Thursday, November 26, 2020

Still Not Unfixably Old

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean

Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens

Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance

I hope you dance

Buried deeply within my diatribe about how mastectomies are bad (they still are), I once casually mentioned how the morning before my 32nd birthday, I decided that I wasn't unfixably old. Eight years later, I think, "Ugh, 32 was so young!" However, at the time, when I reflected on my life, I just saw a future with little to look forward to and a lot of time left to kill. I felt old because I had reached an adulthood that didn't suit me, but I felt stuck in it. 

Right now, I imagine people with kids scoffing at my privilege of having so much time for self-reflection and so little responsibility. While it's true that caring for small humans might have grounded me and helped me grow out of the child I still am sometimes, it would have been really bad for everyone if it didn't work out that way. 

I mention this because the last couple of years and my recent 40th birthday have caused me to begin feeling unfixably old again. The feeling isn't unwarranted, considering how many fewer of my original body parts I have now than when I turned 30. The past decade has indeed inflicted some damage to my body that I can't undo, but I know that I can restore it to better function than its current state, which is 30 pounds heavier than when I won the West Virginia Enduro Series in 2017. Two major surgeries and a global pandemic can do that. If declaring myself not unfixably old and ditching my binge eating habit at 32 taught me anything, it's that fixing my life and fixing my body are inseparable aspects of the same challenge.

It's the fixing my life part where things start to get interesting. I have mentioned a few times in the past year or so about how I have become too focused on my career. As I think back on the past few years, I realize that late 2017 marked a transition from unexpected and effortless career growth during my first few years at Penn State to fruitless grinding, where I began working harder and rarely seeing it pay off. At least in 2018, I had my newfound love of riding ALL THE BIKE PARKS to distract me, but 2019 and 2020 weren't so kind. At the beginning of 2020, I came frustratingly close to getting my dream job in my dream town of Bellingham, WA only to have it fall through.

Even a casual toe-dip into the mountain bike YouTube-verse will likely expose you to Bellingham's hundred or so miles of a gorgeous loamy, steep, and amply jumpy singletrack. There are also multiple pump tracks and dirt jumps scattered through the town, and Whistler is a mere three hours away. 

Beyond the mountain biking, the whole place just makes me feel like I'm embraced by the warm (okay, cold and damp) hug of Mother Nature's wonder. On the other side of town from the lush, mossy green fairy forests of the mountains is the dark, moody Bellingham Bay dotted with rocky islands. As someone who is resolutely not a beach person, it's the kind of ocean I can get into. Plus, porcupines were cool and all when I moved to State College, but I'm yearning to see a whale that isn't at Sea World.

Finally, when I visited Bellingham for my interview at Western Washington University in January, it felt like home in a way I haven't felt since I left Bloomington. It's hard to explain other than to say that the town has a personality. Within my first week in State College, I ran into another former Bloomingtonian who joked, "Yeah, there's a lot fewer crust punks here." I don't think I necessarily need crust punks to be happy, but it spoke to the diverse spirit of Bloomington vs. the upper-middle class football-obsessed homogeny of State College. I'll forever be grateful to Rothrock for turning me into a real mountain biker, but this town has never been a good fit for me. 

Plus, I'll never get good at jumping while I live here, and my ability to progress as an athlete has become more important to me than my race results. 

When the job at WWU fell through, I did my best to resign myself to living my best life in State College, but COVID-19 had other plans. The possibility of any career advancement was shut down, as Penn State and the handful of PNW universities I'd been watching all went into hiring freezes. There were no races to race, and bike parks weren't even an option until June. Then my accident in July killed what was left of 2020 for me. I realize that 2020 has still been great compared to many others', but it has been hard feeling helpless for so many months just when I had hoped to get my life back on track.

Well, do you find you like to fall in love with people that you're never gonna meet?

It's easier than breaking up and crying in the street

Do you curse the happy couple?

Do you cringe at wedding bells?

Do you drink up all the punch while you wish 'em all to hell

At some point in August or September, I watched something on TV about people looking for orcas in the San Juan Islands, and I reached a breaking point. Yes, it was the freakin' whales and not the mountain biking videos that got me. I wanted to be THERE and have those experiences before I was too old to enjoy them. Afterward, I listened to Alkaline Trio's "Love, Love, Kiss, Kiss" a bunch of times and cried. I know that sounds like a weird choice, but it's a song about wanting something so badly that comes seemingly effortlessly to others. Believe me, I listened to it many times before I met Frank when I could take the words more literally. When I declared myself not unfixably old at 32, romantic love was the thing I was missing, and I mustered the strength to repair that missing piece, even when it meant tearing down my life and starting over. 

That is when I started to see the silver lining in COVID-19. It had already become clear that I would likely never have to go back to work in person at my current job unless I wanted to. Frank had also mentioned he would probably be able to continue teaching online for Penn State if I were to get a job somewhere else. I realized that nothing was really stopping us from moving to Bellingham and working remotely for Penn State. The challenges would be the higher cost of living on the same paychecks and the fact that moving to full-time remote would likely kill my hopes of career advancement at Penn State. I also realized that maybe it was time for those hopes to die, as they had caused me so much more misery than joy in the past three years. The money part would be more challenging, but we could handle it.

