Grit and Gravel: Two Years After Spinal Fusion

I’ve been quiet since May, quietly working back towards health and smarter cycling, and I have news. I started radio silence right after announcing that I would not start the Almanzo, a 100-plus mile gravel event, back in May. I was devastated when a work trip sidelined me with nerve pain, helping me decide that I shouldn’t start the event and risk being off the bike for a large portion of the summer. Before I get to the good part, I need to give some backstory for the newer readers. Note the picture above. Those are what I affectionately refer to as the “deck screws” in my spine.

The Background

In 2015 and 2016, I was an avid off-road rider, primarily gravel and XC MTB rides on my fat bike. I loved the challenge of long, unsupported rides that involved a fair amount of planning, physical coordination, and mental strength to push you through hours of riding. Imagine my shock when, during what should have been a tough but doable 105 mile early season gravel ride in 2017, I had trouble pedaling my bike and even fell over on a minimum maintenance road for no good reason.


My training goal is to continue what I’ve been doing for the last two years. I ask myself, what can I do today that will move me forward tomorrow?


Fast forward to my worsening condition, my intermittent leg numbness that would cause me to fall down stairs, and a spine surgeon informing me that I needed a very robust spinal fusion in the lumbar region. I had an underlying congenital defect that I had cycled into oblivion, requiring mechanical supports to be added to the front AND back of my spine. My core muscles were cut from both sides to access my spine, and I gained some new titanium hardware and a bone graft.

Recovery

Recovery was, in a word, awful. Never have I experienced these levels of pain, and I’m a solid pursuer of Type 2 fun. Progress has come in fits and starts over the past two years. Never did I imagine that two years later, I would think about my spine daily, pondering if a certain activity would make it feel worse, or if I needed a break, or should I even go on that group ride tonight? If you had told me that I’d still be deep in recovery mode two years later, I may have snapped back in the summer of 2017.

That being said, do I regret having spine surgery? HELL NO. By the time surgery came around, I was on 20 hours a day of bed rest and in searing pain the other 4 hours of the day. I had undergone 8 weeks of intensive physical therapy to see if I could be salvaged. Quality of life was pretty dang low, and so I went into surgery knowing it was my best option.

Today, the spinal fusion limits range of motion in one area but causes excess mobility in another. I struggle with an overly-mobile SI joint that pinches nerves and sends shooting pains down my leg. My spinal fusion site is rock solid and my surgeon tells me I can’t break it; muscles will rip first. Now I’m learning how to manage and mitigate pain and discomfort caused by my SI joint.

A new-to-me bike ALWAYS helps, right??

Onward and Upward

You can read past blogs that chronicle the fits and starts of progress, the setbacks, and the triumphs. The key update for today is that I’m seeing consistent progress. I’ve been riding my Kinetic R1 trainer that makes me work my core even when indoors and added strength training with a personal trainer. It’s amazing how much some basic strength training can expose extreme muscle weaknesses that were neglected over the past two years!!

Major achievements just since May include –

  • Riding my favorite 70-mile gravel “donut route” successfully
  • Finally riding my mountain bike for an hour in one go
  • Riding back to back to back gravel days (3!!!) and feeling pretty dang good
  • Finishing a 55 mile USAC road race, with heat exhaustion, no less
  • Finishing a USAC time trial in a rain shower (I was DFL, but I did it!)
  • Completing my first post-surgery cyclocross race

My training goal is to continue what I’ve been doing for the last two years. I ask myself, what can I do today that will move me forward tomorrow? Sometimes that means admitting when I’m tapped out and unable to ride, sometimes it means signing up for a cyclocross race so you can race your 10 year old.

The happy 10 year old after a recent race

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