Resumption

A few weeks ago I walked into Outspokin Bicycles. It had been ages since I’d been in there, maybe a couple of years. The last time I talked with the owner, Brian Curran, it was over email asking if he’d buy the mountain bike back from me because I was too hurt to ride it. He was kind enough to take it back, but I was too hurt to bring it back.

This time I had a different purpose. I had an itch to scratch. I looked around for Brian, and then out from the office I see him, all kitted up, ready to ride. He spotted me immediately, and the first thing he said was, “you need to start your blog back up.” Maybe not a bad idea.

For longtime readers of this website, it has been a journey. It wasn’t lost on me that yesterday was The Assault on Mount Mitchell, a race that I haven’t completed in several years, and the last time I had a broken hip and grunted my way up the mountain. Every year I miss it. And every year I wonder whether I can ever do it again.

For a long while I thought my riding days were done. The doctor said it was safe, but after all that I had endured, no thanks.

Then we bought a house downtown. The biggest barrier (okay, excuse) was that we had bought a new car without a bike rack. We lived out in the suburbs and my bikes had fallen in disrepair. I’ve always been able to ride them; never been able to fix them. So they sat. When we moved, the idea of doing some easy rides crossed my mind and I kept the bikes downstairs … just in case.

By coincidence, Cola Town Bike Collective also moved downtown. Amazingly enough, they are in the same neighborhood and within walking distance. One morning I walked my bike up to them, and they enthusiastically got it tuned up and ready to ride. That was the first day I put foot to pedal in years and found my hip to be a little tight on the 1.5 mile ride home, but it felt good. It was like a muscle that hadn’t been stretched in a long time.

Not to mention, this was the first time I’d ridden the mountain bike after the painful maiden voyage. That was almost six years ago?

Another coincidence is that my neighbor and former co-worker, Debbie, lives just a few houses down. She used to be one of my riding buddies. She’s retired and still rides regularly.

In the last few weeks I’ve gradually taken a couple of spins. My neighborhood has a casual Monday night ride where they ride urban roads and drink beer afterward. The pace is slow enough that I can keep up on my mountain bike, and the beer still tastes better after a few miles. The above picture is us after yesterday’s ride enjoying some beverages.

To my surprise, I found that I have a little bit of fitness and can even spin a little bit up hills. Overall I’ve ridden only 40 miles in 2019, hardly anything, but I already had some base fitness from other activities. The summer heat is out, but I live in a great location for easy riding, and I’ll keep hitting the pavement.

I’m also eyeing that road bike and thinking it needs to be tuned up soon.

I’m back!


A Long Overdue Update: Wellness Champ

The last time I posted on this blog, my future was unclear. I was technically disabled, dealing with excruciating pain, and praying for a surgery that would ease my pain. It was a long road, and after all the fighting, I received a new hip in December of 2015.

The recovery was remarkably swift. I was back on my feet within a couple of weeks, walking on my own shortly thereafter, off the pain pills quickly (could not get rid of that junk quick enough!), and back to work soon. I was working remotely within a couple weeks, and back in the office within a month. Recovery continued to progress. Even with limitations, I worked to take off some of the weight I had gained during the injury process, and to stay healthy despite my physical limitations.

My surgeon had approved riding a bike, but not like before. I have not ridden a bike since. Whether I will in the future is up in the air, but I feel that I could do easy rides — nothing like what has been written about on this blog.

This site remains popular and I’ve kept it going. A couple of people offered to buy it, and while I didn’t say no outright, I wanted to make sure it would be in the right hands and did not let go.

In 2016 I had another life change, and that’s really what promoted this update. I changed jobs. It wasn’t something I was looking for. My employer was terrific and incredibly supportive and patient with my injury, but this was an opportunity too good to pass up. It was a great position working with a Fortune 500 company. I love working here, and I have managed to fit in quickly.

Just recently they published an article about me as a “Wellness Champion” on the corporate intranet. This is a pretty big deal, and as it is on the home page of thousands employees including all of my peers. I’ve heard from some that have been inspired by my story, and that’s all I can ask. Here is the text with some of the company specifics removed.

Wellness Champion: Aaron West

Aaron West has quite the list of accomplishments when it comes to fitness and living a healthy lifestyle.

He successfully finished the Assault on Mount Mitchell three years in a row, rode the highest paved road in North America up to 14,000 feet, and biked 237 miles from Spartanburg to Charleston, South Carolina, in the same day — to name a few.

However, during the height of his fitness, Aaron suffered a mysterious and severe hip injury that required two years to completely diagnose, including an attempt at microfracture surgery and labral repair.

