Uphill or Down?

I am always on the lookout for a new way to add adventure and exercise to my life. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy running but sometimes I wonder if there isn’t something else that I could be doing. My husband likes to bike so cycling adventures frequently catch my eye. Recently I came across two that astounded me.

Most runners that I know hate hills. In fact, many of them will go out of their way to NOT have to run up a hill. The cyclists competing in the “Dirty Dozen” bike race in Pittsburgh make all those anti-hill runners look like a bunch of wimps. The Dirty Dozen is an informal (i.e., no entry fee) race up 13 of the most grueling hills around Pittsburgh. The race has been going on for the last 33 years – always the Saturday after Thanksgiving. What surprises me the most is that each year more and more people show up to do the race. While the route is only 55 miles, the climbs up the Pittsburgh hills will kick the butts of even the most experienced cyclists. There is one hill on the course with a 37 percent grade that the city claims may be the steepest paved urban street in the world. The hills are so steep that it is not unusual for bikers to fall over as they try to climb them.

I grew up riding a bike in Pittsburgh. I remember riding my bike from my home in the suburbs into downtown Pittsburgh. It was a great ride downhill into the city. I barely pedaled after I crested the hill, though I was riding the brakes a bit at some places. Coming back home was a different story – I never pedaled so much in my life and my thighs were burning. From my firsthand experience biking in Pittsburgh, I am amazed that people travel from all over the country to tackle the Pittsburgh hills two days after feasting on Thanksgiving dinner. Purposely seeking out hills to bike up sounds a bit nutty to me but if everything was just smooth, flat road, life wouldn’t be as interesting or challenging.

Cyclists who prefer going down hill can head to South America and Bolivia’s Yungas Road. The 35-mile road connects La Paz in the Andes Mountains to the Yangas rainforest area, descending 11,000 feet along the way. Much of the road is only 10 feet wide – for two-way traffic too – and unpaved. There are no guard rails and drop-offs of up to 2,000 feet. The weather conditions can make traveling this road even more dangerous – rain, fog and runoff during the rainy season, rockfalls and dust that limits visibility in the summer.

As one might expect, 200-300 people were killed in accidents along the road each year, resulting in the road being called “Death Road”. The road was cited by the Inter-American Development Bank as the most dangerous road in the world and funding was secured to build a safer road. The new road was opened in 2007 and took most of the traffic with it. That was when bikers from all over the world started showing up, attracted to the challenge of riding down Death Road. There are about 30 tour companies in La Paz that organize bike trips down Death Road. The names of the tour companies give you a sense of what sort of challenge awaits – Mayhem, Vertigo, Black Widow, and Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. Every year more bikers come to take on Death Road. Bikers haven’t fared any better than people in cars, trucks, and buses. Over 22 bikers have died since 1998.

I know a few bikers who would probably love to tackle Death Road. I will pass on this challenge. Just watching videos of people biking down Death Road makes me uncomfortable. Climbing up the Dirty Dozen has more appeal than zooming down an unpaved road with sheer drop offs. You can always hop off your bike and walk up the hill, though that seems to defeat the purpose. Come to think of it – I will stick to my running shoes.

I found this interesting video by WQED (the PBS station in Pittsburgh) about the Dirty Dozen bike race. I guarantee you won’t complain about biking up another hill after you watch this.

You have to see video of biking down Death Road to appreciate how scary it really is.

I thought this BBC Top Gear episode where they went up Death Road was amusing but I still don’t want to go there.  


My friend, Patsy, is a cyclist and has been since she was in high school.  One night over dinner in Montana, we were talking about the Tour de France and the workout that the cyclists get when they are competing.  Patsy mentioned that the bone density of professional cyclists is continually measured because cyclists can lose bone mass over the course of a season.  She noted that swimmers have the same issue.  I was surprised to hear this and decided that I needed to do some research to learn more.

