This summer, from mid-April to mid-August, I had a bone stress injury in my right tibia (reaction, fracture, it doesn’t really matter, treatment is the same) that prevented me from not only running, but really, precluded almost any pain-free, bipedal perambulation. Because I was necessarily relegated to biking for those four months, I had a real awakening with regards to the wonders and merits of it as a means of satisfying, continuous movement in the mountains.
Despite a fairly negative attitude towards biking (at least, as anything other than pure commuting) over the past few years, I actually have a bit of experience with the activity from my college days. In my first 10 years of running (1995-2005), I sustained something like 12 stress fractures. In high school, I was young and healed quickly and as a means of coping, I would haphazardly spend some time cross-training on my mom’s stationary bike in our basement. Soon enough I was back out pounding the gravel and dirt.
In college, however, I distinctly remember having a conversation with the school’s athletic trainer, Bruce, asking him why this particular stress fracture was taking longer than the four weeks of downtime I would typically require in high school. His response?
“Tony, your’e not 15 anymore; your body takes longer to heal now.”
This was a depressing thing to hear at a mere 19 years of age.
Testing The Waters
So I went out and bought a bike. A new one. It was an entry-level, aluminum frame road bike from Giant. It had some funky geometry, a triple chainring and Shimano Sora componentry, but I didn’t really care about any of that. I just wanted to be able to efficiently log some road miles on a budget (I was a college freshman, after all) and had ridden enough borrowed bikes to know I preferred the consistency of effort and big miles of road riding to the inconsistent effort and technical handling faffery of mountain biking.
I rode it some that spring (2002), but once that stress fracture was healed, it was back to the running all summer, until I got yet another SF in the fall. This one struck during the first week of cross-country season—a huge psychological blow—and this is when I had my first consistent period of biking.
An Intro to Ultra
I got into it. A month into the school year, Colorado College’s cycling club organized a three-day tour from campus in downtown Colorado Springs to Aspen, a couple mountain passes and 160 miles away. It was rad. I made some new friends and was generally introduced to the pleasures of self-powered, two-wheeled travel through and over Colorado’s iconic mountain ranges.
We had vans supporting us by carrying all of our gear, and then we had a day in Aspen itself before being shuttled back to campus via bus. A few of us took this day to ride our bikes up to the Maroon Bells (it was the peak of leaf-season), and I decided that instead of riding the bus the next day, I would just pedal all 160 miles back in one push, which ended up being eight and a half hours.
This was fantastic. It was also my first foray into any kind of all-day endurance activity (my longest run at that point was a little under 5hrs, up and down Pikes Peak). I clearly remember discovering the magic of on-the-move calories. I bonked pretty hard (a relatively new experience for me) grinding up Wilkerson Pass at mile 105, but downed a granola bar, experienced a near-immediate, palpable surge in energy, and rallied the final, mostly downhill miles to Colorado Springs on a high, smitten with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment that was really my first experience with tackling and overcoming a big endurance challenge. It also felt easy. Well, if not necessarily “easy”, it definitely felt “right”.
Once that stress fracture healed, however, I climbed aboard the alloy steed only sporadically for the next three years. I would occasionally consider a big bike tour of some kind, but running always took precedence.
There was one final stint of serious cycling in the summer of 2005 when a foot injury forced me into a month off from running after I had logged a preposterous 884 miles in the previous month. (Seriously.) To fill the void of 30hr/week of running, I figured the least I could do was bike 4-5hr/day instead. So I did, and got all excited about biking again. But once my foot had healed, it was back to running and cross-country season and when my bike was stolen the following spring (2006), well, my entry into the world of mega-mileage and ultra marathons was certainly sealed. A few weeks later, I would run and win my first ultra, the Leadville 100.
A Shift in Perspective
My attitude changed completely about 10 days into this most recent injury, back in late April. During that time I’d gotten out for a couple 1-2hr rides, but certainly on only sunny days, and usually without much joy. The traffic, the wind, the tedium, the simple fact that it wasn’t running or scrambling…I couldn’t get past the nagging negative voices inside my own head. Mostly, I sat around and silently sulked.
