This was supposed to be a post about this year’s Crank The Kanc hillclimb. I was going to discuss a new(ish) approach to training I took this year, inspired by a Ned Overend interview I read. Ned’s natural gifts aside, his training philosophy is one of intensity over volume, and while I’m not unfamiliar with that way of thinking, I took it to heart this year. Recognizing that base miles are effectively junk if they’re not of sufficient volume, I did no base. I killed myself once a week for several months straight, between a half hour and an hour at a time. For that little investment, when I started to hit the road after the snow cleared, I could see signs that things were headed in good direction. I was very motivated for the Kanc this year, felt like I had something to prove, and went out three days before the race for a shakedown ride. Just an hour at lunchtime to move the legs, and get the systems interested in an hour and a half or so of single speed time trialing. I wanted it to be closer than three days before, but that’s what I had to work with. Off I went. Warm day. Light to moderate effort on my Langster.
I was out alone on a back road and had just finished a brief climb when I stopped at an intersection. I looked both ways and pondered which way to go, being somewhat unfamiliar with the area. Another cyclist came up from behind me and passed while I stood there, bearing right. I figured I’d go right as well, and shoved off.
I have no recollection of what prompted my bike to lose control, but it did. At all of 4.9mph, I remember my front wheel becoming wildly unstable and I fell to my left. My shoulder hit the pavement, and then my head, really hard, hard enough to produce a flash of light. My head bounced and whipped back to the right, and then left again onto the pavement, producing another flash of light. At this point, I started groaning, almost in kind of an annoyed state. I can best describe the feeling as “tapping out”, as in you can take no more and you are begging for submission. After those two hits to the head, I couldn’t take any more punishment, whatever was doing it to me I needed it to stop.
I was in the middle of the road writhing for a minute or two, and a motorist came upon me. He helped me up, asked me if I was alright. We got out of the middle of the road and I asked how far from downtown Exeter I was. He said about half a mile, and offered a ride. At this point, a second passerby stopped on the opposite side of the road, performing his own interrogation. I really don’t know what my plan was, but I pulled my brake levers back out and got back on the bike.
Within moments, I knew I was going to ride directly to the hospital, which turned out to be about three miles away. My shoulder was absolutely burning, with a good patch of yet to be seen road rash under my jersey. As for my head, I couldn’t yet tell what was going on but expected a concussion, as to that point I had experienced four prior. My watch was scuffed up, my forearm was bleeding, and about a quarter of my thumbnail had been torn off.
I managed to ride 3.5mi to the ER and placed my bike in a rack. After two hours and a clear X-Ray and CT, I got a ride back to the office from a coworker. It was clear I was in no condition to drive. In fact, it would be two weeks until I drove myself to work again.
This concussion is unlike the other four I’ve had, whether on account of the severity of the hit to the head, or the going notion that these injuries aggregate and make successive concussions worse. I experienced massive exhaustion, sleeping for long stretches overnight and dozing off multiple times during the day. Technology was very hard to use and had to be limited. Until only a few days ago I couldn’t even look at an iPhone head on, and had to turn the brightness and motion off. Even now, only a short time into writing this, I need to take a break, as my vision is starting to roll things together like I’m reading something with a bad eyeglass prescription.
As it turns out, this is a regular phenomenon right now. If I look at a computer screen for too long, it becomes blurry. Except moving closer doesn’t pull it into focus. It’s how I know my brain is still not ready for this, and it’s frustrating.
At the ER I was in major panic. I was certain I had broken something in my shoulder. The thought of having to undergo surgery, and the ensuing recovery, and the risks of surgery, all of it started to overwhelm me. Hearing that the X-ray was clear was a relief, if one word should suffice.
I was concerned about the head injury immediately, as during intake I could not recall the name of the allergy spray I have taken every single day of my life for years. I could not remember it, and it was angering and scaring me at the same time.
After my CT and X-rays came back, I called my wife and she recommended our friend Andy drive me home from work. Logistically, I had no clue why that made sense. She had to remind me that Andy had recently taken a job about 15 minutes up the road from my office; something I first told my wife about a month ago.
