Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Not My Last Dance

Photo Credit: Mike Briggs
If you read my last blog post, which was written about a year ago, I reported to everyone that I was retiring from competitive cycling.  At the time I wrote that post, I was still experiencing extreme pain from my L4-5 herniated lumbar disc and competitive cycling seemed like it would never be possible for me to do again. Additionally, my mind and body were worn out and the only thing I wanted was to be well again.

Luckily, I found an awesome physical therapist, Dr. Justin Deskovich, to help me through this difficult time.  I listened to what he said and followed his recovery plan religiously.  Still, after doing about a month of rehab, I wasn't experiencing any quick or noticeable results, so I decided to see a neurologist about my disc herniation and get his opinion.  The neurologist claimed to take a conservative approach to treating his patients; however, when he saw me, I was told the only way I would ever live pain free and function normally again was to have a laminectomy and discectomy surgery as soon as possible.  Surgery was then set for ten days after this appointment.

Immediately after that appointment, I had a bunch of pre-surgery medical tests completed and then contacted Justin to let him know about my decision.  He spoke honestly to me about the surgery, what I might experience, and also compared how my recovery through only doing physical rehab would be verse going through surgery. After listening to Justin, reading the lengthy surgery disclaimer I signed in the neurologist's office, and doing further research online about this surgery, I decided to delay it and give Justin's rehabilitation program more time.  Looking back at this situation now, I can't even believe I gave surgery any consideration at all and I have no regrets of not going under the knife.

Photo Credit: Dennis Smith
During my injury recovery, I was completely off my bike from mid December until mid February.  When I finally started riding again, it was on my trainer and only for short periods of time, like 10-20 minutes a day with very little resistance.  The first couple of rides were pretty scary because my left leg didn't seem to remember what to do and it was difficult for me to get on and off my bike. I've always been a very active guy and being so limited in my movement was discouraging and frustrating to me.

Deciding to not have surgery was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but after doing about another month of rehab, I started feeling much less pain in my left leg and began regaining strength in it too.  I was so happy to finally be able to walk normally again and assume most other daily postures and activities without discomfort. From this point, my progress seemed to really take off and by the beginning of April, I was well enough to discontinue my PT sessions.  I have, however, continued to do the exercises Justin taught me until this day because I never want to experience the pain of having a disc herniation again.

I can't say for certain when I started thinking about racing my bike again.  Riding my bike has always been a passion of mine and for some reason I inevitably start thinking about racing when I'm out riding. The first race I did was the ABRA Mountain State Dirty Double gravel stage race, which was held on May 16th-17th in Rowlesburg, WV.  I did the race mostly because I was curios to see how my back would feel after doing tough race efforts and to see how much top end fitness I had loss from doing a lot less riding.  Surprisingly, I felt pretty good during the race and ended up with a third place finish in the singlespeed class, even after I had a long delay trying to repair a major mechanical issue - my pedal fell off. After doing the gravel stage race, I waited until the middle of June to do my second race: The Big Bear 2x12 duo mtb race in Bruceton Mills, WV.  I teamed-up with my buddy Scott Benson and we raced our fatbikes in the 35+ vet class.  This race also went pretty well and it felt good to ride fast through the woods again.

But, after doing these two events, my racing appetite was pretty much satisfied.  They were fun and all, but I still wasn't feeling a big urge to return to the level of racing I once did.  I was just happy getting out for short rides of between 1-2 hours each day and doing other activities like running, stand-up paddleboarding, and yoga. My body was actually feeling stronger than ever from mixing-up my workouts and spending much less time on my bike.

I think it was this feeling of being stronger overall that gave me thoughts about racing again.  I also knew that I needed a change from the endurance type of racing I had focused on so intensely before being injured. Cyclocross racing seemed to be a perfect fit for my new racing aspirations.  Cyclocross races are shorter in duration, have a shorter season, and CX is also one of my favorite disciplines in the sport of cycling.  I was excited about focusing my racing emphasis on cyclocross and began training specifically for the season at the end of July.  I was also excited about going into cyclocross season with fresh legs from not doing a long and hard mountain bike racing season.

