2014: A Great Year Off the Bike

This past year was not about riding. It was about recovering. As long-time readers know, I have faced a number of physical challenges over the last couple of years. For a time, I had no idea what the problem was. It was not until surgery this past January that I learned about my injury. I continued to learn things throughout the year about how my body, and how my post-surgery hip.

Chilling before surgery.

Prior to having surgery in January.

What I didn’t do much was ride my bike. As I began to heal from surgery and progress with physical therapy, I gave riding a try during the summer. While I still had plenty of memory in my muscles and had retained some fitness, I wasn’t quite ready. My hip had not healed enough. I shut it down and it has been over six months since I was last on the bike.

My cycling stats are not too impressive:

6 rides
142 miles

And that’s about it. ‘Nuff said.

Given how much I love cycling, you would think that 2014 would be a terrible year. I’ll admit that it took some adjustment and was not easy, but I settled into a routine. Some great things happened for me, and oddly enough, 2014 ended up being one of the best years of my life. I’ve only talked about some of those things on this blog, because most have little to nothing to do with cycling. Forgetting about my lack of cycling, here is why 2014 was such a great year:


The best part of the year happened in February in my third week after surgery. My wife had been trying out for Jeopardy for nearly two years. She finally got the call to appear in early January. Her episodes would tape in February. The worst part was the timing. I was going to have surgery on January 31st, and initially I wasn’t even sure whether I could attend. My doctor helped me with that part. I attended and watched her triumph in one game, and then come in second place for the next game. I was so proud of her and it was the experience of a lifetime, even if the experience was physically painful and clouded by painkillers. I’ll still never forget it.

The tough part was not being able to say anything for about five months. I wrote this “VICTORY” post ahead of time, and scheduled it to publish after her episode had aired. We had a fantastic viewing party where many of our friends and family celebrated with us. She received a good bit of media coverage, which was something new to us, but it died down. I was extremely proud of her, and let her use this platform to talk about her experience.

Lady Liberty

We celebrated with a trip to New York City, which believe it or not was my first trip to the city. The trip consisted mostly of us doing tourist things, eating, drinking, and having a great time. Not only did we have a great time, but this was the first major breakthrough in my injury recovery. At first I was nervous that I would not be mobile enough to enjoy the city. You really have to walk to enjoy New York. I gave it a go and had trouble early on, and then almost miraculously, I felt fine. We walked, walked some more, and then continued walking.

The next major event was something that I’ve never really talked about here. Some would find it surprising that I’ve been a part-time student for the entire lifetime of this blog. As I touched on during some of my autobiographical posts earlier this year, I had some professional distractions. I had a company, sold it, and then landed a good job in a new career years later. This is hard to believe, but I have been in college, off-and-on, for 21 years.

I began this year close to graduating, but figured it would be sometime in mid-2015. Surgery turned out to be a blessing because I had a lot of free time during the first part of the year. I was able to occupy my time by taking remote or online classes in the spring semester. My professors were all understanding, and they gave me a breather for the first few weeks. Even though I wasn’t at my sharpest, I still managed to do well in those classes, and by the end of the semester, I was within sniffing distance of graduating. All I needed was one class.

I waited for a class that I would like, and that ended up being a Fall graduate class about a subject that I enjoyed. The class was difficult and consumed a lot of my time, while a busy year at work consumed the rest. This was part of the reason posting slowed here at SteepClimbs (and also because I was not riding).

Even though the last few months were among the busiest of my academic career, I finished and graduated just a couple weeks ago.

That's me on the left.

That’s me on the left.

The picture above was a selfie taken with 2,800 other graduates. The graduating class went up to the green light that you can see above my cap. The bearded smiling guy on the right gave me a photobomb, but he was a good sport. He could have done much worse!

Graduating itself was pretty awesome, but even better was being able to walk without assistance or pain. I had made a lot of progress during the year and it felt great. I walked to the podium with a wide smile on my face as I shook hands with the school president and dean.

Hilton Marina1

Hilton Marina2

We celebrated graduation with a trip to South Florida. The pictures above were from this past Saturday morning. I woke up early to see an incredible sunrise. Our hotel overlooked the Fort Lauderdale Harbor. The cruise ships were all returning from sea and they added to the gorgeous view.

My physical challenges are not completely out of the way. I’m still recovering from the injury. It looked initially like this would be a 12-month recovery, but it will most likely be a 12-16 month recovery. It is far better than it was, and most days I have no problem, but it is sensitive to cold weather. That was one of the reasons we went down south for a vacation. The warm weather makes a huge difference. While there, we walked again, just like in New York City. We probably walked about 50 miles in total and the hip felt great.

Even though I’ve been recovering from a rough hip injury, it has been a fantastic year!

