Thursday, October 23, 2014

Learning to walk (and fly) again

It's been a relatively productive week ... a couple of articles finished, newspapers out, interviews conducted, a few thousand words added to the book project, a second week of tedious indoor strength-training and knee rehab exercises completed (next week starts balance. Eek.) And I started walking again. This feels like a big step in recovery. While I did go for a few walks in Utah two weeks ago, these walks are now goal-oriented and pain-free, with fewer tentative steps and unproductive knee-locking. They aren't the most exciting workouts. My id just wants to run, and knows it would be so easy to start. I'm just so close, with my shoes and my trekking poles on a real trail. It takes a big lasso from the super-ego to reel it in. I Strava'd my walks just for #proof (that I may need to show Beat) that I didn't cheat and jog a little, and then named my Strava activities after lyrics from the Foo Fighters' "Walk:"

Learning to walk again
I believe I've waited long enough
Where do I begin?

After all of the walking and push-ups and shoulder presses, I thought I deserved a treat for the week, so on Wednesday I decided to embark on my first mountain bike ride in two months. I was so excited. Not only would I finally put some wheels (well, non-skinny wheels) to dirt, but they'd be brand new wheels.

Last month, Beat purchased a new mountain bike, a Lenz Behemoth with an XO group, 1x11 drivetrain. It's a sweet bike. I admit to not being terribly supportive of him making this purcase. Beat has this thing with bikes. Some people might call it "light hoarding." Even though he is a runner, he strongly adheres to the n+1 formula of bike ownership. "It's more fun to buy bikes than it is to ride them," he tells me. I used to enthusiastically support this, but then bikes began to take over our small apartment, and the living room turned into a bike shop, and there was drivetrain grease smeared on the refrigerator. So I unloaded some of my bikes. Now I own two bikes, and Beat owns nine or fourteen. I continue to complain about overcrowding, and then quietly reap all the benefits by riding Beat's bikes on a regular basis, arguably more than he does.

And to be entirely honest, I was thrilled about my chance to finally take the Lenz out for a test drive. It was late afternoon, around 4 p.m., by the time I set out, and my sluggish legs balked at having to propel such a heavy beast after a month of pure rest and a couple of weeks on the uber-light Specialized S-Works Roubaix (which also belongs to Beat.) By the time I neared the top of Black Mountain, every part of my body was annoyed at all of this hard effort business, and I nearly turned around early, but then thought, "Nope, gotta test out the Lenz."

Black Mountain is a place I visit frequently, and yet it retains a unique presence — this kind of quiet tranquility, with the golden sunlight reflecting on the Pacific Ocean and coastal fog pouring over the lower ridges to the west. A Zen place. I never grow tired of it.

Boosted by Black Mountain love, I jumped back on the Lenz and proceeded to float down Stevens Creek Canyon in the fading evening light. It's a beautiful feeling to recapture after many weeks away— flowing down a familiar trail, leaning into curves, lightly launching off water bars, squinting out the rocks against the harsh glare of the setting sun. I cranked up the short, steep rises as best I could in the saddle, and coasted through a tunnel of trees, breathing chilled air and listening to the whir of tires and crackle of leaves. A truly beautiful experience.

When I came home and plugged my GPS data into Strava, I saw an interesting statistic — my fastest time ever for the "Stevens Canyon Super D" — an eight-mile dirt segment from the gate on Montebello Road to the gate on Stevens Canyon Road that is mostly descending on singletrack, but also includes about 1,000 feet of climbing. This fastest time included my Black Mountain lingering and selfie indulgence (I meant to take a better selfie that showed more of the bike, but couldn't find a good angle.) I enjoy using Strava — not for its comparisons to others, which I don't find all that inspiring or interesting — but for its years' worth of stored data of my own efforts that I can effortlessly compare to myself.

Back in August 2011 — August 11 to be precise — I crashed my mountain bike while descending Stevens Creek Canyon and sustained a large wound in my right elbow. Without trying to be too graphic, what happened is a thin rock stabbed into my elbow and spooned out a sizeable chunk of flesh, which was promptly replaced with a small handful of bacteria-ridden dirt and pebbles. This crash was a large, negative turning point in my mountain bike hobby — not because it was a major injury, which it wasn't, but because it was so intensely painful, for days and even weeks later, that it left a permanent gouge on my memory, and in turn my confidence. My mountain biking has been notably worse ever since. And Strava is there to prove it — eight of my "top ten" times in this segment of trail that I've ridden many dozens of times happened before August 11, 2011.