Ultimately, we decided to buy a lot in Sudden Valley, have a house built there, and move when it is complete in about a year. That means we will be riding bikes on the East Coast for one more season, and I am okay with that. I still have to wait a bit more for my Bellingham dream to become a reality, but I will still get to spend most of my 40's in that magical place. I will probably benefit from the extra time to refocus my energy and rebuild my body before heading out there, anyway.

When I was 32, I realized that I been unsuccessfully and unhappily focused on my career to cover up a big missing piece in my life. I somehow manage the strength to pull myself together and find that missing piece despite the risks it posed. The events of 2020 have shown me that I've reverted to using my career to cover up other missing pieces in my life. I couldn't have named my missing piece at 32, and I can't exactly name it now. I've just realized that when my mind starts to hate my body instead of taking care of it, and I blame it on my body, the truth is that neither my age nor my body is the problem. The beautiful thing is that the risks I took last time I felt unfixably old led me to the love of my life, and now I have a wonderful partner to join me in whatever comes next. Such a big change is scary, but so is growing unfixably old. 

Why would you live anywhere else?

Why would you live anywhere else?

We've got the [mountains], got the [bay]

Got the [loam], we've got the [lake]

This is the only place for me

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Me (and My Back) Are Back

So...2020 amiright? A lot of stuff has happened since my last post, but the one thing that didn't happen was me racing bikes again. I kept thinking I would write something early in the COVID shutdown, but unlike all of the supposedly bored people I kept reading about, I remained as busy as always. Eventually, I got so behind on the events of 2020 that I didn't know where to start and considered abandoning this blog altogether. Blogging is a dead art form these days, what with the YouTubes and all. 

However, a few days ago, I re-read some of my mastectomy posts, and I realized how helpful this dead art form was for me. Because I didn't end up racing in 2019, my posting dropped off drastically as soon as I was allowed to "resume normal exercise" following my second surgery. In retrospect, I can see how rudderless I've felt since then, and I initially attributed this to a lack of racing. A string of disruptive life circumstances has continued near-constantly since my mastectomy recovery, and it emotionally disconnected me from racing and bikes in general. I don't miss wrapping my self-worth up in my race results and can no longer fathom crying after a race. However, I do miss that sense of purpose.

The biggest challenge of resuming blogging after a long break is knowing where to begin catching up on what has been missed. In this case, I think it makes sense to pick up where I left off, although not in the way one might expect. I lost my sense of purpose and stopped posting regularly upon my recovery from major surgery. In that case, it is only appropriate to pick it up again under similar circumstances. You see, on the Fourth of July, I pushed myself off a rock drop Snowshoe without a proportional push to my bars and fractured my T7 vertebrae and a few ribs.

Snowshoe hadn't opened until that weekend due to COVID. It was only our second bike park trip of the season after visiting Thunder Mountain a couple of weeks before. Despite only two bike park days in 2019 and the late start in 2020, I had been riding with a confidence that I'd never had before. We visited North Park in Pittsburgh to check out their jumps and freeride line at the end of May.  I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to just go out and hit drops bigger than I'd ever done before despite having not having done a drop of any size in a year. 

I arrived in Snowshoe eager to progress, although I knew their janky rock drops would be more challenging than the smooth takeoffs and perfectly sculpted landings of North Park. I was determined to hit the log drop on Lincoln Log before the weekend was over, but I began to doubt myself when I realized how slow and rough the entry was. During my second run of the trail at the end of the first day of riding, I skipped the log, but I felt like I could hit the 3-ish foot rock drop a turn or two later. However, when I came around the bend, I saw Frank stopped above the drop, which caused me to lose my nerve, as well. We were well within sight of riders going back up on the lift, and their jeers of "just stay off your brakes" didn't make me feel any better.

Fast forward to the next morning when I set out on my first run with renewed determination to hit both drops on Lincoln Log and move on with my day. Frank and I sessioned the log drop, and after a couple of roll-ins, I completed it, albeit with an ugly landing. A less stubborn person would have taken the ugly landing as a sign to just roll back to the lift and focus on other things for the rest of the day, but it was me. 

I paused for a few seconds to compose myself and rode straight for the rock drop, but made a last-minute switch in my line choice. As I rode off, my front wheel dove, and I could see the ground come up way too fast beneath me. I landed on my head first, then my upper back, before my body came to a full stop, and my bike ended up somewhere downhill. I did a quick check to confirm that I could still feel and move my arms and legs, but the pain prevented me from moving beyond that. I just lay there crying and moaning until Frank found me. 

Luckily, the person who came along next does ski patrol in Michigan in the winter, so he got to work on the boilerplate trauma check. This time I benefitted from being within sight of the lift, as all the onlookers were able to direct the bike patrol to my location relatively quickly.