Photo Credit: Kevin Dillard
By the time the first CX race arrived at the end of August, I felt like my body was ready, but I had no idea how the race would go after doing only two races all year.  I wasn't having any issues with my back while training for CX, but I was concerned with how it was going to feel when I had to put out the super-hard efforts required to do well in a cyclocross race.  Of course, there was also the thought of what might happen if I was involved in a crash during the race sitting in the back of my mind too. I can't begin to explain how surprised, happy, and alive I felt after I won that first race.

Overall, my season continued to go well.  I ended up with a handful of wins and landed a spot on the podium at most of the races I did.  I decided to spend the majority of my season traveling east to do either the MAC or PACX cyclocross race series most weekends because these races have deeper fields and also gave me the ability to score better points than what was available at local races.  But, by mid November, all the traveling started to wear me down and it was begin to kill my strong desire to race.  This feeling kept me at the local ABRA races during the last part of November and the beginning of December.  Taking a break from traveling got me pumped-up to do the final MAC race of the season and for the up-and-coming USAC Cyclocross Nationals.

I absolutely thought my dancing days were done last December when I announced my retirement from cycling. My successful rehabilitation from my herniated disc and the ton of fun I had doing cyclocross races this season has changed my mind about leaving competitive cycling and it feels good to now report that I have not yet done my last dance.  I'm not exactly sure what my racing will entail for 2016, but as of now, my plan is to primarily focus on cyclocross racing again. This post wouldn't be complete without giving a big thanks to Dirty Harry's Bike Shop in Verona, PA for being my sponsor for the 2015 cyclocross season - thank you, guys!  I also need to thank Justin Deskovich for helping me fight through my pain without having surgery.

Happy trails and see you at the races, my friends! - Gerry

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Out with the old and in with the new...

After not updating my racing blog since August, I've finally found enough motivation to write some words I feel worthy of sharing with my friends and fellow racers.  To me, it seems like the beginning of a new year is the perfect time to look back at past experiences and to share new adventures, especially after not writing for such a long period of time. Interestingly enough, this new writing of mine may also be the last time I write a blog post about racing my bicycle.

Probably the best place to begin this post is by writing about the racing I've done since my last blog post. After doing the Hampshire 100 in August, I finished out the National Ultra Endurance Series (NUE) by doing the final two races of the series: the Shenandoah Mountain 100 and the Fool's Gold 100.  With my singlespeed category win at Hampshire, I was in a unique position going into the next two races of having a chance to be the first ever rider to stand on two separate NUE Series final podiums in the same season: the open men and singlespeed categories.  

The NUE final podium for the open men class.
My race at Shenandoah went well for me in the singlespeed category and I finished second there to fast SS man Gordon Wadsworth.  This gave me a lock on taking third overall on the NUE Series singlespeed podium position, behind Gordon and AJ Linnell, and allowed me to direct my concentration for the Fool's Gold race to the open class.  By taking fourth in the open class at Fool's Gold, I was able to move into the NUE Series third overall podium position for the open men category (behind Jeremiah Bishop and Tinker Juarez) and achieved my goal of being the first person to stand on two separate NUE Series podiums in the same season. This feat coupled with my five consecutive overall NUE Series SS category wins may be enough to get me into the NUE Series Hall of Fame one day,...haha.

Next up on my 2014 racing agenda was to start my season of cyclocross racing and to also complete the last two races of the American Ultra Cross Series: Iron Cross and the Gravel Grovel.  Cross season started very well for me and I took a double win at the first ABRA Cyclocross Series race in Point Marion, PA by winning the SS and Masters 40+ classes.  As in previous years, I was really looking forward to racing cyclocross during the fall season and was pleasantly surprised that my legs responded so well to the shorter effort racing demands cyclocross requires after competing in such a long endurance MTB season.

