Assessing the Damage: Part 2 Felix Wong

I suppose I can’t say I hadn’t been warned—even if it was at the last minute.

“You will get numb hands,” advised the other racers in the Tour Divide. Not “might,” but “will.”

“Really?” I questioned. I never experienced tingling or lack of sensation in my hands while bicycling before. And quite frankly, I didn’t believe it would happen to me. Surely, I convinced myself, the other racers only got numbness because they were holding up their torsos with their arms instead of their stomach and back muscles, or were putting a death grip on the handlebars.

Imagine my shock and dismay, then, when by Day 2 I woke up with numbness in my fingers already or—a few days later—I’d realize that even to use nail clippers to cut my toe nails, I’d need to use two hands.

Tying my shoes became a real chore (note to self: if I do a multi-day mountain bike race again, use shoes with straps!)

Unfortunately, as I write this 50 days after I completed the Tour Divide, my left pinkie and ring finger are still numb. The upside is that at least my right hand seemingly recovered within a week of finishing the race—though it would take about two weeks before I could scale anything more difficult than a 5.7 in the rock climbing gym without grimacing.

And—most disappointingly—apparently my hand strength is still a lot weaker than before, as evidenced by having extreme problems shifting Canny‘s Campagnolo Ergopower shifters as recently as a few days ago.

Other short term “damage” included the following:

  • The top of my hands got the oh-so-fashionable (not) “cycling spot” from sun rays piercing the open part of the glove tops formed by the velcro glove straps. I did put sunscreen on this area and would try to close the gloves as tightly as possible to minimize the size of the “opening,” but still got the spots. These spots would only completely disappear about four or five weeks after the race. Why the majority of cycling gloves are designed this way as opposed to having the opening and straps on the bottom of the gloves is beyond me, but I see that there are some gloves that exist now designed to avoid the “cycling spot.” (They are on my wish list.)
  • One part of my hands I did not apply sunscreen to were my thumbs. So at the end of the race, my thumbs became sunburned to the point that the skin on my left thumb actually started cracking and bleeding.
  • Despite applying copious (and probably toxic) amounts of SPF 30, my arms became near-sunburned after Week 1 of the race. After that, I resorted to wearing a loose, thin, long-sleeved, Coolmax running shirt instead of my short-sleeved cycling jersey the rest of the race until the very last day. (Another advantage of the long sleeve shirt was that it offered better protection from mosquitoes than my skin-tight jersey and arm warmers.)
  • On Day 6, I felt something pop at the back of my leg, which at first I thought was a vein. Thankfully, it was just a pulled hamstring—though at the time, it was so bad (it forced me to walk up every hill for about two hours that morning) that I thought my race was over. I took it easy the rest of the day, even lowering the saddle by a few millimeters to emphasize my quads more than my hamstrings, and never had a recurring problem despite raising the saddle to its original height a couple days later.
  • When I checked into a hotel in Basin, MT for the first time during the race on Day 8, I was astonished to see just how emaciated I had become after just a week of riding. After that I started eating much more. Still, when I returned home, I weighed nine pounds less than when I left—and when I left I was already a few pounds underweight due to travel and things like running a 100-mile ultramarathon.
  • I was bit maybe about four dozen times by mosquitoes—especially by ones in southern Montana and the Teton area of Wyoming—despite using plenty of (and most certainly toxic) 98% DEET and sometimes being covered with clothing from head to toe. The mosquitoes would just bite through my lycra, and the Teton mosquitoes just laughed at bug spray. The mosquitoes—except for maybe chain- and wheel-sucking mud—were probably the most annoying thing about riding the Continental Divide. In addition to being tortuous, they posed a real risk of contracting the West Nile virus.
  • My right Achilles tendon was tender for the first couple weeks of the race, which I actually thought at the time was due to my right shoe digging into it. However, considering how many people in the race complained of ruptured Achilles tendons, maybe it wasn’t just the shoe…
  • Riding so many hours a day (usually about 15-16)—combined with eating primarily processed junk food and almost zero vegetables—probably took a huge oxidative toll on the body. I tried to counteract this by taking massive doses of Vitamin C and E during the race—something I only would do in extreme cases like this.
  • Also as a result of becoming emaciated and eating so much processed junk food, I became carbohydrate-addicted where if I wasn’t eating something sweet every hour or so, I’d quickly bonk. This became especially problematic when during the last few days, I could not find any food!
  • When I am in “trouble” during a race, I resort to Coke/Pepsi for the caffeine (the only “drug” I took during the Tour Divide). Well, the third and last week, I was resorting to cola A LOT! And hence experienced a slight caffeine addiction during the race too.

Surprisingly, one thing that was not a problem were saddle sores—at least beyond the first few days after my butt became re-acclimated to all the riding. The 9-year-old Specialized Body Comp saddle was very comfortable.

Fortunately, most of the issues above were reversible (aside from maybe the aging thing) and I have recovered from all of them aside from lingering hand numbness. The sunburned thumbs were “fixed” by applying a homemade mixture of coconut and olive oil to them for two weeks; the carbohydrate and caffeine addiction was reversed by returning to my normal eating habits; and my weight loss was reversed by eating more and weight training.

A free health screening by Walgreens Take Care Health Tour a few weeks ago confirmed that my cholesterol, bone density, blood pressure, and glucose levels are within the excellent range as well.

Now if I could only accelerate the recovery from the numb hands issue. A week after the race, I had a full body massage (paid for by my sweet friend Cat S.—thanks Cat!), which felt nice, but didn’t perform any miracles. I also started doing hand exercises with baoding balls along with stretches for carpal tunnel syndrome. I may try acupuncture next.

If anyone has any other ideas on how to solve that problem, please leave a comment below.

In closing, all the rest of the issues listed above were things I somewhat anticipated before the race. To me, despite these problems the adventure was well worth doing one time. Just don’t ask me if it’s worth doing a second time because I am unsure.

Update September 18, 2008 (Thu): I can shift the Ergopower shifters normally again, so my right hand strength must be back to normal. Numbness in both hands is now trivial (existent, but minimal enough that there have been days I never even think about it). Hooray!

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