Monday, September 26, 2011

Back in the saddle

Forty-six days. That's the amount of time that has passed since the last time I experienced a good, satisfying moment on a bike. Then it all came to a skidding halt on a bed of gravel and broken dreams. Forty-six days can be a long time.

There were a few rides at the four-week mark, right before I went to Europe. Three rides, actually. One was a commute, and two were short road rides on my mountain bike, because the front suspension helped protect my tender arm from the jarring pain of mildly bumpy pavement. During the second ride up Montebello Road, I lagged far behind Beat. When I finally wheezed my way to the top, where he had been waiting for more than five minutes, I announced that I was in the worst physical shape I had been in since the extended angry knee episode of 2007. Nothing felt right, everything felt hard, my arm hurt even though it seemed nearly healed, and frustrations about my abilities were mounting. I was teetering dangerously close to a fitness funk that threatened to anchor me to the couch in sheer protest of my useless body.

Then we left for Europe. The trip — one and a half crazy weeks in the Alps and one lazy week in Germany — proved the perfect medicine, the reset button I so badly needed. We returned Sunday night. Jet lag had me up at 3 a.m. Monday. I attempted to snooze, mostly unsuccessfully, until 7, then got up to face the day. At 8 a.m. it felt to me like 5 p.m., which is the time of day I like to exercise in my regular California routine. I wasn't focusing well on my work anyway, so I decided to head out for my first real ride in nearly seven weeks.

I pumped up my road bike tires, rifled through piles of gear to find my buried helmet and repair stuff, and set out into the refreshingly cool afternoon (because actually, it was still early in the morning.) It took a while to get my legs spinning, but after five miles I started to feel pretty good. Not just good — fantastic. I turned up Highway 9 and shifted into high gear for the 2,500-foot ascent. My quads burned and sweat streamed down my face as I marveled at the relative ease of the effort. (Climb a few mountains in the Alps and you will understand what I mean.) I crested the big climb and launched into the roller coaster of Skyline Drive. Suddenly coasting at 35 miles per hour, the wind pried an enormous smile from my lips. Tears welled up in my eyes, mostly from the speed, but also a little from joy — such simple, effortless joy. I had nearly forgotten what that felt like.

I thought back to a conversation I once had with a former climber who had a chronic shoulder injury and could no longer climb. He could run, ride bikes, ski, swim ... but he couldn't climb. And yet, he still identified as a climber and admitted that while he enjoyed running and skiing, they never quite filled the void left by climbing. As a non-climber, I wanted to assure him that trail running had as much potential for fun, fitness and scenery as rock climbing. But of course I was wrong, just as I'm wrong when I urge injured runner friends to ride bikes as an adequate replacement for their usual activities. It's not. I do believe most active outdoor people find their perfect medium, and these mediums are deeply individual. Like an artist who can paint beautiful landscapes with oils but only flat imitations with watercolors, we all have our one best vehicle. Mine, of course, is a bicycle. I love trail running and hiking, I have a natural ability for distance swimming, and I'm certain I'd still live a happy life even if I could never ride a bicycle again.

But there would always be an emptiness, a hole that would never be completely filled. And after 46 days, during a clear and cool Monday morning in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I savored the satisfying sensation of long-awaited fullness.

For those who might be curious (probably no one, but it's looking slightly less disgusting these days so I'm posting a picture) this is my arm seven weeks after the crash. As recently as two weeks ago that deeper wound at the bottom was still bleeding, and I developed an infection in Italy that convinced me to stop wearing band-aids all the time (thus pooling bacteria-laden sweat around it for hours on end.) It still feels a bit raw but the deep-set soreness is all but gone — 110 psi on the rough pavement of Alpine Road today confirmed that. I came home after my three-hour, 45-mile hilly road ride completely ecstatic about my progress, and when I told Beat he actually went into and signed me up for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. The 25-hour mountain bike race in Hurricane, Utah (which Beat and I raced together as a team last year) is an event I've been coveting but was reluctant to enter for a number of reasons. However, as it turns out, it's only a few days before my sister's wedding in Salt Lake City, making travel logistics easier, and not so close to our Nepal adventure that I can't recover — as long as I ride conservatively, and don't crash. So now I have a month to train for a 25-hour solo mountain bike race after more than six weeks off the bike, and a rigid goal not to injure myself. Even if I take it easy (and that's my plan), I am going to be inclined to gut out the full 25 hours and it's probably going to hurt. A lot. And yet, I'm so excited. I get to ride my bike. A lot! The binge after the fast.


  1. Nepal? NEPAL?!?! That sounds amazing. your elbow looks really, really sore.

  2. Beat and I are participating in a week-long stage race (on foot) in the Annapurna foothills with Racing the Planet starting Nov. 20. I think we both view race as more of a supported trekking tour, but there are a few long stages and of course it's imperative that I'm healthy so I can see the whole thing. I do believe that aggressive cross-training more heavily weighted toward biking may be my best bet to being both healthy and fit in Nepal. After six weeks of exclusively running and hiking, I'm already feeling the beginnings of nagging overuse issues including minor soreness in one of my left metatarsus bones (possible beginnings of a stress fracture, maybe?) as well as inflammation in my right knee.

  3. Yeahaa for the elbow and an amazing bike ride! I envy you, as it has been just about as long since I had a satisfying run, you know, my choice of passion:) I am thrilled for you, for your Europe trip, and for the plans for Nepal! That wound looks eeky and still inflamed, and yes, please no more crashes, and OMG, please don't get into foot stress fractures!!!

  4. I would normally agree with Jill on the individual finding their perfect medium, but I had to transition from running to cycling a few years ago (knees & joints in general after 30+ years). It has taken a while, but I feel the same passion for cycling that I once held for running, so don't feel hopeless if you can no longer perform "perfectly". It may be that the PASSION is the important part, but what do I know?

  5. So, do you get your new 29er?

  6. So well said Jill, as one who has journied through competitive, powerlifting, running and swimming until I found me the cyclist, that made a lot of sense.

  7. Hi Jill, I've been reading your blog for quite a while now and I enjoy it a lot.
    The picture of your scar made me think of a Bavarian remedy used for the treatment of scars:
    I don't know if you have it in the states (I'm from Bavaria/Germany) but try to get hold of St.-John's-wort oil for your elbow scar. It really helps the tissue to heal and makes it look less inflamed.
    I had surgery on my feet two years ago and my mom gave me a bottle if her homemade oil after the surgery. As soon as the wounds were closed it started using it and the scars are barely visible anymore.
    Good luck with the training for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. Don't crash again!!!
    Cheers from Munich, Sandra

  8. Ed, I agree with you, but to a certain extent I also believe that there would always be hints of longing for the sensation of "flying," which I've never experienced in the same way as I have on my bicycle. (And I used to be an avid snowboarder, and still the sensation wasn't the same.)

    I also believe if I was ever rendered completely inactive due to accident or disease, I could still live a fulfilling life through my quieter passions, such as writing. Still, there would always be a void that physical activity use to fill. It is, after all, a large part of my identity.

    Sandra: Thanks for the advice. I've been using a holistic scar cream called Jing Jang since the beginning. It really helped my more superficial road rash heal. You can't even see hints of it anymore. But I'll have to give the St. Johns wort oil a try. I went to see my doctor yesterday for some vaccinations and he speculated that there might still be some gravel in there. So I might have a fairly prominent scar no matter what I do.

  9. Great description of each us having the perfect medium. It's great that you are finally bike in your medium again.


Feedback is always appreciated!