Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, June/July 2000.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Ride the Rockies is an annual bicycle tour that takes 2,000 cyclists on a seven-day ride through Colorado's Rocky Mountains each June. It is not to be confused with a leisurely ride around the block or a trip to the local grocery store. This year's ride covers 458 miles, spanning from Trinidad to Idaho Springs. Unlike other similar events around the country, the elevation at the Colorado event is never lower than 9,000 feet and tops off at 11,318 feet. The steep daily climbs have been known to reduce grown men to tears upon completion.
If you're thinking this sounds like the ideal locale for qualified massage therapists, you are right. Julie Arrowood of Evergreen, Colo. has worked with the event's massage team since 1997, and looks forward to Ride the Rockies every year.
"It's the high point of my professional career," said Arrowood. "We work on a lot of people, and keep really busy. It's the most fun week of the year. Working outside is great. It's always in the mountains, and it's Colorado. It's just beautiful."
Arrowood is part of a group of 23 therapists, known as the Bodyworks Sports Massage Team, which serves riders in the annual event. The team is a loose organization of massage therapists, most of whom have been working the event for at least a few years. Their work does not go unappreciated by the Ride's participants.
"The massage during the week really makes the ride for us," testified Bruce Tenenbaum of Denver, who has ridden the Rockies for years with friends who are avid cyclists. "Everyone in the group gets a massage almost every day. I sign up for Julie's services every year. Our group tries to get out fast and finish early. You're always sore at the end of the day's ride, and a massage feels great and helps you feel more ready for the next stage."
Arrowood considered massage as a career after realizing she was not fulfilled in her job as an office manager. She'd had a few massages herself and thought it was worth looking into as a possible profession. In spring 1993, Arrowood enrolled in the Colorado School of Healing Arts.
There she undertook the 500-plus hours of education required in Colorado. Arrowood then opened a practice in Evergreen as a certified massage therapist.
"I do a lot of injury rehab and neuromuscular techniques that I've studied," she explained. "I do quite a bit of deep tissue work, mostly pain relief, and some sports massage. Most of my clients prefer the 'elbows to the table,' deep tissue-type work. I also offer La Stone therapy and basic Swedish relaxation from time-to-time. I have a pretty good repeat clientele."
The Evergreen therapist became interested in Ride the Rockies when a friend joined the massage team in 1994. Arrowood put her name on a waiting list for a few years, then received a call to interview for a spot in 1997. She was accepted, and thinking it sounded like a good opportunity, jumped at the chance.
Arrowood described a typical day for the therapists during the ride:
"The day starts out differently for everybody. A number of therapists do the Ride and then come to work. A few of us ride our 15-20 miles before we come to work, which is a lot of fun, too. A lot of us camp out during the week, a bunch stay in hotels. We have a crew that sets up the tent around 11 a.m., then each therapist sets up their own table. The front desk person handles schedules and payment.
"Sometimes we work non-stop from noon until 9 p.m., sometimes we have several breaks. It really depends on the weather the day before and the severity of the ride. We're usually pretty busy. Lots of the regular riders sign up at registration for a full week of massage. People filter in and out all day after they finish their ride. You're almost always busy, but it's very enjoyable."
The ride is a grueling one for the participants. Weather is unpredictable in the Rockies, and many of the climbs are steep. Several of the days cover 70 miles or more, and all are done at high altitude. Some discomfort can be avoided through proper bike positioning and stretching, but the effort required during the week definitely takes a toll on the rider. The only thing participants may look forward to more than a massage at the end of their ride is a shower.
"You're bound to pick up some aches and pains during the ride," said Tenenbaum. "Between the climbs, the distance and the altitude, you're putting a lot of strain on the body. One problem I often face is called 'shark bite.' This is the pressure you feel between the shoulders and neck from being on the bike. Massage offers great relief for that. It's also terrific for cramping or other soreness in the legs. I'm always very happy to see Julie at the end of a tough stage. She really helps me make it through the week."
Spending several hours a day hunched over a bicycle, under the demanding conditions provided by the ride, obviously puts a lot of wear and tear on the body. The legs are pumping furiously during the ascents and take the brunt of the punishment. Virtually every rider faces some cramping or general soreness during the event. The upper body always takes a beating because of the unnatural posture required for serious cycling.
"The most common problem area during the ride is probably the quads," Arrowood said. "The pedaling motion, especially during the steep climbs, puts tremendous strain on that area. The upper back and shoulders also require a lot of attention. If it's a head-wind day with a lot of climbing, the lower back and gluts are the most common complaint. The climbs can lead to a lot of cramping. Some people need work on their knees. We don't get many injuries, just a lot of sore muscles. Most participants of Ride the Rockies are in pretty good shape. They know their bodies pretty well. They realize that getting worked on regularly by a therapist can really help them make it through the week in better shape. I feel we make the ride more enjoyable and less painful for the cyclists."
While Arrowood enjoys her regular work and clientele, the annual event is clearly something she looks forward to every year.
"Being able to help people in any setting is very fulfilling. It's the reason I chose massage for a career in the first place. Working Ride the Rockies is definitely a high point for me personally. It's the one time each year that I can do what I love and get outdoors at the same time. Colorado is a beautiful state, and the ride covers a lot of it. There is also a great sense of camaraderie among the therapists. We share ideas and techniques, and a lot of laughs.
"It's also great to get to talk to people from all over. The riders make you feel very appreciated. It's a challenge to help someone and allow them to enjoy the ride the next day. Getting the lactic acid out of their bodies definitely helps in that respect. We get lots of comments like 'We love you guys,' or 'We couldn't do it without you.' I had one man who was really pushing himself and dragging himself to my table at the end of each ride. He told me I was the only thing keeping him going. That really made me feel great."
Arrowood and her fellow therapists working the Ride should have no doubts whether their efforts are appreciated or not. Many regular participants sign up with the same therapist year after year, realizing that daily treatment can greatly enhance their experience.
"Our group of riders met recently to discuss possibly doing other rides offered in Colorado," said Tenenbaum. "We decided to stick with Ride the Rockies because massage is offered. We really, truly miss the massage when we do races that don't offer it. Julie and the other therapists do a fantastic job. Their work makes the Ride for us."
Testaments like these solidify the growing acceptance and popularity of massage therapy, particularly as related to athletic activities. So, if you ever want to see Colorado in the summertime and get a great workout at the same time, you might think about signing up for Ride the Rockies. But don't forget to sign up for your own massage and stop in the big top to see Arrowood. Your body will thank you in the morning.Chaz Hudd is a former staff writer for Massage Bodywork magazine.