Until Wednesday:


And really, it's Beat's Lenz that should get all the credit. That bike floats like a hovercraft, over everything. It's truly amazing.

But in necessary confidence-rebuilding of this learning-to-walk-again stage, it helps to believe that maybe I'm finally recovering from the psychological trauma imparted by the elbow-mangling incident that long preceded my current injury.

A couple of other notes:

• Beat and I signed up for the Backyard Fat Pursuit, Jay Petervary's 200-kilometer snow bike race in Island Park, Idaho, in January. This event was not on my radar, but when I was feeling bummed out about not being chosen in the White Mountains 100 lottery, a couple of different friends urged me to consider it. These friends are planning to be there, and since Beat and I are missing out on Frog Hollow this year, it seemed reasonable to move our annual endurance bike party north. It will also be a fine opportunity to test out some gear for bike touring in Alaska in March. Have you ever considered riding a fat bike for 120 miles in the Rocky Mountains in the winter? You should come!

• I created a books page for my blog, with full descriptions of my books, links where they're for sale online, and links to reviews. If you're a reader of this blog, I urge you to check it out. Every book sale helps, and goes a long way in supporting this blog and — hopefully quite soon — more books. Link here.

• While I was Google mining links for the books page, I came across a book review for "Ghost Trails" that I appreciated from a blog called the Dusty Musette. It's not overly praising, but it's a review that made me think, "Wow, he gets it" — and it's always gratifying as a writer to realize a mutual connection with a reader, even for a book that I wrote six years ago.

• Thanks for reading!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pedaling through the flaws

 On Saturday Beat ran the Coyote Ridge 50K, one of our go-to autumn trail races. I'm still at least a couple of weeks away from tip-toeing back into running, but I do feel comfortable riding a road bike for six hours, so I headed up to the Headlands to tour along the coast for the duration of the race. I was both looking forward to my first long ride in two months, and dreading it. I keep hopping on my bike expecting to feel like I felt back in May, when miles and elevation gain came easy and I didn't return from rides with a foggy brain and stiff legs. I suppose a month-long break from most activity is ultimately a positive thing, but there's just no lying to myself about this rapid decline in endurance.

 I brought the road bike specifically to avoid dirt routes, which in the Headlands are usually steep, impossible to climb without standing out of the saddle, and swept with loose gravel that can prompt jerky joint movements if not crashes. But soon after I left Muir Beach, I succumbed to temptation and veered onto Old Railroad Grade, a relatively mellow fire road up Mount Tam. The skinny tires and shiny carbon frame (because I just washed it) prompted a couple of comments from mountain bikers, both positive. Bolstered by this perceived road biking badassery, I turned onto Old Stage Road, which is rugged doubletrack with much more descending than I predicted.

 Clearly a terrible idea; the bike jolted and bucked over chunky rocks and skidded on gravel. Just to minimize risk, I considered hiking it out — but I'm still at a point in recovery that I trust my road-bike-handling skills just a little bit more than my ability to take steps without buckling my knee. Walking is the issue; I am still struggling with wobbliness. To Beat, I characterized the feeling as a rubber band that held two parts of my knee together, but then it was overstretched and won't snap back into place. Beat said that didn't sound quite right, but that's about the best way I can describe the sensation. There's definitely still support there; it's just not as tight as it used to be. So I can turn pedals all day, but weight-bearing movements feel unstable. I'm beginning to question how much of this sensation is injury, how much of this is diminished conditioning, and how much is stricken confidence that continues to feed distrust in my own motor skills. Either way, I think the answer right now is to embark on fewer fun bike rides and more boring walks with my trekking poles, until I gain some of that confidence back.

 I connected up with some fantastic paved roads — Ridgecrest Boulevard, Highway 1, and Bear Valley Road alongside Point Reyes National Seashore. I ate a banana and peach iced tea at the little shop in Inverness before turning around. Throughout the slowish ride, my legs ached and my thoughts cycled between subjects that have been heavy on my mind this week: the current state of journalism, which seems to be chasing ever-diminishing profits further into a pit of pandering and fear-mongering; and, mostly unrelated, this book project I've been working on. A couple of weeks ago I resolved that I was going to cast my reservations aside and finally finish a memoir I started back in 2011, about the 11 months I lived in Homer, Alaska. The reservations mostly fluctuate around the usual — "no one is going to read this" and "people might actually read this" — feelings that strike most people who attempt to write memoirs. But for what it's worth (and admittedly it's probably not much) I very much enjoy working in this medium. Especially when dealing with events that happened nine years ago — what remains in memory is (at least I tell myself) what matters, and it's interesting to return to my own stories as a different person, with a more objective lens. Maybe someday I will attempt to write young adult fiction, which everyone knows is where the money is in publishing. But I'd rather be among those who help formulate new ways to monetize investigative and long-form journalism — after advertisers realize that print ads only draw a fraction of the eyes they did even five years ago, and despite the reality that Web advertising is so specifically targeted that ten-second kitten videos will always draw more dollars than a well-researched piece in the New York Times, and despite the fact Web content is so ADHD that even we navel-gazing bloggers don't bother too much with "writing;" we just skim our own stuff like everyone else.

