This article is sixth in a series of seven that chronicles my experience following Lisfranc injury.
Part 1: Learning about the scary life-altering potential of a Lisfranc fracture
Part 2: Setting goals for Lisfranc recovery gives optimism, determination and purpose
Part 3: Surgery day and learning about the Arthrex InternalBrace
Part 4: Lisfranc recovery is slower and tougher than imagined
Part 5: Relearning to walk and ride a bike after Lisfranc surgery
Part 6: The 215-mile Lisfranc recovery test
Part 7: Looking back a year later
There’s magic in setting goals. By the simple twist of conscious expression we have the ability to attain things we might not have thought we could.
When I tore my Lisfranc ligament June 2 and needed reconstructive surgery, I’d expressed to my doctor that I wanted to participate in a 215-mile, 20,000-vertical-foot, hut-to-hut backcountry mountain bike ride from Telluride, Colorado to Moab, Utah three months later. “That’s not definitely out of the question,” she’d said at the time.
Her initial optimism was all I needed to keep the ride on my autumn to-do list, but as my check-ins accumulated over the summer she expressed increasing reservations about undertaking such a significant physical challenge. It had all happened just a few weeks too late, she said. I’d be exposing myself to further injury, especially to some of the muscles, ligaments and tendons that went unused and untrained all summer long.
It might have been easy to brush off her concern as out-of-touch conjecture from a white-coat clinician, but I knew she understood on a relatable level. A former professional soccer player, she was an avid amateur cyclist training to ride the Leadville 100, a grueling 100-mile mountain bike race through some of the most oxygen-lean air in North America. I knew she knew mountain biking.
No matter how many times she tried to reign in my goal of completing Telluride-to-Moab, though, I held fast. I had a lot of reasons to focus on getting well, but the immediate goal of doing something big was a huge motivating carrot. When I struggled the most with weight gain and depression, I still mustered the energy to go to the garage to do pull-ups and push-ups, use the iWalk to walk around the block, or do a few sets of leg raises in my office chair.
At my final doctor’s visit August 27, she finally said I could remove the walking boot I’d been wearing since June. She also cleared me for the ride. I was to be careful. I should consider riding flat pedals. I should have a contingency plan. But my foot was healthy enough, even if my overall conditioning wasn’t. She said she was most concerned that I’d sprain my ankle, which had gone completely unused for three months. I promised to be careful.
Two Weeks to Train
While I’d been on my bike a half dozen times though the month of August, I hadn’t yet pushed very hard at all. That was about to change. My foot was still swollen enough that it didn’t fit in my carbon-soled Fizik mountain bike shoes, so I went shopping and ended up with a pair of Sidis, which had a wider last. I loosened the spring tension on my clipless pedals to avoid hurting my ankle when I twisted my foot to detach from the bike. Then, with two weeks to train, I got to work.
Between riding and resting I managed five relatively small rides (about 10 miles and 800 vertical feet each, on average) before we loaded up and left for Colorado on September 1. We went straight to the Front Range and stayed with friends for a night near Nederland, then began riding our way southwest across the state. We rode in Golden Gate Canyon State park, Carbondale and Crested Butte. The Crested Butte ride, Dyke Loop, was 2,200 vertical feet over 14 miles and a good mix of rocks and root-infested singletrack at high elevation. It was the biggest ride I’d done in a year. My lungs and legs hurt, but the rough descent, in particular, was tough on my foot. I grimaced and stopped to rest as my wife charged into the statuesque aspen groves of the Elk Mountains. By the time we got back to the car I was tired but pleased. It wasn’t as big as the rides that would take us over the San Juan and La Sal mountains in a few days, but it was the biggest ride I’d done to date. I was getting stronger.
That was all the training I’d get, though. It was time for a rest. The next day I shuttled my wife through the old mining town of Gothic to the top of Trail 401 and enjoyed the beauty of the misty-mountain day while she rode back down. Then we loaded up and headed for Telluride where we’d meet the rest of our group for the start of the big ride.
Telluride to Moab
Telluride to Moab is a seven-day, six-night bike ride across one of the United States’ most unique geographies. Put together by Ridgeway, Colorado-based San Juan Huts, it’s about 215 miles one-way, 22,000 vertical feet of climbing and 25,000 vertical feet of descending. Each day also includes spur routes on single-track trails that can significantly increase the distance and elevation riders cover.
Each of the six nights would be spent at a hut stocked with food, water, firewood, sleeping bags, worn decks of cards and ruffled old paperback novels. We’d use bike packs to carry our clothes, rain gear, emergency supplies, toiletries, clean sleeping sheets and each day’s food and water. It adds up and weighs a solid 10 or 20 pounds, but it’s nowhere near as heavy as a full-fledged bike packing kit.
The most difficult days would depend on weather and alternative spur routes, but two days were guaranteed to be tougher than most. They were the first and sixth. The first climbs more than 3,000 feet to 11,000-foot Last Dollar Pass. The sixth climbs more than 5,000 vertical feet from Gateway, Colorado to the high peaks of the LaSal Mountains in Utah. Other difficult days would require more than 40 miles of pedaling but less climbing.
Our group gathered at a condo just a few blocks from the Telluride gondola station. We were seven Idaho residents with varying mountain biking skills and experience. Our newest rider was an athletic woman who’d learned to ride that spring. Our veterans included a few who’d been on mountain bikes more than a decade. Three of us had done a similar ride from Durango to Moab a couple years before.
We spent a day and a half in Telluride packing and repacking bags, buying tubes of sunscreen and lip balm, and just generally being tourists in a tourist town. We walked almost exclusively, and after a day that easily added up to five or six miles. I wore sturdy sneakers with custom insoles, but the miles of walking took a toll. I walked with a pretty severe limp and hoped that wasn’t a sign of adversity to come.
