Broken Rider: The Art of Getting up After a Fall
“You’re gettin’ too old to be doin’ this shit!”
That’s my wife, giving me the ol’, “I told you so” speech. Two broken arms, bone contusions in both wrists, and a concussion are the proof, she piles on. In my mind, I respond to this in two ways. First, maybe she’s right. Maybe this is some sort of midlife crisis, trying to relive or recapture my youth; I’m trying to do things young men and boys do because I spent most of those years in a bottle, with a needle in my arm, swallowing pills, snorting powders, smoking rocks. There may be some truth to this. The last several years I find myself wishing I had found this outlet—the outdoors, adventure sports—ages ago. My second response to my wife’s criticism is that this was just a freak accident, could have happened to anybody; hell, people break ankles walking down their stairs in the morning, or out in the park shooting hoops: accidents happen, right? Additionally, I wasn’t executing some crazy stunt or jump, simply riding downhill in the woods. There is probably a little truth to both perspectives.
Accidents do happen, all the time; however, with adventure sports, such as climbing, mountain biking, mountaineering, even hiking, the chance for injury, or the risk to life and limb, increases exponentially. And yet, walking out the front door is a risk. Literally. There are nearly 40,000 fatal car crashes in the U.S. in any given year. Guns injure or kill more than 100,000 people each year. In Southeastern Massachusetts, where I live, the threat level for Easter Equine Encephalitis, or “triple E”, has been at its highest level of warning all Summer and into the Fall. Most public parks and spaces close at dawn. As of late September, four people have died and there have been a total of eleven confirmed cases. Does this mean we lock ourselves inside after sundown, avoid green areas or natural habitats? Some would say yes, that is exactly what you do. Others say no, don’t be ridiculous, go prepared: take bug spray: wear long sleeves and pants, maybe a hat: avoid high risk areas like wetlands or swamps. I think the same is true for adventure sports. Preparation and safety are essential. Hikers need maps, the appropriate amount of food and water for their adventures, maybe even a water filter and layers of clothing. Mtbers and cyclists should wear a helmet at all times, not do more than they are capable of, perhaps carry some spare equipment such as an extra tube, a pump, maybe a patch kit. Accidents are going to happen; that’s why they are called accidents. The goal in adventure sports, where injury is more likely to occur, is to mitigate those possibilities through preparation.
No one I know of who participates in such sports goes looking to get hurt. It’s simply an accepted part of that activity. If this sounds like a tough guy approach, it’s not. It’s more about the risk/reward equation. After all, there is not much one can do with two broken arms. When I initially got hurt, I was unable lift anything heavier than a full mug of coffee. I missed several weekends at my side hustle, which cost me a bit of scratch. I can’t ride and I can’t hike; if I fall I’m unable to prevent that fall with my arms; I am unable to grab a trekking pole. I’ve since been cleared to drive, but when I started writing this I could not. That might have been the most difficult part. My teaching schedule has me at different campuses, on different days, forcing me to piece together rides on those days from any number of people. I’m very thankful to have had several people who came through and helped me out in a jam, but the stress of having to stitch all that together, while worrying that someone might not be able to make it on any given day, or have to cancel because something came up in their busy schedules caused me no small amount of stress. I felt helpless and useless; and when you depend on getting outside to manage your mental health, it’s hard to see the end of the line on the struggle-bus. So, no one wants to get hurt. Rather, the rewards that come from being outside, for those of us using the outdoors and physical activity to manage our mental health, far outweigh any potential risk.
The truth is, I should have listened to my body that day. It was telling me I needed to go home, take a day or two off, or maybe just do a quick, easy hike out in the woods. The way I see it, athletes have two choices on days like that: pack it in and go home, or power through. I decided to power through, operating on the ethic that it’s sometimes the days we start talking ourselves out of physical activity that we most need to put in the time. But something wasn’t right from the start.
I had planned to ride but had to rush through the workday, skipping lunch to be more productive, so I could leave a little early to squeak in a quick ride, couple miles perhaps, just enough to get the blood flowing, raise the heart rate for a little while. I had very little energy, but again, kept telling myself this was on of those days I most need to exercise and get a little nature. I contemplated stopping for lunch along the way, but that would mean riding on a full—or slightly full—stomach. I thought the Cliff bar in my pack would be enough to get me through what was only supposed to be a few miles.
After stretching, getting the blood flowing, I hopped on the bike and started to ride. I wasn’t on the bike five minutes before I fell face-first moving up hill. I was moving a little too slowly, in a little too low of a gear, and had a little too much of my weight a little too far over the handlebars trying to power up a hill. The rear wheel started to slip, I hit a rock and the energy absorbed by the shocks on the front end was greater than the energy of the forward momentum of the bike. A spill at probably three miles per hour. No injuries. I lay there telling myself that now, surely, I should just pack it in and go home: “this is just not your day”. Another sign I ignored. Instead, I picked myself up and soldiered on.