Really, the turning point came down to a single moment. I was seated at my window table one morning, lamenting to Joe Grant via Gmail Chat that it was raining, so I was contemplating going to the gym for some kind of exercise. My brain chemicals still hadn’t fully adjusted to my new injured reality yet, so I was probably a bit more aggressive than was necessary in our exchange:
just heading out the door to go fucking ellipticize
or stationary bike
probably try bouldering but avoid jumping off the wall
you don’t ride in the rain?
carbon melts in the rain (I was borrowing a friend’s road bike for the week and didn’t want to get it dirty)
i’m not hardcore
yeah it’s just not that bad once you get going
and it’s not very cold out
Joe (clearly) takes far more abuse from me than he deserves. But he also knows how to push my buttons, often in a good way, which was certainly the case here. The truth is, I was reacting to a perceived questioning of my innate toughness, and, to be honest, my self-image in that respect is far more of a motivating factor a lot of the time than I’d like to admit.
Minutes after that exchange, I said fuck it, suited up, grabbed my previously-relegated-to-commuting CX bike (so as to avoid any meltage ;-), and rode for four hours in the rain. I’d always thought of riding a bike in the rain as unmitigated misery. The windchill, the tires throwing water on you, I just wanted to be able to run! (Which is actually a blast in the rain.)
Turns out, Joe was right. Biking in the rain—especially the primarily low-key drizzle that we experienced for most of May—just isn’t that bad. And once I discovered that simply cleaning and lubing your bike immediately after a wet ride ameliorates most mechanical ills, I now even take my very own carbon speed machine out in it. Duh. (Oh, the learning curve of a neophyte.) Even more importantly, our spring this year was so wet that if I hadn’t reconciled myself to getting a little damp on two wheels every day, I basically would’ve done nothing the entire month.
Which would’ve had an almost unbearably deleterious effect on my general psych for day-to-day existence. As it was, discovering the joys of bicycles basically saved my entire summer.
Connecting to a Culture
Displaying the main characteristic that is probably both my greatest strength and my greatest weakness as an athlete, the switch had been flipped and I immediately jumped in with both feet. All the way in. Once given a focus and a purpose, it’s really hard for me to find moderation. This trait brought me never-before-experienced success as a runner when I was younger and my body could (kinda, sorta) handle the onslaught of mileage. Thankfully, one of the defining things about cycling is the pleasant lack of impact and abuse on one’s musculoskeletal frame whilst still allowing one to impart a profound stimulus on the cardiovascular system.
The very next week after my Joe-inspired ride in the rain, I had three days of 100 miles or more and racked up well over 500mi. I was hooked.
The first thing to do was explore what I quickly came to realize is Boulder’s world-class system of roads for bike riding. At the ~5500′ level of town, Highways 93 and 36 conveniently connect everything from Golden in the south to Lyons in the north. Though busy, these highways have an 8′ shoulder basically the entire way. But the real jewel is that up high there is the glorious Peak-to-Peak Highway, which runs essentially from Blackhawk in the south to Estes Park in the north, rolling between 8500′ and 9500′ the entire way with little traffic, inspiring alpine views, and a more-than-adequate shoulder. Connecting these two north-south corridors are almost-too-numerous-to-list climbs up every major drainage cutting from the mountains down to the plains. My personal favorite became the mega-classic Lefthand Canyon vertical mile of ascent from Boulder, up through Ward, to 10,500′ at Brainard Lake.
Additionally, there are miles upon miles of surprisingly quiet, well-shouldered rural-ish roads to the north and east. The first weekend I rolled through the tiny hamlet of Hygiene 15-20mi northeast of Boulder, I was shocked at the row upon row of bikes stacked out in front of Mary’s Market, as literally dozens and dozens of riders stopped in for a snack and a cold drink.
