This photo was taken between Kokomo and Searle passes on the same day photographer Dean Krakel injured himself on The Colorado Trail. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Cannabist)

I’m a convert: How cannabis changed everything amid my sports injury recovery

Until recently I didn’t know wax from shatter, CBN from CBD. Although I thought I knew a thing or two about physical pain, I really didn’t know anything about that either.

But one deliciously joyful (and careless) moment on Searle Pass changed all that.

On July 30, 2015 I’d started hiking the 500 mile-long Colorado Trail alone from Durango northbound to Denver. I’d crossed mountain ranges and rivers, weathered all manner of bad weather, lost a staring match with a moose, been hassled by a bear and navigated a lot of high, lonely country without incident — save for one bad blister. (Check out my blogs and photos from the hike here.)

But eight weeks into the trip while climbing up Searle Pass — in the Gore Range, not far from Copper Mountain Resort — I did something I’d not yet done on the trip. I began to run.

Call it rapture of the steep. Searle’s 12,034-foot summit was only a quarter of a mile away. The mountains were ablaze with autumn. Storm, sunlight and shadow played a light show across the tundra, complete with a rainbow. Evening alpenglow lit up the peaks.

After walking hundreds of miles it felt fantastic to dance up the trail. My pack was light and so was my mind. My feet instinctively found the tread while my eyes took in the scenery. For a few moments I felt as I were flying.

But then my right toe caught a rock. For a split weaving wavering slo-mo instant, I thought I might pull out of the dive and stay on my feet. But the momentum was earthbound. I body-slammed the ground, face down, so hard I didn’t even bounce.

It was a big hit. Breathing was painful and difficult. No doubt I’d damaged some ribs. What troubled me most though in those troubling moments was that I couldn’t move my left arm without creating a deep, nauseous, head-spinning hurt.

The next day, after a long and painful night spent on the mountain, I made my way to the hospital in Frisco. In the emergency room, the doctor took X-rays and poked and prodded the painful parts. Bruised ribs, he told me. And a probable left rotator cuff tear. “If it’s really torn and it’s a bad enough tear,” he added, “you’re off the trail. You’re done.”

I wasn’t done. A few days later with my left arm in a sling and a pocket full of Percocets I climbed over the Tenmile Range and began the 120-mile walk home. Walking, actually, wasn’t so bad. Doing anything beyond that really hurt. Breathing for one thing. Getting the pack on and off again. Dressing and undressing. During the day I was distracted by the trail and the sights and sounds around me. If pain required management, I used Ibuprofen. I was so naive about pain I was trying to will it into submission.

Mind over matter didn’t fly at night, when pain was king. At night I’d strap on a headlamp, arrange the gear inside the tent so that everything I might need was within easy reach and cocooned deep inside the down sleeping bag. I’d pop a couple of percs and lay back awaiting Captain Freedom’s arrival. Some nights I’d revel in the sensation of my physical body floating serenely up and leaving my pained body on the ground.

Good times.

One year ago this week — on October 15, 2015, 16 days and three mountain passes after falling on Searle — I walked through the front door of my home in Conifer. Six weeks later I had surgery. Not only had I shredded the left rotator cuff, I’d also badly torn a bicep tendon.

Seeking marijuana pain relief after suffering sports injury hiking Colorado Trail
Dean Krakel, post-injury, hiking The Colorado Trail. (Lindsay Pierce, The Denver Post)

What followed surgery was a daunting regime of pain management. Because my left arm and shoulder were immobilized in a massive black sling, I had to sleep sitting up. Every four hours I took two Percocets (containing 7.5 milligrams oxycodone and 325 milligrams acetaminophen in each) along with two ibuprofen. If I missed a dose, or the dosage didn’t quite take care of the pain, the hurting rained down. I loved the Percocets for taking the pain away, but I loathed the groggy, drugged, forgetful space they kept me in.

One morning a few days after surgery I found a cup of coffee in the pantry. I had zero attention span, couldn’t dress myself or tie my own shoes. I was house bound, afraid, cranky, depressed and alone.

That’s when I found myself searching for a better way to deal with the pain, which was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

Prior to my surgery a nurse had been telling me what to expect in the way of pain, what I’d feel and what I should do to stay ahead of it — all of it involving pills. “What about alternative pain management,” I’d asked.

“You mean like medicinal marijuana?” she asked. I nodded. “Well, we can’t recommend it here, because of all the federal laws, but I can tell you that if you find something that works, try it.”

Her father-in-law had used medicinal marijuana to deal with pain and depression brought on by cancer. It had changed his life, she said, and the lives of everyone around him. He was so much more pleasant to take care of and be around.

I’d long heard stories about the healing properties of pot, but I’d never needed to explore that any further. For me, the weed had stayed in the recreational, not medicinal, category. But if it had helped the nurse’s father-in-law and if all the stories I’d read were true, “Maybe I should try it too,” I thought.

A week after surgery, on the way home from my first post-operation examination, I asked my son to make a detour. An hour later I left a local dispensary with a bag full of oils, patches, creams, shatter, flower and edibles — ready and determined to ditch the painkillers I’d been prescribed.

I didn’t know it then, but I was on the brink of a personal epiphany — one that involved a natural, plant-based medicine replacing a more addictive, more dangerous, heavy-duty opioid to treat my seemingly unending pain.

I had left The Colorado Trail but was beginning another journey.

Read Part 2: How I broke free from pain and found my lost mojo