For whatever reason, the snappiness I felt in my legs only a week earlier did not come around for the much longer Iron Cross Ultracross Series Race. Perhaps it was due to the cool temperatures of the day; but for whatever reason, I didn't have the power to continue riding with a fast riding Mike Montalbano that day.  Once it became apparent that Mike was gone, I settled into racing for second place and knew finishing in this position would give me a virtual lock on winning my third overall American Ultra CX Series title (One in the 40+ Masters Class and two SS titles).  Unfortunately, my race for second place at IC became a lot more difficult when another rider slammed into the back of my bike as I slowed down to take a turn off a fast gravel down hill road onto a trail.  I went over the bars and hit the ground hard, cracking my helmet and suffering pretty severe road rash.  I also noticed I had pain in my hips and ribs after getting back on the bike, but I continued racing hard to eventually take second place in the SS category.

I learned the next day the pain I felt in my ribs was being caused from cracking a couple of them on my rear mid-thoracic area.  The pain was significant enough to keep me off my bike for a bit and definitely too much for me to consider doing any cyclocross races soon.  I did not think too much about my hip and lower back pain at the time because I had also felt this pain after the two hard crashes I had while racing at the Lumberjack 100 and the High Cascades 100 earlier in the year and it subsided each time. 

My crash at Iron Cross solidified the thoughts I was having most of the year about racing my bike in the future.  All year long, I was thinking 2014 might be my last serious year of racing and the pain I felt from this crash was enough to convince me that the time was right to move into a semi-retirement mode of racing.  With this in mind, I gave notice to the Rare Disease Cycling Team that I would be resigning from the team at the end of the season.

However, after not racing for three weekends and somewhat recovering from my crash, I decided to do a local CX race in Blairsville, PA called the Coal Town Cyclocross Race.  It was a small event and I thought it would be a good way to test my fitness and also test my feelings towards the sport I've done for the past 34 years.  I must admit that it felt great winning the race, even though it was just a small event. Around the same time, I was also contacted by a new team interested in having me join their ranks, which gave me about the same sponsorship deal I had racing with the Rare Disease Team. Additionally, I was talking with Jake Wade and Dan Rapp about changing up our endurance racing by using fatbikes in the NUE Series and starting an unrecognized NUE fatbike category for us and other riders interested in doing something different.  All these recent developments renewed my interest in racing again and suddenly I was excited about racing in 2015.

The day after doing the Coal Town CX Race, I decided to move a heavy log stuck in the river which adjoins my property.  To do so meant I had to first wade through very cold water, which was over my knees, to position myself in a way that I could attempt to move the 50 foot, 3 foot in diameter log. I bent over without bending my knees and started pulling-up on the huge log.  I immediately felt a pop in my back and was almost stuck in the bent over position I used to lift the log.  But, being the Happy Idiot I am, I re-entered the water two more times to eventually get the log to move and continue its trip down the river.

The final ABRA CX race and my friendly battle with Travis.

By the time I walked back to my house, I knew something was messed up in my back. It didn't feel like anything major and actually felt like my back did after my crashes at Iron Cross, the High Cascades 100 and the Lumberjack 100.  I took it somewhat easy for two weeks, but felt well enough to do the final ABRA Cyclocross Series Race in Pittsburgh. I took a third place finish in the singlespeed race and a second place finish in the masters race, so I assumed my back injury was nothing major and decided it was okay to travel to Indiana State the following weekend to do the final race of the American Ultra CX Series.

The open woman, male and SS GG winners.
Dan Rapp and I decided to do our trip out to the Gravel Grovel Ultra CX Race together, as we did last year.  Dan and I had a good trip out to the race and we both raced well.  Dan finished third in the race and second in the series, and I took the race win and the overall American Ultra Cross Series win. Needless to say, these fine results got me even more stoked for continuing my racing into the 2015 season.

But, as my luck of 2014 would have it, my assumed "insignificant back injury" took an awful turn for the worst during the long seven hour drive home from the Gravel Grovel and by the time I got home, the muscles in my left leg and lower back were so tight that I could barely get myself out of the car and walk into my home. The pain was so severe that night I also couldn't sleep.  I should have known after this pain continued for more than a week that I was dealing with something more than just a muscle issue. But, I didn't, or maybe I refused to believe that there was a more serious issue causing an almost constant pain in my leg. I just couldn't understand how in such a short period of time I could go from winning a race, with no issues of pain during the event, to feeling like I'd rather have my entire leg amputated rather than continue feeling the pain I was experiencing.  Yes, the pain was that bad and I can best describe the sensation I was feeling to what it would probably feel like to have my leg crushed in a the rear hydraulic trash compactor of a garbage truck over and over again.

