That Day

That Day

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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  1. Nik

    This kind of thing is why I don’t need 53×11 gears: I don’t want to go faster than 40mph, because a crash at that speed would be that much worse. Therefore 46×11 is more than enough.
    I’ve had a couple of crashes where the tires just slid out from under me, and although the crashes were not nearly as dramatic as yours (much lower speed), the memory sticks with me, and I don’t want to repeat it.
    I think this is also why I was never comfortable riding a motobike fast — I never felt that I could trust the traction of the tires in turns.

  2. Baldy

    Thanks for explaining. I had a “high speed shimmy” (speed wobble) a few years ago, going down a long steep hill on a cold windy day. To this day I’m not sure what caused it, but it is also written in bold, even though I managed to recover the bike and finish the descent. And I’ve lost most of my nerve to descend at anything that resembles speed, on that specific bike. All makes sense now

  3. 32x20

    I enjoyed the article. Many parts of it resonate with me, in particular closing the door on some futures you thought you might pursue.

    I went down at 30mph in a crit in a corner I’d gone that fast through many times before. This time maybe the weight distribution was slightly different or the line took me over a pebble or….you always wonder why. This time the front just folded and, like you, I hit the ground still in the drops. Luckily the consequences were much less severe but it took awhile before the cornerspeed came back. I can’t imagine the comeback required from the hit you took.

    One of the nice things about riding off pavement is that the tires (typically) give you more feedback before letting go. I wonder if that’s the reason for the confidence off road?

  4. Pat O'Brien

    Is the bike the only tool you have for getting in the zone or flow state? I chased flow for years in traditional archery. I had some success; it was enough to keep me chasing it. Getting it on the bike was so much easier. Just pedaling along at 12 or 13 mph in beautiful scenery on a safe road does it for me. Sometimes it takes 10 or 15 minutes to start, but it always comes. At least for now. When that changes, I’ll find it somewhere else. The place where flow is very hard for me is trying to learn the guitar. I have one hanging on the wall in the living room in plain sight to taunt me. Maybe I should just sell the things.

  5. Geoffrey Knobl

    You describe something I identify with. I know the feeling of doing well, being in the flow as you say, and going quickly, almost perfectly. It’s a good feeling. Internal. Others can sometimes see it and if they do, complement you. But even coming off a downhill, going through a narrow bridge, there’s the surprise dog running out from the side. Or a squirrel, or, god forbid, a rabbit. Or, perhaps, an unseen and unseeable pothole. Do you recover, do you make it past and keep going? Adrenaline shoots through your system and in an instant you are shaken.

    I’m paranoid on downhills and even some rollers now. Only on uphills where the effort is at a speed where if something unexpected and bad happens, I feel I can prevent the worst. Let’s just hope a stray bear doesn’t come after me!

    1. TomInAlbany

      I have a friend that woke up in a hospital after a deer jumped out into the middle of a group ride descending a hill at 30+ mph. It’s those random, out-of-my-control, possibilities that have always tempered my bravado.

  6. JD

    Very well said Padraig! I totally get everything you a saying. For me, an “insignificant” crash 2.5 years ago (with a very well hidden speed bump (more like a asphalt curb across the road)) resulted in an elbow that required 15 screws, two plates, and four surgeries (including some ligament reconstruction). I’m still trying to get comfortable again on the bike. Call it PTSD or whatever – there is a huge mental impact – obviously a physical one. Does it go away – I don’t know yet.

  7. David Tollefson

    The first time I truly achieved “flow”, that I could recognize (though it was a long time before I heard the term and knew that’s what it was) was on the Poison Spider Mesa trail in Moab. Returning to the start, I just got a groove going and was flying over the rocks and drops. Like you, I had no idea how far ahead I’d gotten until the bottom, when I had to wait… and wait… and wait for my friends to catch up. Fortunately I made it through that episode unscathed, and later realized just how over-my-head I’d gotten.

