Ultra running can be time consuming. It requires a lot of time to train in the mountains, a lot of time to recover, stretch, rest, eat . . . always eat. You can get caught in a cycle of doing too much or thinking you must train crazy hours on the trail to be successful in a race. While I agree, running is the most specific way to train for a running race, there is a point of  diminishing return, when there’s too much running and not enough recovery (or playfulness, in my opinion). I was definitely in danger of becoming consumed with only running, and stressing about needing to run and train all the time. But, that all change back in 2017 when I nearly died, falling off a cliff during a race, and was faced with the harsh reality of injury and that running might never happen again. It was during my recovery from those injuries that I discovered gravel bike riding.

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

I started riding as a way to recover, as a way to explore the mountains, to get outside and to move my body. I didn’t ride very long or very far, I think I did a ride once that was 3 hours long—max. It was for the enjoyment. It helped me to fall in love again with being outside and to regain fitness and return to running. Once I started running and competing again, I still used cycling as a way to cross train. I found it beneficial to my running and overall strength. In fact, my coach Adam St. Pierre, encouraged me to keep riding my bike and saw it a fun addition to my training, my fitness with the added benefit of not get overly concerned about only running.

 

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I’m really thankful I had at least started to cycle when this winter, a slip on the ice and an ankle twist caused me to break my ankle. I was faced with another surgery, another recovery, and I had to cancel my early season running races.

Of course, I was devastated, having to move forward from another injury. The thought of having to start over again felt overwhelming. I turned to my team of physiotherapists at REVO Physiotherapy and Sports Performance, a group that’s put me back together so many times that they’ve basically become family. That’s when I met Joe Lewis, a retired professional cyclist, a coach at REVO and the founder of First Wheel Coaching. Along with my PT team, and coach Adam, Joe encouraged me to get on a bike as soon as possible so I could prevent further loss of fitness. So, as soon as my doctors cleared me for partial weight bearing, I brought my bike into the gym.

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Photo: Jenni Lewis

Joe helped me set it up on a trainer, and I started riding. At first, I rode with a normal shoe and a flat pedal for my injured leg. I couldn’t even push all the way through with that ankle, but eventually I progressed to being clipped in and started to push myself. Joe monitored my progress, provided modifications and helped me increase the quality of my workouts by raising my Functional Threshold Power (FTP—basically a metric in cycling measuring your threshold, or the amount of work you can do in an hour, all out).

 

I saw progress more quickly than I would’ve thought possible, and was relieved to feel like I wasn’t losing fitness during recovery. I was really starting to enjoy cycling and was learning a lot, not just about the sport, but also about myself as an athlete (see my other blog post, Getting Out of my Comfort Zone, and how I started from scratch with a new sport).

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Not long after being cleared to ride a bike outside, I got a call from my good friend Allen Lim over at Skratch Labs. He had an entry into a gravel bike race for me. And it wasn’t just any gravel bike race, it was THE gravel bike race: the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile gravel grinding bike race. The idea of doing 200 miles on a bike, something I’ve never done before, really scared me. I didn’t know if I could even do it, especially coming off of an injury. But, that was the beauty of it; it was intimidating and challenging, but it motivated me. I told Allen I was in.

The next day, as I was sweating it out on the bike trainer, I told Joe about the race. He had a big grin on his face as he said, “Well, I guess we’ve got a lot of work to do.” He was all-in and ready to help me tackle my biggest challenge yet: racing the Dirty Kanza.

 

Joe wrote me a program prescribing different workouts and longer rides. Every Tuesday and Thursday, we’d meet up at the gym for cycling workouts, and Joe was there to push me and walk me through what would come next. I think during every cycling workout so far, I’ve looked at Joe with my wide eyes and said, “I don’t know if I can do this!” But, as usual, he just shakes his head and tells me, “You’re stronger than you think you are. You can definitely do this.”

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I’d end the day smiling, tired and proud to have another hard day of cycling under my belt. With his help, I learned how to train for two sports at once. This was important because I wanted to get back to running as well, so Adam and Joe worked together to help me increase my running volume as I was coming back from my ankle injury, while training for the bike race. It was a lot of work, but the process has been so much fun.

 

My cycling ability has improved an incredible amount while working with Joe. He made training as a cyclist accessible, pushed me harder than I thought I could go and helped renew my optimism for my future as an athlete by optimizing my recovery. Even more than that, he’s given me a new excitement for cycling. So much so that I even signed up for another gravel bike race—a stage race! Who knows, maybe I’ll end up balancing racing on my gravel bike and ultra running in my future seasons.

With Dirty Kanza and my stage race still ahead of me, I look back on this process and appreciate how far I’ve come. Cycling is more than just a means to an end or a bridge to recovery. It’s a challenge in and of itself, and one that I’m enjoying and embracing fully. But, most importantly, it has led me to a new community, one that’s always there to help me up when I’m down and willing to create new paths to success and recovery.

 

If you’re looking to get into cycling and don’t know where to start, or you want to learn how to race or use riding for recovery, look up Joe and First Wheel Coaching. Not only has he changed my perspective and helped me to get back to doing what I love, he’s also helped me uncover a new love for cycling that I’ll carry with me throughout my athletic career.

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