The bike patrol arrived, and I began my harrowing journey to civilization. I passed all the initial checks for a spinal injury, and all of my pain was to the right of my spine, so the bike patrol guy had me walk to the nearest clearing. It wasn't far, but every step was excruciating. I joke that Frank slow danced me down the hill, as I put my hands on his waist as he slowly walked backwards downhill to lead me. 

At the clearing, an ATV pulling a trailer with a stretcher picked me up and drove me to the bottom of the lift for an ambulance to pick me up. I was sorely disappointed to arrive at the ambulance to find that they could not give me pain meds because there we only EMTs and no paramedics on board. After a 30 minute drive to the nearest hospital, I finally got pain meds and a series of CT scans. They diagnosed me with the T7 vertebrae and rib fractures, along with a partially collapsed lung. They transferred me to a helicopter to the WVU hospital in Morgantown, where I could receive proper treatment.

The next morning, I had surgery to repair my fractured vertebrae, which meant fusing it to four others, two on each side, using titanium rods and screws. I'm fortunate that this happened in the least flexible part of my back, so I won't lose a ton of mobility in the long-term. Once the surgery was over, I didn't need a back brace or anything, and they made me start getting out of bed to use the bathroom within hours of the surgery. By about 36 hours post-op, I was able to take a short shower and freely get out of bed to walk around as needed. I still needed a ton of pain medicine to function, and spent most of my time sleeping, but my rapid independence was pretty amazing.

I had to stay in the hospital a week while my lungs recovered, and the doctors made sure I was safe from fluid build-up in my chest. Once I was home, the next few weeks were a saga of pain management. Since I had already been working remotely for months due to COVID, I tried working part-time as soon as I was out of the hospital. However, it was four more weeks before I could stand to sit upright at my desk for more than an hour straight, so I got really good at taking Zoom meetings in bed. Around five weeks after my injury, a thorough cupping session with Jason helped me break through to tolerating work and everyday tasks, like walking the dogs.

I was given permission to "ride rail trails and stuff" at my six-week follow-up appointment with my spinal surgeon as well as some light PT exercises to do. I've ridden my full-suspension mountain bike on gravel a couple of times a week since then. Still, I've been pretty careful not to overextend myself until I hit the three-month mark when the spinal fusion should be fully set enough to support my lifestyle. Some new flowy beginner trails opened in State College last week, and I've ridden them a couple of times. However, the fact that I'm sitting at 17 out of 21 among women on Strava on one of the two downhill-only sections is a testament to how careful I'm still being.

My three-month follow-up is on Thursday. I'm expecting to be released to start lifting weights again and generally return to everyday life within reason. My surgeon came to check on me the morning after my surgery and laughed when she saw that I was watching American Ninja Warrior. I pointed and asked if I would be able to do that within three months. She said no, four. It's been a nice change from my plastic surgeon's vague instructions after my mastectomy to being given very clear guidelines as to exactly what I am and am not allowed to do at various points in my recovery. Until the last couple of weeks, I was often "allowed" to do things well before I felt like doing them.

So here I am at the end of two full years where life has kept me from racing entirely and away from bike parks much more than I would have liked. Another long winter stands between me and my next opportunity to do either. This is a good thing in many ways, as I need time to get my body strong enough to race and send it again. It's also going to be tough to motivate myself to get through the blah stuff to benefit the fun stuff that is still many months away, though. Perhaps starting to write again will help.

Thursday, February 6, 2020


Tonight I'm gonna dance
For all that we've been through
But I don't wanna dance
If I'm not dancing with you
Tonight I'm gonna dance
Like you were in this room
But I don't wanna dance
If I'm not dancing with you

And darlin', it was good
Never lookin' down
And right there where we stood
Was holy ground

In my last post, I said that I didn't have a New Year's resolution for 2020.  I later realized that I did have one and that it could be described using a favorite hashtag from my former teammate, Elisabeth. My resolution was to be a better #professionalslashbikeracer again. After surgery took me out of the bike racing scene for the entirety of 2019, I turned all of my motivational forces toward work in a way that I never had before. As a result, I didn't race for the entirety of 2019 and never regained my pre-surgery fitness. I came into 2020 ready to realign my work/bike balance. Still, I ended up spending January distracted by the possibility of the ultimate #professionalslashbikeracer move.

One morning in December, while cyclocross nationals were in progress, I started looking at a map of Washington to see where they were being held. As I looked at the map of Washington, I thought of my friends Sam and Kyle, who had recently moved to Bellingham, which is arguably the most optimal place to live as a mountain biker in the United States. I vaguely remembered that there was a mid-size university in Bellingham, and I decided to look at the job listings there.

Testing out my #professionalslashbikeracer outfit.