I started with an Internet search and found many articles and studies about swimmers, cyclists, and even kayakers having lower bone mineral density (BMD).  BMD indicates risk for bone fractures by measuring how much mineral (e.g., calcium) you have in your bones.  There are several ways to measure BMD.  A DEXA (dual energy x-ray absorptiometry) scan is the most common and measures specific areas of the body – spine, hips, and forearm.   The scan results will indicate if your bones have sub-normal bone density (osteopenia) or if you have deterioration of the bone tissue (osteoporosis).   Studies have been done of cyclists and swimmers where their BMDs were compared before and after their competitive seasons.  In the studies I read, there was a decrease in BMDs in both cyclists and swimmers between those two points in time.

I know many people who are dedicated cyclists or Master’s swimmers.  It was hard to think that by being so intensely active in their sport of choice, they could actually be hurting themselves.  Physical activity is suppose to keep you healthy.  But the scientific evidence clearly shows that too much time in the water or on the bicycle seat can be harmful.

My husband can’t run due to an issue with his knee.  He likes to ride a bike and has even completed a Century Ride (100 miles).   His first question when we started talking about this was “why is cycling bad for my bones?”

This week while Jessica, my physical therapist, worked on my arm, I asked her to explain why cycling and swimming would lead to lower BMD.  Jessica put it in very basic terms for me.  She explained that there are three primary types of bone cells – osteoblasts, osteoclasts, and osteocytes.  In order to build up bones, our bodies need osteoblasts.  Osteoblasts are bone cells that create  the framework for new bones (or bone remodeling as she put it).  Stress on the skeleton from weight-bearing exercise increases the workload on the bones and triggers osteoblastic activity or the remodeling process.  Osteocytes are mature bone cells that originate from osteoblasts.  Osteoclasts are cells that break down the bone.  Reduced workload on the skeleton from things like prolonged bed rest and some medications will increase the osteoclastic activity and lower bone density.  And yes, prolonged sitting is bad for bone health.

Swimming is a great exercise to build and maintain muscles and improve flexibility and balance.  Jessica says that she recommends swimming for her patients that have arthritis and have to avoid high impact activities.  But swimming doesn’t put stress on the skeleton because of the buoyancy of the water.  It is almost like an anti-gravity exercise.  Therefore, swimming doesn’t trigger osteoblastic activity.  (As a side note, astronauts in space lose BMD, indicating that we need the stress of gravity on our bodies.)

Cyclists are sitting on a seat when riding and likewise cycling doesn’t trigger osteoblastic activity (though standing up on the pedals may make it a modest weight-bearing exercise).  The same is true for kayakers who are seated when they are paddling.  No weight-bearing exercise there.  Elliptical trainers are popular in the gym but according to the Mayo Clinic, they are not helpful for improving bone health.  Ellipticals provide great cardiovascular exercise but not weight-bearing exercise.  According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, weight-bearing exercise is any activity you have to do on your feet like running, walking, climbing stairs, racquet sports like tennis, and strength training.

So what is a swimmer or cyclist to do?

Building bones during the 2015 Tokyo Marathon

Building bones during the 2015 Tokyo Marathon

We need to have a variety of exercise activities.  Replace some of those swimming or cycling days with running or strength training exercises.    I am a runner but my coach mixes up my training activities.  I only run three times a week.  The other days I ride a recumbent exercise bike or do strength training exercises.   And I try to squeeze in a daily stretching routine.  I have always believed that too much of anything is bad.  This is true with exercise.  We need to have a balance of exercises – cardiovascular, weight-bearing, strength training, stretching and flexibility.

This weekend I will be out on the trail for my long run, “osteoblasting” my way through 18 miles.  I will be thinking about all those strong leg bones I will be building up as I run.

Vacationing Experientially

Training for a marathon requires a 4-5 month commitment of early morning runs in all weather conditions, careful eating, cross training, and lots of rest.  When our family vacation falls in the middle of a training season, I have to figure out ways to fit in my training.

