Kim Gardner isn’t running away from her problems. She’s running her problems away
Six years ago Kim Gardner was a rock and ice climbing physical therapist with advanced degrees and a new boyfriend. These days, reading gives her an excruciating headache. Socializing for a few hours makes her nauseous for days. Struggling to decipher a food label can make her cry.
So she runs. Her life follows a simple repetitive pattern: eat, run, stretch, sleep, rinse and repeat. In the first four months of 2021, she ran 1,382.7 miles. In winter she runs the barren slopes of the Inyo and White Mountains. When the snow melts she heads for the alpine splendor of the High Sierra. In the first two weeks of May she climbed Irvine and Thor twice, Carillon five times, as well as Whitney, Langley, Cirque, Keeler, and Barnard. By the middle of June, she’ll have climbed a million vertical feet.
She doesn’t follow a training regimen, pursue sponsorship or compete professionally, though her endurance and fitness place her in an elite league. She runs until the daily headaches and nausea fade, until the clarity of mountain air overcomes her constant pain.
On November 30, 2015, she lost control skiing at Mammoth Mountain and tumbled over some cliffs, planted her poles and slammed her nose right into one of them. She woke up sprawled in a pool of blood and got backboarded off the mountain. It was her first season on skis. She felt nauseous and disoriented for days.
But Gardner grew up in Michigan, on the Upper Peninsula. “Midwestern people, we just don’t show pain or weakness, we are tough,” she explains. “My dad would always say ‘Don’t take me to the hospital until I’m dead.’” Steeped in a culture that glorifies getting back on the horse that threw you, Gardner started skiing again as soon as she could.
In mid-January 2016, she hit her head again skiing. Ten weeks later she had another ski accident, another knock to the head. In May 2018 while running talus she fell into a boulder well and hit her head. A year later she fainted in a bathroom and hit her head on the porcelain toilet. Three concussions in three months. Five in less than four years.
Medical professionals are still learning about concussions and their long term consequences, but they all agree that hitting your head multiple times before the brain has fully healed increases the chances of lasting brain damage.
Five and a half years after her first concussion, Gardner’s eyes still don’t track properly. “When I have to use my vision for anything within an arms length, it hurts my brain,” she explains. “Socializing, taking notes or reading, all these things I used to love doing, now they give me a hangover that can last for days.”
It’s not just her vision; Gardner has hyperacusis, or noise sensitivity. She’s lost the ability to filter out background noise, so if she has to stay in a city, the sound of a neighbor’s AC unit will keep her awake at night. Quiet noises are painfully loud for her, so when someone talks to her in a normal voice it sounds like they’re yelling. This makes spending time in town overwhelming and painful.
After her third concussion, when her symptoms weren’t going away, Gardner sought help: doctors, specialists, therapists, hyperbaric oxygen treatments. Nothing worked. “It was very depressing, constantly being told what’s wrong with you,” she admits. “I went through several years of suicidal depression, from 2016-2019. I don’t really remember a lot from that time. My boyfriend would have to babysit me sometimes. I call that period the dark years.”
In the fall of 2017, with her boyfriend’s encouragement, she started running. “It was a way to grieve and to cope with the loss,” she explains. “At first I would sprint, and then huff and puff and feel like I was dying. Now it’s more like jogging. I think walking is a little boring. As my fitness improved, I just started running and then I didn’t want to stop.”
And in February of 2019, she began studying psychology. She would listen to podcasts, sometimes hundreds of times, until she could understand them. “I pulled myself out of depression by learning about myself, quieting the inner voice, learning that I can quiet that inner voice,” Gardner says.
“On July 1, 2019 I decided ‘I’m going to be happy,’” Gardner explains. She started logging her runs, keeping track of distance and elevation. This daily task satisfied her obsession with numbers and gave her something positive to focus on.
But while scouting a run in December 2019 her nausea increased. Back in her car, she woke at 1 AM with excruciating abdominal pain and started projectile vomiting. A friend drove her to the ER. “The surgeon came in and said I could either die in a couple hours or I could do surgery,” she recalls. But this time, it didn’t have anything to do with concussions. Her colon was twisted, causing a complete obstruction. They removed half of it.
“When they did the surgery they realized I have a genetic mutation so part of my colon isn’t even attached to my abdominal wall, it was just flapping around in there!” she laughs “The whole time I was running, I felt like there was a bowling bowl rolling around in my guts. I thought that was normal. Now I know what it feels like to run without that bowling ball. It feels wonderful!”
Friends and family rushed to her side after the colon surgery. “When I was recovering in the hospital I felt really loved,” she admits, tenderness creeping into her voice. “I never really accepted my brain injury until then; I kept comparing myself to my former self.”
Somehow having half her colon removed helped relieve her intense psychological distress. “For the first time, I truly accepted everything, especially myself. Sometimes I stutter my words, or try to hang out with someone and can only cry. Now I just accept myself, that’s me, that’s who I am.”
Like others who come near death, the experience taught her to value life. “I realized you don’t have control over when you die, but you do have control over how you live,” Gardner explains.
“I’m never going to be a doctor or have the same cognitive skills I had before. To go back to a situation where I’m less than I was before is not an option,” she says. “Being in the mountains helps me feel normal, successful, it gives me a sense of purpose. I can improve, I can eat better and train harder and get better at what I’m doing.”
Ultimately, Gardner has realized that by eliminating activities that trigger pain, she creates space to learn about what brings her joy. “I’m not running away from anything, I’m running towards something. I’m running towards happiness,” Gardner explains. “If I were to die tomorrow would I regret something? Yeah, I would regret if I took a rest day. I just want to spend my time in the mountains until the day I die.”
Concussions and You: Author Leonie Sherman shares her personal lessons on self-care after her own head injury
I didn’t realize my concussion was serious until the doctor entered the room, dimmed the lights, crouched in front of me, and started speaking in a gentle hushed voice. Fourteen hours earlier a rogue surfboard clocked me in the head. I crawled out of the water, dripping blood, rode my bike home, tried to do yoga and collapsed on a friend’s couch. The next morning I had a black eye. The guy I was dating dragged me to the doctor. I can’t remember the doctor’s name, or what month it was, but I remember what he stressed over and over in that earnest whisper. “You cannot hit your head again for a year.”
After decades of damage, organized sports are finally starting to recognize the impacts of repeated concussions on players. I don’t hear outdoor adventurers talking about concussions – yet. But all our sports carry this risk.
Many of us place a high premium on not letting our injuries slow us down. But ignoring a concussion can have life-altering consequences. And not all doctors take the time to make sure their concussed patients understand the stakes.
So if you ever hit your head (again), promise yourself these three basics:
- I will stop and let the adrenaline drain from my body before I act, so I can assess the damage.
- I will make every effort to avoid hitting my head again for a year.
- If I’m confused or nauseous, if my pupils are unevenly dilated, if I slur my words or display erratic moods, I will tell someone I trust and let them make the rational decisions I may not be capable of.