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?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Still Grand, even from a limited perspective

 My plan for Fall Grand Canyon 2014 was to drive around the big ditch with my mom, who serves as the support crewperson every year, and often doesn't have any company for this thankless task. I thought it was a great plan to spend some quality one-on-one time with my mom, and still catch some glimpses of this geographical marvel from the rim. Like my Lonely Highway Drive, these trips sounded like great choices until I strung them all together, and realized I was setting myself up for A LOT of car time in the span of six days. (2,773 miles. Google Maps says it's 45 hours worth!) All of this sitting in one position aggravated my knee substantially. I'd been working daily on my range of motion, and every time I stepped out of the car, it felt like I had been set back two weeks at least. I was able to get my flexibility back after short walks, mostly, but some soreness and stiffness persisted.

 My dad hiked across the canyon with his friends Raj and Chad. Raj is an Ironman triathlete and Chad has posted a bunch of fast marathons, and I'm working to coax them toward the dark side (trail running.) The fact I needed walking sticks and a brace to walk 300 feet to overlooks probably did not help my cause.

 After we drove from the North Rim to the South Rim — a 200-mile drive to bridge a 24-mile hike — I decided to meander down the Bright Angel trail to greet my dad and friends. In my memory this trail was buttery smooth with gentle inclines, but in my current physical state it morphed to something perplexingly rocky and steep. I clickity-clacked down very slowly, making a visual note of every foot placement, and went down the rockier steps sideways. My mother was adamant that this hike was a bad idea and I admit it was a risk — any fall or fast motion against the aggravated tendon has the potential to re-injure or worsen the tear. Since I'm still fighting that feeling of instability, I can't really trust the leg to hold its own weight, so even simple walking carries this risk. Beat will be shaking his head vigorously as he reads this ... "long-term thinking!" he'll scold. But, gah, this slow walking just felt so good. On the way back up I was able to keep up with my dad by stiffening the whole leg and effectively not using the joint — climbing peg-legged, at the expense of my calf muscle. There was more soreness afterward, and I admit to some regret, but ultimately I don't believe these motions aggravated the healing process. Really, there has to be a point where I start the path back to mobility. That is never an easy or straightforward divide to bridge.

Before I headed home, my dad and I walked for an hour on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. I was happy that my knee felt strong for that entire outing (by strong, I mean, "not feeling like it might buckle underneath me at any moment.") I do believe the healing is going well — I have no more swelling, only infrequent and low-level pain, and a full range of motion. But I do worry about that stability issue. If ligaments are torn, the instability can persist long after they're technically healed, because the ligament isn't tight enough to support the knee. I suspect my left MCL was compromised last year, and that old injury was possibly aggravated in this year's knee-shredding, which also involved enough soft-tissue damage to cause bruising. Now I likely have a compromised LCL as well, and while I can pedal a bike without issue (although not much in the way of strength), any and all weight-bearing activities still feel iffy. I plan to discuss this with my doctor at an appointment this week, although he is likely to scold me as well because he recommended I do nothing for four weeks.

I realize this is a boring blog post. I keep going back to posts from last summer to try to get a better grasp on the symptoms and recovery of what I believed to be an MCL injury, but there's nothing useful. So I'm posting now just to have some record of the recovery process, boring walks and all.

But it certainly was a beautiful fall weekend in Utah and Arizona. I'm glad I went.