By Ashley McEnroe
My name is Ashley McEnroe. I live in Big Sky, Montana, where my husband Jim and I run a snow plowing business for half the year and hunt the rest of it. We live in a cabin on the side of a mountain. Our closest neighbors are elk, deer, bear, moose and bighorn sheep. Those neighborhood Rocky Mountain bighorns offer continual inspiration for my work as a field editor for the Wild Sheep Foundation in Bozeman, Montana.
The half-century point was pivotal for me. I met Jim days before my 50th birthday. A few months later, he took me to Africa, where I hunted for the first time in my life and harvested a magnificent kudu bull. Since then, I have hunted on four continents in four years (next year, it will be five continents in five years), with lessons learned I could never have anticipated from my prior life as a city-dwelling vegetarian with neither a rifle nor a stitch of camo clothing.
Twelve years ago, the smart money would have bet against this lifestyle because of my health. I had a heart murmur, asbestos damage in my lungs and stress fractures in my feet and hip from running since age 11. These were all pretty minor annoyances. The game changer happened in my early 40s when I suffered a massive disc rupture at L5-S1 and bulge at L4-5. The injury left me bent over like a broken old woman, dragging my left leg behind me. The sciatica was unbearable, nearly causing me to blackout when I was in a sitting position, making driving and my desk job a nightmare. Bending over to put on shoes and socks was impossible. Getting in and out of bed or the car was a 10-minute excruciating adventure, often finding me crawling on all fours, grasping for anything that could help me lift my quivering body to a standing position. The sinister combination of hot-knife stabbing sensations and numbness allowed me no more than three or four hours of sleep a night. Life became an endless cycle of fear and stress. I lost weight without even trying.
Physical therapy, massage, a steroid injection, chiropractic—nothing helped. I became desperate, sleep-deprived, and depressed. Yet, my mind grasped for any signs of light. I found that my symptoms improved in tiny increments if I just kept moving. My hobbling slowly evolved into walking after several hours; the pain and pinching in my leg and low back eased a little. There was never any true relief, but the little respites I felt from walking around allowed me to relax, if just briefly.
I did consult experts. Two surgeons had me scheduled on two separate occasions for a discectomy. Their full disclosure about the risk of permanent disability or even death made surgery a frightening prospect for me as a single mom. One of them mentioned that it was possible to avoid the knife by waiting for the body to absorb the lumbar disc shards, but it was a gamble. They cautioned that, even if I could get through the pain during this natural healing waiting game (which I might not even win), I would always retain permanent nerve damage. My feet and calves would remain numb and weak, they said, and I would never run or ski again or do any long mountain hikes as I once had. I recoiled at their arrogance and their inability to provide real solutions. A costly surgery that already seemed destined to fail, a life of limitations, along with the ready supply of opioids they were eager to prescribe: Was this all they could offer?
I decided right then to pursue the unlikely possibility of self-healing. It was an act of independence and an act of defiance. All I wanted was to do precisely what they said I could never do again, and the only person I could trust to make that happen was me. Suddenly, instead of scared and helpless, I felt in control. I was a no-show on both surgery dates, and I stopped wasting my time in PT. Rejecting the drugs, I opted to chase those few fleeting instants of pain relief by walking—walking relentlessly. Though my docs all said uneven trails were dangerous in my condition because I could trip and hurt myself even worse, I walked up a nearby mountain every day. And I mean every day, no matter if the weather was 30 below in a blizzard. The soft snow and dirt were easier on my back than pavement and concrete sidewalks, and being away from onlookers was comforting. I used poles and cleats to avoid falls, which with my numb foot and the icy conditions were a constant hazard. By the end of each hike, the sciatica’s agonizing chokehold on my leg seemed to loosen, though it returned by nightfall and by morning had me paralyzed by its grip once more. Yet, I was ready to fight my way through it again, day after day, while forging through my job duties and the daily routine of raising my son. I hurt, but I was confident. I could do this.
Meanwhile, the good minutes stretched farther with each trip around the mountain, and it was almost like watching the sunlight hours grow incrementally longer each day after the winter solstice. In eight months, I was pretty much as pain-free as I would ever get. By one year post-injury, I had most of the feeling back in my feet and legs. Doctor friends have told me they have never seen this sort of recovery in their back patients. Now, over a decade out, I am stronger than I ever have been. Though sciatica comes to visit randomly, it’s never a reason to fear. I know how to deal with it, and I know I will get better. And, I always do, with no drugs, no doctors, no despair.
As for all those things the experts said I would never do again, I’m glad I trusted my own advice instead. About a year after my injury, I entered a 5K mountain trail run and beat every woman in every age group except for one 16 year old from the high-school cross country team. And I didn’t reinjure myself in the process. I kept running, and then I skied, not hell-for-leather anymore, but I can handle the steeps at an exhilarating pace. Naturally, my go-to is hiking, with me often heading into the backcountry for miles on end. Yes, after 10 or 20 miles, it’s tough getting in and out of the truck, but I still smile in pure thankfulness.
To take the final edge off my limitations, I started yoga classes, not knowing what to expect. It ended up being revolutionary. I still can’t touch my toes straight-legged even after years of committed yoga practice, and my flexibility will never remotely approach that of my lithe young instructors. But my core strength and balance are remarkable—the best of my life. Healing my broken back imbued me with endurance and confidence; yoga gave me power and protection from re-injury.
That power and protection fired up my courage to change my life in equally revolutionary ways. I left my dispiriting job and started an exciting, meaningful writing career for the outstanding conservation nonprofit Wild Sheep Foundation. I married a cowboy crazy in love with me and moved to the wilderness. I became a hunter and meat eater, wood-cutter and snow-plower; a bowhunting, gun-toting mother of a new college graduate and a young yellow lab—my canine hiking buddy, bird hunting companion and running coach. For the first time, I’ve traveled the world, pursuing dangerous, big and plains game in Africa, Australia, South America and throughout the West. On two successful Missouri Breaks bighorn ram hunts in the past two years, I served as Sherpa and videographer; last year, Jim and I backpacked out his big ram in one bone-crushing trip, just the two of us. So much for no heavy lifting. And I learned to pray, not to be given things and not even for myself. But just to express my gratitude.
At the Wild Sheep Foundation’s 2018 and 2019 Sheep Show® convention and expo in Reno, Nevada, for kicks, I entered the Outdoor Backpack Trail Race. Both years, the 10K course wound up and down a mountain with 25 pounds in a pack for each woman, 50 pounds for the men. Both years, I finished as the leading woman and fourth overall racer. Those contests were tough, the pack weight and field of competition testing me, but I grinned and prayed the entire way, thinking of how life’s hardships had blessed me. They had been, at times, unbearable blessings, but those are the gifts you keep.
After the 2019 win, I met the great guys from Wilderness Athlete, who fortified the runners with a mix of their fantastic tasting Energy and Focus/Hydrate and Recovery drinks. After quaffing about a quart, I was hooked. Always looking for a new trick to take my training and performance to the next level, I found it by surprise at the finish line. Now, it’s part of my routine at every day’s pre-workout starting line and post-workout finish line. To me, it’s another blessing, this one easy to take, but telling me yet again that my 54th zip around the solar system will be another exuberating victory lap, with many more to follow.
If you are interested in following my work here at WA Journal, I will be posting stories on back and spinal care, yoga, training for top running and mountain performance at any age but especially over 50, mountain and safari hunting, and special heath issues particularly for gracefully aging women athlete-goddesses.