Monday, February 9, 2015

Too Hip To Be Fast

Some of you may have noticed that I've gone from "decent local bike racer guy" to "who is that guy who is already off the back?" in the last year or so. Allow me to explain.

I've always had minor pain in my lower back and hips. I've never been able to stand in one place for a long time without pain, and my hips have always popped and cracked. For a long time, I chalked this up to being tall—I'm 6'3"—because tall folks all have back pain, right? In early 2013, though, the pain became significantly worse.

I began to wake up in the middle of the night with sharp pains in my back and right hip. The pain was so intense that I would sometimes wake up gasping. Something wasn't right.

I went to my doctor, and he referred me to an orthopedist. The orthopedist did some x-rays and told me that I had large bone spurs on the heads of both femurs (the balls in the ball-and-socket joint of the hip) that had probably destroyed the cartilage in my hips. According to him, I needed at least one new hip.

I didn't like that diagnosis, so I found another orthopedist who specialized in hips. He looked at my x-rays and more or less agreed with the first guy, but told me to go see Dr. Jon Hyman a "surgeon to the stars" who specialized in hip arthroscopy, a new type of hip surgery that was far less invasive and would likely allow me to get some more mileage out my hips.

Dr. Hyman had a long waiting list, but when I finally got an appointment, he told me that I was a "pretty good" candidate for the surgery. Due to the locations of the spurs, it would be a challenge to get good blood flow to the parts that would need to heal after the surgery, but Dr. Hyman said that my good health and youth would likely tip the scales in my favor.

By this point—March 2013—I had stopped doing anything longer than a criterium, but I was still able to sneak into the front half of local P/1/2 races. When Dr. Hyman and I agreed on a timeline, I decided that I would race until the pain became too much. I had a few good rides, culminating in my final race (the cat 2 race at Sandy Springs) in which I even spent a few laps off the front solo. After that, I couldn't even complete a pedal stroke without sharp pains in my hip.

I had surgery in June of 2013, and it went well. Dr. Hyman said that there was more damage in the hip joint than he had expected but that he was still optimistic. He prescribed twice-a-week rehab and six weeks of no weight bearing on the right side.

That six weeks sucked, but I got through it. In September, my very supportive sponsor, Atlanta Cycling, set me up with a top-of-the-line Cannondale 'cross bike, and I came roaring back to life. Over the next few months, I began to feel like my old self. The surgery, it seemed, had been a success.

At the start of the 2014 road season, however, I knew that something was wrong. I had pain again. It was not the severe, sharp pain that I had pre-surgery, but it was still pain. I trained and raced through it, and I even eked out a couple top tens in local races. In my heart, though, I knew that something wasn't right.

When 'cross season rolled around, I was optimistic. I knew that my handling skills would help me mitigate the effects of my janky hip. But that wasn't the case. I didn't notch a single result that I was proud of. I even got lapped in a couple local races.

Nevertheless, I put in a solid training block before nationals in January. This would be my first time to do the 30-34 race, and I was very excited. I expected to be top 15, even top 10 if I had an exceptional ride. I don't know where this confidence was coming from, but in my head, I was still the Mark Babcock of 2012, pain-free and fast.

Long story short, I finished 30th at nats, just off a group of eight or nine guys who were racing for a spot in the low 20s. I had a fifth or sixth row start, got caught behind all the first-lap crashes, blah, blah, excuses, blah. I rode well technically, but the top end just wasn't there. My heart and lungs were in top shape, but my hip just couldn't match them. I hobbled up the run-ups, and every other out-of-the-saddle effort caused my hip to pop painfully.

Since nats, I've had plenty of time to think about my future as a bike racer. I've talked to Dr. Hyman, and he told me that I "would always be active, but maybe not with the hip I was born with"—he was telling me that the surgery was not a success and that I would need a new hip. I'm starting to fear that he was right. The nighttime pain is back, and now my left hip is acting up too. I have struggled to keep up on our local Winter Bike League rides whenever the pace has gotten anywhere near racy. I can't lie flat or stand up straight without pain. I'm starting to think that it's time to face the facts.

I will always race bikes, but it might be time to accept that I am an entry fee donator rather than a real competitor. And maybe that's ok. It doesn't feel ok yet, but maybe it will one day. I could go ahead with the hip replacement, in the hopes that it would allow me to get back up to speed, but my racing "career" isn't worth that risk. I'm going to ride as much and as hard as my busted hips will allow and deal with the pain until it gets to be too much. I'd like to put hip replacement off at least until I'm 40 (I'll be 31 tomorrow). The 40-44 field at 2025 nats had better be on their toes.