Thinking on my feet

I should have ditched the painful shoes a lot sooner than I did, because when I finally gave in and bought a cheap pair of trainers to see me through until reinforcements arrived, I found that I’d aggravated a long-running foot problem, and was in almost as much pain as I had been before.

So for the last few weeks I’ve been ignoring my instincts and resting – and ignoring my bank balance and having physio – and to my great delight, being sensible has paid off, and things are starting to get better. (I was gloomily convinced for the first week or so that my cycling days might be over, because it was simply too painful to apply any pressure to the pedals.)

Yesterday I went for a long hike in the Margalla Hills, a family of forested crags that rise up directly from the city limits of Islamabad, and I actually enjoyed myself. You have no idea what a big deal this is. I haven’t enjoyed walking for years. As I discussed in this post (in my old blog), over the past few years I have spent far more time on two wheels than on two feet, which means I’m very much out of my element when I have to walk more than a few metres. I have a weak left ankle and something wrong with one of the metatarsals on my right foot, and every step runs the risk of aggravating one or other of these. Long steady strolls on smooth regular tarmac I can just about cope with. But hiking up a steep track made of uneven rocks and loose sand and gravel is my idea of hell.

I’m constantly on the lookout for small stones or spikes of rock that, if I tread on them the wrong way, will send sharp arrows of pain shooting through the ball of my right foot. And if my left foot loses its hold on a patch of gravel or a rock that’s been polished by many years of passing hikers, my feeble ankle might well give way, buckle under my weight, and leave me limping and cursing for the next week. Every step has to be calculated, and every time I put a foot down I wince pre-emptively. I envy those people who can walk and dance and run and jump and spring from rock to rock like it’s nothing.

But yesterday, for the two hours it took me to get to the top of the hill and back down again, I finally began to experience that sublime, fluent, effortless motion I used to enjoy when I rode my bike through the traffic in London, and found that I knew the road, the bike and my own body so well that I no longer needed to think about what I was doing. Rather than having to assess each rock that lay in my path, and make constant split-second decisions about whether or not it would be safe to put my weight on it, which angle my foot should meet it at and whether any of its features were likely to cause me pain, I found that I was able to march rhythmically and confidently all the way up the steepest, rockiest part of the trail. I barely broke my stride all the way to the top.

And it was exhilarating. Just as I marvelled at my unconscious ability to weave in and out of the tightest knots of traffic, having learned to sightread a hiking trail, I could now stand back (metaphorically) and admire the artistry with which my body propelled itself upwards. Every step was different, and clearly presented my subconscious mind with a whole host of interconnecting decisions. If I had to take a step upward, did I have enough strength in my thigh muscles, or would I need to use my lower foot to launch myself? Was my leading foot able to get enough grip that I could put my full weight on it? And where would my next foot go down? Would I have to twist or shuffle the foot I’d already planted in order to be able to reach the next foothold? Would the angle at which my foot met the path be likely to put pressure on its tender parts? Could I adjust my posture or rebalance my weight to avoid this? Could I avoid pressure altogether by merely kicking off from a foothold, flicking my weight immediately back onto the other foot?

And so on.

Except that I might just have made all of that up. I actually have no idea what was going on in my mind. I was only aware of my body, deftly and expertly moving up the hill. For long minutes I’d forget what I was doing, stop looking at the path, and let my mind wander. And then I’d come to, and feel amazed that I had managed to cover the last few metres without even thinking about where I was putting my feet. I had begun to develop a grace and a confidence that were a long way from the shaky, tentative gait with which I’d first scaled this mountain, a few weeks ago. I was reminded of what Felix says in his account of hiking from Gipf-Oberfrick to Genova in 2002, where, once he had found his rhythm, walking became “almost like floating through the landscape”. The harmony that I had improbably found among London’s snarling taxis and buses I now recognized here, as my feet struck the ground that until now I had seen as my enemy. (Well, if a cyclist touches the ground, she’s doing something wrong.)

It turned into a game. I tried not to stop, or even to hesitate, refusing to break the momentum, launching one step straight out of the one before it, sometimes not knowing where my foot would be landing until the moment I put it down. My mind hummed with concentration, even though I mostly had no idea what it was thinking about. By the time I turned round at the top of the hill, my whole body had joined in the dance, and I felt my hips swinging, my waist bending, and my arms floating gracefully around me. Every step was different; every rock demanded a new balance and posture and tension, which would be held only for a split second before dissolving and flowing into the next step.

When I arrived home I happened to read an article about ultra-runner Micah True, whose mentors, the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico,

remember that humans are creatures of constant motion, and if we forget that we survived and thrived for most of our existence as long-distance runners, we’ll suffer the same consequences as any other caged animal – disease, mood swings, eating disorders, all-around misery.

And I realized how difficult I’ve found it to stop and rest and sit inside, and felt a few slow kindling sparks of joy and relief that I will soon be back on the bike.

Of course, I realized, it’s not just about the feet. Just like riding through traffic, propelling oneself up a mountain requires a complex and beautiful synthesis of mind, body and the mountain itself. My feet still hurt, I noticed, as I bounded lightly round the last few hairpin bends of the track. But now my body was developing the intelligence to be able to work round this pain, rather than dreading and suffering it with every step. Rather than hating the hardness of the earth, I began to recognize its kindness. I unconsciously gravitated to surfaces I knew wouldn’t hurt me, and thanks to the physio I now understood the mechanics of my feet, their strengths and their weaknesses, what they could do, and what they shouldn’t.

There is no absolute freedom of movement, I finally realized. Even if we’re lucky enough to be in perfect health, we are still constrained in so many ways – by the length of our legs and the size of our lungs; by the gearing and weight of our bicycles, by the gradient and surface of the road we ride or run along. By gravity. And no one’s body is perfect. Most athletes have some kind of Achilles heel. My old controller used to run into work (from Greenwich to Vauxhall) several times a week, and whenever he stood up or sat down his knees were a perfect symphony of clicks and creaks and groans, and he would say that twenty years of running is enough for any body, and he should really give it up and stick to cycling. I once met a triathlete who had such terrible back pain that she had to dose herself up on extra-strong painkillers before every race (they spaced her out so much that I think she rather enjoyed it). Almost all cyclists will have knee problems at one time or another.

So it’s within these limitations that we find our small snatches of freedom, by recognizing them and by working with them rather than against them. I could never fight the London traffic (much as I sometimes tried to); I just had to learn to go with the flow. And now I’ve learned how pointless it is to curse my damaged feet, and how much joy can be found when I learn to cooperate with them.

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