Last week we were on vacation with my friend Patsy in Montana riding horses and herding cows on a gorgeous 6,000 acre ranch – Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge.  There are not a lot of places to run there.  We were up in the mountains (elevation of over 5,000 feet versus 400 feet where I live) so altitude was a challenge.  This is grizzly bear country so I would have to run with bear spray.  That’s extra weight I don’t need to carry when I run.  I talked to my coach Leanne, an easy-going Aussie triathlete who helped get me running again following my diagnosis of Transverse Myelitis (TM) back in 2011.  She planned a week of strength and core training since I would not be able to run.  Leanne’s attitude kept me from stressing out about missing a week of running and let me sit back and enjoy the ride (horseback ride in this case).

I didn't get to run in Montana but I did stop in here for some new running clothes.

I didn’t get to run in Montana but I did stop in here for some new running clothes.

Herding cattle on a ranch comes under the category of an experiential vacation where you get hands-on experience being a cowboy.  As Boyd Farrow wrote in a recent article for United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine, we traded “our days out of the office for an internship somewhere else.”  Rather than sit back and relax like a typical vacation, we were up with the sun, dressed in our jeans and cowboy hats, to help with the daily chores of managing 600-head of cattle.

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This was the second year that we stayed at Hubbard’s.  Our first year we spent learning the ropes – rounding up stray cattle, moving herds from one pasture to another, and splitting up a herd.  Call it Cowboy 101.  When we returned this year, we were experienced and ready to do more work.  We were a bit disappointed our first day when we moved a measly 6 cows that had gotten separated from the herd.  At dinner that night, we heard another couple talk about moving 60 cattle that day so we complained we wanted more work.  More work on vacation sounds a bit nutty.

Wraymon on his horse, Patch

Wraymon in the Gallatin National Forest

On the second day Wraymon, the wrangler who trained us last year, told us to start moving a herd to another pasture while he went higher up the mountain to get some stragglers.  We remembered all the techniques to use to push a herd along, through trees and thick brush, while watching for cows that were hiding or wandering off.  Everything went smoothly and I can say there was no cow left behind on our watch.  We moved 163 cattle and refreshed our horses by walking them up a creek.  It was just like the Westerns we watched on television as kids.

Walking through the creek to cool off the horses

Walking through the creek to cool off the horses

We had a full-day ride (7 hours) up into Gallatin National Forest which was part cattle work and part sightseeing.  It was exciting to  ride through a forest that is only accessible by foot or horseback.  We were treated to breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains plus moved cattle that had gotten on the wrong side of the fence.   According to Patsy’s Fitbit, we covered over 13.5 miles on that ride.  It seems odd to me that a Fitbit would capture steps while on horseback.  I searched the Internet about Fitbits and horseback riding.  From what I found, the Fitbit probably captured the horse’s movement.  Our horses covered a lot of ground that day.

One day there were cows that had gotten out on the county road.  Rather than take the horses out to herd two cows, we herded them back into the pasture on foot.  We pretended we had coconuts just like the knights in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.

Although it seems like I didn’t get much of a workout riding a horse, I did.  Riding horses works different muscles.  I was working my legs, squeezing them to signal to my horse and maintain my seat when we jogged and loped.  To maintain my balance on the horse, I worked my core.  It is an intense workout – different than what I would get running but still beneficial.  It was like one week of cross training.  Every night we did a full-body stretch which helped minimize sore muscles, especially my abductors.  Plus I did the core and strength training routines Leanne had outlined in my training plan for the week.

I can tell when I have had a great vacation because re-entry into normal life back home is very difficult after a great vacation.  I have been struggling the last few days to get back into my normal routine.  I missed a long run and it keeps getting pushed out, waiting for me to recover.  I know I will get it in eventually.   The other day we drove past a field of Black Angus.  My husband and I looked at each other.  We felt like hopping on horses and doing some herding.  We’ll have to wait until we can get back to Hubbard’s.

The view from the back of our lodge at Hubbard's.

The view from the back of our lodge at Hubbard’s.

Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge is an Orvis flyfishing and horseback riding lodge on the north border of Yellowstone National Park.  The best testament to the quality of Hubbard’s is the number of repeat guests.  The scenery is incredible – this is what they mean when they say “million dollar views.”  The staff is extremely attentive and friendly.  Last year I wanted sarsaparilla but it wasn’t something that they kept on hand.  This year they made sure to stock up for me and I got to enjoy sarsaparilla floats for dessert.  If you have a cowboy adventure or fly-fishing on your bucket list, make your way to Hubbard’s.  They will give you an experience you will never forget.

In case you missed it last week, Lily Trotters launched their Kickstarter campaign.  Early birds get the best deals on the best and cutest compression socks.  I can’t wait to get more pairs.  Don’t miss out!

Take a Hike!

When I was growing up, “Take a Hike” was a rude way of telling someone to leave.  But I have found that taking a hike is a great way to exercise – or if you are training for a marathon, a great way to cross train.  It can get boring when all you do is run on the same routes.  Hiking changes things up, gives you a chance to see some new scenery and work your muscles in a different way.

Last year when I was training for the Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon, I went hiking every weekend on the Appalachian Trail (AT).  The AT is a 2,180 mile footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine.  Hiking on the trail was a great workout – much more enjoyable than doing the Stair Master at the gym.  The portion of the trail that I hiked is particularly challenging with lots of ups and downs that gave my quads and hamstrings a good workout.  I was happy I had hiking poles with me.  They were like another pair of legs.

The AT attracts people from all over the world. I met hikers from the UK, Germany, and all over the United States.   Several of the hikers were also marathon runners so we compared experiences at various marathons and they gave me recommendations for races.   Some hikers were planning to hike the entire trail (thru hikers) including a large group of German men who had seen a documentary on hiking the AT.  Most people don’t have the time to commit to a thru hike and end up doing it in phases.  If you are interested, Bill Bryson wrote a very funny book about his thru hiking experience called “A Walk in the Woods”.

With my broken arm, I can’t hike right now so I did the next best thing this week.  I watched a documentary called “Mile . . . Mile And a Half” about a small group of five photographers and videographers who hiked the John Muir Trail (JMT) in California to capture the beauty of the trail.  The JMT runs from Yosemite National Park south through John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park, ending in Sequoia National Park.  This is the same area made famous in photographs by Ansel Adams.  Although the JMT is only 219 miles long, it includes 10 mountain passes, 6 of which are in excess of 11,000 feet.  The pass at Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US, is at the southern end of the JMT and is over 14,000 feet.  The altitude and strenuous hiking proved to be too much for one man in their group and he dropped out.

The hikers were carrying their food, camping gear and all their camera equipment.  When completely full their backpacks weighed between 55 and 75 pounds (they had 4 cache drops of new supplies along the way).  The year they did their hike was a 200% snow year, meaning that there was two times more snow than average years.   They were hiking in July and the snow was still deep in places.  The conditions were so difficult that many other hikers they met along the way had turned back.  But this group kept going, even when all they could cover was one mile an hour.  It took them 25 days to hike the JMT; 14 of those days they were hiking through snow.  There were also many river crossings and a couple were down right scary because the water was higher than normal and flowing very rapidly.

The thing I found most fascinating was that during the hike, their group grew to 12 and included teachers from Colorado; a brother and sister who had brought 128 pounds of paint and canvases so they could paint the incredible scenery; musicians; and a Japanese woman who was hiking the trail alone. The Japanese woman asked to join their merry group because she didn’t want to drink a beer by herself when she finished.

When they finished, the group had over 5 hours of video, 2,967 photos, and 25 finished canvases.  The four hikers from the original group had lost a combined total of 55 pounds too.  It was an experience that they will remember for a long time.

I can’t say that I have the ambition to hike the AT or even the JMT.  I am more the day hiker type.  But I enjoy hearing about the adventures of others who do.  I can live vicariously through them.