"Are you okay?" asked a Pakistani man behind me. "You do not walk very well."
"I'm okay," I replied. "I never walk very well."
"But you like to climb to the mountain?"
"Oh yes, very much so."
The man grinned through his wheezing — later he would tell me he was a heavy smoker — "Me too."
"No," I said, "It's nice to have someone to talk to. I haven't met many English speakers in the past few days."
"You are here alone?"
"I am here for the Tor des Geants ... my boyfriend runs every year. He's still out there."
The Pakistani man lives in Italy now and knew all about TDG. "This race takes a very special love of mountains," he said. I nodded my head in agreement.
"How did you hurt your leg?" he finally asked.
"I was hiking the other day and I slipped and fell. Twisted my knee. Now I have too much pain to hike anymore, but I already missed the mountains. So here I am."
Then, it all fell apart. I can't reconstruct the precise moment where it started to go wrong, but there was heavy rain through the late evening, right before I reached a rolling traverse along a steep and rocky ridge line. The rain and hundreds of muddy footprints smeared the rocks in a greasy film, and suddenly I couldn't stay on my feet anymore. I was falling all over the place, legs and butt smeared in mud, fingers jammed, confidence shattered. I tiptoed along, fixated on the yawning drops beside me, passed by a constant stream of more sure-footed runners.
"It's okay. I never walk very well."
Hours trickled away, yet too quickly. I was losing too much time. Daylight came, a soft pastel glow on the rocks to compliment the sharp contrasts of the night's full moonlight. I kept looking at my phone and GPS measurements. I was just not covering ground fast enough. I couldn't face chasing cut-offs; I wouldn't. No time to sleep, no time to dry my feet. I'd be miserable. Runners kept passing. How did they stick so well to the ground? I recalled all of the falls I took in France two weeks earlier, and how I concluded they were provoked by being overcautious. Feet, come on now, pick up the pace.
Of course I made the same mistake I made two weeks ago, a bad foot placement at the top of a large ramp of a boulder. Left heel slipped out and I flailed wildly like a cartoon character on a banana peel until the foot wedged in the small crack between the bottom of the boulder and more rocks. Instinctual reaction to arrest the forward fall prompted me to swing the whole right side of my body around, wrenching the left knee badly. Went down on my butt and folded the knee into a shot of sharp pain that wasn't quite to the level of "Oh no, I'm screwed," but was shocking all the same. Stood up, collected my senses, and looked toward the seemingly endless expanse of rocks in front of me.
"I fell and hurt myself. Of course I did."
I felt a deep admiration for the runner's audacious fortitude, and watched in disbelief as he limped up the trail and out of sight. I knew then exactly what had to be done. I limped back to the checker table and asked them to cut my bracelet.
And he makes it look so easy, which is partly why I ended up drawn to these Alpine "races" that are really more like mountain puzzles, and every footstep an effort to solve another problem. I like to think someday I'll figure it out. But much more than that, I'd be happy just to maintain an ability to hike unhurried distances through these fiercely incredible mountains. I lost that ability this week, one might say to greediness, although I'm still hopeful the universe will gift me with a swift recovery. Maybe after all that it isn't about speeding up, but slowing down.