I wanted to write the full version of my back issues this year, with some thoughts for anyone else who is experiencing an injury and HATING IT.
The first part is a lot of self-serious emotional processing — so if you’d like to avoid that sort of thing, scroll right by! And thank you.
In Chicago, fireworks season runs from May through August. Once it’s warm enough to spend time comfortably in alleyways and backyards, it’s on. Depending on who you ask and where you live, it’s considered a game, a competition, a tradition or a celebration of making it through another winter. For people with a certain type of dog, it’s a huge pain in the ass.
My dog, Penny, is a retired racing greyhound. She raced in Florida until she was four years old. That’s a long time, relative to most hounds, and she’s an iron maiden as a result — a dog who has lived her whole life in calm, restricted routine. She’s made tons of progress in the three years since moving in with us in Chicago. Today she is 65 pounds of healthy muscle and goof. But fireworks are hard for her. One distant pop at 10pm will send her shaking and cowering into the bathtub, where she feels most safe.
Which is why, in early June, I bent over to pick her up and carry her down the block, back to my house. During her evening walk she had heard a firework and “statued,” a greyhound-ism for freezing in terror. Unable to move her, I picked her up. I felt my back tweak but didn’t think much of it.
A few days later I was racing at Hillinois, a fantastic stage race hosted by a local Chicago team in the Galena Territory, in western Illinois. It’s an intense race, even for the 3/4s, including a road race, a TT and a circuit race, with lots of hills (my favorite). The road race was one of the first I ever did, in 2015, and this year didn’t disappoint. It was epic, with my teammate Gina breaking away in the leader’s jersey, arguments in the pack, crashes, and a crescendo of attacks and fake-outs during the final hills into the finish. My back didn’t hurt much, but halfway through, my left calf cramped up. It was unseasonably cold that day, but I forced myself to drink more water and took a salt tab to keep the cramp at bay.
My back ached on the car ride home but not seriously. But it was becoming clear that something was wrong. A few days off turned into a few weeks. Sciatica (tingling caused by irritated or compressed nerves) singed down my left leg. In fact, all of the major muscles in my left leg were acutely sore — my glute, hammie, calf and quad. Not so sore that I couldn’t walk, but so sore that it hurt to ride, or bend over, or put socks on. I remember walking to dinner with my boyfriend and almost turning around because the tingling was so strong.
By July, I wasn’t just not training — I wasn’t riding to work, or going to yoga, or doing much of anything. I stood at my desk and felt waves of panic wash over me, wondering what was happening to my body. I should stop right here and say that I had no right to be so distressed by all of this. Everyone in the world has their own struggles and pain and processing to do. I’m privileged AF. But before I started bike racing, in 2014, my life was pretty different. I think this is true of a lot of women racers in Chicago. You take the ways you used to torture yourself — mentally, physically — and invert them. Healthy torture. The type that opens up a whole new universe. Bike racing gave me purpose. It really scared me to think that all of it — cyclocross, BFF, road races in Michigan — was an interlude, or a dream.
I tried acupuncture, cupping, massage, and four or five different chiropractors. Then, one night in mid-July, I was switching sides in bed and felt a crazy, lightning shot of pain through my back. The next morning, the tingling down my leg had turned into buzzing. This continued to happen at night when I would turn over.
I saw a spine doctor at Rush. The MRI showed that I had three — or three and a half, depending on who looked at the scan — disc herniations. Basically, when your back experiences a trauma, the fluid inside your discs can sometimes pokes out towards your spinal column, irritating the nerve bundles surrounding your spine. Every bulge/herniation is a little different. For me, some looked like mild bulges, some like herniations or slips. No surgery needed — most people in their late 20s or 30s have some level of disc degeneration, anyway.
My problem, they said, was that I deeply irritated my nerves and jacked-up discs by continuing to race and train for weeks afterward. Back and disc injuries are tied inherently to neurological and muscular function, which made (for me) the experience kind of a mindf*ck — everything you feel during the day could be disc-related, or could be mental, or could be muscular. Because disc and nerve issues can create muscular issues. It’s complicated, and nobody really knows (I mean, maybe someone somewhere knows, but not me or my various, dubious doctors).
The doc gave me some muscle relaxants and I spent a few weeks on my back, watching the summer olympics in a haze. Annemiek Van Vleuten fractured her spine in a horrific crash during the road race and would come back to win a race in September. Donald Trump was a mere glimmer on the horizon. It felt good to finally have an explanation for what was happening inside of my body. I was sad about missing the summer road season, but my plan from the start had been to go all-in on cross this year, with road just an appetizer. As long as I was back on a bike in August, I’d be okay. I woke up a bit, stopped moving around in a daze.
