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