Getting Back On - Injury, Recovery, Return
I did a 25-mile mountain bike ride last weekend. Most weekends that would be just about par for the course and not really worth a mention. But this ride was different. It was the first time I'd been out on a mountain bike since June 16, 2011.
That last ride landed me in a hospital in Brattleboro, VT, with four severely broken ribs, a separated shoulder, and a tube in the side of my chest to seal up a punctured right lung. While riding fast on a fairly tame multi-use trail at the base of Stratton Mountain, I went over the handlebars and hit the deck hard. My head hit the ground with so much force that my helmet cracked in two. After 20-plus years of mountain biking and countless near-misses out on the trail, I finally had "the big one."
Whether you're into surfing, snowboarding, road biking, motocross or any other adrenaline-fueled sport, it's understood and accepted that the risk of injury is part of the experience. Tiptoeing the fine line between high-speed thrills and disaster is one of the things that make extreme sports fun—and inherently dangerous.
So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I drove out to State College, PA, last weekend to ride a stage in the third annual Transylvania Mountain Bike Epic. My journey back to this point was tough. It took nearly two months after my crash before my rib cage could expand enough to do cardiovascular exercise, like running or cycling, on the road. Even after my ribs had healed enough to take deep breaths, it was still extremely uncomfortable when I got my heart rate going. I had more than a few frustrating spells where I wondered if I'd ever feel "normal" again and whether I'd ever do another mountain bike ride.
But as I've learned with other injuries, the human body is amazingly resilient, and the physical injuries healed over the course of the year. Still, as I drove toward the start the morning of the ride, the mental questions lingered. Would I forget how to ride the rocky, technical trails the east coast is known for? Would I be hesitant and tentative and set myself up for another injury? Would I simply fall victim to another accident, like the one a year ago?
The answer to all those questions was a resounding no. For a glorious three hours I pedaled up and down the mountains along Little Poe Creek in the Poe Valley State Park. (There's a map of the ride here). The temperature hovered around 60 degrees on a beautiful sunny day. The dirt was soft and tacky from a thunderstorm the night before. The riding conditions were, in a word, ideal. I grinned from ear to ear while riding with friends from our sister pub, Bicycling magazine. My skills weren't nearly as diminished as I feared. I was cautious enough to avoid any crashes, but not so cautious as to compromise the experience. The day was completely cathartic and a little emotional.
By the time we reached the finish, the circle of injury, recovery, and return was complete. Doing activities you love makes them part of your identity. You're not a writer, a cook, a painter or a runner unless you actively do those things. For a year, I wondered if I'd ever be a mountain biker again. Last Saturday, I got back on the bike and got my answer. Hell yeah.
-David L'Heureux is a senior editor on Fitbie.com
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