Thursday, June 06, 2019

Adventures in injury

Despite having one of those "barely injured" injuries, I've hit the three-week lull — that drawn-out part of recovery when the pain has diminished but the stiffness and instability persists, and it feels like I'll never be whole again. Like my leg will never work quite right again. Like I'll always feel this wistful as I watch June hikers carry snowshoes into mountains, because I will always be confined to the mobility aid of a bicycle. Yes, unjustified angst is creeping to the surface. I suspect an anticipated June "hormone slump" may be setting in as well.

In actuality, everything is going quite well so far. I've been working with a physical therapist on my MCL strain and adductor issues. She tells me she's observed significant progress. "You're a fast healer," she said, which led me to tell an awkward story about that time I had frostbite and within weeks grew new skin where the medical professionals didn't expect to see healing. Working with the physical therapist has the added bonus of providing new insight into my balance issues. Her prescribed exercises aim to realign my center of gravity and improve my core strength. All good things.

I've been mostly well-behaved — dutifully doing my physical therapy exercises, icing the knee every day, and wearing a fancy brace everywhere I go. But after the PT and doctor gave me a free pass to ride my bike as much as I want, I may have pushed some limits. The first came last Wednesday, after a great PT session, which gave me more confidence to try riding a hill. It had only been 12 days since injury, and thus far I had only ridden a bike a couple of times on flat concrete and gravel bike paths. But it was May 29, and the forecast called for 29 degrees and snow in Rollinsville. "I bet the crust riding on Rollins Pass Road will be good! Last chance for a snow ride this season!"

 The weather was uncomfortable — snaining rather than snowing, with high winds, and 31 degrees. I felt like I was back in Nome. There was also more dirt on Rollins Pass Road than I'd hoped for — I don't know what I was expecting, really, since it was almost June, and at least some of the days this spring have been warm enough to prompt snowmelt. But this meant dodging babyheads, deep puddles, and mud. It was more technical maneuvering than I knew I should be risking. Higher up, the snowfields became deeper and less consolidated. Eventually, my front wheel punched through the rotten surface and I threw my dab leg — my tender right leg — into a drift that swallowed the entire limb. The rigid brace likely saved my knee from a more damaging twist, but the impact was wrenching enough to send a shock of pain through my body. I felt terrifically stupid, and sat for some time in the swirling snain to express my contriteness to the universe. "I'm sorry. Please let me not be more injured." The pain cleared and I turned around to creep back down the road. By the time I hit bottom, my knee was feeling a lot better. I was grateful, but acknowledged that poor choices were made in my lust for a late spring snow adventure. I vowed to do better.

 Of course I was back out on Thursday, engaged in a long and steep — really, I'd forgotten how steep — climb up Sunshine Canyon. This was my first strenuous effort since the Bryce 100, and although my knee felt alright, every other body part was maxed out in a way that felt strangely unfamiliar. How quickly we grow accustomed to sedentary life. I nearly gave into my burning lungs a half dozen times, but my knee didn't hurt, so I couldn't justify turning around early. My destination was Gold Hill, site of the first major discovery of gold in Colorado in 1859, now another one of those quirky mountain towns above Boulder. Here is another place that sort of makes me feel like I'm back in Nome, Alaska.

 Gold Hill is also home to one of my favorite road names in the state, Lickskillet Road. It's right up there with High Lonesome Drive. Lickskillet Road may have a great name but it's a nasty little piece of gravel — reportedly one of the steepest county roads in the United States with a grade of 18 percent, covered in loose gravel and dusty even in the spring. This makes for a precarious descent on a gravel bike with a bad knee. Yes, the poor choices continued, but this ride also was mercifully uneventful.

On Saturday, Beat was gone for the entire day, volunteering for the Dirty 30 trail race in Golden Gate State Park. I had caught a small hit of endorphins on Thursday and wanted more, so I decided it would be a good day for a longer ride. I set out on the gravel bike at 11 a.m. under ominous clouds with frequent flashes of lightning. Mercifully, the storm moved east before I passed underneath, and I enjoyed Flordia-like humidity and hot sun on wet gravel.