To summarize all that happened to me:

  • Got my hip fixed.
  • Became a Jeopardy husband.
  • Graduated college.
  • Traveled North (New York City)
  • Traveled South (Florida)
  • Traveled West (Los Angeles)
  • Traveled East (Charleston, Hilton Head)

It is difficult to predict what will happen in 2015. I know that some great things will happen. I’m on pace to hopefully be fully recovered when the weather warms up in the spring. That should allow me to return to the bike once and for all, and then slowly rebuild my fitness. We already have plans to return to New York City in June, and hopefully I’ll be able to ride there a little bit.

Without school occupying my time, I’ll be able to dedicate myself more to fitness and continued rehabilitation. I’ve already joined a New Years Plank Challenge, which should help get my core back in shape. I’ll continue walking and might even try running as long as the weather and my hip allows.

There’s a good chance I’ll climb again in 2015.

As for my New Years resolution? I tend to aim high, and my goal would be something like this:

Independence Pass triumphant!

It could happen, right? If not this year, then the next. I’ll be surely and slowly working toward that goal, and one day I will get there.

Thanks for following along. Thanks for all of the words of encouragement and support. I hope you all had a tremendous 2014 and will have an even better 2015.


The Ben That Inspired Us


In case you haven’t heard, someone from the Carolinas won the Tournament of Champions. Ben Ingram has ties to a lot of places: Florence, Charlotte, Spartanburg, and yes, Columbia. He is a Florence native, went to school at Wofford and South Carolina, and currently works in Charlotte.

It’s no secret that Ben’s run was phenomenal, and we’ve enjoyed following along, at times from a distance, at times up close. His Jeopardy triumphs bookended our own experience, which is miniscule in comparison, but still something we’ll never forget. Our adventure, at least in our memories, will be inextricably linked with his championship and how he inspired us.

Ben’s run first aired in July of 2013. Coincidentally enough, that is right after the time Andrea auditioned in Nashville. Jeopardy was at the forefront of our minds and it was fantastic to watch someone from our region achieve such success. In the back of her mind, Andrea was probably thinking of strategies from all of the contestants. I think she paid extra attention to Ben, because she did employ a similar strategy when she made it to air. It worked for her.

This has been an active and highly publicized season for Jeopardy. When Andrea taped her episodes, Arthur had just begun his run. I believe he had won five games by that point, but in such impressive fashion that we wondered whether he would still be playing. Arthur quickly went viral. At first he was villainized for his unconventional, jarring strategy. That transformed as he went on, and a lot of people embraced him, including ourselves.

When Andrea taped, we heard about another upcoming championing that would be appearing at some point before her episode would air. We knew it would be a female, and we watched religiously, speculating which one would be the champ. It turned out to be Julia, and what a champ she was! With her infamous sweaters and bubbly personality, she became a media darling. She won 20 games, the 2nd most ever in show history. At first social media didn’t seem to notice, until she kept winning, and winning, and winning some more. Eventually she was doing interviews for major publications and TV shows.

During this time, we were preparing for Andrea’s episodes to air. It was tough to keep quiet about it, while planning for to celebrate with a viewing party at the same time. It was at this time that we engaged with Ben. He is active on social media, and if memory serves, he first took attention of us when I notified him that another Carolinian would be appearing soon. The three of us tweeted together. Since he was such an inspiration, it was nice to have him in our corner during the whole ordeal. He gave some valuable advice as to how to deal with everything.

One time he asked: “are you the steep climbs guy?” LOL. That’s me. It is not the first time I had been asked that question, but I would have hardly expected it from a Jeopardy champ.

We knew the Tournament of Champions was going to be coming up eventually, and we were sure that Ben had qualified, even though his first episodes taped over a year ago. We soon put our enthusiasm behind #teamben, rooting for the hometown hero that we had found to be just a downright good guy.

Ben won his quarterfinal match, and then obliterated the field during semi-finals. I’m not sure whether Arthur and Julia watched that match live. If so, they would have been shaken. Ben had two advantages. He was a formidable opponent and had become the forgotten dark horse. I tweeted the following:

Arthur retweeted it, which is interesting in hindsight.

A Fox News article came out about the Tournament of Champions, and they summarized it as a rivalry between Arthur and Julia. Ben wasn’t even mentioned. Instead, he became the “other guy.”

After Wednesday’s quarterfinal, we got an invite to the finals viewing party. It turned out he was having it at our hometown. It was short notice and the timing was actually terrible for us, but this was a chance to experience history. Not to mention it would be our second viewing party of the year, and this time all we had to do was show up.

The SC Jeopardy champs of 2014. The one on the right won a little more.

The SC Jeopardy champs of 2014. The one on the right won a little more.

We finally met Ben in person. He was just as charming, gracious and funny as he came off on TV. We met his family, including his mother who was at the screening. That meant she knew the outcome, but we knew better than to ask her. We’d been down that road, carefully deflecting the carefully worded questions trying to glean an idea of the results. We also met his girlfriend Liz, who was super cool. We met other members of the family that had flown in from Bismarck, ND. We met his brother, and plenty of his friends. He really has a wonderful family, and I could tell that they were all proud of him, although I don’t think any of them knew the outcome aside from his mom, who kept quiet.

