Category Archives: Recovery

The Week I Came Back

Even though I first put my foot back on the pedals a few weeks ago, I didn’t really feel like it was a comeback yet. Sure, riding a mountain bike through urban roads with friends is a decent workout, it is a casual pace and not an arduous ride. And sure, I had put in a couple big efforts on solo rides. It felt more like the beginning of urban riding rather than a true return to sport, and frankly I didn’t know whether I’d be able to keep up with active cyclists in good shape.

This week I tested that theory. Over the Memorial Day weekend, I had my road bike tuned and cleaned up. I went through old supplies and found enough gear to get me by. The challenge was attending a group ride, finding a riding group that I felt I could keep up with, and sticking with them. I gave it a try on Thursday evening, and the temperature happened to be 100 degrees when we left. The photo above is the parking lot when I arrived as people assembled to ride.

Technically I rode with the C group, but don’t let that fool you. The A group for this ride are nearly pros, and the B ride is very competitive. Back at my peak fitness I could sometimes hang with the A group, but there would be days where I’d either drop back or ride with the B group and that was still an intense workout. The C group is 16-18 mph.

The great part was seeing a lot of familiar faces and old friends. There were a few people happy to see me, and that was nice. One of the guys, Jack, introduced me as “new cyclist Aaron West.”

For the first time in somewhere between 4-5 years, I was soon enough on the pavement, riding in a pace line, and doing my best to not overdo it. To my surprise, my spinning legs still worked and I was keeping up just fine. In fact, there were times when it felt slow. There was one time when I ended up out in front, and since I didn’t have my Garmin charged, I couldn’t monitor my speed to maintain a good pace. So I just rode what felt like a comfortable workout. After a few minutes, I look back and I had left everyone behind. That would not be a good idea with the heat and the miles ahead, but it showed that I still had some fitness. Muscle memory is a remarkable thing.

As the ride progressed, I naturally got tired. Even at peak fitness this would have worn me out, and I was extremely thirsty. Towards the end, I was a little overcooked and struggled on the hills, but I was pleased just to get up the hills. The total mileage was around 29, which is about a third of the total miles I’ve ridden since coming back. I slept great that night.

The week ended with a ride to the minor league baseball park with Cola Town Bike Coop, drinking beers and eating stadium food with some new and old cycling friends. Life is good.


Improvement

I’m still pinching myself that I’m able to resume doing what I enjoy.

At this point, according to my Strava, I’ve done 6 activities. And I know that two of them weren’t logged, so that’s not bad for a couple of weeks. According to Strava, I’ve ridden 56 miles this year for an elevation gain of 2,300 feet. In other words, the equivalent of one training ride a few years back.

The nice part is there has been improvement. Even better, there has been no pain. The injury and subsequent surgery will always be part of me, but to this point it has not been an inhibitor. I’ve chosen mostly easy rides. My riding has gotten better and I’ve not been laboring as much, but I’m also not ready to join the A group.

The longest ride thus far was this week’s “Thirsty Thursday” ride. I left from the house with some new, local friends, and then we enjoyed an even paced ride throughout the city of Columbia. This is a beginner ride that goes very slowly, and it was probably a little too slow for me — a good sign given that I was on a mountain bike — and it ended at a local pizza place. I resisted the temptation for pizza because I’m looking to lose some weight (although I did not resist the beer, because that would be a crime against humanity). We then rode back home under cover of darkness. It was a grand 20 miles, and there will be more.

We are now in the hottest part of the year so far with triple digit temperatures hitting this week, and I don’t mind taking a little bit of a break. Rather than push myself, I brought my mountain bike in for a tune-up and today I am dropping off my road bike. I am ready to resume road riding and will probably start with the C group at the next weekday ride where the temperature isn’t insane.

So far I’m pleased with slow, incremental progress as I continue my comeback. Road riding is what I love. There’ll be a temptation to go too fast and too far, but I think my lack of fitness will help curb that as well.


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!


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.


Them Bones

stronger-bones

I’ve talked plenty about my bone density issues and speculated where they may have come from. We may never know completely why and how this came about, and what place it had in the perfect storm of the freak injury history of the last couple years. From now on, this is the going to be not just the primary focus of my recovery, but a major focus for the rest of my life. More on that and how it will impact my next few months in a moment.

I’ve posted this New York Times article ‘Is Bicycling Bad For Your Bones?’ before, but it is worth revisiting. The topic is controversial. I’ve talked to many who completely disagree and insist that my problems were due to other issues. They may be partially right, and I cannot blame cycling itself, but I can pinpoint where in my process that I started neglecting my bones and urge others not to make the same mistakes.