I never had a solid plan for this outing. Feeling surprisingly strong and pain-free, I continued to justify a longer and longer ride. After riding Gross Dam and Gap Road all the way to Peak to Peak, I descended all of Magnolia and got myself stuck in a terrifically bike-unfriendly Boulder Canyon. So I scooted over to Chapman trail for a paltry little 2,000-foot climb toward home. Having not exactly planned on a 45-mile ride with 7,000 feet of climbing, I hadn't had much to eat or drink, and this final climb utterly leveled me. The lowest gear on the gravel bike was several notches too high, and my vision began to blur as I cranked up the Wall of Pain on Flagstaff. My wobbly right leg lost all power, and the left leg strained to pick up the slack. By the time I got home I could hardly function — stumbling around the house, confused, staring out the window and wondering what year it was. I was just really, really bonked. A yogurt and a couple of apples helped me gain back some coherence before Beat came home.

On Sunday, I managed to time a 1.5-hour mountain bike ride perfectly to be pummeled with rain and hail almost the entire way, after which the sun came out for the remainder of the afternoon. It was time for a rest day, but Monday was Beat's B-Cycle challenge, and I hoped to take photos. Every June, Google employees hold an unofficial "Flagstaff Challenge" where cyclists and runners playfully compete to be the first to the Amphitheater at Flagstaff Summit. Cyclists ride the road, which is about 3.5 miles with 1,500 feet of climbing, and runners take the trail, which is a little less than two miles with similar climbing. Beat had an excellent idea to take on this challenge with a B-Cycle — the commuter bicycles of Boulder's bike-share program, which have three speeds, terrible drum brakes, and weigh at least 60 pounds. At one point he convinced four of his colleagues to join him, but in the end it was just Beat and a younger fast guy, Josh, propelling these clunkers up the steep road.

 I did not think they'd be able to do it without pushing the bikes. I know I couldn't, not at that weight with that gearing, let alone all of the other awkward mechanisms on these bikes. So I rode my mountain bike down to Panorama Point and followed them up the hill. It was more difficult to keep up with their pace than I'd hoped.

 Here they are passing one of the final runners at a road crossing for the trail. She still beat them to the top, so they were proudly DFL in the casual wave. Google employees held a more competitive wave on Thursday, where Beat was the timer, and Josh was one of the trail runners. He smashed the course in 15:55, beating all of the fast cyclists as well. An impressive effort — no doubt riding B-Cycles makes you strong.

 The Flagstaff Challenge started at 8 a.m. and it was a 45-minute ride to my waiting spot — an early enough start that I hadn't had my coffee. I carried some in a thermos to drink while spectating, and ended up descending Chapman after the race so I could enjoy a lovely morning respite in the shade next to Boulder Creek. The Boulder Canyon construction created a lot of congestion, so there was a steady stream of traffic just overhead as I sat next to the raging spring runoff and sipped my coffee. It was still a nice way to spend the morning, though. The ensuing "SuperChap" climb was a lot easier with a bloodstream full of caffeine and mountain bike gearing.

After the slightly aggressive weekend adventures, my knee was sore enough to be concerning. I took the next two days off cycling, although my physical therapy exercises are quite strenuous on their own. By Thursday I was again chomping at the bit, and the weather forecast was encouraging for a road ride: 85 degrees with only a 10 percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Hard to believe that just a week ago, it was still actively snowing. Just like that, summer arrived.

The are few workouts I enjoy more than cycling climbs that last longer than two hours. My aim for the afternoon was Brainard Lake, climbing from 5,300 feet to 10,500 feet over 25 gorgeous miles. About halfway up Lefthand Canyon, I was pummeled by what must have been the only dark cloud in the county, with 10 minutes of intense rain and hail. The reward for this soaking was a break from the heat, and I celebrated by not drinking any of the water in my two bottles, for the entire ascent (dumb, dumb, dumb.)

I made it to Brainard Lake, walked the snow fields for a short time, sat on a rock to enjoy the mountain scenery, ate a bar and drank the water in one of the bottles. As soon as I climbed back on the bike and made one pedal stroke, a clenching pain gripped my left hamstring with such intensity that I thought I pulled a muscle. The pain continued to reverberate as I stepped off the bike, limped a few steps, tried to squat and stretch, and took all the weight off the leg. Nothing worked. I climbed back on the bike, coasted down the hill, and tried to make a pedal stroke. The leg balked and shot back with more sharp pain. This was my good leg. Oh no.