Once I got off the single track and deeper into the woods, the ground levelled out a bit, and the path widened. I was no longer riding on narrow paths getting whipped by branches and bushes, powering over sizeable rocks, roots and stumps. After a few minutes on a steady flat, I came upon a steep hill in an area of the forest that I know very well. Although, as I would come to find out, hiking and riding the same terrain are very different experiences. Normally, when I have more time, am geared up for the ride and in the zone, I stop and choose the best line down a hill, avoiding the bigger obstacles so as to maintain speed and safety. I didn’t do that today. I felt pressed for time and just wanted to get this ride in the books. Another mistake. I didn’t even make it halfway down the hill. A gnarly root sprang right from the earth in front of me and put a rather abrupt end to my ride.
I don’t remember the “fall” itself. What I do remember is looking directly ahead of my front wheel the instant before hitting that root; the next thing I remember is rolling around on the ground in pain—that, “don’t fucking touch me because my soul has left my body” kind of pain. Days afterwards, when speaking with my orthopedic surgeon, she asked if I lost consciousness. The truth is, I don’t know. Although, I am beginning to suspect that’s the case. The fact that I don’t remember the accident seems to speak to that. My first memories, after the pain, were of not being able to see quite clearly and wondering what the hell that noise in my head was: my helmet and bandana had slid partially over my eyes, covering them, and the staticky, white noise just on the periphery of my senses turned out to be my wrap-around headphones, which had not quite fallen off my head, and were still playing indistinctly a few inches from my ears. In retrospect, this feels more like what people mean when they use the phrase, “coming to”.
Though I don’t remember the accident itself, my injuries show that I flew, superman-style, over the handlebars: bone contusions in both wrists: non-displaced fractures in both arms—the left radial neck, and the right radial head: a concussion: and some minor scrapes, cuts, bumps and bruises. I had to have flown over the handlebars and braced for the impact by putting both arms out in front of me, completely on instinct and reflex. A little over 250 pounds crashing down on my arms. I’m lucky I didn’t also fracture one or both collar bones—a very common injury for cyclists who endo—considering the force and speed with which I was moving.
Having recovered sufficiently, I began to realize that I was alone and was going to have to carry or push this bike up the hill I had just descended, and then walk it close to two miles back to the car. Sheer necessity forced my hand. I could barely use my arms to pick myself up off the ground, and now I was going to have to lug my thirty-one-pound Scott Aspect 920 out of this place. Either that or risk leaving it there and coming back for it with someone who could walk it out for me. And that wasn’t going to happen. Not knowing I had broken both arms was probably a blessing at this point. Because I thought I had only damaged some connective tissue in the elbows, perhaps sprained my wrists, I simply “sucked up” the pain and walked myself and my bike the mile and a half or so out of the forest. After speaking with the surgeon, I am very lucky that I did not completely displace the fracture to either arm given the amount of strain it took to not only lift and push the bike back up the hill, but also, and subsequently, lift the bike onto the bike rack of the car. Thirty pounds becomes somewhat rather heavier with broken arms. I hate to think this comes off as being tough, or rugged. The truth is, I was doing what I felt I had to do in that situation, and there was no one to help. What choice did I have? An ambulance wasn’t coming for me; I wasn’t leaving my bike behind; there was no one I could really call in the middle of the afternoon on a workday; and I really in no way believed I had injured myself as badly as I had.
So, why didn’t it cross my mind that maybe my elbows were broken? I’ve tennis elbow and bursitis at least twice in the last eighteen months, damaging the connective tissue which resulted in swelling, soreness and fluid build-up. This felt exactly like that: swelling, combined with pain and an inability to fully extend the arms. Because of this I didn’t make it to urgent care until the next day. I took some Ibuprofen and rested my arms that night. After twenty-four hours, when there was zero improvement, I thought getting some x-rays might be a good idea. And there you have it.
I’m currently, roughly, six weeks out from the accident and nearly totally healed. A few more weeks and I’ll be good as new. Back in the saddle, back on the mountain, and getting out there all over again.
So, why do I think this was an accident and not part of some bigger, irresponsible and ill-though out mid-life crisis? First, I always go prepared: first-aid kid, water, compass, etc. Second, I wasn’t actually doing anything beyond my capabilities. I’m well aware of my limits; and while I will often push myself right to the edge of those capabilities, I don’t purposefully launch myself over that edge. Rather, why I mountain bike in the woods (rather than road biking on streets) is the same reason I hike in the mountains; because being outside feels like home; it’s great exercise; it’s awe-inspiring; and science is now beginning to explain how and why being outside positively affects our mental and physical health. Give me a backpack, supplies, and send me off into the wilderness—on a bike or otherwise—and I feel free. Whether or not this is risk-seeking behavior is another essay altogether. Meanwhile, I sit here and write. Not much else I can do, physically. I try to stay positive and focus on the light at the end of this tunnel… and hope it’s not a train.
Get out there.