At my daughter’s school the following day, I ran into one of her favorite teachers. One of only a handful of teachers I feel exceedingly trusting of, enough so that I’m friends with her on Facebook. We interact almost daily in person, and I read her Facebook activity at least as often. When I saw her, it took several minutes of concentrated effort before I could recall her name.
This same thing happened recently at work, when I spotted a coworker I had a private conversation with only a few weeks prior.
A few days after the accident, I began to develop small speech issues, with what my brain would perceive as challenging words. I would stumble over them, as if my brain would get partway through saying them and then freak out. I could not get them out. Like “psychiatry”. I could not say that word.
The front of my mouth developed a mild numbness that was present for about a week and a half. It’s the same kind of feeling as an oral anesthetic wearing off; just faintly there. It has now subsided or is otherwise largely unnoticeable. I found a blog entry from a woman suffering from post-concussive disorder who reported the exact same phenomenon.
I simply could not work. My head would tolerate about a five minute phone conversation, and then I was done. My head felt hot after these kinds of efforts. When I spoke with people in person, they commented on my eyes – how the pupils were of different size, and changed, and that they moved all over the place while I spoke.
I drove back to the intersection where I crashed today. It has been just over two weeks. There’s a slight variation in the road surface that may have initiated my front wheel wobbling, and it’s perceptible in a car, so I presume it’s equally noticeable on a bike, and it makes sense to me that if I wasn’t really paying attention and wasn’t familiar with the road, I can see how it might have been a culprit. I want to believe that, but in truth it’s such a benign road characteristic that it doesn’t add up. And as I stand there, right at the stop sign, I can almost feel the same way I felt when I was there, as I pulled away that day. Not really with it. Kind of seeing things happen, but not in control of them.
There’s a bloody rag off to the side of the road. I have no recollection of that whatsoever. I so strongly do not remember it that it has to be completely coincidental. Why would it be though. I have no idea.
I also have zero memory of the first mile I rode away from the crash. Driving down that road was like driving down a road I had never seen before. In fact, driving that road to get to the intersection, I nearly turned around because I was sure I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. Then I stuck it out for a few minutes and there was the spot, just up a hill.
My road rash has healed, but the shoulder is still very painful. Dull, lingering aching pain. I’m supposed to be taking a muscle relaxer for it, but I can’t, given the head injury. So I suffer. Tylenol and Advil have no effect on it; it’s interesting. I do understand the need for medications that suit this particular type of injury. I just don’t want to take them. I got a massage yesterday and it seems to have helped. She described my shoulder as “a mess”.
The crash was a freak event that could not have been avoided. So it is probably mildly irrational to say “oh I am never going to ride a bike again”.
That said, there are certainly types of riding that I cannot do again, because the propensity for hitting my head in some of those types of riding is much, much higher. And there is little doubt in my mind that these minor cognitive issues I am experiencing as a result of concussion #5, they will be amplified in the next hit to the head. These things will change you. They will change the way you value basic things, like having a simple conversation, or using a phone, or working near the light of a lamp. Or being able to drive yourself to your job. You become dependent on others in a way that is absolutely unnecessary under ordinary circumstances, and it is beyond frustrating.
My primary care doctor has recommended that I not ride a bike again. I think it’s reasonable to believe I should never race cyclocross, or participate in a road race or criterium again. Other disciplines, I have to think hard about as they do not seem to have as easy an answer as those.
Whatever I end up getting back into, I have already ordered a new helmet – a POC Octal AVIP MIPS. It looks like the safest fucking thing I could strap to my head at the moment. But I don’t forsee being focused and energetic enough to ride a bike for, I have no idea, some period of time that is not days. Weeks.
I am expecting to have recovered hopefully fully, if not very close to, by my first neurology appointment in early July. I’ve improved a lot since the days following the accident, but it has been very, very slow progress. Each day waking up, hoping your head feels different today, better. It doesn’t, and you know it’s another day; another day to have to navigate.
I’m about done for tonight, I actually got through more of this than I thought I would today. It’s late and I will pay for this tomorrow but it was worth writing it down.