Splish splash breathe. Splish splash breathe. The black line in the bottom of the pool passed relentlessly beneath me like it had almost every day for weeks on end. Ever since I was restricted to a boot
and told to rest my wonky post tibial tendon, I had racked up miles on the gyms “swim challenge” like never before. Was I in the running for the cash prize for being first to 100 miles? Heck no. There are always some nefarious shenanigans that happen whenever cash is on the line. For some folks, winning that prize is pretty important and some pretty unbelievable pool time gets logged. Nonetheless, it was respectable and honest mileage for me especially considering I have no real current motivation to train.
The good news is I am now boot-free. I had a check in with Dr. Oller of Media Foot Care last Monday and got the all-clear with a few cautions. While there, Richard showed me pictures of what it looks like when the post-tibial tendon snaps. He had just fixed someone’s foot where this had happened and said the patient was in for a long, painful recovery.
I had also spent some time while booted reading in-depth articles about Post-Tibial Tendon Dysfunction (PTTD) and the associated surgeries. None of them sound like fun and given that, if all goes well, I still probably have another 30-40 years of walking around on this blue orb, I should probably heed the advice to give up running.
Mentally, I haven’t yet shifted out of the mindset of being a runner. Races still pique my interest, Friday group runs are still something I think about until I remember “Oh . . that’s right. I’m not a runner anymore”. While the concept still seems foreign, I’m learning to accept it.
I’ve been waiting for a new idea. All of my motivation to stay fit and healthy the last few years has come from wanting to be the best athlete I can and the athletic events of choice were running or triathlon. More than once over the course of the last month, I’ve convinced myself there was no real need to go swim, or even eat healthy. “What difference does it make”? And that’s not healthy. I need something new.
The question is what? Many well meaning friends have suggested this:
Um. No. Trust me on this. No.
Of course there is always the ever-popular Elliptigo.
While it may be a good workout, it isn’t exactly what I’m looking for. There is also Stand-Up paddle boarding or (SUP). I actually have quite a few SUP friends including Jen Panetta
who was similarly forced out of running by an uncooperative body. This has real possibilities down the road and I’d like to try it someday. Right now it is a little cost prohibitive and water access is a bit limited. But I’d like to try it. I’ve also always envied rowers. In my opinion, rowers are the fittest of the fit. They use every muscle in their body and take the cardio vascular system as close to the edge of human limits as possible. I remember watching an Oxford vs. Cambridge match-up a few years ago and the contestants were completely and totally spent at the finish. They collapsed in their boats waiting the results of a photo finish that showed Oxford held their winning streak by mere millimeters. It was one of the most exciting sporting events I’ve watched. Again see SUP comments about cost, and water proximity not to mention cold winters.
I began aimlessly writing this article in the wee hours this morning. I tend to crawl out of bed at what most would find to be a ridiculously early hour. Of course, I go to bed at an equally ridiculous early hour so it works out. Sleep habits aside, I felt the need to write but the words were coming slowly. It is supposed to be slightly cooler in Hell this weekend than Pennsylvania so as soon as the sun topped the trees enough to create adequate visibility, I hopped on my gravel bike and headed out for an early ride to beat the heat.
The plan was to head East on pavement and make my way to the Schuylkill River Trail (SRT) entrance in Birdsboro. The beauty of the gravel bike is the ability to go almost anywhere including pavement, semi-improved roads, dirt, gravel, trails and light mountain terrain. I kept a steady clip rolling East at about 18 mph until I got to the trail. This was my first time jumping off-road since I picked up “Carl” (my Specialized Diverge). My only injury-plagued rides this season were a couple road loops.
Gravel biking is the second biggest surge in cycling at the present time. (In the biggest surge, e-Bikes are leading the pack and getting people out of their cars). The US in general and Pennsylvania in particular are loaded with miles and miles of rail trails most of which have a gravel or cinder surface and are unsuitable for road-biking. But many road bikers were not satisfied going from their comfortable and fast road machines to riding mountain bikes or hybrids on the trails. Many cyclists, being tinkerers at heart began modifying Cyclocross bikes to handle longer distances and give a bit more versatility to their use. The cycling industry saw the softball pitched at them and has hit it out of the park with nearly every manufacturer now producing several models of gravel bike.
So what makes a bike a gravel bike? Well, there is a lot of cross-over from mountain biking, cyclocross, and road bikes. The geometry typically starts out as that of a comfort road bike (a roadie designed for long-distance riding), but gets a higher bottom bracket such as those seen in ‘cross, though gravel grinders aren’t quite as high as that of a ‘cross bike. It then typically gets disc brakes, extra eyelets for water bottles, fenders or packs. Gravel bikes also have wider forks built with thru axles to accept fatter tires. These fatter tires are usually tubeless or tubeless ready. Tubeless tires tend to handle the likely punctures from a non-paved surface better than road tires and inner tubes. The gravel bike market is exploding with new and cross over technology continuously providing new bikes with new features at all price points. The end result is a bike that can handle nearly any surface whether it is the paved Tuesday night group ride, a muddy river trail, or a two-track through the desert. The rider can go from one to the next without skipping a beat, changing bikes, or swapping wheels.
As I turned off the pavement and onto the stony trail entrance I was a little trepidatious. I am mostly a road cyclist because they make you ride the bike between swimming and running in a triathlon. I have very limited mountain biking experience and wasn’t sure how my new bike with it’s 38mm tires would handle in stones and gravel. I pushed the pedals and glided up the stone driveway, on to the gravel trail and off through the woods. I’ve run this section of trail dozens of times over the years but had never been on it by bike. Familiar landmarks whizzed by. I floated along under the shade passing occasional runners, other bikers, and dog walkers.
May I pause here for a Public Service Announcement? *Ahem* . . for those who like to run, bike, or walk on public trails with your ear buds in and the music cranked up please look around now and then! Chances are there are other trail users who don’t want to run over you or scare the bejeezus out of you. On a related note, I need to buy a bell for my bike.
Now back to our story. As I rode along, the grin on my face got wider and wider. While I do enjoy road cycling it can sometimes get a bit tedious or boring. Zipping along the shady trail on my bike was some of the most fun I’ve had in quite a while. It reminded me of my boyhood when my bike meant freedom and transportation. After school I’d be off on my bike laden with hunting or fishing equipment bound for the river or woods. Even as I rode along the SRT the anticipation of using my new toy to access remote parts of hunting areas this fall leapt to mind.
You’ve, no doubt heard the phrase “If you build it, they will come” made famous by the movie “Field of Dreams”.
In addition to baseball, this theory also applies to cycling or, more specifically, gravel biking. The states, counties, and cities have built the trails, the bike makers have built the bikes, and now the race directors are on-board with gravel racing. It’s a big thing! There are new classics all over the country including the Dirty Kanza, The Amish Country Roubaix, and many others. These races are challenging endurance events minus the life-threatening crashes of a road criterium. These events seem similar to the marathon in running combining athleticism and and training with mental fortitude for endurance. I could do this.
There was a moment on the trail when I glanced down at a sign that marked the 50 mile mark of the river trail. The SRT makes it’s way from downtown Philadelphia all the way to Pottsville, Pennsylvania. As I rode past this 50 mile post, the idea came to me that one could, in theory, enjoy a beer at Yuengling in the morning, hop on their bike and finish the day with a cold one at the Manayunk Brewing Company. Now if that isn’t a worthy goal I don’t know what is. Who’s with me?