I fell hard. L1 vertebrae fracture. I felt intense pain as soon as I hit. The impact knocked the breath out of me. I let out a moan and tried to sit up, but the pain wouldn’t allow me to do it. So, I rolled to my side and propped myself up on my hands and knees.
A compression fracture is a unique fracture of a bone where pressure is applied to opposite ends of a bone. Imagine a piece of chalk pinched between a pair of pliers. Compression. Fracture.
I was trying to stand as if to irrationally prove that nothing was wrong. The pain got worse directly in the center of my back. Each time I tried to stand or straighten my back the pain stole my breath. All the while, I was trying to mentally replay what had happened before the fall. “What did we do wrong?”
Jason and I drove to Colorado Springs at the end of our freshman year at the University of Central Oklahoma. We were celebrating finishing the semester and the enthusiasms that go along with being young men in a world of possibilities. We were stretching the borders of our lives.
We met each other during Orientation Week prior to the first day of classes, and even though we pledged different fraternities, we were best of friends throughout the year. Brothers. We shared a common faith in Christ and enjoyment for the outdoors. We started spending random Saturdays during the spring semester at Red Rock Canyon State Park to hike, rock climb, and rappel.
“Let’s climb and rappel at Garden of the Gods!” Jason suggested one day. He grew up 30 minutes from there which meant free lodging and food; all we needed was gas money. The drive there was epic. The last day of spring classes, we loaded up his Ford Bronco 2 and drove west toward Amarillo. We literally drove watching the sun bring the day to a close and transform the horizon into a blend of dozens of colors. We turned north in Amarillo and made it to his parents’ house sometime in the middle of the night.
As young men, armed with a brazen plan and half a night of sleep, we woke the next morning and shoved a delicious home-cooked breakfast down our throats and loaded up our gear into his dad’s truck. His dad insisted on driving us so we could grab a few extra winks of sleep enroute to the Garden.
The Garden of the Gods is an appropriate term for the park’s beauty and grandeur. After we grabbed our gear off the truck, we waved goodbye to his dad, who would return to pick us up at the end of the day. We climbed and rappelled all morning. The pièce de résistance of our climb and rappel was a 70 foot overhang that allowed a rappel in open space from top to bottom. It was intoxicating.
Then rain clouds rolled in. The light sprinkle let us know our day was over. I told Jason I would rappel down once more to untie our ground belay. Once at the bottom, I would signal for him to untie the top. I crested the lip and began my descent. With 15 feet left to rappel, I felt the terrifying sensation of weightlessness as my left hand collapsed into my chest along with all the rope from above. We made a mistake and untied before I was off the rope.
I screamed something and nothing. Within seconds I hit the ground. My body landed in a U-shape with my tailbone and lower back striking first. I lay motionless for a few seconds or minutes, I do not know. I didn’t know if anything was broken, but the terror of falling was followed by the terror of potential back injury or paralysis.
Jason made his way down to find me on my hands and knees trying to stand but unable to because of the pain. Any attempt to move shift my weight over my legs to stand resulted in immediate pain and loss of breath. Then it started to rain. Hard.
This was before the days of widespread cellphone use. Jason was able to help me stand and we got to the roadside where a 1960’s Volkswagen bus with three German tourists picked us up and got me to Park Rescue. I was placed on a backboard once the ambulance arrived and the severity of my situation set in. “I may lose my ability to walk or run ever again.” Much time was spent in prayer, reflection, grief, and acceptance over the next few days as I lay confined to a hospital bed.
Prior to this fracture, the farthest distance I ever ran, in one continuous effort, was the two miles required for each of my annual Army Physical Fitness Tests. This isn’t saying much; I was 19 years old and had only been in the Army for two years.
I was in a back brace for 2 months afterward. The compression fracture caused my L1 to break outward instead of inward toward my spinal cord. The doctors said I should heal without any limitations for walking or running in the future.
I run now. I’ve completed only three marathons: the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC and the New York City Marathon. I’ll be running the MCM again this October, the 10 year anniversary of my first marathon.
Some wouldn’t think of me as a runner. I’m not fast. I don’t log more than 20 miles in a “good” week. I don’t keep track of my PR times. I don’t own any compression socks, pants, shorts or shirts. I look for running shoes that are last year’s model on sale.
I run because I can. I run because I can. Each step is a “thank you” to God; not because I think God favors me and kept me from being paralyzed that day in comparison to the countless millions who face more dire circumstances each day. Rather, each step is a “thank you” for the created capacity for me to be able to walk and run.
What’s your fracture? How do you wring something good out from it?