By John Howard
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Dylan Thomas
I have cultivated the utmost respect for those who live with disability through my work with the Challenged Athletes Foundation. These athletes turn their lives around and their personal challenges form a semblance of normalcy through a steely resolve and admirable desire to prevail. They are all warriors, as are we all. My appreciation was recently brought home by my own sudden disability. In retrospect it was not without humor, but nobody was laughing just yet. When I tell people this story they think I’m fibbing, but this is no joke. I lifted an elk, twisted my back, and ended up in a wheelchair in a Santa Barbara ER on New Year’s Eve, and it only gets worse (and better) from there.
What amazes me when I start talking to other athletes is just how many of us have shared roughly the same experience with our backs. In fact, it’s the number one complaint of cyclists that my coaching team and I have fitted in our PowerFiTTE sessions. The stories are troubling and seemingly irrespective of age. Until recently I prided myself in being a card-carrying Cat 1 rider in spite of being well into my seventh decade of life. Finishing 16th overall at the late November 2011 season finale, El Tour de Tucson was reason to celebrate. There were over a hundred pros and Cat 1’s in attendance and a field numbering in excess of 7,000. The celebration should have stopped in moderation, which was not the case and the results speak. My cycling, my sport, my therapy, my very preoccupation with fitness effectively ended with the dawn of the New Year.
A Rest for the Weary
Never one to rest for long on either laurels or lack of mobility, I plunged into a self-directed program of physical therapy and within a few weeks I was out of the chair and onto crutches for another month, then finally walking as a primate by the Ides of March. Did I miss cycling? You bet I did, but not the way I expected. Yes, I miss the clear sanity of thought that was so much about fresh air, sunshine and blue sky. No, however, to the stress of status quo training at a level that took the fun out of riding my bike. Like you, when I finally do return, it should be at a reduced-speed fun level. Herein lies our first fib to ourselves. Most of us are Triple A personalities at heart and once back to full tilt, we will probably ride slowly right up until the first newbie goes blowing by us without comment. Can you say ‘paradox?’
Don’t do this at home…
Back to the Back
To those of us who have had/have back issues, please stop me if any of it sounds familiar. You might have a nerve root impingement, probably L3, 4, or 5; and maybe a sciatic referral completely locking out all range of motion and strength in one leg. It might have happened in the course of several seconds of intense pain or it might have been a slow dissolve. For me, it took nearly three weeks to wean myself off the pain killers that I thought I needed to cope. I didn’t need them that long but I liked the altered state, and after several days of no sleep with accompanying hallucinations, they were welcome. Now I’m relying on tamer, lessening doses of ibuprofen and minerals. My doctors have outlined a plan for a series of three epidurals as the best course of action to put me on the slow track for recovery. Failing that, there is micro-disc surgery which means, in automotive parlance, they will “port and polish” the offending bony spur in the disc that is entrapping the nerve.
Mentally, this experience can be a train wreck if you let it affect your psyche. With the right perspective I will coach some of my clients through this experience and take them to a higher level of cycling and running performance. I now view this experience as the human stuff, where life throws you a little curve just to make your existence more interesting. Personally, I’m coming away with a profound appreciation for the simple joys of walking under my own power and savoring a time when I will be able to seriously ride my bike again.
There are other intangibles that are harder to define. As a fellow master rider having experienced a debilitating injury, this is a time for reflection on the realities or anxieties of growing old, the celebration of your active life while reflecting on what it means to die. If that’s an uncomfortable thought, turn it around and use your fears or anxieties as fuel to diffuse the power of a closing door. Turn your fear motivation into pure desire and challenge your endurance and will to survive and prosper.
Things Happen For A Reason
The harbingers of spring abound and my bike is gathering dust. Don’t let this happen to you. Even if it hurts, ride your bike, even if the rides are short, ride your bike. Most informed experts will tell you that motion is the key to recovery and bodies that stay in motion are more likely to heal faster. It is a good idea to clear this with your doctor before swinging a leg over the top tube.
My first rides back from injury were on a heavy semi-recumbent bike that is so slow that it first magnified my own physical weaknesses. On the plus side, the thing didn’t hurt, so I rode ever so slowly. What I found has made me a better rider and I buried my ego. Unlike a conventional road bike, I began using my hip flexors to literally power the machine. In the gym on a recumbent, the same muscle groups were reinforced. Unable to use the big muscles for power, I redirected the force to the lifters, which has improved my stroke efficiency and empowered additional muscles.
The intangibles are less about bodies and more about the creative spirit that ultimately is the reason we ride. The down-time allowed me to finish my Major Taylor novel which might not have surfaced so quickly without this disaster. As I was preparing to embark on an unknown duty station in Viet Nam more than 40 years ago, my Army advanced infantry drill sergeant’s words ring true: “Crisis,” he told our platoon, “is just another opportunity riding the dangerous wind.”
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.