It has become clear that I most likely had some bone density issues before beginning to ride. Some of this probably has to do with diet. My worst habit has been soda products, most of which are not good for bone strength. Even now I find it difficult to cut them out completely, although I drink a lot less than I used to. Calcium has not been a major staple of my diet either. I don’t handle milk well, and tend to avoid fattening and high calorie dairy products just to keep slim.

Weight bearing has also been an issue. Even though I’ve dabbled with running and walking, cycling has been my sport of choice for years. Since I have worked at an office job and gone to school for the last several years, I’ve been off my feet a lot.

During the few years of intense cycling, I barely ran or even walked. The extent of my weight bearing was occasional strength exercises, but even those were not appealing to me. I preferred to develop strength on the bike. Climbing probably puts a little more weight on the leg muscles, but most likely not the hip. Proper cycling form minimizes the use of the hip. The flexors are being used to spin the pedals, but the quads and glutes do the heavy lifting.

When I wasn’t riding, I was recovering. That meant sitting on the couch. Sometimes I would do active recovery with short, easy rides, but I was not adding any weight bearing. After a tough mountain century, I would generally stay on the couch for the better part of a few days.

I was shocked when I had a scan last year and found that I had osteopenia in my hips. In hindsight, given my habits and training practice, I should not have been so surprised.

A couple weeks ago, we had a re-scan. I expected the numbers to be a little worse because I had surgery this year and a lot of recovery time. I’ve been on the couch a lot more in the last year than maybe the previous five years combined. The initial numbers that they gave me were discouraging. It sounded like the hip had gotten worse. On top of that, I was actually in osteoporosis levels in my hip joint. After receiving that news, I wondered seriously if I would ever ride again. I had even drafted a post basically ending this website. I have not and will not publish that one, because as has been typical with this roller coaster injury, the news got better.

When comparing my scan from April of last year with the one from a couple weeks ago, it turns out that my hip bones have actually improved by about 15%. That is significant enough for me to be encouraged. The osteoporosis is in my actual hip joint, the same one that was operated on in January, and it is barely at the level. The test last year did not scan the hip joint. Why would they? So there was nothing to compare, but I’d say the odds are that that bone was weaker last year than it is now.

The picture becomes clearer. What have I done differently? I’ve eaten dairy products, and over the past couple months have tried to walk around as much as possible. Over time walking has become less painful, which might be due to the bones strengthening along with the injury healing. The weight bearing will continue, but for now, any riding, running or jumping will not, at least for a couple or few months until my bones strengthen. The good news is I’m almost guaranteed to ride again and likely at a high level, but I will have to do things differently.

This is where I encourage all cyclists to learn from me. Implementing some form of weight bearing is important. Eating a balanced diet is important. A lot of us hate running. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with it, but know that eventually it will be a necessary evil. Strength training isn’t my thing either, but it’ll also be necessary. That can be squats, leg presses, or even upper body exercises while standing. It is important that some time is spent on a weekly basis doing some sort of weight bearing.

Things are again looking better for me, and I’m keeping a positive attitude. As far as pain goes, I am feeling better than I have in two years, and I cannot begin to express how liberating that feeling is. I’m able to get out, explore, see and experience things. I’ve been to three concerts in the past three weeks. I hadn’t been to a concert in years prior to this summer. It’s good to get outside. The couch is a brutal prison.

Standing near the front row for two hours felt amazing and not painful.

Standing near the front row for two hours felt amazing and not painful.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep walking and eating calcium. My doctor said that I shouldn’t worry about the calories, and that adding a few pounds would not be the worst thing. It might even help strengthen my bones by giving me more weight to bear. And I know I can lose it later. As I get more comfortable on my feet and finish up with some other priorities, I’m going to mix up my training regimen. The idea for now is to start P90X3 in December. That will give me upper body strength and hopefully will turn some of that fat into muscle. It may not be the lean, climbing body that I strove for last year, but it’ll still be a functional and healthy body. I’ll be careful with any of the flexibility and jumping exercises that interact with my hip, and I’ll probably start easy.

When I’m on the other side of that, the bike will be waiting for me. So will the sneakers, and so will the leg press machine. It’ll be about balance, but if I’m smart, I’ll climb higher and stronger than ever.


Tunnel to Towers, Columbia, SC

main stage

It has been a little while since I’ve checked in. It is hard to believe that the injury first occurred over two years ago. Finally I am able to live life and stay relatively active without pain, and after this messy ordeal, that’s a good thing.

I’ve been reluctant to jump back onto the bike until I’m sure of having no setbacks, so instead I’ve been doing a whole lot of walking. Most of the time walking is not exactly interesting (with some exceptions, like a gator story I might tell someday), so the blog has remained dormant for the time being. Fortunately I found a walk that’s extremely interesting and highly personal, so I thought I would share.

