Hiking 24 miles over the rugged terrain of eastern North Carolina in a single day is no joke. Tightening muscles and swollen joints create ripe opportunities for repetitive motion injuries.
Working on a NASCAR pit crew is the epitome of fast-twitch muscle movements. Toting tires, hurdling a wall, and contorting into all sorts of positions in a furious effort to shave time on pit road is exactly how muscle strains and tendon twists happen.
What could these two seemingly unrelated scenarios possibly have in common?
The answer is, of course, Evan Kureczka.
As an avid hiker, Kureczka has tread most of the best trails around North Carolina. As a NASCAR pit crewman, he has changed the tread on some of the fastest vehicles in stock car racing. And as a member of OrthoCarolina and the Head Athletic Trainer for Stewart-Haas Racing, he has seen every injury these activities can create.
We caught up with Kureczka (not an easy thing to do), to discuss long-distance hiking, the rigors of racing, and how to prevent and treat the nemesis of all active people—the ankle sprain.
You work with patients at the OrthoCarolina office and at the Stewart-Haas race shop. What does your typical day look like?
On a typical day I go to the clinic from 7 to 9 a.m. to see patients. I’ll treat anything from acute to post-op or chronic injuries. Then I head to the shop. There, I’ll see anything from cars that have been dropped on someone’s foot, to lacerations, to ACL tears from carrying gas cans. Tendonitis in the forearms on the tire changers is common. Even skin conditions from fire suits. I’m there for three hours and then back to the clinic to see more patients.
Plus you actually serve as a pit crew member on the weekends for the team. How do you fit in any hiking?
We travel a lot with NASCAR, but it’s usually fly in and out the same day. I get out and do a lot of day hikes, not as much backpacking (during race season). I have already planned a trip for Father’s Day weekend, though, since that’s an off weekend for racing. I try to fit in backpacking weekends when I have them open. Otherwise, it’s day hikes.
Were you always into hiking?
As a kid, we’d go camping in a camper on the weekend. Family weekend stuff. We lived up in Winston Salem so we lived pretty close to Hanging Rock State Park. I didn’t adventure out too much on the trails back then. It wasn’t until college that I got into hiking more. More crazy stuff, backpacking, having fun with it.
What was the most challenging, or gratifying, hike you’ve done?
About a year and a half ago I did a long hike in Asheville, raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It’s called the Trailblaze Challenge. I did a lot of hiking beforehand, preparing for the 24-mile hike through western Carolina.
How did you avoid injuries during those long hiking days?
Stretching. If you go on long hikes, you’re going to want to take breaks. While you’re getting a drink, checking out the scenery, it’s the perfect time to stretch. During and after the hike.
Footwear is also one of the most important things. It’s like a car, if a tire goes bad, everything else kind of breaks down. If you have shoes that are too loose, you’re going to get blisters and you’re not going to be stable. If you have an old pair of shoes, and they’re slick, you don’t have traction. A common injury then is ankle sprains.
What can we do in advance to avoid ankle sprains?
You need to build up stability, balance, coordination. The more you train, the stronger you’ll get. Cross-training, running, hiking. Work on balance, stand on a single leg. Once it gets easier, you can try kicking out your other leg, doing it with your eyes closed. Single-leg squats, Thera-Bands and working on a Bosu ball will help. If you’ve had ankle injuries in the past, it’s not a bad idea to get an ankle brace.
If sprain your ankle, what then?
Directly after an ankle sprain, you want to control the swelling—and keep your foot moving. A lot of people are scared to move their foot after the sprain. If you can, get some active range of motion—pumping your ankle back and forth or pretend your foot is a pen and you’re writing the ABC’s. That is going to keep some of the swelling down and keep it loose. You really want to keep it moving. Even the next day. No resistance and not standing on it, just sitting or lying down and work on moving it. Keeping an active range of motion.
Then, a few days later, you can try some Thera-Band exercises to tolerance. Judge it by the severity of the ankle sprain, but if it’s not painful you can start some exercises right away.
And when should you consider seeking medical help?
If you’re able to walk or put pressure on it, you’re probably OK. But if it’s an acute one, and you’ve not had ankle sprains before, and it really swells up, you might want to get some help.
Basically, if you have a hard time getting around and it’s really painful. Also, if the pain is on the ankle bone itself–the medial lateral malleolus–there may be a fracture there. Or if you feel like you need crutches, you want to come in. We can put you in a walking boot that will take pressure off the ligaments and tendons. It will help you bounce back a lot quicker and help you get around. If there is something that needs to be treated, the longer you go without treating it, the longer the issue down the road.
Kureczka’s Perfect Day Outdoors
From shady boardwalks to the highest point east of the Mississippi, North Carolina has no shortage of hiking adventures. But none can replicate a hike at Linville Gorge . The gorge is just an hour and a half from Charlotte, and Kureczka suggests it as a perfect day trip. Carved by the Linville River, the “Grand Canyon” of North Carolina stretches for 12 miles, dropping as much as 2,000 feet from the highest rim.
A complex system of trails extends through either side of the gorge. The Mountains to Sea Trail–a 1,150-mile path that runs from the Smokies to the Outer Banks–forms the backbone of the system on Jonas ridge, the roughly hewn eastern canyon rim. From here, frequent rock outcroppings offer panoramic views along the rippling, forested, western bank and the gorge more than a thousand feet below.
With an early start, says Kureczka, you can make it back from “the Big Ditch” in time for a free concert at Charlotte’s premier outdoor center. The River Jam music series at the U.S. National Whitewater Center brings regional and national bands to the open-air stage on Thursday and Saturday nights each summer.
The center offers food and drink from a sit-down restaurant, food truck inspired service stations, and the covered beer garden—with its dozens of craft beer options. All surrounded by the famous man-made river and 1,150 acres of outdoor adventure.