Typically, mid-size universities in top-tier mountain biking locations don't have a lot of jobs listed, and rarely do they have any for which I would want to apply. However, on that fateful day in December, Western Washington University just happened to have my dream job listed. What I mean is that if I made up a perfect job for myself, this would have been it, plus a couple of other things that I wouldn't have to add myself. I immediately started working on my application and then waited for them to begin reviewing applicants.

They contacted me for a phone interview over Christmas break, and once that was complete, things really started moving. They contacted me the next day and arranged for me to fly to Bellingham the following week. They covered all of my expenses and offered to introduce me to a realtor to show me houses, so it all seemed very promising.

Ocean on the left, mountains on the right, and a million trails, pump tracks, and jumps in between. 

My trip and my interview went well. I got to see Sam and Kyle as well as tour some houses. I took a class Terrain Gym, which is a little like Crossfit, but better planned and targeted at outdoor athletes. I was starting to make plans for how I was going to move five pets across the country and which house to make an offer on.

Five pets you ask? Yes, I never managed to post about my one success of 2020 with all of the excitement of a potential move to Bellingham. This is Willie, the #fixerpupper that I acquired in the first week of January. I'd been trying to adopt a Brussels Griffon for a year and a half with no luck when this guy popped up on Petfinder. He was located at a small Central Pennsylvania animal shelter that required applicants to show up and apply in person, so I thought he might finally be my shot after way too much competition for all of the other for which I'd applied. However, when we got there to meet him, there was already another couple in line to meet him before us. When I called a week later to check on our application status, they said they had so many applications that they didn't know how they would choose. I wrote an email explanation why I thought we'd be a good home for him, but quickly moved on due to all my other rejections, it was long before Frank was ready to drive to Chicago buy me a Brussels Griffon puppy. The night before he was supposed to leave, we got the call that we were getting Willie and instead drove to Dubois to pick him up the next day.

He had been very poorly taken care of at his previous home, and not much better at the shelter. He was filthy and overweight, and when we took him to the vet, we found out he had Lyme's disease. His teeth were in terrible shape, but we couldn't get those fixed until he had been on antibiotics for a while. His toenails were also growing around into his paw pad making it hard for him to walks.

He finally got the teeth done and big, nasty wart removed from his head this week, so it is nice to have vet stuff behind us. He's started to be less scared of us and spends most of his time outside of his crate after 2-3 weeks always hiding in there except for walks. He can get on the couch himself and has started barking sometimes, which is a sign he's getting more confident. He has a professional grooming appointment next week, which took a while because our dog groomer friend was recovering from surgery and then was booked for a while after returning to work. I'm hoping his upcoming makeover will mark the first day of the rest of his life as a healthy, confident, and loved little pupper.

Things took a nosedive when I got home. First, I got a gnarly viral infection from my travels, from which I'm still not fully recovered. They notified me by email six days after the interview that I didn't get the job.

It was hard to get over the shock and disappoint at first, and in some ways, I'm definitely still not over it. To come so close to getting the perfect job in the perfect place immediately after the shitstorm of 2019 felt like a cruel tease. I definitely had a couple of depairing days where I couldn't really even conceive of what it was that I wanted if I couldn't have my dream scenario. However, part of my realization was that I really, really needed to start racing my bike again to start feeling whole.

Due to my illness, I've only been to the gym once since returning from Bellingham. I'm going on a ski trip to Vermont this weekend, so it will be a few days before any more "training" can occur. However, when I return, it will be time to get serious about achieving #professionalslashbikeracer status in Central Pennsylvania, limitations and all. I'm in the process of hiring a coach for the first time since 2012, so I'll be updating on that once it's all finalized.

The last year and a half has brought a lot of disappointment as a bike racer and quite a bit as a professional, as well. I've also had some pretty big wins in the professional realm. I plan to keep building on these until someone at Penn State, or even better, some picturesque little campus in the Pacific Northwest, realizes my true potential. Until then, I've got to slip back into my East Coast #femdurobro identity and keep in touch with the other, less talented but more gritty, half of my personality.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Hindsight is 2020

It's hard to believe that it's been nearly six months since my last post. 2019 has been a strange year for sure, and once Frank broke his collarbone, it became clear that it would be the first year since 2003 that I did not pay money to be timed while riding a bike in any format. The fall became busy with non-bike stuff, and at some point, I decided that I would wait until winter break to post again.

My new Baby Jeep is a great symbol of the adulting that I've been doing in 2019.
Goodbye, Lime-a-Bean. Hello, cruise control and heated seats.

After the year that we had, Frank and I decided to give ourselves the gift of zero holiday travel this year. We had Thanksgiving at our house with one friend, and haven't done a whole lot over Christmas break. For Christmas day, we went to see the new Star Wars movie and went to dinner at the Chinese/Hibachi/Sushi restaurant across the street from our house. Unfortunately, it will be changing locations soon, and we had never eaten Hibachi there, so we gave it a shot. The group whose gathering we crashed were good sports about it, and we all had a good time.