With much straining and grimacing, I managed to coast and occasionally pedal back to the gate and lower parking lot, where a half dozen people were milling about. I limped into the outhouse, then limped around some more, fretting about how I was going to get myself down the mountain. It was still more than 20 miles and while almost entirely downhill, there would have to be some pedaling in there. My leg hurt so much, just standing in place. I contemplated asking around for a lift down the canyon. Finally I got back on the bike, figuring I'd coast at five miles an hour if I had to, and call Beat when I reached the bottom of the hill if my leg still wouldn't work.

With much grimacing and straining, I managed to get some rotations going. As time passed, the pain diminished. I theorized that what happened wasn't a new injury, but rather a terrible muscle cramp, likely brought on by poor hydration and the fact that I've been working my left leg so much harder to pick up the slack for my injured right leg. Even after I regained mobility, my hamstrings continue to burn and throb, and I couldn't muster much power. My weakling right leg revealed its uselessness during this time, when I had no strength for anything more than a light spin. Certainly there was no more hill climbing left in these legs. I'd ruined them both.

After the ride, more time passed, and my hamstring continued to improve. I'm convinced it was just a cramp, but I have to say, that was the most intense muscle cramp I have ever experienced. I suppose my body is sending clear messages that I am overdoing it, which is frustrating, because I feel like I've hardly done anything this week. Just a little bit of bike riding. 


  1. Your little bit is more than most people do. I've been consigned to likely the same core strength and adductor exercises. Does your PT use KT tape? Mine does and it might just be a placebo but I swear it helps.

    1. KT tape has been considerably helpful for my Achilles tendonitis. But one application on my thighs resulted in an irritating rash across my upper leg. Now I'm reluctant to try it again. Having sensitive skin sucks.

  2. "I will always be confined to the mobility aid of a bicycle." Actually, I think a little bit of snow shoeing or XC skiing could be a good thing for you - learning new stuff can energize your brain, promote neural flexibility, and have crossover benefits for your main sports.

    1. Every winter I give some thought to taking up cross-country skiing again. My efforts in Alaska just went so poorly ... back when my motor skills were better, and I was younger and better equipped to absorb impact ... that reluctance wins over. Being a terrible XC skier in one's 20s doesn't inspire much confidence for getting the hang of it at 40. I do think working on various exercises to become a better trail runner is a worthy goal for mind and body. And I've always loved slow(snow)shoeing.

  3. Actually, XC equipment has gotten much better and more stable in the intervening years. Someone like you who likes to get off the beaten trail might like a good stable backcountry set up like the one below. I love mine and have put hundreds of miles on them in spectacular, lonesome settings. Nice middleweight package that lets you go pretty much anywhere.

    1. That's a good tip, thank you. The combination of avalanche risk (the more I study about avalanches, the more wary I feel) and injury risk (I've already had three knee ligament tears from trail running, which is hardly a gravity sport), means I'll probably never become an enthusiastic backcountry mountain skier. Twenty years ago I was an avid snowboarder, but lost interest when it became clear that I may always be incurably clumsy (I took a lot of hits at age 19 that would likely take me out for weeks at age 40) and what my soul craves is the climb. Perhaps that will change. I do still have interest in honing ski skills for potential Alaska backcountry adventures, and the skis you describe may be perfect for the job. I'll keep them in mind.

    2. Not to flog a dead horse, but the XC equipment of today is as different from the gear 20 years ago as a new full suspension mt bike is from a 20 year old one.

  4. The ride up to Brainard sounds super nice! I love climbs like that one too. I'm so glad for you that you can ride during this recovery. It sure makes being injured less bad. Keep on healing!

  5. Glad you posted the bit about Beats B-cycle ride up Flagstaff Mt rd (and mentioning the trail)...Ive been in Boulder for a week now (work travel, we are working every day, er...every night in my case). Back on Monday I got a chance to hike up the trail to the kind of exciting when a bear came lumbering off the summit (by the stone house-thing) towards the trail...if Id been a few minutes slower Id have gone face to face. Ive seen mt lions back in CA but only bear tracks, never the real deal. Boulder is a real nice town. Just wish I had more time to actually SEE some of it besides the hotel and restaurants. Maybe next year (we will be returning). I actually thought about renting one of the B bikes and doing what Beat and Josh did if I got the chance...then I changed my mind...I like my knees un-blown, thank you very much.


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