Monday, August 16, 2010

Folsom Olympic Triathlon Crash Report

Rancho Cordova, CA -- August 15, 2010
Sometimes we become so immersed in racing that we lose sight of the reasons that we do what we do.  But if we're fortunate, we are ocasionally given a gift of awareness as fate intervenes to distract us from the monotony of racing for personal glory.
I received such a gift today.
Now it's true, I didn't initially recognize the oversized orange traffic cone as a gift.  In fact, as I blew by the four meandering cyclists who were blocking my path to bike-leg glory, the bright orange rubber megaphone looked more like a cycling IED than a gift.
Surprisingly, the 25 mph impact with the cone was less violent than I expected -- more like a head-on collision with a well-upholstered ottoman than, say, a dining room table.  But that did nothing to diminish the brutality of my impending impact with the earth.  Like a 140 lb. sack of quarters dropped from a three story building, I sailed through the air with not a hint of aerodynamic grace and similar lack of passenger safety features.
With serious injury or death imminent, I waited for my life to flash before my eyes.  Yet the only thought I could manage before impact was:  "ORANGE RUBBER!!!"
I suppose it makes sense.  I had just launched my bike into the cone at 25 mph and the giant orange dunce cap was probably orbiting before my eyes as I tumbled through the air.  In truth, "ORANGE RUBBER" makes perfect sense, as last thoughts go.
And as an aside, I hate to say it, but I'm now convinced that it is way more likely that our last thoughts will be "TRUCK!!" or "BIG FREAKING SHARK!!" than the realization of total consciousness.

The highway interrupted my unscheduled flight.  I slammed hard onto my left shoulder, bike flipping over me, chainring raking grooves into my left thigh, skidding on my left hip, then my back, then my right shoulder, until the friction between my skin against the road cheese-gratered me to a stop.

I laid in the road for a while, waiting for the pain to travel from my body to my brain.  Which it did with surprising speed, letting me know that I was still alive, which was nice.

After accounting for my body parts and finding that the important ones were still attached, I thought I could probably stand.

So I stood, briefly wondering why one leg was longer than the other.  Wow.  The force of the impact had somehow blasted my right foot out of my bike shoe.  There I stood, bleeding, one shoe off, one shoe on.  The right shoe was still clipped to the bike.

Riders were gasping as they rode by.  More than one guy shouted "are you alright?" Not that they were planning to slow down.  I imagine they were mostly curious how anyone could live through a wreck of that magnitude.

But watching people ride by, I had an urge to get on the bike and start pedaling.  I was still in race mode.
I bent the handlebars back to center, peeled the brake pad from my rear wheel, bent my left brake lever into position and yanked the chain back onto the chainring.  Only 5 minutes had passed since my mishap and I thought I was ready to race again.

I started to ride.  A mile later, after the adrenaline wore off, I noticed that my left arm was useless and I was somehow breathing with only my right lung.

So much for racing.  I sat up and began to pedal slower to minimize the rib-jarring.  Soon, a parade of people began to pass me.

I felt sorry for myself.  Riding over 20 miles in this condition seemed impossible. 

I thought of quitting.  In fact, I did quit.  I quit at mile 5 when the road got bumpy, I quit at mile 10 when I had to climb a hill pulling the handlebars with one arm, and I quit at mile 12 when I had to descend a hill at 10 mph to minimize the jarring to my ribs.  But every time I quit, I was nowhere near anyone who could help me get back to my car.
We have a saying in Ironman racing.  If something hurts, just wait a few minutes and the pain will change into something else.  And strangely, this trueism seems to apply to blunt force trauma too.
Gradually, the pain in my ribs, my shoulder and my leg merged into one big ball of diffused pain covering the whole of my left side instead of discrete, sharp pains.
The whole-body pain was less debilitating than the knife-stabbing pain that preceded it.  And by mile 17, I was actually spending some time back in the aerobars and I was passing a few of the slower folks.
Still, I realized that today would be measured not by the speed of the race, but solely by whether or not I quit.
I had always said that I would never quit an Ironman -- that I would rather walk until they pulled me off the course than quit.  I wasn't sure that my rule applied to a local Olympic-distance triathon, however.  And since it was my rule, I was willing to give myself some flexibility under the present circumstances.  And quitting was looking mighty good.
I got to transition and quit -- for 5 whole minutes.  While I was quitting though, I found myself involuntarily putting on my socks, running shoes, hat and sunglasses, just in case I wasn't quitting.  Then, since I was already wearing the gear, I figured I should jog a couple steps just to see whether it was even possible.  It wasn't -- not even after I found and ate a couple Aleve living in the bottom of my tri-bag.
I started to walk anyway.

As I exited the transition area, volunteers shouted, "you're doing great!  Keep it up!"  I was limping, bleeding all over the place and my hair was a mess.  I suspected they were hiding their true feelings.
Mile one took about 15 minutes.  I cheered for a few people and tried to run.  No dice.  It just hurt too badly.  I couldn't get loose.  And, apparently, Aleve lose their magic powers when they're covered in lint.

Many runners jogged by.  I walked.  A weight-loss support-group that was sharing the path with the racers shuffled by at a fast walk.  I tried to walk faster, but got dropped.  Finally, a man pushing a baby-stroller passed me.  I couldn't take it.  I shuffled behind baby-stroller man for a whole minute.
He saw me following him and pulled away, paternalistically protecting his child from the bleeding, limping serial killer in torn spandex.
I stopped shuffling and walked again.  But now with renewed purpose.  Maybe I couldn't keep up with baby-stroller guy, but I could jog a little and I figured that if I could jog even a little, my injured ribs and shoulder probably weren't life-threatening.

"Suck it up crybaby -- you're not done yet" became my mantra.  I don't know why, but none of the mantras I develop during a race are very inspirational.
But I knew then that I could finish this freaking race.

I began shuffling for 30 seconds at a time, which seemed to loosen things up.  I took some water at the next aid station, perhaps activating the Aleve.

After a few minutes of on and off shuffling, I did an honest to goodness jog.  And, gradually, I picked up the pace.
Soon, I could see baby-stroller guy not too far ahead.  To his great terror, I was reeling him in.
I caught baby-stroller guy just before mile 3.  He seemed relieved that I didn't attack him with an ax as I passed.
Brimming with adrenaline, I began to run to the finish.
As I caught more and more people on the return leg, I made it a point to shout encouragement to everyone, soaking up the camaraderie that I remembered from the days when these people were my regular traveling companions and when the only goal was to finish.

The last 3 miles flew by.  The pain was bearable as long as I didn't run too hard and didn't move my arms much.  And was I ever negative splitting this run!

I finished in 2:46, considerably slower than my initial goal, but a huge victory in all other respects.

I learned today that it was possible to do the unlikely.  Pain, despair, ego -- it can all be overcome by just moving, at whatever pace you can manage.

And as my always pragmatic wife Laura likes to say, "if you're going to crash, you need to get used to the pain", or something to that effect.
Next up, Ironman Canada.