The Toughest Runner

Gordon Wright

As Elaine Scarry writes in “The Body in Pain,” each kind of pain is distinct, and each person’s perception of that pain is different.  Pain is less an objective measure of sensation than a continuum informed by every person’s perception of pain as well as societal, emotional, historical and physiological factors.  And describing it is impossible with language.

But can we all agree that a broken bone hurts?  OK, how about an arm broken so badly that it required surgery, a titanium plate and NINE pins just to put it back together?

Pretty ouchy.  Most people would curl up in a ball for days (weeks, in my case) and whine at low-frequency but persistent level.

Then there’s Kelly Hambelton, 33, from the small town of Maple Falls, Washington.  She is a veteran of last year’s GORE-TEX TransRockies Run™, and after she flashed across the finish line after Stage One in a good time of 4:10, I said, “Hey, great to see you.  What’s wrong with your arm?”

“Oh boy, uh…I broke my wrist.”

This was Sunday, August 21st.  She had broken it in a motorcycle crash August 10th.  She had surgery on August 17th.  And as she cheerily described the gruesome injury, I did some quick math.

“Wait.  Wait…you had surgery on Wednesday?  Like, FOUR DAYS AGO?”

Yes, Kelly had surgery four days before the start of the race.  Worse, she had grinded her way through 21 miles of jeep trails, single track and burning fire road with a throbbing, swollen, splinted arm. “I decided to lay off the Percocet for the run,” she said. “But it’s hurting pretty good right now, so I may just go get some ice on it.”

The fact that Kelly is tougher than I am, and tougher than pretty much the entire field, is by now glaringly evident.  But she’s also a bubbly presence at the race — and a serious competitor.  She and her teammate, Kerrie Wlad of Boulder, had expected to compete for a podium spot as Team Erin Baker Babes, but for obvious reasons, they have struggled a bit to keep pace (“I can manage the pain, but I can’t really swing my arm,” noted Kelly).  The duo did even better today, gutting out the rough climb over Hope Pass to finish strongly in 2:50.

Hambelton does a fair amount of trail running at home, usually with her pair of Australian Cattle Dogs, when she isn’t riding motorcycles or tending to the long hours of her job as an industrial hygienist.

What she’s doing mostly, here at the race, is to remind us that the outrageous slings and arrows of competing in a six-day trail run are really pretty pedestrian.  Sure, there are plenty of sore muscles and scrapes, but this woman with bruises all over her body and the blown-to-shreds radius beggars comparisons.  She’s the Toughest Person At The Race, and her biggest regret is that she isn’t able to run faster.

“My body just felt off on Stage One,” she noted, “Maybe from the general anesthesia.  But I think I’ll feel better as the week goes on.  And I think I’ll lay off the dirt biking for a while.”

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