Friday, May 12, 2017

Snowbound and Painful Cycling

Albuquerque, NM - Clinton, MO (miles 7,900 - 8,840)

Snow blows sideways and drifts against a fence that lines a narrow sidewalk leading to Scott City Fitness & Gymnastic Club. I press my nose against the cold window and peer out at the twig-arm snowman in the yard, am relieved I'm not trying to survive this storm in my tent.

Did I expect snow when I turned north several days back, leaving New Mexico, traveling up into Colorado, then east into Kansas? Sure, I expected a little snow. Perhaps a flurry or two if there was enough moisture in the air and temps dropped low enough at night. After all, I'd opted for this route because I wanted the cooler temps of a higher latitude. 60 degree days and 35 degree nights, that's what I thought Kansas had in store for me. I hadn't expected a winter storm bad-ass enough to call out the National Guard.

The club closes due to weather and I'm alone in my little room, most of the time flat on my back. I have a pinched nerve in my neck, more annoying than painful, and I spend my time reading and goofing around on the internet. Occasionally I get up and walk around the club, through the shadowed rooms, hearing nothing but the tug of the wind against the building and the drip-drip-drip of a leak in the racquetball court. I wear my fleece on these walks—the heat is on but turned down—and I need the warmth. Out of food, I have increasingly intense hunger pains, tell my stomach to chill out, that I'll make a grocery run as soon as the storm breaks.

Two days and 18” of snow later, the gray clouds dissipate and the sun peeks over the horizon. The world outside the club is rounded and white, sharp edges buried beneath the snow, a rolling wintry landscape that's engulfed the cars and houses, the squared-off streets so common in flatland USA. The town has a ponderous feel, as though it's buried under so much weight it will need time to emerge, and I wonder how long before the first snowplow arrives. I'm about to take off on foot to find food, when the manager of the club arrives in a red truck.

Chris, a young-looking 50ish guy, broad-shouldered and thick, allowed me to stay at the club in exchange for work, an offer that perhaps saved my life. He starts on one end of the sidewalk with a shovel and I start on the other, and we both shovel snow for the next 15 minutes. I'm hoping the physical labor will pop my back and relieve my pinched nerve, but the pop doesn't happen. Whatever. It's just a pinched nerve, not much of an issue.

“You hungry?” Chris says. “Need to go to the store?”

“I could eat.” I'm so hungry I could eat my leather saddle right about now.

We ride through the snow-clogged streets to a store, where I buy coffee, two blueberry fritters, and two chocolate donuts. I offer one of the donuts to Chris and he turns it down. Good. More for me.

Stuck locomotive.

He drops me off and I'm alone again. I spend the day on my back, sleep fitfully through the night. In the morning, I pack up and leave the club, cycle down the road. Plows have pushed the snow on the four lane highway toward the middle, clogging up the inner lanes, and the leaking hills are higher than my head. The roadway is slushy and before long my socks are wet and my feet are cold. I think about putting on my waterproof booties, nix that idea. The sun is warmer today and my socks will dry out soon enough. I cycle eastward, dropping in elevation, leaving the winter storm and western Kansas behind.


Three days later, I go into a Dollar General and buy Tylenol. My neck pain has gone from annoying to almost unbearable. My daily dose of 2,400 milligrams of ibuprofen haven't made a dent in the agony, and I'm hoping the Tylenol will at least take the edge off. I choke down 1,000 milligrams and cycle down the rural road. Temps are in the sixties and the wind is at my back. I should be enjoying this ride, should have a grin and an optimistic view on the future of Ride between the Stars. Instead I have a frown and I've begun to wonder if this injury will force me off the bike.

I'm angry, in a foul mood, don't want to talk to anyone, curse a truck that passes inside the 3 foot range. That's the law here in Kansas. Automobiles must give at least 3 feet of clearance when they pass a bike. Cursing doesn't make my neck and back feel better, neither does the Tylenol. I need muscle relaxers and stronger pain meds, but that involves a trip to a doctor and that's not going to happen.

I can't get comfortable on the bike . . . I simply can't. There is nowhere to hide from this pain and that is perhaps the most frustrating thing of all. No shifting around on the seat, no changing of the hand positions, no adjustments in my torso—none of it helps. I know, because I tried it all, many times, over and over, trying and trying and trying.

I don't know which is worse, the sharp pain in my neck/shoulder area or the dull pain that shoots down my arm. I hate both of them equally, wish they would die.

Maybe Icy Hot will help. I buy a bottle and rub the ointment on my neck. I'm filled to the brim with ibuprofen and Tylenol, got an old-standby working into my muscles, pedal into the afternoon praying the pain will go away. And it does.

But then it's back the next day and the next. I begin doing yoga—positions for the back—hope if loosen my spine enough it will pop into place. My neck and back begin popping, dull cracks that sound inside my ears, and the sharp pain shifts a few inches away from my spine. The pain coils tightly and lodges inside a muscle that I can reach with my right hand, and I stop every mile or so and give myself a massage. The pain lessens enough so I can cycle steadily for a while, but it returns that night and I have a sleepless ten hours inside the tent.

I can't go on like this, nor can I take a respite from the bike, not if I'm going to reach Maine in time to beat winter down the eastern seaboard.

Something changed to cause this injury.

I've ridden over 25,000 miles on this bike without neck pain . . . and now this. I'm older, yes, but this problem seems more of a bike fit issue than anything else. I haven't moved the seat or the handlebar position, and I'm still riding the same frame. I look down at my feet, at the toe clips on my pedals.

I put them on in Santa Fe, New Mexico, because my Chacos are so worn they were sliding around on the pedals, have ridden with the clips for the last 800 or so miles. I like them. They make me feel as though more of my energy is transmitted to the drive train, but they do lock my body more or less into one position on the bike. I take the clips off and ride that afternoon with less pain. It's pain I can live with, and for the first time in awhile I feel encouraged. I take a day off and ride out thunderstorms in a Missouri field, arrive in Clinton the next afternoon. A med-free ride. I still hurt, but at least I'm not risking kidney or liver damage.

I spend a day at the Community Center applying ice to the muscle and offending nerve. The pain morphs from its customary sharpness to a tingle, a feeling that's so odd it unnerves me. (I must be getting better, what with the bad pun and all.)

Anyway, I'll soon be taking the KatyTrail east and hope the next time I blog I'll do so pain free. Time will tell.  

A few more pics from this leg of my journey. 


  1. Good story of gutting it out, TJ. Lay on Mac Duff, lay on!

  2. Let me know if the prednisone helps over the next 24 to 48 hours. Good luck, we enjoyed your stay. Thanks for stopping by. Sam


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