Knowing When To Fold ‘Em

Out on Injury From Mountain Bike Racing

There’s been a song playing over and over in my head for the last few days, its chorus instantly recognizable:

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,  know when to fold ’em 

Know when to walk away, and know when to run”

Written by Don Schlitz and performed most famously by Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler” is the song that sums up my life right now. For the first time in a long time, I had to fold ‘em on something my spirit so earnestly wanted to do: mountain bike racing.

And it hurt. It was a real pain in the groin, to be specific.

I’ve been dealing with an awful groin pull for the last ten months or so. As you probably know, the groin refers to a combination of delicate muscles in the upper thigh and pelvic region. I’ve fastidiously researched the muscles, tendons, and bones involved since, as they have come to dominate my life as of late.

It started with a soccer game in November; I did a sudden sprint that instantly had me limping off the field. My left hip flexor felt fragile and tight, but I stretched it that evening and thought nothing of it. I did the same thing the next game – a quick, sudden sprint from standing that left me feeling like I could barely walk.

But I kept on playing…and riding my bike almost everyday, and running. Everything but resting.

Then, snowboarding season began. I was skating out of a deep powder run at Kirkwood, my left front foot strapped in, and my back right leg pushing behind me. There was a somewhat established path from others who’d met the same fate and lost their speed like me, but the powder was still deep and I was postholing. I should’ve just unstrapped my board and hiked it, in Perfect Retrospect Land.

I caught a patch of slick ice that sent my left leg forward, while my right leg sunk thigh-deep into powder. My left groin and hip flexor felt like they tore in half. My glute felt like it was pulling forward to try to grab my thigh as it lunged forward. It hurt hike a branding iron – searing, driving, and leaving an unwelcome imprint on your future.

It was the most awkward, uncomfortable position to get out of, trying not to make it worse by moving too suddenly. I gingerly shimmied my way to unclip myself and relieve the splits I was in. But I was aching. I was set back a few days from this one.

For the first time, I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I could not lift my leg to get up out of bed; it was terribly disabling. Claustrophobic, actually. It would take minutes to gently roll out of bed, and then it would hurt even worse to sit down on the toilet; my hip would make an audible clicking noise from my cold muscles. I felt like my entire inner upper thigh and hip flexors were incapable of even the slightest stretch, let alone use. Hot showers and stretching helped to warm it up, but my mobility was worsening.

I took a good week off of exercising, but soon got back to riding and running. I started doing more yoga, hoping the stretching would be a good accompaniment. But mornings were still a grizzle for another month or so.

Then, in March, I was moving classrooms and reached up for a box that was high on a shelf. My left hip flexor felt like a snapped guitar string, from taut to limp. And so felt my entire left leg. This was the one that got me limping around slowly like a woman older than my years. I felt like I couldn’t lift my leg to even walk. I realized how tight my entire hip area was, from the inside out.

I’ve lived most of my life feeling like I was eighteen years old, physically speaking; no major ailments or complaints with one exception. When I was 23, I had an accessory neo navicular bone removed from my left foot; they had to reattach my posterior tibial tendon, and I was off my feet for eight weeks. The atrophy was almost the hardest part; it took months to regain strength. And I pulled my left groin for the first time shortly thereafter at my local climbing gym. I often wonder about the connections to what I’m experiencing now. I wear arch supports and good shoes, and my foot is better since. But now, for the first time in my life besides that surgery, I’m feeling limited by my body. I’m not healing as fast as I used to; I am getting older.

But I love mountain biking. Taking any longer than a week off leaves me antsy beyond measure. So I kept riding on the days I felt like I could, and pushed myself to try on the days I felt I couldn’t.

In April, mountain bike racing season began with the Sea Otter Classic Enduro; the Old Cabin Classic followed. Then, my second year racing the California Enduro Series began in May. Though my groin still hurt, I was riding almost everyday. I increased my yoga to try to balance it out.

I began CES strong, winning first place at the first race for Sport Women 35+. I had a rough second and third race, as I wrote about in an earlier blog post, though still got second and first. My times were fast; I was happy with how I was riding. Something was different this season, though, and I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. I felt over it. Like I just didn’t care anymore about the races; I didn’t care about winning, or losing. I wasn’t as inspired as I’d felt last season when it was all brand new.

