Trishul Cherns, Canada’s great ultra-runner, was, throughout the race, a great support to me – a welcome source of insight and advice and companionship. When he enquired about why I was slowing and limping somewhat, I said that my right ankle was sore. I may have fooled him for a while, but I was really trying to fool myself – to convince myself that the pain was actually in my ankle and not, as I could perfectly well feel, up the front of my shin.
There is one word of horror to the multi-day runner, a word to make a proud man blanch with fear, a word only to be mentioned in whispers lest you somehow invoke its presence – 'shinsplints'.
After a while I could fool myself no longer. I went into the medical tent and confessed my problem.
‘Well,’ said Pradhan Balter, the doctor who, from years of experience, must know more about the ailments of long-distance runners and the treatment of those ailments than just about anyone on the planet, ‘my success rate in treating these is . . . zero percent.’
He told me what I knew –that shinsplints come and they may go, but they do it in their own sweet time. He told me that they caused no lasting damage so there was no reason not to just carry on. He told me of how Arpan d’Angelo limped 400 miles with shinsplints and how he was a big baby about it and then they went away and he ran faster than he had before. He told me ‘it might go away or it might blow up like a tree.’ He told me to get out on the track and get on with it.
The visitation of shinsplints upon me became the turning point of the race – the point at which hope and expectation crumbled, at which a desire to excel turned to a desire to survive, an aspiration to run far turned to an aspiration to go home and never run again.
Viewed from the outside, ultra-running has a certain romantic and heroic side to it – struggling on in the face of adversity, over-coming pain and exhaustion to attain one’s goal. When you are actually doing it . . . well, it just plain old hurts.
If you were looking for a cheery read on the pleasures of running, read no further here. I have had those experiences elsewhere and at other times – but not here and not now, not after the arrival of shinsplints.
Remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
Remember their sensei who was a rat? His name was Master Splinter. As I stumped along on my peg leg in the depths of the night, my addled mind began to personify the pain in my leg – I called him . . . Master Splinter. Certainly he had mastered me: I obeyed each piercing jolt he sent through my flesh.
Another image came unbidden to my mind as well to describe the feeling – tie a piece of string around your knee, suspend a piece of string from each side of it, tie between them a brick, and then run a few hundred miles with the brick smacking against your shin with each step.
Suddenly, with the arrival of Master Splinter, ten days, which had previously seemed like an astonishingly long time, expanded into an eternity. I had nine and a half days to go and I was having trouble walking. My 1,000 km goal disappeared instantly. And it is such goals that provide motivation – so my motivation was gone too. Ahead of me stretched . . . a featureless wasteland with no end.
I walked on.
Details of the race - results, photo galleries and such like - can be found at the race webpage -