2019 certainly wasn't devoid of bikes, but they took more of a backseat than they usually do. I was most concerned about having the chest strength and nerve to still ride downhill fast after my double mastectomy and reconstruction, but that turned out to be the easy part. Within a few weeks of being cleared to mountain bike again, I was riding downhill as fast as I ever was.

In fact, after several monthly sessions with a massage therapist, I have no lingering pain, tightness, or discomfort. The only remaining negative effect is that I still don't have much feeling in my chest, left armpit, or the back of my left arm. However, the numbness has improved slightly over the last few months. Still, it makes sense that skin stuffed with inorganic material will never regenerate nerves that well. Now that all of the remaining inflammation from the surgery is gone, I can also confirm the rumor that reconstructed breasts feel cold to the touch most of the time. This prompts me to believe that people need to be more sympathetic to witches if the saying about them is accurate.

In addition to Frank's and my respective surgeries,  my shortage of races and bike park days 2019 can mostly be attributed to just plain adulting too hard last few months. I found out right before my surgery in January that my supervisor of nearly five years was transitioning to a different role within the organization. I'm assuming that coming back from a two-month leave is always tricky, but I came back to an especially strange situation. I was greeted back to work with the opportunity to join a couple of high-profile project teams but also a heavy load of tactical tasks meant to achieve my old supervisor's exit strategy. I scrambled through April and May to complete my 'want to do's' and my 'have to do's' within the required timelines.

I was nervous about having a new supervisor in June, but that part has gone exceptionally well. Our good teamwork and some favorable conditions within our department have allowed us to make a lot of positive changes in the last few months. My excitement has led me to voluntarily spend many evenings and weekends preparing documents to help our leaders make their next important decision. It has also meant that I don't have a lot of motivation left to get into shape or wake up early on weekends to go to bike parks.

Even during our lovely winter stay-cation, I've spent time each day studying for another certification exam that will help me to be even more effective at my job. I've also been really terrible at going to the gym or doing Zwift workouts, despite having plenty of time to do so. The exam is tomorrow, so, considering that I pass, I hope to have more mental energy for bikes soon.

I don't have a particular resolution for 2020, but I want to rekindle my motivation for riding and racing. The challenge will be finding emotional space for this while still maintaining my hot streak at my day job. I don't have a plan yet but will start getting back into the posting habit over the next few weeks to let you know how I do.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Baby Got Borked

Another month of 2019 has flown by much differently than I expected. Just a few days after we returned from Tennessee, Frank slid out on some wet rocks during a normal weeknight training ride and broke his collarbone. Considering that the two of us had more than a quarter-century of accumulated bike riding with no broken bones, the fact that this was coming for at least one of us at some point was nearly inevitable. That still doesn't make the actual occurrence any less unpleasant, especially since I was just getting back up to speed after my own downtime.

I jokingly told him that we would both look a little funny with our shirts off after 2019. At the very least we're going to end the year with scars and numbness. According to my plastic surgeon, my new boobs are "stunning", and he released me from his care last week. I guess that means no free liposuction in the fall, but I'm okay with that. They are still a little asymmetrical if you look closely, but I'm past the point of caring and ready to move on with my life.

As for Frank, he's still several weeks away from being able to move on with his life. His original x-ray from the ER showed some fractures, but the bone was still aligned correctly, so the orthopedic surgeon said that he did not need surgery. However, at his three-week check-up, the x-ray showed the bone to have completely collapsed. Apparently, there were more fractures than the original x-ray showed. He ended up having surgery four weeks after the original break, so now he is only four days post-op, and it will be at least eight more weeks before he can ride again. 

Before his accident, we had signed up to do a Pumps, Jumps, and Berms clinic with Hillary Marques at the Gravity Soul dual slalom track near Frederick, MD. Even though Frank was unable to ride, he and Gunnar came along for moral support and sat in the hot sun for four hours while I practiced jumping. 

I can't say that I made any huge breakthroughs during the clinic, but after reviewing some video that Hillary took of me, I realized that I needed to "pull up with my body and not with my arms". Although I haven't been able to practice this on any real jumps since then, I was messing around in the driveway and made some major progress towards a true bunny hop. Unfortunately, I also gave myself a nasty blister on my hand in the process and haven't been able to practice since, but I'm pretty excited about the possibilities this could open up.

With Frank unable to ride, I've been a bit unmotivated myself. I'm still riding 2-3 times a week, but I've only been to the gym once since he's been hurt. My rides are often short and even less structured than they were before. I guess I've just kind of embraced that 2019 is not my year for bikes.

Because of this, I've been spending a lot more time hiking with Gunnar over the last month. When we first got him, he quickly bonded to Frank, and I didn't really know how to deal with having a smelly dog around that was stressing out the cats. The cats eventually calmed down, and I eventually realized that he was a cute boy, doggo smell and all. However, he was not so quick to turn on his unconditional love switch. 

I was taken aback by this at first, but now I respect him for it. I always joked that Clemmie was my real daughter because of her personality, and Gunnar is definitely my long lost son. I had to make the choice the meet that neurotic little doggo where he was and find ways for us to bond. I learned that he likes carrots and actually listens to me more than he listens to Frank, so I'm doing my best to teach him some trick using carrots as rewards.

