While I managed to complete the 2015 Trans Am Bike Race in 8th place, I didn’t make it through the event entirely unscathed. In fact, over a month later, I am still dealing with the ramifications of doing such a grueling race.
I consider myself fortunate, though. In comparison to other TABR racers, I fared pretty well health-wise. For example, one German entrant was hit by a car on a highway near Astoria, Oregon the day before the group start, was taken to the hospital, and could not commence the race. Another German racer, Michael Wacker—whom I played leapfrog with the first couple weeks of the TABR—crashed out of the race with a broken shoulder about 1000 miles to go and cannot remember what happened. And others had to withdraw after the first week due to, for example, intolerable knee pain.
My Injuries During the Race
Injuries are listed in order of occurrence.
- Sunburn: I did not put enough sunscreen on my wrists below the gloves, resulting in sunburn on Day 2. Despite putting copious amounts of Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50 (recommended by Consumer Reports), I had an extreme farmer’s tan even by the time of this writing nearly five weeks after finishing the race. Future racers should seriously consider wearing lightweight, light-colored sleeves (like the kind Badwater Ultra runners use in 125F weather) to protect their arms from sunburn and self from skin cancer.
- Numerous hangnails: Due to the sun exposure and dry air of the western United States, I got numerous hangnails on all my fingers during the first 10 days of the race. Fortunately I brought a nail clipper and was able to trim them! Remarkably, they all healed without consistent use of moisturizer in the eastern U.S., perhaps because of the high humidity.
- Onset of saddle sores: From Day 2-5 I had what felt like saddle sores and was the primary limiting factor those days. But then I checked into a hotel, took a shower, washed my bib shorts, and lubed up. I did not have any more discomfort in that region for the rest of the race and the lightweight Specialized Romin Evo Pro saddle proved to be comfortable.
- Blisters in area where the feet meet the leg: Blisters occurred after four days of riding on both feet and were caused by the stiff tongues of my Shimano M065 shoes. I eventually drained them and made slits in the tongues of the shoes using a nail clipper, which prevented future recurrence.
- Numb hands: I noticed my left hand was becoming numb somewhere in Wyoming, and by the end of the race I had full carpal tunnel syndrome. The horrendous roads of Wyoming with expansion cracks every 20 meters (thump, thump, thump) were probably to blame. My right hand suffered some nerve damage as well, and during the last week of the race I had problems shifting the SRAM shifters. (I have since written a post about how SRAM Double Tap shifters are unsuitable for extreme ultra-distance events.) At the time of this writing, there is no improvement in the hands which makes it difficult to button pants, open packages, and type. An occupational therapist specializing in hand injuries thinks the nerve damage was due to compression from the thumping of the road, and thus had me wear a splint (featured photo of this article) for several weeks.
- Skinned index finger knuckles: The SRAM DoubleTap shifters required a lot of force to downshift the rear derailleur or upshift the front, and I skinned my index finger knuckles on the brake levers trying to do so.
- Shermer’s Neck: After 2900 miles, my neck muscles fatigued and by the last week of the race, I was unable to lift or turn my head. Not only was the condition painful, but made riding very dangerous as I had problems seeing the road. This injury was the primary cause of my severe drop-off in daily mileage during the last week of the race. It took about a week to recover from Shermer’s Neck after I reached the finish in Yorktown.
- Peeling skin on palm: Perhaps related to the impact that also caused the numb hands, much skin on my palm was flaking and peeling off for weeks after the race. Other racers experienced the same thing, but worse (judging by graphic photos they posted on Facebook). One of them even resorted to sanding his palms with 100-grit sandpaper post-race and using a lot of lotion to smoothen them out. What is curious to me is that I think all of us were using padded gloves, and yet our palms still became a flaky mess.
Accident I Had
I had only one accident, and a pretty silly one at that: at 1:00 a.m. about 46 miles from Newton, Kansas, I encountered Michael Wacker and was behind him. His cell phone dropped to the ground so I slowed, intending to stop and pick it up. However, when I came to the stop my balance was off and I didn’t kick my right foot out of the new SPD pedals I obtained a few days earlier in Breckenridge, Colorado, which had much stiffer release springs than the previous pedals I was using before they broke. Thus, I toppled onto the ground, landing on my side.
I was lucky to escape without even a scratch as just moments before I put on both arm sleeves and leg warmers which ended up protecting my skin. The right edge of my bicycle saddle did get scuffed up, however.
The incident startled me even though I was unhurt, as I realized just how easily accidents could happen and the race could end. That made me even more cautious during the last week. Probably a good thing considering how nearly all the roads in the eastern U.S. had no shoulder, and some were very narrow and steep with rumble strips and logging trucks whizzing by.
I suffered from extreme forgetfulness by the end of the race. For example, after my GPS unit died in a thunderstorm and I had to navigate using Adventure Cycling Association maps and cycle computer, I could not remember any directions. I am usually excellent at remembering and dealing with numbers, but I could not remember “At Mile 31.2, turn right on road 642” for more than a few minutes and kept having to stop and check the map to remind myself. I also got lost a lot. Whether this was simply due to sleep deprivation and fatigue or was partly attributable to true cognitive decline is open to speculation. Race winner Jesse Carlsson, for example, posted an journal article that described how a 6% reduction in grey matter can result from a two-month ultra-endurance event.
By the time the race was done, I had lost six pounds. Before and after DEXA scans showed that my body fat percentage decreased from 13.1% to 11.6%, and I lost 1.5 pounds of upper body muscle. I probably would have lost even more weight had I not been drinking gallons of soda and eating junk food almost exclusively each day of the race. Five weeks after the race and the weight (and muscle) is still off. I consider myself underweight right now and have not been so light since high school.
A pull-up strength test revealed a significant reduction in upper body strength. Days before the start of the race, I could consistently do 26-27 pull-ups with good form. When I returned from the race, I could only do 13-16 (four attempts). The strength has yet to return especially since I am forbidden from doing any weight lifting until the numb hands heal.
Update May 22, 2016, 11 Months Later
My right hand regained all feeling after two months, but my left hand only did so after seven and a half. During that time, I had only biked two times total so as not to aggravate the condition. As mentioned above, I visited an occupational therapist twice who gave me some hand exercises to do. I did them each day for about a month, with no noticeable change, after which I conceded my body just needed time to regenerate nerves.
My farmers’ tan took about three months to fade. I still am concerned about future skin cancer ramifications and implore participants to wear sleeves as the arms will get the brunt of the sun. (At least the face is somewhat shielded by the top of the head and helmet, and the legs are shielded by the torso. Of course, still put sunscreen on any exposed skin regardless.)
My upper body strength and normal body weight resumed after about four months despite doing no weight training, just pushups and going rock climbing maybe three or four times. In pull-up tests at the end of October 2015 (four months after the race) I could do 21-23, which surprised me especially since I had not done any since the early July pull-up tests when I could only do 13-16.