My Purple Toe

I have a purple toe.

It’s not purple all of the time and maybe purple isn’t even the best way to describe it. Eggplant? Or electric purple or purple mountain majesty or grape popsicle purple?

Purple is my son’s favorite color. His computer case is purple. His clarinet case is purple. His suitcase is purple. His school binder, which he disemboweled in new ways all school year—first removing the strap, then shredding the front pouch, then taking out the cardboard insert that helps keep its structure, then doing something to the 3 ring binders that I can’t quite figure out that makes them only barely close and finally, losing the zipper and the handle so he carried it by cupping his hand under the gap where the zipper used to be—is purple. For the last month, he awkwardly carried that binder two blocks every day in one hand. It barely looked like a binder, but it still got the job done, delivering his notes and his homework and his pencils to school.

The purple my son prefers is royal purple or Tyranian purple, although he just calls it purple. He never considers that purple is fuchsia and pearly purple and phlox and Tyranian purple too.

Did you know that Tyranian purple is named after the ancient city of Tyre, where it was originally discovered, according to legend, rimming the mouth of Hercules’ dog after it had consumed some sea snails? It was the mucus of these snails, and a ton of it, that was used to create the color. The mucus of 250,000 sea snails were necessary for producing just one ounce of dye. An expensive color reserved for emperors and kings and other elite.

Technically speaking, I suppose, I have a purple toenail and not a purple toe.

Toe is much more pleasing to write and to hear and to imagine as purple than toenail, don’t you think? Plus, anyone can have a purple toenail; just slap some nail polish on it and it’s purple. But, a purple toe is special. A purple toe is a sign of a runner. Before I started running, I did not know that this was a thing, that your toe could turn purple when you run a lot.

It’s called runner’s toe or black toe or BT, for short. I like purple toe because that’s what mine looks like to me, so that’s what I call it, or “my purple toe” or “my perfectly purple, not painful at all, toe.”

I have this rare eye disease, a form of cone dystrophy, that makes me fail color-blind tests and that has scrambled my macula so much that I can’t always see faces clearly or the color red or objects that first appear in certain areas of my central vision, so just because I see my toe as purple doesn’t mean it is purple or anything close to purple.

If you looked at my toe, would it look purple to you, or black or gray or blue or just gross?

I was diagnosed with cone dystrophy last August at the age of 42, when my vision got too bad to ignore, but I’ve been unknowingly living with a milder version of it for decades, unconsciously adjusting for my vision quirks.

A toe turns purple or black or gray or blue or ugly or awesome, depending on your perspective, for many running-related reasons: friction and increased mileage and burst capillaries and blood pooling under the nail and maybe ill-fitting shoes with a toe box that isn’t big enough or running down lots of hills, which often causes your foot to slide forward.

Here’s how it usually works for me: After a random long run, my toe hurts slightly and feels strange. It doesn’t turn purple right away, but I know what’s coming: in a day or two, hello purple toe! The toenail never falls off. It just grows back in delightfully grotesque ways: twisted, bent, doubled and thick. So thick! So filled with layers of toenail, mashed together. So marvelous in its ability to accommodate the crowd!

I think it should be called “my perfectly freaky purple, not painful at all, toe” because it doesn’t usually hurt and doesn’t do anything except look gross.

Do you have a purple toe? If so, don’t worry. Approximately 3 months after your toe turns purple, a new nail will grow and the old one will fall off, or it won’t, and you’ll have a double toenail, like me. Throughout this process, you can keep running or forgetting that it exists until someone sees it and either shrinks away in disgust or breathlessly asks, “what happened?” or just admiring it and your body’s ability to restore itself.

That is, as long as your black or gray or blue or purple toe doesn’t hurt a lot or keep hurting or turn totally black. If that happens, you probably have a sub hematoma. A sub hematoma occurs when there’s more serious trauma to the toe and the blood flow pressure builds up with nowhere to go. You need to relieve that pressure by creating a small hole in the nail with a sterilized needle and then pushing down while the blood oozes out. Oozes. This was the word that the online source that I consulted used, a site called Lazy Runner.

For the record, I have never had a sub hematoma and needed to make blood ooze, although I have had an in-grown toe nail and needed to make pus ooze.

Runners often take pleasure in talking about the gross things that running does to their bodies and the gross things that they do to their bodies to keep running. They do this to shock others, to distract themselves and to marvel at the resilience of the body in responding to and recovering from trauma.

Also for the record, there’s a chance I might become legally blind at some point, but I will still be able to see trees and toes and shapes of faces and words, when they’re magnified, and the running path. I will be able to see these things, but just a bit differently. More fuzzily. Sometimes fantastically. Conjured images through words and sounds and memory. Containing beat-up binders and pleasing P’s and Hercules, well, his dog at least, and DIY surgery techniques.

I’m already training for when and if this happens.

Runners frequently take a longer view of what is broken in a body, what can be accommodated, what can be ignored and what can and can’t be fixed. They don’t panic. They adjust. They figure out new ways to build endurance, with one primary goal in mind: to keep running. Always to keep running.