Defeat by way of the feet is not an acceptable option for any serious human-powered adventurer. Whether hiking, backpacking, or cycling, long distances can easily take their toll on the intricate and highly articulate structures found at the foot of our legs. So, we search for solutions to those nasty things that would end our explorations.
It is indeed upsetting when the mind and fit body say “go“ but the feet say “no”. Such has been the case for me now and again throughout my life of non-automotive transport. What would stop me on a backpacking trip? Only blisters or foot issues could ever do such a thing. What caused me problems with my Death Valley expedition? The feet!
This is an update on my foot gremlins, for all you who have been following along. As you may recall, both Achilles tendons reached a point of obvious swelling, and eventually, I experienced minor numbness on the inside edges of the two toes next to my big toes on each foot. I have been mulling this over for quite some time now, as I don’t want these problems to occur on the next journey. These issues have continued to remind me of their presence in these weeks subsequent to the end of the trip, but fortunately, their distracting mumbles slowly lessen by the day.
My mind has set upon a new course to avoid these foot problems in the future. Not being a trained podiatrist, I can not guarantee my findings, but they seem logical to me at this point in time. Here is what I believe:
I used traditional cycling pedals on this trip, onto which I attached Power-Grips to hold my foot securely to the pedal. I wore Merrill Moab Ventilator low-top hiking boots while pedaling. I kept the Power-Grips opened wide to allow my foot a deeper purchase, which held it in much better than simply having the strap come across at the toes. The reason for this is that on a recumbent trike, where your feet are behind the pedals, it takes conscious effort to keep them on the pedals if they aren’t held on with something.
Notice how the Power-Grip securely keeps the foot on the pedal. Notice also how the ball of the foot is past the pedal axis. This is not a natural situation from a walking or hiking standpoint. Basically, I was bending my foot around the top of each pedal on each of the millions of rotations during my trip, which led to my foot issues. To tighten the Power-Grip around the toe section of the foot would require that I consciously keep my foot on the pedal, something that is not preferable for days and weeks of cycling. The SPD cleat solution will keep my feet pushing in a manner consistent with hiking, and the stiffer sole of a cycling shoe will keep my feet from over arching.
Even though I had SPD cleats on the reverse side, I chose to use regular hiking shoes. SPD cleats are similar in function to ski bindings. Next trip, I will use SPD mountain bike cycling shoes instead. I believe that the softer and more flexible sole of the Merrill boots, combined with the axis of the pedal being mid-foot, behind the ball of my foot, led to the tendon and nerve issues. Essentially, I was pushing with the middle of the foot, thereby unconsciously curling my toes and foot around the pedal’s axis millions of times over the weeks of the trip. This took its toll.
To simply tighten the Power-Grips would not be a solution in my opinion, as they would then not attach my foot to the pedal securely enough to avoid it sliding off and placing my lower leg in the path of the trike’s cross frame while riding. Another consideration with the Power-Grips is that in order to be effective at holding the area at or in front of the ball of the foot, they place a noticeable pressure upon the foot. This is because you must twist into them from the side, and then when the foot is twisted to the straight-ahead position, the strap becomes quite tight. They would probably work better with a standard upright bicycle, where the feet are on top of the pedals, and their main function is to keep the feet from moving forward off the pedals. The placement dynamic is significantly different on a recumbent tricycle.
With an SPD attachment, which is totally secure and delivers more power to the stroke, I will be able to pedal with the ball of my feet at pedal axis line, making it more like walking. This will hopefully avoid the over-flexure of the Achilles tendons, and the over-stimulation of the nerves that supply feeling to the two affected toes on each foot. As I now think back to my pre-trip training rides, I do recall that I felt some foot strain after a fast 50 mile jaunt, which was a result of the soft sole wrapping itself around the pedal’s axis. This occurred to me at the time, but I did not act on it, choosing to wear normal boots anyway. I believe this dynamic has led to my current need for rest and rehabilitation.
At this writing, only my right Achilles is at all problematic, with minor swelling and occasional tenderness. This is likely due to the fact that my right leg is about a quarter-inch shorter than my left, which results in me having to extend my foot farther forward on each pedal stroke. The toe numbness issue is nearly gone, as the nerves have mostly returned to a normal state. I have learned that a simple misjudgment can lead to some serious down-time. Would this have happened to me if I took this trip 30 years ago and used the same setup? Is it an age-related thing? There is no way to know for sure, but I suspect that age has little to do with it.
I have had many weeks to consider my options for the future. We’ll see if my thoughts have merit, and if the new setup pays dividends on my next journey through the natural world. I want to explore without physical limitations. This is my goal. I eagerly await the next departure into the adventure of tricycling.