The expectation was a year recovery time with gradual progression and an eventual return to sport without any setbacks. The recovery didn’t go well, and the injury progressively got worse. Underlying problems were never addressed and what was once an injury had become a disability.

Thanks to the American’s with Disabilities Act and the help of Human Resources, Aaron was able to work from home for 8 months. This was the case until he was forced to undergo a total hip replacement — a procedure for which he was nearly 20 years below the average age.

“It required a drastic shift in my mindset and workout routine,” Aaron said. “I transformed from a hardcore athlete to a guy trying to stay fit while dealing with physical limitations.”

As a result of the procedure, he’s no longer allowed to run, can’t bike the way he used to and is limited to low-impact exercises. Despite these setbacks, Aaron hasn’t lost sight of the importance of being healthy.

“My mindset now is to stay within a weight limit, keep my numbers within range and to live a healthy lifestyle without making sacrifices,” he said. “We’re on the verge of opening a new gym on my campus, and I’ve already made it a personal goal to commit to three days per week there, and another two days of some other activity.”

In addition to focusing on his own health, Aaron also serves on the wellbeing committee, where he now hopes to help and inspire others. In this role, he encourages others to start small, do what they enjoy and find an accountability partner to keep each other focused on your goals.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity the company has provided me to share my journey with others,” he said. “It’s truly a blessing to work for a company that understands disability and promotes the value of a healthy lifestyle.”

The article ended with a photo that longtime readers will probably recognize. My triumphant celebration of climbing Independence Pass.

Independence Pass triumphant!


Goodbye, Adios, Adieu

clementine ending

I’m afraid this is the end of SteepClimbs as a regular blog.

With all this injury history over the last couple of years, I’ve contemplated pulling the plug many times. The only reason I haven’t is because, surprisingly enough, people still visit. Traffic has dropped slightly from where it was when I was riding and posting regularly, but not as much as I expected. Most of the people are reading the Climbs section, Rides, or Routes. Why stop something that many people find useful?

The answer is that I’m not. That information is going to remain up, but there will be no new posts and I will not be actively maintaining the site. At some point it will become outdated, but it should be useful information for many.

The reason is because I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that this part of my life is over. The injury to my hip went way beyond my worst expectations. Even now, more than a year later, I am facing the possibility of getting a resurfacing or replacement sometime this year. As much as I appreciate positive thoughts and encouragement, that’s not something I want to blog about. When I do get better and am able to ride, and someday I will, it will not be close to the level that I was at two years ago. Cycling will always be part of my life, but never like it was. I’ll probably go slowly, mix it up with other weight bearing activities, and most likely will never be the climber I was before. That might sound fatalist, but after 2.5 years fighting an injury, I’m fine with that. In fact, I am completely happy with this decision, and have found other activities to occupy my time.

Through this website, I’ve met countless friends, truly great people, far too many to mention. I can tell you one thing, that aside from a bad apple here and there, cyclists are people of incredible character. People forget that it is a social activity. Many have helped me by taking a pull when I’m tired, and I’ve done the same for others. That’s just what you do. Because of this website, probably more people than usual would be aware of this injury process. I’ve received some valuable advice that I have used. The fact that the injury has persisted has nothing to do with anything I’ve done or any of the advice I’ve been given. It’s simply a rough injury.

Many of you I already have met, and some have connected through email, social media and elsewhere. I’ll probably talk some about my progress on my personal Facebook. If you would like a friend request, feel free to drop me a note at the SteepClimbs page. Or you can find me through normal search channels. I’m not that hard to find.

You are welcome to join our 30 Day Fitness Challenges. If you have a Google Plus account, just drop me a note here and I’ll get you an invite.

Thank you for following along this journey.

(Edit: Posted this to Facebook as a response to all the kind words)

Last word: when I pressed the ‘publish’ button this morning, I intended to walk away and not look back. I’ve been injured awhile and didn’t expect many people to notice. The outpouring of support, thanks, well wishes and encouragement has been unexpected and overwhelming.

I never expected to build something that would be interesting, helpful, or inspiring to people. A lot of people have said thanks. I would say “you’re welcome,” but “asante kushukuru” would be a better response. If you look it up in the Swahili-English dictionary, it translates as “you’re welcome” but that isn’t accurate. They don’t have a matching phrase in the language. The literal translation is “thank you for thanking me.” So, thank you for thanking me, because even though I’ve put in a lot of work, blood and sweat, it has been a true pleasure.


Plank Challenge Complete

High plank.