Being in my state of denial about what was causing the pain, I used my typical methods of healing by continuing to ride, receiving massage and getting acupuncture.  I was also consuming large amounts of ibuprofen.  None of these things gave me relief from the pain and I'm quite certain now that the riding I continued to do the first two weeks only made my issue worse.

This never ending pain eventually got so bad that I finally decided to visit my racing buddy, Scott Benson, at the ER where he works.  He took some X-rays, a CT scan and gave me a couple of prescriptions to help me along until I was able to see an orthopedic doctor he recommended to further evaluate my injury.  My trip to the ER was made a bit more pleasant when I was surprised to see the smiling face of Betsy Shogren who was also working there.  Being cared for by friends, especially friends that understand my level of fitness, definitely made this ER visit a good experience.

The orthopedic doctor I saw ordered an MRI, since the X-ray and CT scan taken at the ER had negative results, and also referred me to an excellent physical therapist named Justin Deskovich. This PT listened to how my injury occurred and then did some quick physical examinations and was quickly able to say I was showing signs of a herniated lumbar disc at the L5 level, which was compressing a nerve exiting my spine.

An MRI I had on 12/23/2014 confirmed what my PT had told me earlier and I felt relieved to finally know what was actually causing my pain.  My guess is that the nasty crashes I had this year, along with my core strength being decreased, from two separate incidents of breaking my ribs this year, weakened this area of my body enough to cause the herniation when I pushed the log stuck in the river.  The minor symptoms of this injury I was initially experiencing did not completely materialize until I aggravated the herniated disc and nerve even further by sitting with bad posture during my fourteen plus hours of driving getting to and from the Gravel Grovel Race along with doing nearly four hours of hard singlespeed racing.

My PT had the same injury some years ago and has been great in helping me recover, but I've learned there is no quick or easy method to heal from this type of injury and that it will be sometime before I can completely resume the active lifestyle I'm used to living.  The last thing I want to do now is rush back to racing this year and take the chance of causing my injury to get worse.  Once I learned exactly what my injury was, I've given a lot more thought about racing bikes and my future in general over the past couple of weeks . After doing much consideration, I've come to the final conclusion that it's time for me to retire from competitive bike racing.

I feel good about this decision.  I've had a blast racing my bike over the past 34 years; have made some great friends; and can also say I'm proud of the race results I've accumulated over the years. This doesn't mean I'm going to stop riding my bike.  I love the freedom and sense of adventure I feel when I ride too much to ever give up riding.  It may be a few months until I can ride again, but I assure you I'll be back at it as soon as possible.  I'm just not interested in being faster than the other guy anymore and feel like the time has come for me to just go out and enjoy the ride.

Before I end this post, I want to thank a few folks that have played an important role in helping me race over the years.  First, I'd like to thank my family and especially my wife of 22 years, Tracy, who has done so much to allow me to race my bike.  I've had a lot of support from many sponsors over the years, but the support I've been given the last five years while racing for the Salsa Cycles Factory Team and the Team CF/Rare Disease Cycling Teams was vital in helping me race so well, so I definitely need to say a big thank you to these guys. Specialized Bikes and Lauf Forks were also very important sponsors and supplied me with equipment that has without a doubt helped me win races.

I'll be doing plenty of this again soon!
It's been a pfun ride, but I'm looking forward to my new future of just riding a bike without racing it! What I'm most bummed about right now is that I won't be able to enjoy my winter sport activities of skiing and fatbike riding until next winter. The only physical activity I'm able to do right now is walking and even that induces pain after doing about two miles in distance.  I will eventually heal enough to ride again and when I do, please come and join me for a scenic and fun ride somewhere in the Laurel Highlands.

Enjoy your ride, my friends!  Happy New Year and Happy Trails...  Gerry