The hills have never seemed so far away

I am not sure it can take too much of the overall blame, but it all started with a hiking sandal. On 17th February, as I was removing said sandal before heading to bed I felt my lower back ‘go’ and my sciatic nerve down my left leg ‘twang’ – I collapsed in an agonising heap on the sofa, from where I have not really moved from since.

I do not really have anyone to blame but myself – the warning signs were there. For the few weeks before I had been getting occasional and brief twinges down my leg and I had (albeit briefly) considered postponing a hike a few days before with Rich (@FlintyRich) and Kate (@DiveSciDiva) in the Chilterns. Despite the bad traffic (the nearby M40 junction was closed), the bad planning (I sent Rich to the wrong car park), the bad luck (the pub we planned to stop at for lunch had no water so was unable to do food) and the bad weather (rain and wind) it was a really enjoyable day (map and photos on Social Hiking), but with hindsight it was ill advised.

Sunset in the Chilterns

I have had problems with my back for a while. Back in 2006 I had an emergency micro discectomy on my lower back (according to the consent form to “prevent neurological disaster”) after an inwards slipped disc. This left me with occasional minor back pain and some loss of sensation in my toes. My first bout of sciatica occurred on Boxing Day in 2012 – probably linked to spending the day before treating my niece and nephew to ‘rocket ship’! At the time, my physio warned me that a re-occurance was 80% likely if I did not do the exercises consistently (this drops to 20% if you do)….. but like 80%* of patients (* a guess rather than fact), I stopped doing them when my back felt better. I had a second, thankfully minor, relapse a few weeks after taking up running late last year.

This episode of sciatica was particularly frustrating. In June, myself and 19 other Social Hikers are taking part in 10 in 10 (10 peaks in the Lake District in 10 hours) to raise money for MS Society – and the last two months should have been prime training time. Most days, even heavily dosed on Paracetamol and Ibuprofen, I could only get off the sofa for short periods of time, and sleep proved illusive as I struggled to find a comfortable position to lie. The hills have never felt so far out of reach than over the last few months. Thankfully, by setting up a ‘sofa office’, I could at least keep on top of paid work albeit on reduced hours as my concentration fluctuated with the levels of pain relief in my system. The biggest frustration was not being able to plan ahead, but instead just existing from one day to the next in my indoor prison.

The ultimately cause of my sciatica is likely a combination of the discrepancy of spending long hours in front of a computer followed by occasional bursts of strenuous outdoor activity, and having a generally weakened back with scar tissue from the operation restricting the movement of the sciatic nerve making it easier to get caught. It is also likely that the underlying symptoms of my Multiple Sclerosis, particularly how it effects my balance and movement when I am fatigued, probably does not help.

A wander in Salcey Forest

The good news is that, two months after the incident with the sandal and after several physio sessions, things are improving. This weekend was the first time since the Chilterns trip back in February that I was able to put on my outdoor clothes and go on a hike. On Friday I headed into Salcey Forest for a 4.5 mile wander – mainly on paths but with a bit of rough terrain on some lesser walked tracks thrown in for good measure. My back started to get fairly uncomfortable towards the end, so I sensible arranged for a pick up from the Forest Cafe rather than push it beyond my current limits (I also have to accept that my Keen Targee II hiking shoes have done their last miles – the backs have completely disintegrated giving near-instant blisters!). On Saturday, I managed a shorter 3.5 mile wander down the Grand Union canal from Stoke Bruerne.

It is a start. I am still not hill fit, but at least the hills now feel achievable again, and I can start looking forward – I am hoping to make it to Monsal Head in the (glorious) peak district next month and Dartmoor is calling to me! Unfortunately the 10in10 still has a question mark over it though – even fit, the distance (and particularly altitude gain) was always going to be a challenge, but with my back still fragile and the reduced training, I am starting to think I may have to accept my limitations 🙁

10 Replies to “The hills have never seemed so far away”

  1. Injuries totally suck, Phil, and my heart goes out to you. Morten’s Neuroma put me out of action for the best part of a year, and even when I went (not knowing what the prob was), the pain I had started to be associated with walking. Not good!
    I am glad you’re on the mend and things are looking up, even though there’s uncertainly. Take it steady and you’ll get there 🙂

  2. As someone who has spent 2 weeks confined to the carpet and a couple of months doing nothing strenuous you have my sympathies Phil. My diagnosis was a sequestrated disc fragment, possibly as a result of falling backwards down a frozen waterfall on my first abortive attempt to bag Mickle Fell.
    On the plus side you also have my encouragement to take things easy to start and persist with your exercises. I am proof that you can return to the hills full on after what I was told was a serious back injury – but it does take time. Like you I recovered once and stopped the exercises and like you I had a relapse two years later.
    My solution once I had been discharged by the osteopath was to join a gym where they specialised in rehab exercises, concentrating on core strength, balance and posture. I still go to the gym regularly to this day and find I am far more physically prepared for my trips as well as keeping up with my rehab exercises.
    Well done also for getting down how you feel. I did the same littering my inner most thoughts all over my blog and it certainly helped me. Hopefully when you look back on this post in 6 months time it will be nothing more than a memory.
    Good luck and all the best with your recovery.
    BTW when is the 10 in 10 and how far is it to walk. I may be able to sub for you if that is what you want. Not free though 06/06 – 20/06 and 03/07 – 17/07.

    1. Thanks Steve – joining a gym is a possibility, although a good start would be to do more regular walking rather than occasional bursts (and definitely doing the exercises!) Great to know I can be optimistic! The 10in10 is on 21st June – about 16/17 miles (with quite a lot of up!) – no need to sub as there are still spaces available (details at

  3. Sympathies Phil, had a knee op a few years ago & was outt of action for some time. Both knees hurt nowadays but when your heart’s in the hills you just have to get back out there as soon as poss. Enjoy!

  4. Sorry to read about your back, Phil – I can empathise particularly about the ‘indoor prison’ bit. I pinched a disc many years ago, was off work for four months and slept on the bedroom floor for two weeks. It’s improved over the years and doesn’t give me much problem now although I treat it carefully at times. Keep your chin up, try not to get too impatient with it (easily said, I know) and take it easy with your rehabilitation.
    All the best

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