High plank.

I’m not usually a New Year’s Resolution kind of guy. My philosophy is that if you want to do something for yourself, like get into shape, you should just do it. Most people do not stick with their resolutions, mostly because their goals are lofty and they expect immediate results. The path to fitness requires a long-term commitment, with time and effort dedicated towards it every day.

This year is a little different for me. Believe it or not, today is the one year anniversary of successful hip surgery. The road to recovery has been slow, with a lot of highs and lows along the way, but I had finally been able to achieve some fitness gains toward the latter part of the year.

I bit the bullet and participated in a 30-Day Plank Challenge on New Year’s Day. My goal of 5-minutes was lofty, but I had a month to get there. Fortunately I made quick progress and achieved that goal within a couple of weeks. The real challenge was not reaching a certain time, but putting in an honest effort each day. It is not easy to get up every morning, eat breakfast, drink coffee, and do an exercise for a few minutes that makes you shake.

I didn’t stop once I reached the time goal. After modifying my way through week three, I committed to doing my best during the final week. The last level was to do Plank Jacks for as long as possible. At first I was under the misimpression that I was to move my legs inward and outward every 5 seconds, which made it a difficult plank, but easier than it could have been. I learned midway that it was actually supposed to be more like 1-2 seconds, continued movement, just like jumping jacks. There already was the shoulder and core pressure of the plank with the added component of cardio. Times dropped considerably for not just me, but everyone. This was a tough plank.

We were all relieved when level four was finished. We now had two days to attempt to reach our best time. As it turned out, I had a tough core workout on the eve of the first attempt from another challenge (which I will talk about later). From the first second of the plank, my shoulders and core started to shake. I managed only 82 seconds, and it was a fight to hold on even that long. Compared to the planks I had done throughout the month, this was a small number, but there was a good reason for it. I was simply all used up. Rather than get discouraged, I rested and tried again the next and final day, committed to putting together a good time.

IMG_6195

This was my time. I was hoping to top five minutes and reach my best time of the entire month, but the remnants of my other workouts during the week worked against me. Still, that’s a tremendous time, and I could have reached five minutes probably if I were fully rested and recovered. It was a great way to finish and punctuate the challenge with style. I’m proud of sticking with it, but also for doing well.

The best planker in our group was Darrell. He put in a three-minute plank on day one, and continually put up the best times of our group all month. Like me, he had a bad penultimate number, mostly due to having a tiring day, but he came back for the final day. He finished his challenge with a respectable 5:31 time. He was the overall “winner” of the challenge, with 7,000 total seconds planked and the highest time.

Believe it or not, I was second. I surprised myself with how well I did. I was still quite a ways from Darrell, with just over 4,000 total seconds planked. The most important metric for me was the level of improvement over the month. I improved by 378% from my first plank, which was at the top of our group, although most everyone improved by an impressive amount.

This was a tremendous challenge and I’m glad to have been invited. It was just the motivation I needed. And it isn’t stopping here. We now have a February Challenge coming up soon, Squats, and I’m working on another intense challenge already that I’ll discuss soon.


Plank Challenge Week Three: Success and Modification

When I initially set out to try this task, I set a goal of three minutes, which I then stretched to five thinking it would be impossible and keep me motivated. Well, sometimes perseverance pays off. I reached five minutes this past week.


IMG_6154

I could give it an asterisk for difficulty, but I won’t because I was fully suspended for the entire time, and had made incredible progress until then. After starting the challenge on New Year’s Day with a measly 63 seconds, I had gradually improved and achieved a high plank time of three minutes within about a week.

We then shifted to the second week and a tougher level. This plank had us alternating low and high planks, sort of like doing a half push-up every 5-10 seconds. I was dreading this, as my upper arm strength isn’t there for a large number push-ups, but I was surprised to find this challenge manageable. It was not easy, to say the least. One of the advantages is that you get to change positions. Even though transitions can be tough, the high planks were less punishing than the low planks. It also helped with the mental difficulty. Usually I do not watch the clock, but for these planks, I had to, and I began to think in the number of transitions. “I can handle one more cycle,” I would think, and that would be another 20 seconds. The cycles helped time pass faster.

I was regularly above three minutes as we neared the end of the week’s challenge. My penultimate level two plank was four minutes, which I felt great about. With one more of these remaining and the dreaded level three around the corner, I aimed to meet my goal at last. I had five minutes on my mind for that last plank. I played an upbeat, long song, and got to work. The last minute was a grind, and I was careful not to lose form. I shook and grunted, but managed to achieve the five minute mark.