Listen, I’m not a doctor. But as I came to understand it, there are two basic ways that a disc issue can resolve. One is that over time, your body will reabsorb the fluid that is leaking or squeezing out of the disc. This is the ideal scenario; things largely go back to the way they were. The other outcome is to strengthen the muscles supporting your discs; the fluid remains “bulging,” but you feel less and ideally no pain because your muscles keep the fluid from irritating the nerve bundles in the surrounding region. But there really is no medical solution for disc issues and (more broadly) back issues; the spine and the whole system up in there is so complex that most treatments (like injections and surgery) cause relief, but don’t heal. And it’s hard to truly know what’s going on, and why. It added a layer of mystery and confusion to the experience. But if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s get ripped. I found a physical therapist and chiropractor who seemed to slowly push & prod my muscles into cooperation. In August, the tingling started to retreat from my foot and heel into my half and hip. It hurt, but it was theoretically progress — you want disc symptoms to “centralize,” or migrate up towards your back, the scene of the crime.
It didn’t happen as quickly as I wanted, but in September I finally got back on my bike after two months off. A few things were different. I flipped my bike’s stem to be more upright and closer to reach, and adjusted the angle of my bars to be slightly upward. Under no circumstance was I to wear a backpack while riding (even now, If i wear a light pack to commute my back and leg will twitch for days afterwards). Even if you don’t have back issues, please look into other options for carrying your shit.
I got a much-needed confidence boost when I won my first race back at a small local event downstate in mid-September. I was already registered for Jingle Cross, so we went down to Iowa next, in late September. I had a terrible moment on Sunday when I froze at the top of Mt. Krumpit and got off my bike, too scared of falling and hurting my back to continue. I’ve never frozen like that. At the end of the race I laid down in the mud behind someone’s sprinter van and cried out of embarrassment and frustration (definitely the first time I’ve ever cried anything other than tears of happiness after a race). But I raced, and was fine.
I assumed the first few races would kill me, but they didn’t feel too bad. That was mostly because I now had an extremely low ceiling of fitness — I couldn’t push myself into the danger zone because the danger zone didn’t really exist for me anymore. I wasn’t well enough to do the first CCC race of the year, but I watched, and I rode the course. All summer I had contemplated how miserable I’d feel watching my race happen without me, but it was actually really fun to watch.
This is true for the cyclocross season generally, but especially this year, the arc of the week was like a rollercoaster on repeat. I would do short 45-minute workouts on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. By Friday, my back and leg would hurt from training. On Saturday I’d have a meltdown, wondering if I should even be risking it to race the next day. What if I hurt my back worse, and I couldn’t race in 2017, or permanently? On Sunday, everything was okay. On Monday, my back was so cramped I could barely move. On Tuesday, it felt good enough to spin. But every week, it got a little easier and felt a little better. And less like I was taking a huge risk.
Honestly, I still feel bummed when I think about how I didn’t achieve a single one of my goals this year. What could this year have been, if I’d been able to do it right? But I guess, sometimes you have to make a choice: quit because you aren’t at your best, or embrace the fact that you are ON A BIKE, DAMNIT, and that’s more than many people can say. BUCK UP! My amazing coach, Lindsay, encouraged me to focus on having fun and treating each race as an opportunity to learn something new. I resented the suggestion a bit — I ain’t doing this shit to have FUN, okay? But I did actually figure out how to have a good time while having my ass kicked really badly every Sunday. A few races were emotionally crushing, but there were also a few moments of hope and brilliance. Compared to years past, when I excelled at power courses and drag races like Sunrise Park, now I shined on more technical courses, like Melas. I couldn’t do much about my physical fitness, but the effort I put into working on technical skills all year still paid off.
If you’ve made it this far, THANK YOU for following along with all this processing. I do actually have some salient points I wanted to share about what I’ve learned in this crazy process. Some of it is about doctors, injuries, bodies, mental skills, and caring less (but not forgetting how to care entirely).
Get a second opinion, but not an 8th opinion. I went to so many doctors during the first few months. Cupping? Oh hells yes. Acupuncture? Done it. MacKenzie method? Still doing it. Muscle activation? Yep. Traction? YES, loved it. Orthopedic surgeon? Yep. Chiropractor? Yes, unfortunately like eight. Nobody had a concrete answer until I got an MRI in July. But at that point, I’d been poked and prodded so much, through so many different treatment plans and approaches, that I probably did more harm to myself than if I had just chosen one treatment and stuck with it. Don’t double or triple up on treatments.
Find a doctor who participates in your sport. I underestimated the importance of this and still haven’t figured it out. There are many doctors who portent to be associated with the Hawks, Bears, Cubs and Sox, but I still haven’t found one that specializes in cycling injuries. I’ve spent so much time with my docs and PTs this summer, and they still have no idea what exactly I do.
Take time to explain your sport. If you can’t find a doctor who is a cyclist or endurance athlete, that’s okay. Before your appointment, write down a list of the unique physical requirements of your sport so that you can articulate exactly what your body goes through in training and racing. Doctors can make better treatment decisions when they have more information.
