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.