There’s always adversity in life, and I found mine with level three. This plank is one legged. We start at regular plank position and alternate raising legs six inches off the ground. I worried this might interact with my recovering injury, and I was right. The first plank happened to be on a freezing cold morning, which is when the injury is at its most painful. It was no problem when I was raising my right leg, as the pressure and balance was on my left, uninjured side.

The first time I attempted lifting my left leg, I felt a twinge of pain. Hmmm. This might not be good, but at least to start, it was manageable. I’m used to enduring a little bit of pain as I progress through my recovery. I went through another cycle, and the pain was more pronounced. The problem was that when I had my left leg up, most of the pressure and balance was pushing inwards towards my core. My hip joint was absorbing most of it. There was a feeling of it being pushed from both sides. After a couple more cycles, it was continuing to hurt. I ended up stopping at 1:30, my weakest time since close to the beginning. On top of that, my hip felt off and the pain stuck with me the remainder of that day and the next. This type of plank was not going to work for me.

With the weather warming up and doing modified planks, the hip is feeling better again, but I have to find ways to challenge myself. For stage three, I’ve decided to come up with challenging, modified planks. This list is a great place to start.

For my modifications, I have done some brutal planks. One day I did an alternating forearm plank, which is pretty much the same as what the group is doing, only I lift my arms instead of my legs It puts more pressure on my arms and shoulders, while still working out my core and relieving my hip. I managed over two minutes and literally collapsed when I was finished. Tough plank.

15 - 1

Another modified plank was absolutely brutal, and required a little bit of trial and error just to get myself off the ground. I used the above medicine ball, and eventually ended up pushing off with my wrists into a high plank position. Even though high planks are usually easier, they were much, much harder this way because balance was a factor. I managed no more than a minute each, but tried it a couple times in order to get a good workout.

The remainder of this week will be about continuing to challenge myself but staying committed. Now that I have reached my time goal, the most important part is completing a worthwhile plank every day and accomplishing the challenge.


Plank Challenge: Week Two

Regular plank

Regular plank

Around mid-morning yesterday, I was telling my co-workers about this plank challenge. They were not just impressed; they were inspired. One of them asked if they thought if they could beat me in a plank challenge. I wasn’t intending to brag, but said that I would probably do better simply because I had been doing this for nine days. They took that as a challenge and rounded me and a couple others into the conference room for an impromptu plank challenge.

At that time I was wondering if I spoke too soon. I had just done a difficult plank a couple hours ago, so I doubted whether I’d have it in me to do a long one. Either way, this was happening. We got the stopwatch out, and four of us started doing planks with one serving as referee to make sure we stayed up and used proper form.

The challenger realized in an instant how difficult this was, yet managed to hang on for a minute. That was impressive for someone who hasn’t done one before. I knew that the biggest challenge would come from a guy who works out often. We were the last two remaining up at 1:30, and then he started shaking and decided to bail out. It was just me and a room full of cheerleaders. “Keep going, Aaron!” they encouraged me. I dug in and stayed up for a full three minutes, which was my best time since the challenge began. Even though that felt good, the plank wiped me out. I was out of breath, panting, exhausted. These planks are hard!

My first plank on New Year’s Day was 63 seconds. Everyday I have gained time gradually, and finally broke two minutes on the 5th day. By the time we changed from level one to level two, my best time had been 2:17.

High plank.

High plank.

For the second week, we switched to dynamic planks. We start in the regular plank position and alternate into a high plank every 5-10 seconds. It is almost like doing an awkward push-up, only not as difficult. I was worried on the first day whether I could handle this plank because I don’t have much upper body strength. To my surprise, that first day I had my best time to date at 2:30 minutes. Part of that success was because changing positions made it easier to a certain degree. The difficulty of a standard plank is in large part due to having to stick in an uncomfortable position. Mixing it up helps a little bit. At least it did that first day.

On the second day, I found that day one lulled me into a false sense of security. What I didn’t count on was getting sore arms from being in high plank position, which is a similar soreness as having done a number of push-ups. My second day in level two resulted in a setback. I could only manage two minutes, and found it a lot more painful. That was the same day as the plank challenge I did in the office, which reinvigorated me.

On the third day of level two, which was today, I managed my longest time doing any sort of plank – 3:03. I only beat my previous best by three seconds, but I’ll take it. The dynamic planks are now even more difficult than they were, but part of what this exercise has taught me is how to endure, just like with cycling. When it gets difficult, the biggest challenge is to hang in there, just as it is when you’re in the midst of a long, arduous and painful climb.