I also realized that he needs more exercise than regular walks around the neighborhood or backyard zoomies can provide, so I've started using this as an excuse to explore parts of Rothrock that I don't normally see on my bike. Frank sometimes comes along, depending on how he's feeling. It's been fun getting to see new trails and spend quality time with Gunnar. I've even started trusting him to run off-leash and have even done one short bike ride with him running along behind me. 

I'm not sure how I'm going to balance dog parent life and training life once I'm ready to try and get serious about racing again, but for now, we're having a good time.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Windrock Beneath My Wings

It’s been seven weeks since my last post, so I’ve obviously fallen off of my plan to make bi-weekly updates on my mastectomy recovery. As I mentioned in my previous post, work quickly ramped up to an unsustainable level pretty much as soon as I came back full-time, and I’ve spent the better part of three months digging myself out of a hole, which often included working a couple of hours at home most Saturdays and Sundays to try to catch up. I simply didn’t want to spend any more time in front of a computer, making updates on my physical health while my mental health was falling apart.

Frank and I just returned from a five-day trip to Tennessee, and I took an additional day off of work today to recover from the trip. I’ve caught up on all of the work email that came in while I was gone, and I am happy to say that, despite having back-to-back meetings for my entire morning tomorrow, it appears that my upcoming workload will finally be manageable for the foreseeable future. Today is the closest that I’ve come to feeling relaxed and sane in about a month, and even then, that was a very short window.

Despite the stress, my physical health has continued to improve. I realized soon after returning to riding that I would need to choose whether to focus on my pedaling fitness or my downhilling skills for the rest of the summer. Ultimately, I made the fun choice to just do a lot of practice runs and bike park days for the rest of the season and not to worry about the stamina that I had lost. It’s better than it was a couple of months ago, but it’s more incidental improvements that come from pedaling up to downhill runs than any concerted effort to get back into shape. I figure that I can work on that this winter when the weather is too crappy for fun stuff.

The good news is that, as far as downhilling speed, I’m 100% back to where I was last year and even beginning to set PRs again. My stability and muscular endurance still have room for improvement, but I can basically make it down any trail in Rothrock fully pinned without falling apart now. Any fears that I might not be able to return to enduro racing after my double mastectomy have been officially put to bed.

However, despite knowing that I’m physically capable of returning to racing, I’ve still decided not to do so for a while. This weekend was supposed to be my first race of the season at Cooper’s Rock, but race weekends can be exhausting and stressful, despite how fun they can also be. A big part of my feeling relaxed and sane right now is the fact that I decided to stay home, rest, and do chill rides in Rothrock instead of racing. There are no WVES races in July, so I also decided the ESC and MASS “maybe races” that I had on my calendar for July also weren’t worth it. We are taking a big trip to Colorado in August, which conflicts with any races we would have done in that month, so it’s looking like my entire race season will be eight days long in September. The WVES final in Snowshoe is September 22, and the Raven Enduro is September 29. Snowshoe is my favorite race, and the Raven is, well, the only one State College has. (That’s a little Crazy Ex-Girlfriend joke for you.)

Besides just needing more time to rest, my reduced race season can also be attributed to the feeling that I’m “behind” on my bike park riding for the year. We went to Blue Mountain once a few weeks ago, but we still haven’t been to Mountain Creek or any other of Northeast or Mid-Appalachian parks. Leaving July open for bike park trips definitely seemed like a better use of the time than races. Luckily, we did get cross Windrock off our list for the year, albeit much later than planned.
We headed down to Maryville, TN on Thursday and returned yesterday. We got to see three out of four Prater brothers, as we stayed with Sarah and Josh, and Jayne and Luther were staying there, as well.

Friday was an easy warm-up day with a few leisurely laps of Baker Creek Preserve. Last year we rode all three of the downhill trails, including Devil’s Racetrack, but ultimately just ended up doing laps of the green trail, which we liked the best. This year we skipped Devil’s Racetrack, knowing that it was still well outside of what we would actually enjoy at our current ability level. However, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the green trail was now a little boring and that the blue trail now served the size of jumps that we enjoyed the most.

Saturday was our big day at the Windrock downhill park, and it was extra fun because Josh rented a downhill bike and joined us. He used to race downhill professionally in the early ’00s, so even with a rented bike and slightly rusty skills, he was still way faster than us. We benefitted from being significantly less rusty than the last time we visited, since our previous visit was an attempt to escape winter in late March of 2018, and we found Windrock to be quite a shock to the system when you haven’t been riding much.