Last week I heard about a 5k run to commemorate firefighters who passed during 9/11. Tunnel to Towers is specifically designed to honor the sacrifice of Stephen Siller, who ran from the Lincoln Tunnel to the twin towers in full, heavy firefighting gear. He is a true hero and is worthy of being honored. Yet, for some reason, I hadn’t heard about this event.

Let me backtrack a little bit here.

9/11 is the day in our generation that everyone remembers vividly, sort of like the Kennedy assassination for the baby boomers. I was working from home and didn’t have the TV on. I left to grab some breakfast around mid-morning, and when I ordered, someone at the counter said “Can you belief that we’re under attack?” The first plane had just hit the tower. I rushed home and watched the news and kept it on for hours, shocked and saddened by the tragic events as they happened.

Later in the day I visited my family. I have three younger half-siblings, and they were much younger then. The oldest was 10. They came from my father’s second marriage to a nice lady from Staten Island, NY. This was the ideal step-mother situation, as we got along splendidly nearly from the first time we met. Today I consider her to be a part of the family.

She had three brothers who were all firefighters. One of them was even a Battalion Chief. When we learned that the towers had collapsed and firemen were down there, she was worried that her brothers might have been caught in the wreckage. She made phone call after phone call, trying to account for their whereabouts. She got in touch with two of them, but neither had heard from Jeff, her youngest brother. The night passed, and in the days following, she continued making phone calls trying to find him, to no avail. She heard from her brother that his unit was one of the first in there, and it looked grim.

Jeff didn’t make it. We’ll never know what happened, but we do know that he passed away while saving lives, just like Stephen Siller did. Here is a little more about him.

I had never met Jeff, but because of what happened, I felt like I knew him. He was a young buck, in his mid-twenties, a good boyfriend to his girlfriend who was going to law school, and he and my step-mother were very close. He was a guy I would have liked to have met, and probably would have if that tragic day had never occurred.

It was tough on the kids. They knew Jeff and loved him. I did what I could to comfort them, but they didn’t truly understand.

Since then, the thought of Jeff and the memory of the grieving family has dominated my memories of that tragic day. It’s strange how people react, and I’m not an outwardly emotional person. I hardly ever cry in movies for example, but for awhile, anything 9/11 would strike a chord with me. I avoided movies and documentaries about the subject just because of how painful those memories were.

Time has a way of making things easier. When we visited the 9/11 museum, I made it a point to look at the memorial for Jeff. There were audio recordings from his mother, my step-grandmother, who I have met several times and is a sweet, dear person. It was touching to hear such a familiar voice talk fondly about her lost son.

One day we accidentally walked by the NYFD and stumbled upon images of all the lost firefighters. Jeff was in the picture.

lost firefighters
jeff stark

So when I heard about the 5k, I jumped at the chance.

The crowd was massive. 5k strong!

The crowd was massive. 5k strong!

Even though I’ve been walking for exercise, I was reluctant to sign up for a 5k. Sometimes my own worst enemy is myself and my competitive drive. If I start at a race with the intention of walking or jogging slowly, I may change my mind when people start passing me. This one was safe for a number of reasons. First off, it was massive. Approximately 5,000 people participated, and many of them walked. Second, part of the thrill of the event was the camaraderie and the tribute. I was able to experience plenty while walking around and looking around than if I had run.

Still, I was nervous and I prepared to go slowly. As I began to walk, groups of marching military groups would pass by. At first they walked, and as they got to the starting line, they would jog. They kept a call and response cadence, some of which were serious, others fun and lighthearted. I felt privileged to walk among them.

military marching

The most special event came a short while later. As we made a turn, we saw a line of people holding up pictures. I immediately recognized them from the NYFD. I made my way across the street between the marching military columns and looked at each of the signs in order to pay tribute. Then lo and behold, Jeff’s face showed up. I stood dead in my tracks. “That’s my uncle-in-law!” I shouted to the nice young lady. I was moved and even choked up when I saw him there. I asked if she would pose for a picture, and of course she obliged. Later I found out that these were all USC students who stood out there holding the signs. Thank you, students.

Jeffrey Stark

Jeffrey Stark, hero

As I continued walking, I made it a point to look at every other sign. I could only afford a quick glance at each, but that was enough. These firefighters were all heroes, and they all had families like mine.

Another benefit of walking was I was able to share pavement with many of the firefighters who were walking in full, heavy gear. I cannot imagine how difficult it was to walk with them. As I passed them, I made sure to let them know how much I respected what they were doing.

firefighter walking

Along the entire course were onlookers cheering us on, giving us high fives as we passed. Many of them carried American flags, and they contributed to both the excitement and the patriotism of the event. Even though we were paying tribute to a tragic event in history, the mood was jubilant, patriotic and everyone was full of resolve. The time for mourning has passed. We were celebrating their heroism.

I found out later that someone had officially run for Jeff in the New York event of this race. Next year I will make it a point to officially run for Jeff here. And next time I will run.