Oh, there I went off on a long, unrelated tangent again. And suddenly my bike ride is done! How about that? I was rather zoned out there for a while. I pulled back into Muir Beach and waited for Beat and Steve at the finish, watching runners coast in and feeling nostalgic for the days (they seem so long ago now) when I could run. I many ways I still don't think of myself as a runner — more of a "cyclist and hiker who runs." But I miss it fiercely. Cycling is wonderful and it will always be my "thing," but there's something special about the sensation of running along the smooth corridor the Coastal Trail while waves crash on the cliffs over Pirate's Cove. It's pure freedom. It's time to start the slow process of finding my way back.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The time it takes to heal

Every injured active person probably fantasizes about a magical moment of recovery, when they can release all of their pent-up energy into the activity they love, and have their body respond with pain-free, powerful bursts of unhindered motion. Funny how there's no way a clean line can exist between "injured" and "all fine, 100 percent, no fitness lost and no remnants of injury at all." And yet we still sit around anticipating the moment we can cross this imaginary line, and feel frustrated when instead we find ourselves mired in gray areas.

After examining my knee and warning me about some ongoing inflammation, my doctor gave me the official okay to ride my bike. Surprising no one, I took this permission slip a little far over the weekend, logging close to a hundred hilly miles over three days on the road bike, which I justified because:

a. My orthopedic knee brace allows me to all but immobilize the joint, making the side-to-side movements that aggravate the ligament almost impossible (at the expense of nearly every other part of my leg.)

b. I'd have to do something majorly wrong to crash my bike while pedaling slowly on pavement, and if I did — especially if that crash involved a vehicle — I'd have worse problems than a bum knee.

c. Biking makes me happy. Happy!!!

d. Dr. Chiu said it was okay. (Okay, he actually didn't.)

e. Any sign of trouble, and I can call Beat and have him come pick me up. Eventually. When he returns from that awesome redwood forest trail run that I wasn't able to join, and probably won't for who knows how many more weeks or months because this knee that is okay at turning pedals still sucks at walking.

f. Hills are okay but flats are bad because I can't pedal a high cadence with my brace on, and put too much pressure on the joint when I try. So I better stick to hills.

g. I'm now nearly six weeks post-injury. That's the timeline for early returns to activity in most cases of ligament sprains/minor tears.

h. Happy!!!

The knee made it through the weekend without pain, but many muscles in each leg were significantly worse for the wear, with burning, throbbing, soreness, and other complaints that I haven't heard in a long time. On Sunday I joined Liehann and Trang, who were pedaling a tandem, as we coasted out of the mountains to the ocean and then turned around to climb back out. Temperatures were pushing close to 90 degrees in the sun, which feels especially brutal in mid-October, and declines in my fitness manifested quickly. Still, I was so thrilled just to be outside and riding my bike that I had to consciously hold back not to chase my friends on flat stretches of road, and fight the urge to relieve the searing acid pain in my legs by standing out of the saddle to chase them up hills (Right now I have to sit at all times, a riding style I'm not accustomed to, and one I've learned leads to an angry butt and quads.) I was slow, out of shape, in a decent amount of non-injury-related pain ... and I was so happy!!!

Today I had an appointment with an orthopedic massage therapist who both Beat and I like to visit when we need some realigning. He's very good. He said my whole leg was something of a mess, but worked out the tightness in my hips and demonstrated several physical therapy exercises I can do at home to strengthen the ligament-supporting tissues around my knee. This afternoon I pulled out my newly acquired yoga mat and did several sets of these exercises, along with some core work — the first day of a new strength-training regimen that I promised myself I'm going to stick with, this time.

Yes, this time I'm going to stick with tedious indoor exercises in the interest of building better balance and all-around strength. Actually, I'm quite excited about it. Of course, right now I still have that magical moment of recovery — the moment I can run again — as a still-unobtainable motivator on the horizon. That's really all I want — to move through the world, as often and for as long as I'm inclined, swift and graceful and free, without fall-induced injuries. Is that too much to ask?