I’m not the only one in our group that has shown improvement. One of the guys has already reached five minutes, although in fairness, his first plank was three minutes and I think he had more experience going into this challenge. Aside from me and him, three other people have hit three minutes. Others have shown gradual yet consistent progress. Some have skipped days for whatever reason, while other seem to have given up on the challenge.

When I first started, I couldn’t imagine how difficult or how rewarding this challenge could be. For awhile I wondered whether I could even make it through the month doing this, especially with the dynamic planks in weeks two through four. Now I’m not quite as worried, and I am pretty confident that I’ll meet my five minute goal. After 10 days, my core already feels stronger. I have better posture and my back hurts less often.

This challenge was a great idea!


The 30-Day Plank Challenge

Happy New Year!

Millions of people have set resolutions to get themselves into shape. The gyms will be flooded on Monday, and that will last at least until the end of the month, perhaps longer. Eventually and unfortunately, a lot of people will cave on their resolutions.

I have not been that person, at least not for a great many years. New Year’s was just part of my off-season training regiment, which meant finding some sort of exercises to do indoors until the weather warmed up. If anything, January has been an annoyance because the gyms get crowded, and as sad as it is, I look forward to when people break their resolutions and give me more space.

Injury has changed that part of me. I’m now gladly joining the hordes of people with a New Year’s resolution to get back into shape. That starts with a 30-day Plank Challenge. That is not the only thing I’ll be doing, as I plan on a lot of cardio, but planks are going to be my primary motivator.

Regular Plank

Since I’m out of the habit of training, it is not as easy for me to motivate myself as it once was. This time I was invited to a Fitness Challenge group via Google Plus. This gives me motivation in spades. We have 38 other people in the group, and most of them are also participating. They post their progress daily. I’ve set my iPhone to give me Google+ notifications, so throughout the day I’ve been getting notified of people’s progress. Thus far it has all been positive. Everyone encourages everyone, and I’ve jumped in and done the same. We’re all in this together even if our goals and fitness are not the same.

Everyone’s situation is different. Some people are dealing with injuries like me. Naturally they are limited and looking for any sort of progress. Others are in peak shape and just looking for further toning. One person posted a picture of their abs to ask the group if we saw much definition (not in the “Meathead Rob Lowe” sense). Let’s just say that the definition of my abs would be found in the dictionary – maybe rotund, plump, overweight, or whatever. That will change this year.

The plan is to do a plank every day and stay up as long as possible. We track everyone’s progress on a shared spreadsheet that gives lots of useful stats, like the percentage of improvement, the average plank time, and so on. The goal is to improve every day and work up to a time goal. At first my goal was 180 seconds, but I decided to raise it to 300. I may not get there, and that’s fine, but I don’t want to restrict myself to a lower goal and get comfortable.

These are the areas that get worked out while planking. It is an efficient exercise.

These are the areas that get worked out while planking. It is an efficient exercise.

We have the month divided into four stages. For the first week we start with a regular/static plank, which is simply placing forearms on the floor, elevating the body onto the toes while keeping the back straight. Keeping form is important. When I did one of mine, I asked my wife to look to make sure my back was straight. If I feel myself losing form, then it is time for me to stop.

In the second week we’ll be doing a High Plank. This is where we start doing a regular plank, and then we move to a push-up position and alternate every 5-10 seconds. Needless to say, this will be more difficult and plank times will drop.

The intensity continues upward in weeks three and four. Stage three is a Single-Leg Plank, where we start at a regular plank and then raise one foot off the ground six inches and hold it straight, and then alternate every 5-10 seconds. Stage four are Plank Jacks, where we start from push-up position, and then jump our feet out into a jumping jack move and then back home, repeating every 5-10 seconds. The last two weeks might be more of a challenge because of my injury. It is possible I’ll have to modify, or maybe I’ll be able to do them normally and my hip will cooperate. It is unpredictable.

After these four weeks, we have two days doing the regular plank again, just to see the results of our month-long efforts. Hopefully this is when everyone, including myself, will reach or maybe surpass their goals.

So far, so good for me. On New Year’s Day, my plank time was 63 seconds. I wasn’t impressed, but improvement came fast. In four days, I have improved to 104 seconds, which is one-third of my goal.

The challenge will be done by the end of the month, but most likely I’ll keep planks into my repertoire. The core is an often neglected area in cycling training, yet it is also necessary for stability, bike control, and to maintain good form and reduce the chance of injury. I may decide to vary my planks to keep working the core. There are plenty of other variations to try.

On my way!

On my way!