As I threw my leg over my mountain bike and pedalled up to the day 1 start line of the 2015 BC Bike Race, I silently hoped that my body had healed enough to handle what I was about to put it through.
Just six weeks earlier, I had jarred my lower back in a fall that seemed innocuous at the time, but had turned into excruciating pain over the following weeks. Since then, I’d been doing everything possible to fix what I’d broken, which turned out to be an irritated disc in my lower back and damage to my right sacroiliac (SI) joint.
I maxed out my work benefits and paid a few hundred bucks out of my own pocket for registered massage therapy, chiropractic care and physiotherapy. I followed their advice, did the prescribed exercises and avoided body positions that aggravated the problem. Because cycling contributed to the pain, I also stopped road riding and mountain biking completely a month before the race.
Far from having the fitness of an elite athlete, I was nervous about losing so much training time, but as one of my riding buddies pointed out, I could probably finish the race without training, but I couldn’t finish without healing.
Facing 310 kilometres of riding with 10,000 metres of vertical over seven days–my longest race by six days and 250 kilometres–I had to get as close to healthy as possible. It was clear, though, that I would not be at 100 per cent by race start.
As race day crept closer, I was improving physically, but mentally I was scared that Southern B.C.’s bone-jarring downhill trails would have me in the medical tent before I even warmed up.
It was a despairing thought given the investment I’d made: thousands of dollars entering the race and buying a new bike, and six months preparing my body with all the extra saddle time I could squeeze in between working and parenting.
I considered selling my entry a few times during my month of healing, especially in the first few days when just sitting at my desk had me in tears from the constant throbbing pain that ran across my lower back.
But I just couldn’t bring myself to pull the pin. Call it bull-headed determination–courtesy of my dad–or call it patient optimism–more of a mom trait–but I refused to deviate from the plan to do the race this year alongside two of my best friends. Everything was in place. Childcare: check. Accommodations: check. Transportation: check. Support: check. As a single parent, I’m acutely aware that when a plan comes together, you make sure your ass is able to seize the opportunity. It might not come around again.
And so, amidst a heat wave uncommon to this rainforest region of B.C., I rolled out, accepting whatever fate awaited me and my body on the first stage in Cumberland. I passed under the zig-zag pattern of festive multi-coloured flags hanging over the roadway that doubled as a starting gate and reminded myself that I’d done everything possible to heal. All I could do was maintain it by pacing myself, resting at regular intervals, and even stretching on the side of the trail if necessary.
This would not be a race against the 599 other mountain bikers. My foes were long and exposed fire road climbs, technical downhill single track, heat that peaked at 40 degrees, and my own physical limits. All four of these took me to task that first day, and when I crossed the finish line six hours later, I wasn’t sure my body would carry me through the six days that still lay ahead.
Though the first half of the ride went well, I made some mistakes on the second part of the course. I hadn’t managed my mental game very well and slipped into a negative headspace at the top of the gruelling second climb, which had featured 10 kilometres of sun-exposed fire road at mid-day. Feeling overheated, tired and grumpy, I pushed myself too hard in the final 10 kilometres of single track just to get off the course as quickly as possible. My ass-backward thinking was that more time on course meant more strain on my back when a good long rest at the second aid station might have given me the perk up I needed. After barrelling down the trails and ignoring my body’s plea for rest, I felt completely shattered rolling into base camp.
As I lay exhausted and in pain in front of the food tent near the finish line, a friend who is involved with the race came over to ask me how the day went. I’m sure he could tell from my face that it had not been my best day on a bike. I told him I wasn’t sure I was going to get through day 3, the infamous Earls Cove to Sechelt leg of the race. At 59 kilometres, it was the longest day and we had been told there were long stretches of exposed fire road.
He laughed a little and said, “Woah! Don’t get that far ahead. Take it one day at a time.”
As I sat on the grass, grumpily munching copious amounts of watermelon after he left, I conceded that if I had any hope of finishing each day and enjoying myself in the process, I would have to heed his advice and do a better job of listening to my body too.
This race was my big vacation for the year. Every day should have felt like heaven, but I was so focused on rising above my injury that I had risked adding to the damage in my back and nearly ruined a perfectly good day of mountain biking in the process.
Luckily, my body bounced back and the first day’s reality check helped ensure the next six days were full of the fun single track adventures I had anticipated when I signed up for this race a year earlier.
To keep my back happy, I did a few different things.
Upon the testimony of a fellow racer, I joined the queue of scraped, bruised and saddle-sore riders at the medical tent each morning to have my back reinforced with kinesiology tape. This stuff is supposed to decrease muscle fatigue. Since I noticed a distinct improvement over the next few days, I’d say it worked for me.
I also continued doing cobra stretches throughout the day to assuage the disc irritation. Basically, the disc was popping out of place when I bent forward so curving my back the other way popped it back into place. This stretch was a key factor in my healing process so I wasn’t going to stop and risk regression.
My final defence in the war on pain was to use a “hurts-so-good” foam roller on my iliotibial (IT) band, which can contribute to SI joint pain when it’s tight. I also used the love of the foam roller on my quads, calves and hamstrings most nights to fend off the inevitable muscle pain that comes when a weekend warrior decides to mountain bike for seven days straight.
Since my back pain seemed to improve over the next few days, I’d say my tactics worked, though no part of me wanted to be near a bicycle for at least a week after crossing the finish line on day seven in Whistler.
Was choosing to race despite being roughly 75 percent healed a good idea? Probably not. Am I glad I did it anyway? Damn straight!