of running on those wild, beautiful sky high trails; the sweat and honesty of a long hard ascent, the joyful abandon of a swift descent. Post race my feet were scarcely visible under the deeply engrained layers of dirt and dust.  A kind friend suggested a pedicure might be a good (possibly the only) solution.  So, I took myself and my feet to Zen Spa, hidden in the heart of Thamel.  Almost too ashamed to even take my trainers off, I tried to explain that I’d been running, for a long way, for many days. The lovely ladies assigned to help me did just that, and with smiles and laughter.  They scrubbed, clipped and massaged my rather ugly appendages until they were finally at least clean and a little more presentable.  My feet felt like they no longer belonged to me. And I walked out feeling like I was walking on air. Afterall the washing of feet is one of the kindest acts of service that you can be given?

My feet didn’t have very much time to rest.  After a draining 52hr journey I was all too soon standing on the start line of The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler in San Francisco.  The form and fitness from my days on the sky high Nepalese trails was buried deep under the tiredness of the journey, the disorientation of changing, clashing cultures, and just too many nights of sleep lost.  The driving rain, howling winds and mud weren’t so unfriendly once I had been completely soaked, buffeted and spattered.  By that point I had sort of become rain, wind and mud – the distinction between ‘I’ and the elements had become a little blurred.  Determined to persevere, I reached the finish line in my own sweet time.  But, somewhere in the sodden, murky, bespattered second half of the race I vaguely remember the start of a fair bit of foot pain.  Still, ignoring my feet is what I do, isn’t it?

Some days later, finally back to my (borrowed) home, I took those neglected feet off to the doctor. Tendonitis. Great. Something I’ve had before (in various different places). Something that I know will magic itself away if I just give it some time. Bedrest. Well, almost. A few days of no running and as little walking as I could stomach. Pacing the city streets on my roundabout trip home with my TNF duffel (probably half my body weight) on my back hadn’t exactly helped things.  It wouldn’t have mattered, but for the fact that I had decided I had one last big effort inside of me for 2012, a certain race on the 15th December.  Time was getting closer, should I or shouldn’t I sort out the logistics to put myself on the start line? So, on Monday I made my test run. Well, two. Just 4km each. There was my answer. After the second ‘test’ I could barely put weight down on both feet. If I was hobbling around my room, then it was highly improbable I’d be able to run for 24hrs in just a few days?  I’m unsure now if it is tendonitis or an even more irksome stress fracture.  Which it is, is irrelevant (almost), the foot will just take the time that it needs to heal.

Races come and races go. Whether we are there or not. The chance will come again.  Maybe.

Somehow I really needed this race right now to absorb all my focus, just for 24hrs.  Being right there in the moment. Not thinking forward or backwards.  Now I just have to think, afterall.

Injury. I’ve been here before. No doubt, I’ll be here again. The uncertainty, the waiting, the long slow road to get back to lean fitness, it’s happened before. It will happen again. But each time is new. Each time you wonder ‘what if’. You start to question.

Running, or more precisely ‘moving on my own two feet’ (since walking, trekking, climbing, mountaineering are also an important part of my life), has become part of the rhythm of my everyday. It is what is ‘normal’ to me. It is what I do.

Take that away, and I’m like a rudderless boat on the ocean waves. Who am I. Where am I. What am I doing. For, “if the truth of my running is that in my moving I find myself, then running is the gift that lets me know myself more deeply”. So without the running, without the moving, I come face to face with a person I’m not sure I know.

Sometimes this is scary. Sometimes this is freedom.

It’s all a matter of perception.

Maybe it means peeling back those ‘layers’ of self-expectation, of self-definition. Like peeling an onion it can make us cry. But perhaps it lets us stand back from ourselves, to watch, to listen, to observe. To become aware.

Simple awareness.

Oh, feet. I’m sorry for all the times I have  neglected you. I’m sorry for all the times I haven’t appreciated what you do for me. I’m sorry for all the many, many miles you have run, unthanked. I will try to do better. Please get well soon.

And when you are, I shall find a way to take you back to those wild, beautiful sky high trails.

But this time, I will say ‘Thank You’.

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