Food makes a huge difference in recovery speed. Like many women, I love sports but have a complicated relationship with my body. Thanks, society. Bike racing demonstrates that bodies are powerful and a tool for achieving awesome things, and food is a really important part of that.
Right before I hurt myself, my fitness and strength were better than they’d ever been. I was also very iron deficient. I strongly suspect that these two things, when combined, played a determining factor in the length and extent of my recovery time.
Since I stopped working out and training entirely, I scaled back my protein intake and upped the veggie intake during those months. Finally, in September, my PT asked if I was vegetarian, because my muscles felt stringy (“the way a vegan’s sometimes do”). I felt like I already ate enough protein (greek yogurt, plant protein smoothies), but he told me that eating more animal protein could speed up the resolution of my lingering muscular issues.
The second I started eating salmon, eggs and red meat everyday, the rate of my body’s recovery sped WAYYYYY up. It was a turning point, for sure.
I’m not trying to start a vegetarian / carnivore battle here — I’ve been both in my life, and every body has unique needs. But if you are suffering from a lingering muscular issue and are open to eating meat, try it. Easy ways to get more protein in the body: eggs, almonds, pumpkin seeds, straight-up steaks, cottage cheese, salmon. Also, make sure you eat a bit of protein 30 minutes before bed (this is from Stacy Sims’ great book Roar), so your body has good fuel for repair mode while you’re sleeping.
The experience of being injured isn’t binary. Processing helps. I like to analyze and process things into digestible nuggets. I’ve written so many Instagram posts, tweets, blog posts and emails in my mind about the realizations and insights I’ve gleaned from this experience. I think of these posts as closure; an endpoint where I wave goodbye and things go back to the way they were. It doesn’t work that way, of course. But processing your experience is one step towards a phase where your injury doesn’t rule everything around you. So keep processing.
People will not know what to say, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care. What do you think or say when you find out someone’s been injured? Not seriously injured; but enough to take them out for a race or a season. Before, my internal reaction was usually something like, that sucks. Glad it wasn’t worse. I’m guilty of trotting out the ol’ “you’ll be back out there soon” or “try to enjoy the time off!” many a time.
People will say things that will make you feel bad and hopeless — heck, I’ve probably said those things to you. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about or love you. It does help to have the ear of people who have gone through similar experiences. I’ve been lucky to find multiple people who have gone through injuries that have kept them off the bike, and their insights have changed the way I think about it all, for the better.
It’s okay to avoid things that remind you of what you’re missing…but they will probably make you feel better. Lately I’ve been thinking about what I regret about the past six months. While it was happening, my #1 concern was missing races and training. Now, I know that what I regret most is the time I missed with people. Going away parties, race spectating, drinks out, and other social events that I backed out of under the guise of my body, but really because I couldn’t summon the courage to step out of myself and my immediate experience. The few things I did do with my friends reminded me that the world does not revolve around my spine, and I wish I’d done that more.
Stress *does* make it worse and PMA is a real thing. For the month of July, I cried pretty much every day, multiple times per day, on the regular. The word that continually came to my mind was distraught. Everything about my life was structured around the ability to use my body and ride my bike. My world became a tiny pin-hole of waking up, going to the doctor, going to work, coming home, and doing my PT exercises. As things got better, I could observe an increase in pain on days when I feel like I’m in a hopeless situation that will never resolve. PMA is a real thing, but it’s not always easy to practice it.
Find a good strength trainer. All of the PTs, chiropractors and doctors I went to all summer agreed on one thing: I was to avoid forward flexion at all costs. Forward flexion is basically when you stretch forward and down. Three exercises that are classic forward flexion: downward dog, crunches, and riding a road bike. Oh, and picking up your heavy-ass dog. So I basically avoided doing any of those things at all costs (aside from riding).
In November I tried a new strength gym, and started doing deadlifts, running on a treadmill carrying a sled behind me, bench pressing and lots of stuff that made me extremely nervous at first. But the philosophy worked, or at least it did for me. Avoiding a muscle group will only make it weaker and more prone to injury. My back and core are strong in a much different way than ever before.
It can be hard to find a trainer or studio that totally gets your injury and how to strengthen and prevent issues in the future. It might require trying lots of different places. But it WILL help. Protein + strength training + sleep = faster repair.
It will come back. I’m not talking about fitness. I’m talking about the mental part. All of the bad races, the moments of despair, the screw-ups, the ass-kickings…store them up like acorns. You will be stronger for it. And whether it’s next week or next year, you will rain down acorns on your opponents when they least expect it.
Okay. That’s all I got. All of this was made possible by an amazing support network of my family, teammates, coworkers and friends, who tolerated me, treated me and made me laugh all summer and fall. My back still twinges, and my calf still cramps — I’m excited for these little vestiges of the saga to fade into the background of training and racing in 2017. Time moves both ways.
Photo by the awesome Clark Maxwell. Thanks!
If you ever need someone to talk to about what you are going through, or have thoughts on my takeaways in this post, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.