I missed the fourth race for a scheduled family camping trip at Lake Cachuma, and though I was riding, I was still having issues with my groin and hip. It was a full three-hundred sixty degrees of discomfort. I saw my doctor in early August about it; I had an ultrasound to rule out an inguinal hernia, and was given physical therapy exercises online to do, which were similar to the yoga poses I was already doing.

I wasn’t physically 100%, but I was excited for the fifth race at Northstar. I love Northstar. I got a few days in riding there this Summer, and was feeling really confident for this race going in.

But on the drive up to the race, I was again feeling that over it feeling again. Strong. Like I really didn’t want to do the race. It wasn’t nerves; it was a sort of instinctive aversion. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling this way. I love mountain biking, but I wasn’t so sure about the racing part anymore. I just wanted to ride my bike.

Sitting in the car for four and a half hours is the last thing that helps my hip feel better. I was feeling super sensitive during practice that day before the race. Even on the downhills, I was having trouble gripping my seat and balancing my weight. I ride left-foot forward most of the time on descents, same as my regular snowboarding stance. The slightest jerk or slip on the pedal can feel like the cut of a razor blade, sharp and debilitating. I knew I wasn’t feeling up to par, but I was there, and was going to give it a shot.

That evening, I camped at Prosser Reservoir outside of Truckee. It was gorgeous – the waxing gibbous moon rose over the lake, reflecting a family of mergansers who swam in unison. Though Ron stayed back in Santa Cruz to teach his surf lessons, I was happy to be there, even alone. I love being outside!

But something seems to keep happening when I go camping on the weekends…loud campers! I am not getting that old, but I would just like a good night’s sleep. Every time I’ve been camping this Summer, if it was on a weekend, there were super loud partiers. I understand wanting to let go and celebrate with family and friends. But when it’s 1 a.m. and you’re still woo-hooing as you line up more tequila shots?! Shut the heck up, Dude! Which is exactly what I barked at them from my tent at that hour, having spent the last two tossing and turning to my fan-app on my phone. They responded by laughing and partying for another hour or so, as I contemplated driving down the road and just sleeping in my car.

When I woke up on raceday at 7:30 a.m, I was exhausted. I limped to the bathroom, glaring at my hungover neighbors’ tents. My groin was awful. I was Cranky. And darn it, I was feeling that over it feeling again about the race. Just didn’t care.

By the time I’d met up with a few teammates and friends to start climbing up, I’d already said out loud, “My groin is killing me. If it becomes too painful, I’m just going to quit and DNF. I’m not going to destroy myself for this race.” My words would become prophetic.

At the start of the climb, my brakes were rubbing and whining. I stopped at the Santa Cruz Bicycles Tent at the base of mid-mountain, and they kindly adjusted them. I did the first lap, winning that stage for my category. Then, I made the mistake of not reading the course description well enough. I asked the race director at the CES tent if I was supposed to ride the chairlift or climb for the next stage. He was, understandably, busy and doing a thousand different things. I got “Chairlift” for my answer, and off I went up the lift to the next stage.

I saw nothing but a sea of men when I got to the stage start. I took a rest in the shade, assuming the other girls would be soon behind. But a good half hour passed before some girls started trickling in. I greeted some of them as they arrived, sweating from just climbing up.

That’s right – climbing.

How had I gotten that messed up?! Was I not clear about the stage when I asked for clarification? It didn’t matter; it was on me for getting it switched. The girls told me to just climb for the next stage; to go back to the race director I’d just spoken to and explain. I felt like a total dumbass, though.

I also explained to the girls how my groin was bothering me, and there I went throwing out that “DNF” threat again. I was so sure that I could just quit the race if I was hurting.

Starting the next stage, I knew it was a long one, about thirteen or so minutes. I came across a couple of riders soon into the trail; presumably a mechanical from one of the riders. But I passed one of the girls, and kept charging down the trail. I was nervous, though, knowing what a long stage we were on, and that she may end up passing me. I wish I wouldn’t have even thought about this and just kept focused on the riding, because I think it distracted me enough to make me fall on a section I’d cruised the day before. It was a pretty mellow fall; I was totally fine physically, and I thank my pads for that. I quickly got up to keep going, but saw something I’d never seen.