Although I can still attest that a Windrock blue is equal to a black at most parks and even a double black at some of the places we visited last year, we were much more confident and capable this time. This time we were smart enough to ask locals about the progression of the black trails, and we did pretty okay on the two “easier” black trails that we tried this time, Shark Fin and Snake Rock. I pulled off a few moves that on these trails where I really surprised myself at how far I’d come, even to the point where I found myself passing Frank and singing “I’m a Big Kid Now” while cleaning a gnarly section that he had walked. I definitely enjoyed Windrock much more this visit and left feeling sad that it was 10 hours away.

Our final day of riding was the Windrock XC trails, which we’d never ridden before. Sunday was the hottest day, and I was very sore from so many long, strenuous runs at the bike park the day before. The singletrack climb to the top of the ridge is called “EZ Up”, but it is anything but. The grade is rideable but unrelenting steep, with very few flatter parts on which to recover. There are also quite a few very tight, steep switchbacks, and enough technical spots to mess me up when I’m already gassed.

Mixtape also offers a good #scenicvistaselfie opportunity, if you're willing to slow down.

While I was glad to be wearing my lighter-weight “XC” kit (I’ve officially broken up with spandex), half-shell, and no knee pads on the climb, it did affect my confidence on the two downhill trails we did. The first one was called Mixtape, and it was really fun, but the second was called MR2, and I was not a fan. It started as narrow, technical bench cut with a steep drop off from the edge, which always scares me, and dissolved into WV-style off camber where you can see where people have slid down the hill. We ran into a giant, impassable downed tree before we finished this trail, but luckily, we were able to find a reasonably easy way back to the car. Although my first visit to these trails wasn’t the most fun, I would love to come back less tired and better protected to try them again.

Although taking a big trip after weeks of work stress was difficult, I’m glad we got to visit our human friends and trail friends to the south. I’m also happy that I’ve built some time into my schedule to recuperate the next couple of weeks. Hopefully, the rest of the summer goes a lot more smoothly and is filled more PR’s, bike parks, and just enough pedaling.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

No More Milestones

It is a little weird beginning my first post-mastectomy post where I don't have any milestones to report. I feel like I've crossed the border from being in recovery from surgery to just being out of shape. I decided to stop physical therapy after this week because it was reaching the point where the stress of taking time during the workday to have some college student watch me lift baby weights was outweighing the physical benefit of doing so. My chest strength and mobility no longer seem any worse than the rest of the body, so I'd rather focus on regaining whole-body strength at the regular gym at times that fit my schedule better.

My goal is to eventually work back up to three days a week on the bike, two days in the gym, and one day per week of parking lot skills practice. Last week I managed one day in the gym and three days on the bike. This week has only been one bike ride and no gym so far, although I'm hoping to ride today and tomorrow.

Work has been a nightmare since I came back full-time, and I expect it to remain so for at least 2-3 more weeks. I had planned to accompany Frank to the first West Virginia enduro race this weekend even though I'm not up to racing yet, but I decided to stay home because I was afraid that my workweek next week would be too much after a weekend away from home. I'm not really feeling much better staying home, though, because I'm still stressed about work, but now I'm home alone with no one to talk to or ride with.

I've been having regular sessions with massage therapist with the weird suction cup machine that feels awful but does wonders for my mobility. It's a bit hard because it costs over $100 per session after the tip, and of course, it's not covered by insurance. However, it seems to do more good than most things that insurance does cover, and I should be able to cut down on the frequency of sessions soon.

These treatments have really done a lot help me move better as well as to break up the scar tissue so that my fake boobs are becoming a lot softer and more natural looking. A big goal for me is to get my chest flexible enough to sleep on my side again comfortably.  It seems to be getting there, although it gets better or worse depending on what I've done that day. There's also a chance that the "cupping" could help me get sensation back at some point, although I'm not getting my hopes up too much for that. My plastic surgeon said that 99% of women don't so it will be a pleasant surprise if it happens for me.

Before the surgery, the thought of never having feeling in my boobs again was the most upsetting part for me because, as many really crappy aspects as there are to the experience, that's the only permanent one. Once the surgery happened, everything else that was going on distracted me from worrying about my boobs being numb as I counted down to each milestone until it was over.  Now I've officially passed all of the milestones, and I'm becoming a lot more aware of how weird and dead my chest feels when I bump into stuff. It's tough because I look and seem fine to everyone else, but several times a day I get this reminder that I'll probably never be completely fine again.

Riding is going better, although it's still slow in both pace and progress. I tell people that I'm a super extra special kind of out of shape right now. Regular out of shape is going on a ride that I expect to be easy only to find that it's hard and slow. Then I rest for a couple of days, come back and do the same ride again, and it feels a little easier. With the kind of out of shape I'm experiencing now, I often still feel worse after a couple of days of rest in between rides. It's annoying, but the only thing that I know to do is to keep coming back and doing whatever easy rides I can a regular frequency until they start feeling less terrible.

Aggressive descents are still a bit much for me right now, although my pectoral muscles are not the limiting factor the way I would have expected. It's really all of my muscles that are my limiting factor. So far I've stuck to descents that would have been under three minutes for me last year, and I'm usually 60-90 seconds slower than my PR's. My arms, abs, quads, and glutes start burning halfway through these short descents, which makes it hard to keep going fast. I guess I need to put in some time on the RipRow in addition to the regular gym to try and build up some descending-specific fitness quickly because I don't even think I could get to the bottom of Wildcat or Old Laurel without a rest break right now.

