Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Pain in the neck

Something about the Mount Tam 50K sparked a "must run" stoke that has yet to dissipate. When I get up in the morning, I feel excited about running. I want to hit familiar trails and try to run faster; I want to seek out new routes and run longer. It's hard to say why my run stoke is so high right now, but it may have something to do with the fact that every time I've ridden a bike in recent weeks, I felt like the reduced-power slug that I probably actually am. And yet, somehow, whenever I set out on foot, I feel comparatively strong, light, and free. So I go for a run, feel great, and then the hidden knot in my neck tightens again. After every run, without fail, I've grappled with a stiff neck for a day or two. It's baffling, and annoying, because since when did a sore neck become a running injury?

This started at the Horseshoe Lake 50K, which was a little more than a month ago. I woke up the next morning with a sharp pain down the center of my neck, and assumed I had wrenched it after I was stung by a wasp during the race. The rigid stiffness faded over the course of the week, and may have gone away completely if I didn't run that road half marathon in Moab a week later. Unknown forces during that thirteen-mile fun run took my little knot and tightened it into something more permanent.

See what I did there? Even though my neck first felt sore after a trail race, I try to blame the half marathon because I think road running is the root of all running-related injuries (not really, but I do carry disproportionate prejudices against running on flat pavement.) But after The Other Half, I was stricken again by a seriously stiff neck, and it's come back to some extent after every run since. I rode my bike for 170 miles in Frog Hollow with no ill effects (at least to my neck), and yet a six-mile run a few days later left me hobbled again. I finally decided this nagging neck soreness might not go away on its own and scheduled an appointment with a massage therapist next week. Based on his opinion, I'll decide where to go from there. In the meantime, I try to limit my running to shorter routes every other day. Which is how, despite rain and colder temperatures, I ended up on a bike ride today.

Here's another habit I've formed since I moved to California that I'm not proud of — I don't ride my bike in the rain anymore. Now, granted, it only really rains here from October to March, and even then only a few times a month. But on the days it does rain, I don't ride. If I want to exercise, I go for a run. I really enjoy running in the rain, and now view non-commute biking in the rain as wholly unnecessary and bad for bikes. It's sad to me because I used to thrive — thrive — on rain riding when I was an Alaska resident. People gave me kudos for riding through snow and subzero temperatures, but it was the rain riding that really made me tough. When I was pedaling in the driving rain with thick droplets clinging to my face and an icy stream running down my back, I wasn't training to be a fit cyclist. I was training for life, to be strong, to be resilient, to be ready for anything the world could throw at me. Now I'm a wimpy Californian with a stiff neck who has to dig through the back corner of my closet to find my cycling rain gear.

I tried to muster strength up the long road climb, but I was feeling sluggish. A steady drizzle tickled my skin, but it was still too warm for rain gear. It was a blah gray day, nothing terribly scenic, and I considered bailing from my ride early. Then I reached the ridge. A storm that had just minutes before been simply gray and drizzly suddenly broke loose. The mountain was enveloped in thick fog, driving rain, and gale-force winds steamrolling eastward from the coast. The Santa Cruz Mountains form a barrier between the Pacific Coast and the warmer Santa Clara Valley, and Montebello Ridge is a prominent spine. Weather collects up there, so even if conditions are nice and calm in the valley, it can be hurricane nasty on the ridge 2,500 feet higher. Suddenly surrounded by horrible, uncomfortable, bike-rattling weather conditions, I couldn't help it. I broke into a big smile.

There was little else to do but pull up my hood, pull on my gloves, and pedal full-tilt into the angry storm. Wind buffeted my little bike and a deeper chill seeped through my wet shirt. I had the best time descending the wet Bella Vista Trail, laughing in the face of driving rain. I relished the fading light, obscuring fog, and violent wind, because they reminded me of everything I used to love about riding bikes in weather, real weather. It will batter you and drive you to distraction in too-large doses; I learned that the hard way. But in small doses, few things are more fun than riding bikes in bad weather.

The rain left me fully soaked and had to bundle up for the long descent, but as soon as I dropped out of the storm, I was treated to a stunning sunset. This photo doesn't capture the visual at all, but there was this beautiful wash of pink light over the sky and valley, and the clouds had an eerily bright tint.

Yeah, this photo didn't grab it either. Guess that's why it's good to get out there, in the cold and driving storm, to see for myself. Either way, I was buzzing after my ride, and wonder if I can now return to my regularly scheduled "ride stoke." For reasons that don't make any sense, this evening has been relatively neck pain-free.