Ultra Cycling has it’s own set of interesting problems. The one feared by many is called Shermer’s neck. The best write up I have ever seen was written on a public Facebook post in the RAAM Ultra Cycling forum by the amazing Vic Armijo. In an effort to retain this great knowledge and his experience I have republished his post word for word in this blog. Now it can be preserved and archived for any ultra cyclists who want to learn from this great depth of Vic’s experience. **All photo credits to Vic Armijo and appear originally posted in his post.
SHERMER’S NECK: RAAM’s Own Unique Malady
By Vic Armijo
“We’re all familiar with eponymous diseases; that is, those that are named after a person. Baseball legend Lou Gehrig, “The Iron Horse” is possibly more known for “Lou Gehrig’s disease, the commonly used term for the debilitating disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that ended his life, than he is for his prowess as a hitter or for his long and illustrious career. Alois Alzheimer,a psychiatrist and neuropathologist who accomplished many things in his professional life will always be associated with the disease that bears his name. And then there’s Shermer’s Neck, a condition unique to UltraCycling in which after days on the bike the racer can no longer hold up his or her head. The condition is named for Michael Shermer, who in RAAM 1983 became the first recorded sufferer of the malady.
These days Shermer is a renowned science writer, historian of science, founder of The “Skeptics Society,” and editor in chief of its magazine “Skeptic,” a publication focused on investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. “But I swear in a hundred years the only thing I’m going to be known for is this damn bad neck!” he said in a 2011 interview, “I’ve written ten books, I’ve done all of these things and none of it matters but the fact that my neck went out!” Shermer described the condition,” It’s a collapse of your neck muscles and you can’t hold your head up. It’s fatigue pain. It hurts to lift your head so you drop your head—you just can’t do it.”
Over the years many RAAM and RAW racers have suffered from Shermer’s Neck. Some have ended their race, while other have propped up their heads through mechanical measures, “The guys have all developed techniques to hold it up; props, braces and pulleys and posts,” Shermer noted, “I wish I would have had that—I could have finished. I just kept holding my head up with my hand.” Some racers have done well despite a bout with Shermer’s Neck. Alan Larson won RAAM 2004 while wearing a brace during the latter miles. More recently Alberto Blanco rode to 4th place in RAAM 2011, riding over half of the race in a brace cobbled together out of a roof-rack wheel holder and lots and lots of duct tape.
What physically happens when a rider gets Shermer’s Neck? There are varying opinions, just as there are varying symptoms. Some describe it as being quite painful, which leads to the opinion that it is simply muscle fatigue, while others report no pain, just the inability to hold up the head, which lends credence to the theory that it is nerve fatigue—that the muscles are no longer receiving the signal to contract. Veteran of ten consecutive RAAM’s Gerhard Gulewicz holds the latter opinion. For his first seven RAAM’s he’d been immune to it, but then did not finish RAAM in 2013 and 2014 due to Shermer’s Neck. In a pre-RAAM 2014 interview he described his 2013 experience, “It was two weeks before it was better. Nobody could tell me why. It does
not hurt. The only thing that you can’t do is bring your head up. No pain. Nothing. It is crazy. No impulse to the muscles. You can do nothing. You are lying down and you think ‘Oh it is better.’ But sit up and…” he concluded his statement by flopping his chin to his chest.
To learn more about the physical causes of Shermer’s Neck I contacted someone whose racing background and medical background give her a unique insight; 2014 winner in the women’s Under 50 category, Dr. Janice Sheufelt, MD, who qualified her input by saying, “This is such a fringe type of problem. It’s not like there’s research on it.” She offered this opinion on the painful variety of Shermer’s Neck, “The neck muscles can still contract but are so inflamed and swollen—that’s what’s causing the pain—and your brain won’t let you continue. When you have pain your brain won’t let you contract those muscles. It’s ‘No! That’s what’s causing the pain and using it will only make it worse.’” As for the non-painful variety, Dr. Sheufelt said, “In this type I don’t agree that it is a nerve problem; the muscles are just positively unable to contract any more. It doesn’t hurt. The nerves are still firing—they’re still telling the muscles to react—but the muscles can’t respond. No muscle can contract indefinitely.”
Sheufelt further explained that in her opinion there’s not much that can be done physically once a rider has full-blown Shermer’s Neck, that time off the bike is the eventual means to recovery and that prevention is the best tactic. “I’ve seen UltraCyclists using aerobars in a low position without spending adequate training time prior. If you maintain a position that you body isn’t trained for, if you don’t change position, if you don’t move your head around, if you have that constant neck extension, those muscles can’t maintain that constant load. At some point they’ll just give out.” Gulewicz expressed much the same opinion prior to RAAM 2014, “It was coming during Kansas. I think it was the position of the bike. I was very low with a lot of headwind and I put my head down and then it starts.” Key too is recognizing if a racer could be prone to it. Sheufelt elaborated, “When I was preparing for RAAM some people told me it seems that Shermer’s Neck is more common in people who have had a previous neck injury—someone who has had a whiplash, an accident or some time of neck trauma is at higher risk and perhaps should work with a physical therapist beforehand. A lot of that can be worked out with good physical therapy for three or four months ahead of RAAM.”
Can training exercises prevent Shermer’s Neck? Both Sheufelt and Gulewicz are skeptics on this. Sheufelt said, “Using weights on your head or exercising and doing repetitions with weights on your head, I’ve read, is not going to help. It’s not how strong your muscles are, it’s the overall duration of just asking them to contract.” And Gulewicz said, “If you train your neck muscles too much then this is also a problem. You have to keep your body balanced. If you develop one muscle more and one less it makes no sense.”
Success in RAAM is all about preparation. Smart riders, even those with no history of Shermer’s Neck, bring one of the previously mentioned devices along. “Some riders think ‘That won’t happen to me!’” Sheufelt said. Gulewicz agreed, saying this about his first bout, “I could not believe. You see different people have Shermer’s Neck and think ‘This cannot happen to me,’ and then there you are.” Over the year’s we’ve seen several effective means of keeping a Shermer’s Neck afflicted racer on the road. The most common method is a harness that utilizes a sort of backpack with a strut that extends up and over the rider’s head. A cord or strap then hangs downward and is attached to the rider’s helmet. Neck braces are common too, though the soft ones commonly used for whiplash victims don’t really provide enough support—the rider’s head will compress the soft cushion and flop down. The hard-shell braces that are used by ambulance personnel when transporting someone with a suspected neck injury are much more effective, but are also very uncomfortable. The third common method is to create a surface on which the rider can rest his or her chin. We’ve seen cans taped to handlebars as did Gulewicz in 2014, and in 2009 Paul Danhaus finished RAAM with his head propped up on a set of aerobars that had been rotated back with a makeshift chin cushion attached to the highest point.
RAAM racers are beyond dedicated. Each year they come to Oceanside intent on reaching Annapolis knowing full well that along the 3,000 miles they’ll surely suffer saddle sores, sunburn and blisters, they’ll ride through scorching desert heat and freezing alpine cold, will likely be rained upon, will endure –shall I say—digestive issues and yes—there’s a chance that their neck muscles may scream “Enough,” bringing about the choice between quitting or carrying on in a brace or harness. Shermer’s Neck is just one of the many challenges faced by the participants in the World’s Toughest Bicycle Race.”
Original write up posted in the RAAM Ultra-Cycling Forum, and expertly written by Vic Armijo. All photo credits belong to Vic Armijo as well. Thanks Vic for the great insight and education! Original Source: https://www.facebook.com/groups/523225327828742/permalink/630594193758521/
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