Since my body isn't up for descending the way it used to, I've been spending on more time on the flat or rolling technical trails that I've largely ignored the last couple of years. Even before my body forced me to slow and step back in my riding, I committed to riding flat pedals this season until I was as competent on flats as I was with clips. The fact that I'm slow anyway right now has made it easier to keep that commitment. It's kind of cool because I'm starting to get decent at riding flats on the terrain where they are most challenging. Last weekend, I even made it up a difficult little uphill on Chicken Peter that I'd never made before, even when I was fitter and clipped in.

Although I won't have any more recovery milestones to share in my next post, I hope that I will pass some at work so that I can be a little saner by then. It's even more likely that I will reach some more milestones on the bike considering how tiny those are for me these days. Who knows? Maybe I'll break into double-digit mileage on a ride or something.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Free To Be Me

Yesterday I passed the magic four-week mark after my implant placement surgery. I now have full license to "resume normal exercise", and tomorrow I can officially stop wearing my surgical bra. As we all know, I actually did my first very baby mountain bike ride two weeks ago, and I already wore a wireless push-up bra to work a couple of days this week because my outfit warranted it. I still *want* be wearing my surgical bra pretty much all of the time when I'm not wearing form-fitting or low-cut tops. I was never used to be one of those women who longed for the moment that I could take my bra off at the end of the day, but now anything except the surgical bra gets swapped as soon as I walk in the door.

Despite a little cheating on the rules and a lot of stressing out because the rules were stupid and sucky, yet I was afraid of the consequences of breaking them, it appears that I am no worse off for my indiscretions. At my check-up on Wednesday, my plastic surgeon seemed very happy with how everything turned out and did not accuse me of illicit mountain biking and bra wearing.

I, however, am not sold on how great my new boobs look, but it's hard to be too stoked when my chest is 90% numb, and yet I'm still very aware of the foreign objects embedded in my body. The one silver lining that I'd looked forward to as part of what eventually became a two cup size increase was having cleavage, which so far hasn't manifested. I'm supposed to start massaging them daily to help soften the scar tissue, which should help.

If I really want, in six months I can get fat liposuctioned from my hips and strategically injected into my boobs to improve the cosmetic results, but any fears about needing actual revision surgery seem unfounded. I will have to see how things go the next few months because I don't really want to do any more procedures, but also, hey, free liposuction.

So 11 weeks and 1 day after original mastectomy surgery, I'm basically done from a medical standpoint. Now I just have the rest of my life to make peace with what my body has been through. Since my last post, I started physical therapy again, and that has really helped.

Admittedly, the physical therapist's pep talks are probably the main reason for the vast improvement between my first and second post-surgery mountain bike rides. The first session back, I told the physical therapist about all of the anxieties that I was feeling after my first ride. I explained how I felt like I was okay to start riding, but that I still had a lot of fear about damaging my reconstruction.

Her reply was in line with what I suspected all along, although I had started to let doubt creep in: I shouldn't do anything that hurt, but otherwise, it was safe to start pushing myself within reasonable limits. She agreed that the rules and scare tactics were for "no pain, no gain" types, but since I'm not one of those, I needed to start trusting my body again. Then she took me into the gym and put me through a gauntlet of shoulder exercises to prove that my upper body still worked, even if it is pretty weak right now.

Since then, I've been back to my own gym a couple of times where I'm mixing her upper body routine with various leg, ab, and glute exercises. There are still a lot of things that I'm not ready to do again yet, but I can do enough stuff now to at least start rebuilding my strength and stability.

The combined lack of courage, then lack of time, caused an eight-day gap between mountain bike rides. Luckily, two physical therapy sessions and a trip to the gym in between really boosted my confidence. The second ride I was able to ride a lot more singletrack and a lot more rocks. I even rode some of the short rocky chutes on Brush Ridge, although I went slowly and actually chose a line instead of just charging. I now feel confident enough to ride any of the rocky XC trails around Rothrock, although I'm still not ready for the big descents yet.


Unrelated to my recovery but interesting nonetheless, Frank and I are "fostering to adopt" a dog this weekend. His name is Gunner and he is a 1.5-year-old blue heeler, or as my research today concluded, more specifically an Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog. He doesn't have a tail, but it seems 90% likely that he was born without one, and it wasn't docked. So far, Clemmie has responded to him about as well as she responded to Dash and Tutu. She's really not a fan of us bringing other animals into the house but isn't terribly intimidated by him. Dash and Tutu, on the other hand, are terrified and will only the spare bedroom for a couple of minutes at a time. He gets overly excited when he sees the cats, although I think it's friendliness, not aggression, it definitely freaks them out. Hopefully, everyone can learn to live together happily.