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Transitioning Gracefully: How to Switch Sports When Your Body Rebels

This article is part of a series on the extraordinary women who make up Team Brigham Health, a four person team of age 60+ women who competed in the Race Across America.  

Susan Lynch was 41-years-old when her left knee began to throb. The occasional, dull ache grew into stabbing pain whenever she walked or sat for long periods. Sometimes after a jog, she would limp home in agony.  

She visited an orthopedist. He said she had a cyst behind her knee, caused by arthritis. “Your left knee has almost no cartilage,” he said. “If you continue to run, you’ll damage it further. You should stop running.”

It took Susan two years to accept the fact that she could no longer run. She tried conventional and alternative treatments. She tried physical therapy and deep tissue massage, glucosamine supplements and synovial injections. None of it halted the deterioration of her knees.

When a 10-mile race left her in excruciating pain, she knew her running days were over. She needed a new sport.   

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Susan always thought of herself as a runner. Since high school track, she ran between 30 and 50 miles each week. She had competed in 10K’s and 10 milers, duathlons and triathlons. She jogged through three pregnancies, pushing each of her children in a running stroller.     

During triathlons, Susan typically finished her swim in the top third of the racers. She would then log a blistering time in the bike portion. However, the athletes she passed in the cycling portion usually overtook her during the run.

“Cycling was always my best leg in triathlons. It was just fun for me,” says Susan.  

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After a spin class, Susan told her instructor she was crushed about having to stop running. She felt lost.

“Why don’t you get a mountain bike?” her instructor asked.

Susan bought a mountain bike and rode the trails around Medford, Massachusetts. She enjoyed winding through the woods at high speeds and peddling up steep, stump-filled hills.

“I didn’t consider it exercise, like I did with running,” she says.

A friend introduced her to adventure racing, a multi-sport event that often includes a mountain biking portion. It was the mid-90s and mountain biking was still a new sport. Susan’s mountain bike was old and heavy, and didn’t have full suspension like today’s bikes.   

But she loved the challenges mountain biking provided. There were narrow paths to negotiate, hills to conquer, boulders and roots to hop over, and streams to wade. Each ride felt like an accomplishment.

She missed running, of course. She grieved the sport for years. She once watched a boy leap off a school bus, sprint to his house and “just fly across his lawn,” says Susan.

“I missed the freedom of running, that feeling of moving my body without a device.”

Mountain bikes also have moving parts, which lead to inevitable failures, she says. “It’s always broken this, broken that,” not as simple as lacing up running shoes and hitting the pavement.

Susan was having a blast, though. Eventually she started competing in races and, before long, she was winning them.   

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When Susan entered her first mountain bike race – a 50-mile race called The Vermont 50, which involves 7,000 feet of hill climbing – she was still learning how to navigate mountain trails on two wheels.   

“I ran my bike 10 miles in that race; I was afraid to ride down the steep hills,” she says. “After the race, my arms were sorer than my legs.”

She finished second among women.

A reporter interviewed her at the finish line. She thought, “Why are you interviewing me?” She realized that perhaps she had a knack for the new sport.    

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What did Susan learn as she transitioned from running to mountain biking?

“When my doctor said I couldn’t run, I didn’t just stop running. I slowed down gradually." If your knees, shoulders or back are rebelling, Susan doesn't recommend going “cold turkey.” 

She also suggests filling the void by experimenting with a new sport, especially one you have always considered fun. If you can't run, trying cycling. If you can't bike, try swimming. And so on. 

And diversify, she says. In the winter, Susan cross-country skis, snowshoes and rides her mountain bike, equipped with oversized rubber tires, known as “fat tires.”  

Mountain biking also introduced Susan to a community of competitive, yet fun-loving people. She loves riding with a group of 20 athletes, and mountain biking events are epic. “Mountain bikers are a blast!” she says.

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Susan tore her rotator cuff in 2005. As she healed from surgery, she only competed in hill climbing events. She won three of these races and popped up on the radar of several elite cyclists, including Marti Shea, who coaches Trish Karter

Trish, Margaret Thompson, and Neil Withington recruited Susan for Race Across America (RAAM), and the four women now make up Team Brigham Health. They will compete in RAAM on June 17, 2017. Marti is their coach. 

In preparation for RAAM, Susan has a rigorous training regime. Each week, she logs about 300 miles and 35,000 feet of hill climbing.

Susan has come a long way since knee pain put the brakes on her running. But she doesn’t look back anymore. She is focused on RAAM, her eyes fixed west.

*To support these extraordinary women, visit Team Brigham Health's fundraising page.   

- By Dustin G.