Fellrunning and fell running, I’ve done both. Admittedly, the latter a little more spectacularly than the former. For three decades I walked and scrambled the Lakeland fells, Border hills and Scottish mountains without incident, then (because I’m stupid) I decided it would be a good idea to try running over the fells. Now since Clive our editor has restricted me to 1,500 words I’ll get to the point. So if I may borrow some Bruce Springsteen lyrics from the track ‘My Beautiful Reward’, oh the irony, "I was so high I was the lucky one. Then I came crashing down like a drunk on a barroom floor.”
I recall my colleague Sean looking down at me asking if I was all right. I assured him I was. I got up and we finished the run. Once home, and with the radio turned up loud so no-one but Jo Whiley and I could hear the screams, I showered the grit out my knee and thought nothing more of it.
I don’t recall exactly when it started, or even when it began to worsen, but I reached a point where driving, sitting at a desk or - on the rare occasions I do so - sitting on a sofa, became very uncomfortable for my knee. I could walk and scramble the Lakeland fells without complaint but the moment my left leg was bent at almost a right angle for any length of time the pain was unbearable. In the following weeks, that length of time reduced and the pain increased. It reached a stage where sitting at a desk involved having my leg outstretched propped up on a stool; and as for driving, well the pain was excruciating at times and about 45 minutes was about all I could manage before I had to get out and pace the roadside to ease the pain.
My GP is a formidable force, a Scot. In fact had she replaced Sir Alex at Old Trafford things would be a lot different there today. She’s also an outdoors enthusiast and, I believe, an Olympic Team Doctor and she was determined to get me fully fit again, and quickly. I was referred to a consultant called Matt Dawson ‘Mr Knee of the North’ and a wonderful Irish physio by the name of Liam. He’s one of those mad triathlon folk!
Mr Dawson advised me I had a chronic case of Patella Tendonitis and he was going to attempt to remedy this with a cortisone injection. Liam’s job was to keep the remainder of my leg strong in the meantime. Now the injection into the tendon is quite invasive and was to be administered under, wait for it, amnesic anaesthetic. My understanding is this; it’s quite a traumatic procedure injecting into the tendon, so the amnesic anaesthetic would ensure I wouldn’t remember anything about it. Here’s the catch, I’d be awake during the procedure and fully aware of what was going on, but because I wouldn’t be able to remember it afterwards, it effectively, never happened. I could have been sitting bolt upright scratching my nails down the wall, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t remember it. How crazy is that I ask you?
Anyway, it didn’t work. Well it did for a bit, almost a year in fact. Then the symptoms returned with a vengeance. Plan B, which I think Mr D had always thought it would come to, was to operate. Patella Tendon Decompression involves cutting away scarred patches from the tendon, then perforating areas of the tendon to encourage healthy re-growth. In other words cause a lot of trauma, step back and allow biology to take over and resolve the situation.
Now I’m a big jessie when it comes to general anaesthetic. I just don’t like the idea of it. Give me a leather belt soaked in Old Peculiar to bite on any day, just don’t knock me out. The anaesthetist seemed to sense my apprehension and talked me out from under the operating table. The last thing I remember as I floated off is her reassuringly stroking my head as though I was a ten-year-old child.
When I came round, I was fed a wonderful mix of tea, toast, pain relief and humour for the next few hours by nurses Becky and Julie. Whatever their salaries are, it should be doubled! Once home I was pampered beyond belief. I then spent a wonderful two weeks sitting in the garden under a baking summer sun reading autobiographies by Danny Baker and Mark Ellen. It will come as no surprise to learn that this was no real hardship. I now have an encyclopaedic knowledge of music journalism from 1975 to 1985.
Now this is when physio Liam really got to work, and we began on a rehabilitation plan that would see me progress over the following nine months from getting around on crutches, to pottering about town, to adding distance on flat ground, then on trails, before introducing smooth big hills and eventually returning to rocky terrain and scrambling again.
Getting around on crutches was a slow process. No longer could I zip through town, as the late rugby commentator and fellow Borderer, Bill McLaren, would have said; “Like a trout up a burn”. I’d arrive at crossings and have to wait patiently for the green man to appear. On one occasion a young couple smiled apologetically at me as they almost skipped across the road in my direction before the lights had changed. I couldn’t risk it and they knew it. Their kindness was however appreciated.
Eight months on and I’m now walking over big hills that offer reasonably even ground under foot, so things like the popular path up Skiddaw and the easy route onto Helvellyn are all fine. The aim is to introduce rocky, uneven ground in the summer. It’s thanks to Liam and his guidance that things have gone so well thus far. I do however expect a few twinges when back on rough ground.
I’ve formed a temporary coalition with a pair of walking poles. Nobody likes a coalition, but needs must and it certainly reduces the labour. Will it be the only coalition this spring involving a Scot and reduced labour? We’ll have to wait and see!
What has become apparent to me over the winter months is the importance of wearing and carrying the right clothing and this, my friends, is where the George Fisher product promotion comes in. Oh they don’t let me write this stuff for fun you know. “Don’t forget the product, don’t witter on about music” they shout at me. You see on occasions this winter, feeling extremely protective of my knee, I’ve been at times moving with all the pace of an archaeological dig. Believe me, that’s no exaggeration.
Although I always try to wear and carry appropriate clothing for the conditions and demands of the day, I have always been of the belief that I could get off any Lakeland fell in about 45 minutes. Certainly back down to the warmth of the valley floor at least. I’m sure this will be the case again in the future, but at present it’s not, so I have to think more carefully about what I’m wearing and what I’m carrying.
Do you ever get earworms when you’re walking? My socks of choice are Smartwool PhD. Now I can’t get a hundred yards with them on before I start singing “I Won’t Let You Down” as performed by PhD’s Jim Diamond. Interestingly enough the Smartwool rep is too young to remember that hit, and as such is missing out on a wonderful marketing campaign. Just how appropriate is that? I won’t let you down!
Now I’m not going to give you a full list but just some of the items I’ve relied on this winter are my Scarpa Rebel Lite boots, lightweight but fantastically supportive and they take a crampon too. Rab MeCo zipneck base layer has been my next-to-skin choice all winter, a perfect combination of warmth and moisture management. My mid layer in the main has been a piece by Patagonia which admittedly we’re not carrying at present but call in and I’ll tell you what it is and show you some alternatives too. In terms of a hard shell, in my view, the best all round combination of waterproof, windproof, breathable and crucially durable comes in the form of Gore-Tex Pro and I’ve felt not only comfortable but also incredibly protected in my Arc’teryx Beta. I’ve been carrying a Haglofs hooded synthetic insulation piece as my stopping layer, oh and my pants are again by Rab, a winter guide pant which we’re also currently not stocking but I’ll lean on the buyers for next winter.
Anyway, come in, say hello and if you don’t want to talk about kit lists we can always discuss the NME and VH1 or maybe you’d prefer to hear about the day I had my staples removed or perhaps even the side effects of Codeine Phosphate...
Cover photo: Mark out on the hill, pre-operation
Middle photo: Gruesome; the operation aftermath
Bottom photo: Post-operation, careful on the ice with trekking poles