Ben has a sense of humor too. This was his Julia reaction shot.

Ben has a sense of humor too. This was his Julia reaction shot.

We cheered loudly as the show went on. Ben played smart, and even though he fell behind Arthur, he completed his successful streak of answering every Final Jeopardy completely. It was a brutal question that both Arthur and Julia missed. We didn’t know it either. I doubt anyone else in the room did. Ben knew. Ben always knew. Well, almost always.

He had a $10,000 lead. I congratulated him, and he reminded me that this was a two-day competition. Anything can happen. He’s exactly right. His competition was fierce. I was impressed by how well he kept the secret, but I also remembered how quiet we had been. It was difficult for us, and Andrea only won a game. Ben had won the championship. I’ll bet that deep down, he felt euphoric and wanted to scream and yell the results. His exterior was cool, composed, and revealed nothing.

The final night had some tough questions and a brutal Final Jeopardy. Nobody got the answer. The question was which Shakespeare play had a place named in the title that was not in Europe. The Answer was Pericles of Tyre. Ben was a Mathematics major, and he made a smart, safe wager. It was good enough to win.

When Andrea had won, both of our phones blew up. It took days, weeks even to get through all the emails, social media notifications, and to finally come back to reality. I cannot imagine what it was like for Ben. There’s already a Wall Street Journal piece on him, and I expect many more articles in the coming days.

I expect him to continue to be successful, and he’ll probably play Jeopardy again some capacity. Maybe another Battle of the Decades, or maybe he’ll play Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, a computer .. or something. Jeopardy likes trotting their champions back out, and Ben is one that they, and we, can be proud of.

Congratulations Ben! Enjoy the celebration!

ben champ

Them 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.

The Last Two Miles of Recovery

Just. 2. More. Miles.

Can you believe that as of a couple weeks ago, this injury began two years ago? It’s weird just thinking about it. Just a few weeks ago, I wondered if I was weeks, months, or maybe even years away from the end of this thing. The breakthrough came when I was walking around the streets of Manhattan, of all places. A few weeks later and the end of this journey is almost within sight.

I’ve learned not to blog about every single little healing point, because sometimes they can be fleeting or temporary. Before getting carried away and telling the world, I want to hear from someone smarter than myself. I heard that news today.

Just to backtrack, we discovered not too long ago that the majority of the setbacks were scar tissue related. Prednisone wiped them away temporarily, and then they came right back. Walking around New York helped too. The smoking gun was found when I had an injection into my pelvis. I was fortunate to work with my favorite radiologist, who I have seen an unbelievable three times. As he was performing the injection, he took an x-ray and used an ultrasound tool to see inside my hip joint. There it was, clear as day, a bright, think white line that enveloped my hip joint from end to end.

It was scar tissue alright, but it wasn’t the end of the world. The problems I had been dealing with were a result of tendons passing over the scar tissue and getting caught. That would result in inflammation and felt oddly similar to how things felt before surgery. It was a different form of hip popping syndrome, only this time it was not due to a torn labrum. I found myself recalling the philosophy from True Detective — “Time is a flat circle.” The line barely made sense when I watched the show, but it made perfect sense when I was getting that last injection.

For the first few days, the hip hurt. That was nothing to worry about. It was supposed to hurt. Then it would get a little better day by day. Sure, there were a couple bad days, and there will probably be a couple more, but the momentum was in the right direction.

Today I saw my doctor again. The good news is this scar tissue is manageable. It will never truly go away. My body will just adapt to it, and will re-build itself to accommodate it. It will probably give me a little bit of trouble in the future, but nothing like what I’ve dealt with over the last two years.

What is important is that I continue with regular, light activity. Walking works, as I’ve already found, and I can burn a few calories while I’m at it. For the next couple months, I’ll be doing a lot of walking, and maybe a little bit in the gym. That’ll break up the scar tissue and get my body to start getting used to it.

I decided to stay off the bike for a little while longer. I know I could ride right now. In fact, I would absolutely love to ride. There’s a chance that it would be no problem. The issue with me and riding is that I have only one speed. When I get on the bike, I want a workout. Rather than risk going too hard and setting myself back again, I’m going to slow it down. Now that we’re almost to September, the year is pretty much done anyway. I’ll give myself a little more healing time, and hopefully during the offseason I can gradually transition back. What’s important is that I remain patient and don’t push myself.

My doctor said he absolutely, positively expects me to get back to endurance sports again. The question is when. That depends on my body. Probably the earliest would be by the end of the year, and the latest next spring. All that matters is that I’ll be back.

Nice bridge view from the Roanoke Mountain lookout.

Don’t go anywhere, mountains. We’ll meet again soon.