    But the mental return can be long. After a bad crash in a MTB race (shattered collar bone, cracked helmet), it took me three years before I could feel comfortable in the peloton with riders on both sides of me. Even though those mental scars were inflicted in 1991, they still itch a bit at times…

  8. Scott M

    Nailed it. Again!

    I call it “The Whump;” that split second when you know you’re going down, about to hit hard, or be hit by something you cannot control. It is the anticipation of imminent pain and shock without the physical manifestation – yet. In that moment, every sense hits high (for all the reasons you describe). So it’s natural that you feel the fall, the slide, the impact. Generally, the times I’ve felt the whump resulted in the highest PTSD and the greatest psychological barriers to high performance. When my front wheel washed out in a left turn, I had trouble cornering for months.

    On the other hand, the times when things happened so fast that I never saw them coming, I’ve been able to break through fear much faster during recovery. In my own nose dive to the pave, events happened fast enough that I had little memory of falling or speed. There was no whump, only tumble. And since riding a bike usually involves very little tumbling, I wasn’t distressed by that motion after the fact. After that crash, I was able to get back up to speed on long descents with little difficulty.

    In this regard, I guess it’s best to not know what hit you.

  9. Jeff Dieffenbach

    Thanks for sharing. Incredibly well-written.

    I’m relatively late to serious cycling (2007), starting in my 40s. Maybe because of that, I never developed comfort with speed. (Put me on Alpine skis and I’m bulletproof.)

    I’ve always been a timid road descender, and don’t plan to shake that defense mechanism in this lifetime. (My top road speed is 52.4 compared with 52.6 on my MTB … both on the same eastbound stretch descending Kinsman Notch in NH–if you can’t go fast on that straight, new, no crossroads piece of asphalt, you can’t go fast.)

    Maybe this is why I love CX so much. Speeds are mediocre compared with road. Technique is mediocre compared with MTB. And I’m mediocre! [grin]

  10. Michael

    Since you are a navel-gazer, and I am one too, I would mention that the only way I have gotten past the life-threatening accidents is by accepting, but examining, all of my reactions and feelings about it. Just pick them up and turn them over and stare and admire and wonder, which is pretty much what you are doing. Eventually, I start playing with those reactions, like toys, and the walls slowly recede. But they don’t disappear.

  11. ac

    Padraig, There’s an Australian marketing guy who’s got in to doing a series of docos on factors involved in doing physical and mental challenges, “Redesign my Brain”. I think you’d find it interesting at least.
    I caught parts of an episode on repeat the other night – he was trying to do a highwire tightrope walk after just 3 or 4 months training where most pros spend a decade perfecting their craft – I’m trying to recall some of the advice he got from a US highwire pro – something about never being able to avoid getting the fear response from the amygdala but over time training yourself to recognise and redirect your thoughts in your prefrontal cortex to limit the “amygdala hijack” effect.

  12. Hoshie99

    Maybe you realize going that fast at this stage of your life just doesn’t make sense and the accident was an early warning. Why question it? Profit to grief, risk / reward not pencilling out. You fell, it was traumatic, not going to do it anymore.

    If you are quaking on bunny hills, that’s a different story. In socal, Dr Simon Marshall might be worth a look-up, he does mental toughness and goal setting with athletes and will likely have some pointers.

  13. DMH Cycling Guy

    It’s the randomness of what can go wrong that makes living at the edge such a challenge. As a rock climber back in the 70s and 80s, I wondered about the unexpected rockfall or bee sting or failure of a protection placement. Now as a cyclist, it’s the flat or errant vehicle or dynamic pack movement when moving at high speed. Stetina, Zajicek, Tilford and more are paying the price for the unexpected need to adjust to circumstances on the road. And they are the ones that lived. As athletes we take risks, we live (or die) with the consequences. But we all recognize that there life altering events change our perspective. Sobering moments, but how do we turn off our desire to explore the boundaries of our own performance capabilities?

  14. Grouty

    Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve just had a near life experience.
    Tyler Durden

    Check out Laurence Gonzales books, Deep Survival and Surviving Survival. Highly readable, he goes into detail about what happens to the brain in survival situations and traumatic events and how to move forward. Good stuff

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