Falls are pretty common in mountain bike racing. When you’re pushing your speed, you increase your risk for falling. Most of the time you just get back up and keep going, maybe lose ten seconds or so.

But on this particular fall, I happened to hit a rock in just the right spot – right on my derailleur hanger that attaches my derailleur and chain to my bike. It’s designed to break so that your more expensive derailleur doesn’t, and it did its job; it was cracked in half, but still attached. The real problem was my bike was unrideable. My chain and derailleur were in a loose pile, attached near the hub in such a way that they would tangle in the spokes should you try to spin the wheel in any way. I quickly realized I couldn’t run my bike down the trail because my chain and derailleur were smacking against my frame and spokes. I lifted up my bike, holding my chain awkwardly as I tried to jog down the trail. There wasn’t a lot of space on the singletrack to lift up my bike, hold it, and try to run down the rest of it, and I knew I had a long way to go.

Most importantly, I knew there were dozens of riders cued up coming down the trail in thirty second intervals, and it wouldn’t be safe if I was running along the narrow trail clogging up their runs. I needed the quickest way down to fix my bike.

At the Pinwheels, I spoke with a course marshal about what had happened. “That sucks,” he lamented. We agreed that running my bike wasn’t going to be feasible. I set off on a bumpy fireroad called Tryumph that leads down to the base, where the Santa Cruz Bicycles Tent was. That was half the challenge. Riding with only my left hand, I held my chain and derailleur carefully with my right hand to keep it from catching on my bike. I came across some racers who commiserated me. “Bummer! Hate it when that happens,” they consoled. These were the Pros and Experts climbing; surely they’d had a mechanical issue or two in their years racing.

It took awhile to make my way down without crashing again, using my front brake only. I rode up to the tent and didn’t even have to say anything.

“Oh no! Let’s get that fixed for ‘ya,” they offered. They were such nice, helpful guys. Granted, it’s their job to be there for this reason, but twice in one day? They were really helping a sister out.

They explained the derailleur hanger to me and why it broke to save the derailleur. They awesomely replaced that part for me, and within minutes, I had a working bike again. I was stoked. But I’d burned a ton of time, and I still had to ride the stage I’d crashed on…which was closing in ten minutes. I profusely thanked them, and went over to the CES tent to ask the race director what to do. Integrity is important to me; I wanted to finish the race properly and with approval. He radioed up to the top of the stage, where they confirmed they were shutting it down. “I’m sorry,” he said. “There’s not enough time”.

Gulp. I had to take my first DNF. Did Not Finish. Dude No Fun. Grrr!

Though I could keep “racing” and record my times, it wouldn’t count. I had last year’s times, when I got first place for Beginner Women, which was good enough for me. I didn’t want to race for nothing, turned in my timing chip, and rode back to my car to lick my wounds.

Sticks & Stones, My One Stage Win PC: Casey Karames
Moonrise at Prosser

I am not superstitious, but I find it funny how I talked in my China Peak Enduro video about how much I didn’t want to DNF. I’d puked my way through that race, not wanting to DNF. Not because I thought anyone cared, but because I cared, for some reason. I also talked in that video about how much I hate quitting…

This time? I was irritated. Physically, I could’ve pushed through and finished the race fine. I wished I hadn’t crashed. Why did I have to fall on that one random part?!  

Though I had said earlier that day I didn’t care about DNF’ing and quitting the race if I needed to, when it was actually said and done, I cried like a little baby. I just sobbed, feeling defeated and sad. I did care. I love mountain biking, and though I may be getting over the racing part, I have a competitive nature. I like being first. Conceding this race set me even further back in the series competition, and I didn’t like it.

With my hip hurting and spirit down, I counted my losses and drove home to Santa Cruz. I stopped for gas in Pleasanton, and realized I didn’t have my wedding ring on! I panicked like I’d left a baby behind. I remembered taking it off to wash my face at the campsite after I swam in the lake. To my amazing good graces, my friend and teammate Anne-Laure was camping at the same campground. I called her right away, in tears, asking her to please look on the picnic table at my site for my ring. 