Riding these routes and gradually finding my rhythm in the saddle, I felt the curtain was being drawn back on a whole scene and sub-culture and tradition that my previous knowledge of existed in only the most vague, tangential form. Of course, when Lance was slaying the Tour de France in the 2000s, I began paying attention to professional bike racing for the first time, along with the rest of mainstream America. And sure, I had read various trip reports and anecdotes of local Boulder legends tackling the Longs Peak or Mt Toll Triathlons, but none of that really meant anything to me until I had firsthand experience with the long grinds up the Lefthand or South St Vrain Canyons. All of a sudden, I felt almost instantly connected to the Boulder-area mountain-sports culture and history on a depth that I hadn’t felt before as only a runner.
But I wasn’t really interested in (or adept at) traditional racing. The weekend of the one race I was interested in (the Mt. Evans Hill Climb, in July), I instead spent helping Joe achieve one of his own bike-centric goals by shuttling him to Durango for the start of the Colorado Trail Bikepacking Race.
What I did do was start planning and executing bunches of self-powered mini-adventures in the mountains, all of which started at my doorstep. I started with the classic Longs Peak Triathlon, but then applied that same philosophy to every one of my forays in the Front Range high country for the rest of the season. I did bike approaches to Blitzen Ridge in RMNP, all-day traverses of the Continental Divide in the Indian Peaks, the summit of Mt Evans, and multiple days-per-week sessions of scrambling <10mi away in Eldorado Canyon. It seemed like my bike had a pair of climbing slippers or running shoes strapped to its handlebars more often than not.
I had plenty of inspiration in this regard. Self-powered adventures on the high peaks, starting in Boulder, have been a tradition since at least the 1970s. Years ago, climber, runner, and self-powered peak-bagger Bill Briggs devised what is certainly the most fantastically acronymed project for himself: the Self-Powered Ascent of Mountains in Boulder County, i.e. SPAM-BC, which is his personal mission to summit every named peak in Boulder County, under his own power, starting from Boulder. Brilliant. And just last year, Justin Simoni plucked maybe the most obvious and proud self-powered peak-bagging plum in the state by linking up all 58 14ers in a mere 34-and-a-half days.
Due to motorized technology—helicopters and such—objectives in the mountains are always of a contrived, subjective nature. When climbing a mountain, virtually 100% of the experience is tied up in the style that you decide to take. If this wasn’t the case—and reaching the top was the only criterium upon which to valuate the experience—then driving a car to the top of Pikes Peak or flying a helicopter to the top of Longs Peak would be equatable with hiking or climbing to the top of either. Which, I think, even the person who is driving his or her car to the summit can admit, is simply not the case. Contrivedly approaching via bicycle is simply a logical extension of adding value to the experience of ascending the hill.
Though I can’t quite explain exactly what clicked in my head after my first bike approach, what I can say is that all of a sudden, driving to a local trailhead seemed like cheating (“local” being defined somewhat liberally here…roughly 50mi became my acceptable radius). And, of course, by “cheating” I mean only “cheating myself”. The depth and intensity of experience that came from using my own legs to get from my front door to the mountains and back so far surpassed the satisfaction that came from driving there that I ended up not doing so the rest of the summer.
This difference goes far beyond the obvious increase in physical workload, but instead seems to extend into the more intuitive or, though I cringe to type it, spiritual realm. I’d always felt a little unsettled by the idea of driving somewhere to go run or bike. It’s always just felt at least mildly dissonant on an elemental level, like, why would I drive a bunch of miles to go run a bunch of miles? Biking there eliminates that unease and replaces it with a deeper commitment to the journey and a fuller integration with all the miles and landscape between you and the trailhead. Those things feel important.
But I did and still do drive to the mountains. I drive to go climbing all the time. I will drive all the time to go skiing this winter. And in the future I will still drive to simply go run. But the adventure, simplicity, and sheer fascinating mechanical efficiency of bicycling have a grip on me that I know will never be relinquished and I’m super excited about all the possibilities it opens up going forward.