The Big Ride
The morning of the ride dawned clear and cold. Our group packed up and rode to the Telluride gondola station where we snapped a picture. Three of us boarded the gondola while the other four headed back through town. The direct route went straight out of Telluride on dirt roads, but the first spur began at the top of the gondola on the ski resort’s dedicated downhill trails. I was determined to ride the toughest version of the ride that I could.
The descent was more fun than difficult, but later in the day things became physically challenging when the road tilted up at a steep angle as it zig-zagged toward Last Dollar Pass. My lungs wheezed in the thin mountain air as we climbed toward the hut. When we got there we found it situated just below tree line with big views of the upper San Miguel River valley to the south. We cracked open a few beers, cooked dinner, sat and admired the view. In this fashion we settled into a daily routine where rhythms were dictated by sunrise, sunset and the satisfaction of getting off the bike at day’s end.
The following morning we descended several thousand feet before climbing across open sagebrush plains onto the heavily forested Uncompahgre Plateau, which runs diagonally from southeast to northwest. The next three days would be spent among the plateau’s enchanting conifer and aspen forests and was a blur of challenging single track, endless miles of dirt road, horseshoe pits and the kind of camaraderie you find when you put cell phones and computers down and tune into the people and places around you. It wasn’t until the fourth night, though, that I felt in my bones that my foot would be okay.
The fourth hut is on a private ranch at the northwest terminus of the Uncompahgre Plateau. At each of the huts we took turns cooking dinner and breakfast, and I was off that night. After tossing a few rounds of afternoon horseshoes I walked with another guy around the ranch as the shadows grew long and light turned gold. After a while I split off from our shared path and climbed up a brushy valley where small sandstone bluffs poked from a forested canyon wall. I wore only flip-flops and felt the added stress of poor foot support on steep, uneven terrain. I’d been drawn in, though, and wasn’t turning around.
I climbed the canyon wall and made my way to one of the cliff edges where I sat in the day’s final rays of sun and quietly soaked it all in. There was a light, warm wind on my cheeks, and the sunlight filtered through the aspens, which were just starting to don their autumn gold. It smelled earthy, like last season’s leaves decomposing on the forest floor. It was still and perfect, and an overwhelming sense of peace and joy unexpectedly swelled up big from within me. I hadn’t put it in words all summer, but I suddenly understood a fundamental truth about myself on a different level. It hadn’t been the biking, skiing, climbing, boating or whatever that I feared losing the most when I’d been injured in June. Most of all I just wanted to retain the ability to go for a walk, slow down and feel the quiet pulse of the Earth. I’d just spent an entire outdoor season without doing that one simple thing and was suddenly overcome by it. I felt the happiness surge. I’d just made a spur-of-the-moment decision to hike a brushy canyon wall wearing flip-flops, and now there I was learning one my most important lessons of the summer. It was about who I was and who I wanted to be. I loved all my active hobbies, but more than those things I needed opportunities to slow down and soak it all in every now and then, and my reconstructed foot would continue to give me that.
The next three days were a blur. My wife and I were the only two riders who continued to pursue single track at every opportunity, and that included a fantastic descent from the Uncompahgre Plateau into the desert canyon country along the Delores River. (I could probably write a story about that single amazing descent, but that’s getting off topic during an already-long tale.)
As far as my foot is concerned, the ride culminated on the seventh day when we rode the bottom half of a trail called The Whole Enchilada, a big descent from high in the La Sal Mountains to Moab. There are tougher trails out there, but The Whole Enchilada is very technical and includes dozens of 1- to 2-foot drops that test the integrity of your bike and your body. I’d done the trail a few times before, but I’d never done it with bike packs, and I’d certainly never done it with a foot recovering from a pretty major surgery.
The biggest of the drops hurt and the cumulative effect took a toll. Toward the end of the descent as we followed Porcupine Rim toward the chocolate-milk meanders of the Colorado River I had to slow down to protect my sore foot, but the overall message was clear. My foot was still swollen and sore, but I was going to be okay. I’d just finished a mountain bike ride bigger than most people ever would.
What We Learn Along the Way
An hour later our group reconvened over a pitcher of beer and baskets of wings at the Moab Brewery where we shared stories from the day and celebrated the overall completion of the ride. Similar to other big athletic endeavors I’ve checked off my to-do list, it was a little anticlimactic: just saddle sores, achy quads and the inevitable soft glow of success.
My broken foot didn’t even occur to me at the time, but the fact was I might not have been there at all. If I hadn’t sat down in June after receiving my diagnosis and setting the goal of completing the ride I’m almost certain it wouldn’t have happened. That little bit extra I managed to push throughout the recovery—using the iWalk, doing push-ups and pull-ups in the garage, trying to eat well, pushing my doctor to help me do it smart instead of resisting the idea altogether—helped achieve the goal, but it was more than that, too. Those individual tasks had helped me recover faster and better and gave me renewed confidence that I was able to overcome something so challenging. But they’d also been a journey unto themselves and had facilitated a moment I didn’t see coming at all: the opportunity to sit alone on the edge of a cliff to watch the sun set and focus on the things that make me feel most at peace.
So, yea. There’s magic in setting goals, but it’s not really about attaining them. Attaining goals is the simple product of writing down the logical steps that lead there. The magic is about what we learn along the way.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional. I'm not even current on my CPR or first aid certifications. Do not substitute any information found here for a visit with a knowledgeable doctor, preferably one who specializes in foot and ankle problems.