I still think about that day. I get to use such an inspecific term as “that” to refer to the day that I nearly killed myself because it has taken on that kind of significance in my life. It’s a dividing line in my life because the rides that came after that day were immediately different than those that came before. I spent months doing mostly flat rides and braking in turns that I’d previously flown through, not just sans brakes, but attempting to wring every last drop of velocity from gravity.
The crash was a shock, but perhaps not for the reasons you might guess. Sure, I was surprised to go down, but the bigger surprise was the enormity of what went wrong. The crash was worse than I thought could occur. This was unlike any other crash I’d experienced in that I went from fine to in trouble in the span of my height, that even after I thought I’d averted disaster, I wound up running literally head-on into the ground. I hit with such speed it exceeded my reaction time; I never turned my head or hit my brakes. My hands were still in the drops as my chin touched the ground.
There was so much rock and dirt in my mouth I’d had to use deductive reasoning to figure out whether or not I’d lost any teeth. A paramedic and two doctors said I should have been killed from the force of the impact.
Every now and then someone asks me why I was going so fast, why I’d put so much on the line given there was no prize to be gained, no finish line to cross. Such a question betrays such a lack of appreciation for the deeper satisfaction that comes from cycling I rarely attempt to answer.
To me, the why is obvious. I was chasing flow. The entire descent I’d been on fire, tearing through turn after turn utterly alone. I’d dropped some of the region’s best descenders. I didn’t even understand how much time I’d put into them until I began to pass Mississippis on the ground as I waited. It was a surprisingly long wait. On any other day I’d have taken pride in that.
So at the point I hit the ground, a cocktail of dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide and serotonin were running through me. In my life, those moments are my divinity. And then it all went to shit.
What happened in the aftermath of the crash, as I lay on the ground waiting for the rest of the day to unfold, for my friends to catch up, the ambulance to arrive, me to get to the hospital, the treatment … my body was dumping epinephrine—adrenaline—into my system. I had no fight, and I was in no shape for flight. I began to tremble. Later, at the hospital, the staff confused my shaking with being chilled. I was a skinny guy with just some bits of stretchy polyester over me. I was cold, obvs. So they piled blanket after warmed blanket on me. Eventually, there were nine of them on me. And I didn’t stop shaking until the morphine.
It was the morphine that disarmed the adrenaline, stopped my shaking and allowed the muscles through my arms, back and legs to relax. And while this isn’t an objective measurement, there was so much adrenaline racing through me that the amount of morphine necessary to put me at ease exceeded the allowable dosage; another doctor had to sign off on more. We know that our experience of opiates is different if we are in pain than if we’re not. I didn’t get high; I just recall not shaking and being able to relax. My memory of pain is largely confined to the debriding inside my mouth. Every now and then my doctor would hit a nerve and I’d begin shaking all over again and the muscle tension would make me cadaver stiff. It would take more morphine to relax me enough to resume work.
Of late, doctors have been studying a population of soldiers with post-traumatic-stress disorder—PTSD. A common tool to sharpen focus for soldiers are drugs used for people with ADD: Ritalin and Adderall. Those drugs are stimulants, cousins, if you will, to norepinephrine and epinephrine. They decrease reaction time, decrease target acquisition time and also cause memories to be laid down more permanently. When I read this, I suddenly understood why the crash was such a big deal.
Because I was in flow, the event was recorded internally in bold text and 24-point type. All caps, too. The possibility of losing my rear wheel, even momentarily, never even seemed possible, so that tiny slide was enough to shake my faith in the grip of my tires to my foundation. Subsequently, every downhill turn became a circumstance for my tire to break free.
The upshot is that I got a firmware update, one that overwrote some very useful code about anecdotal evidence of tire adhesion. How to undo that is the stuff of PTSD treatment, and because undoing PTSD is an inexact science, current trials include using psilocybin as a means to break through fears laid down during trauma.
I’m reluctant to use the term PTSD in conjunction with my crash. It seems so melodramatic, but I can’t deny that I think the underlying neuroscience matches up. Much of this I chalk up to my education into flow and the ongoing revelations that much of how we perceive the world is influenced, clouded, even determined by just which neurochemicals happen to be coursing through our bloodstream.
As I’ve aged, I’ve come to terms with certain futures that are no longer open to me. At one point I thought my life would be dominated by music. Later, I thought I would live the life of an academic and publish poetry. I always thought I’d return to studying piano and marimba; that opportunity slipped away, and while it’s not too late to pursue them, it’s too late to do so without impinging on today’s ambitions. So while my list of ambitions has narrowed, the nature of my ambition hasn’t. I still have things to do. There’s much to learn, much still to accomplish. The trouble is that the one scar the crash left is psychological, but it’s big and ugly, a mental keloid.
It’s fair to wonder how important getting on top of my fear is. To me, it’s important, no qualifier necessary. I’m too much the technocrat to see something change and not wonder how to undo it. I’m also fascinated by the fact that on a mountain bike it doesn’t happen, and with a gravel bike it only happens when the grades are steep enough that brakeless acceleration feels like free-fall. I can’t help but want to draw a chart of those strengths, those deficiencies. A fear portrait.
I’m a classic navel-gazer, curious about what the world is, why some things resonate for me while others are white bread bland. My purpose is less to write a FAQ about what haunts me than to figure out how to undo that mental governor. Do I ever need to go as fast as I was going that day? Nope. I don’t. But what I want is freedom. The freedom to choose how I ride, to elect to brake hard or just scrub some speed.
It’s an ages-old struggle. So much of freedom is you giving yourself permission, not waiting for others to do so.
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