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