As I continued driving home, I couldn’t believe I’d made it so far without noticing. I always wear my ring. I was so caught up in the stupid DNF that I’d forgotten something so important. About an hour later, Anne-Laure called with some incredible news: she’d found my ring, right on the table where I’d left it! Of all the things that had gone wrong during this weekend, I was most grateful my ring was at least safe. That was my saving grace. She kindly sent it to me, and it’s been on ever since. I am infinitely thankful to her!

Northstar was done. I had two races left – Mammoth and Ashland. I really enjoyed Mammoth last year, and was looking forward to riding there this year. The course is super cool! And the famed Kamikaze delivers on its hype. 

But when I woke up Friday morning, September 21, 2018 to leave for Mammoth, my groin and hip were hurting more than usual; I was having trouble just going up and down the stairs at home packing up. I made one harsh move that crippled me to the fetal position and near tears, and in that very moment, something strange happened: I gave up.

You are not racing this weekend, I heard my Mother say in my mind. I knew she was right. Driving six hours to Mammoth and riding hard for two days seemed impossible. Repeating that in two weeks for the Ashland finale seemed laughable.

I do not quit easily. But my body was speaking for me, loud and clear. You can make up for lack of gumption with spunk and fighting spirit, but you cannot make up for injuries that heal on their own timeline.

Sometimes, you’ve got to know when to fold ‘em.

Just like that, I was done. My body had chosen for me. It seemed like it had been trying to tell me all season. That over it feeling kind of made sense. I knew it was the right decision.

I sold my Ashland race registration, and wrote off Mammoth. Though I had the spirit to be there, hurting my body was not worth a race.

But I do hate quitting. I nearly drove up to Mammoth twice that day before really accepting it was off the table. I cried; I felt like my body had failed me.

Something had to give. It was time to let go. I made another doctor’s appointment, and committed to staying off my bike for at least a full week. That’s a long time.

I could get over the CES races. Yes, I was bummed about not winning the series. As it stands, I’ll finish third place overall. I’m not sure what the future holds for me and racing at this point. There’s a big part of me that doesn’t care anymore. It’s not like you do the races for fame, but despite winning several races and the series Beginner last year, I don’t think I was ever mentioned in a race report. For all the talk about “getting women more involved in mountain bike racing”, you would think there might be some acknowledgement and encouragement. But as I hear the Pro’s above me lament, it’s few and far between. Who am I kidding with my delusions of grandeur either? I’m not doing anything exceptional. I realize how self-absorbed I must seem blogging about my races. Yawn. Thank you for reading, or not – I don’t blame you.

But not riding my bike? This is what really matters to me; this makes me sad and forlorn. I know I need to rest, but it is like pulling teeth to stay away. The very thing I love is what’s hurting me. An identity crisis presents itself. It’s like I don’t know who I am when I’m not on my bike. It’s my life, my passion, what I do with most of my time. I have other hobbies, but this is my main love. Not being able to go for a run is just as hard. Who am I when not in motion?

Though I love a mental workout as much as a physical one, it’s usually best enjoyed after a good, long ride. And I get kind of depressed when I don’t get that regular endorphin dose. Exercise is medicine. It’s always been a part of who I am, and I feel kind of lost without it.

This weekend dragged on like cold molasses, as I tried to keep busy with birdwatching, reading, gardening, guitar, hanging out with Ron and Beau, and doing lots of yoga. It’s hard when you can’t do the things you love, but I ought to be grateful for all the other things I still can do. It’s even harder when you can’t live your life in the simplest of ways – getting out of bed in the morning, climbing the stairs to your morning coffee, bending down to tie your shoelace. By the end of the weekend, though I had tons of energy left to burn, I was sure I’d made the right call to rest.

This injury is a real wake-up call for me, and I want to do everything possible to fully heal this time. I’ll be back to the doctor in two weeks, and keep up the rest and yoga in the meantime. I hope it’s only a matter of time before I’m able to spend my afternoons riding around the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains I’m lucky to call home. I might have to sneak a shuttle run in from my hubby though…because nothing else puts a smile on my face like riding my bike, even if it’s just for ten minutes.

One thought on “Knowing When To Fold ‘Em”

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