Bristol (introduction #5)

At the end of 2006 I moved from London to Bristol. Bristol is a very walkable city, but that didn’t do me any good, because in 2007 my legs started to seize up.

That’s sounds overdramatic, though it is actually what happened: I couldn’t stand on tiptoe, I couldn’t kneel down, I had to think very carefully before crouching. Attempts to jog resulted in something sharp and stabbing happening in my ankle, my knees were starting to grumble alarmingly, a sort of ‘clunk’ had appeared in one of my hips and for the first time in my life I experienced an ache in my lower back. Most of all, my feet hurt all the time. They ached from heel to ball and I couldn’t flex my arches. I’d go to bed with my feet hurting and I’d wake up with them hurting. I had experienced this latter symptom before and I’d solved it by walking barefoot as much as possible, but this no longer worked. Not only did my feet hurt in an achy, draining sort of way there was actual pain-type pain. Genuine fiery pain in my big toe joints. At its worst it was never quite bad enough to keep me awake at night, but it was bad enough that I thought that it might do so.

Without walking I felt bereft. It hadn’t occurred to me that exercise mattered to me – to say so seemed unbelievably pretentious, I mean, it’s not as if I went in for serious sport, that it was any part of my identity or anything. I’ve never done a long-distance footpath (there’s still time). I’m not one of those people who says “oh I just hate to be in an office all day”. I mean, here I am right now, voluntarily sitting at a computer. Yet it turns out that physical activity does matter to me – and it has to be outdoors. Gyms (and I have used them in the past) are good for specific purposes but a treadmill does not give me joy. What I left out of my earlier account of cycling in the London in the early eighties was that it coincided with coming out of a period of depression. Exercise has many physical benefits, but I need it for mental health. I curdle if I don’t keep moving and I need to feel the rain and the wind.

So I saw an excellent physio at the University of Bristol sports centre, who told me that my muscles were incredibly stiff, ‘sports-massage’d’ my legs (you really know when you’ve had this done) and gave me a load of stretching and balance exercises, which I still do because they help. I am now returned to my former bendiness – more or less – with no disturbing clunks or muttering knees. The pain in my toes has calmed down to a perfectly bearable stiffness. The physio also referred me to a podiatrist on the suspicion that I had something called “wear and tear damage” in my feet. The pod grinned enormously while bending my toes and said “Oooh yes, definite arthritic changes there”, but the verdict is actually not that bad. Things will only get worse slowly, and my woes are quite mild, really. Yes, they are, and I’m very grateful.

Yawn. Nothing more boring than someone else talking about their health.

But this is relevant because the bottom line remains that yomping aorund nice muddy hills is one thing but I just can’t pound the urban pavement in the manner or to the extent that I used to. Really, I have to exchange some of my walking for cycling.

Why is that hard? I used to love cycling around London. What exactly is the problem and what can be done about it?

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