You know the feeling when you alarm goes off and it hits you just the wrong way? You startle awake, and, for a few seconds, you don’t remember where you are, what’s happening, or how you got there?
Now, imagine that you’re standing at the back of your open car holding a cracked bike helmet in your hands and you feel just like your alarm has gone off. But, no matter how hard you try, the confusion doesn’t lift. What happened? How did I get back here? Am I going to be ok? You know that something bad has happened, but you can’t remember, for the life of you, what.
This is where I found myself on Friday morning; I’m sitting in the passenger seat of my parked car, looking at my reflection in the little makeup mirror. More specifically, I’m shining a headlamp into each of my eyes and watching my pupils. I’m pushing on my forehead, eyebrows, and scalp, looking for soft spots. I’m walking aimless circles around my car. I call at least three friends before I decide that has to stop. Eventually, I decide that there’s one reasonable thing to do, and I dial 911.
I used to joke that I have a serious injury every 5 years. My last, in 2008, was a long-term shoulder laxity that culminated in dislocation and surgery. I was out for almost four months before I could return to the things that I like to do. I learned to take off a t-shirt or button a pair of jeans with just one hand. This year, I hit my head. Hard. I am more or less back to normal a few days later, and I’ll be able to return to biking and skiing after just a month, but this injury scared me a whole lot more than any that I’ve had, largely because I didn’t remember what happened. I still don’t really know.
The best that I can guess is as follows: I headed out on a cool Friday morning to get in a short ride before going to work in the evening. I cruised up to Sandy Ridge trail with my usual donuts and coffee, clicked on Strava on my phone, and started pedaling up the gated road that leads to the trails there. I enjoy riding alone and at my own pace from time to time. No pressure. Time to think. My mind wandered as I climbed but I remembered that Rodney had said something about the Little Monkey trail (a little off-the-map gem) and that it was a lot of fun.
Just one mile into the climb, I reached the entrance for little monkey, and I poked my head around the corner to see what it was about. The first jump was pretty big, but after that the trail forked left to TNT (two black diamonds) or Little Monkey (one black diamond). Further ahead in the trees I could see berms and kickers. I was sufficiently enticed.
Pedaling back out onto the road, I clamped down my helmet, pulled on my gloves, and unlocked my suspension. With a few turns of the pedals I rolled into the first jump slow, wheelying rather than jumping before forking right onto Little Monkey. This is the kind of trail that I love to ride: bermed corners and beautiful spacing make for a rhythm like skiing, and the jumps, while some are large, aren’t gaps or other such intimidating features. I remember riding fast, and hitting some of the jumps bigger than I’d hit jumps before, but the trail was flowing smoothly, and it all felt controlled. I was killing it. I whooped aloud.
And that’s where my memory stops.
You see, the next thing that I know, I’m back in the parking lot, pacing loops around my car. My head aches indescribably, and I’m confused in a way that defied explanation but approaches trying to reach challenging literature while intoxicated. You find yourself reading the same sentence over and over and over again to no avail. I knew that I had crashed. My helmet was cracked clear through three of the four front struts, and both it and the left side of my face were covered in dirt. Working as I do in the Trauma ICU, I knew full well that a whole skull does not a whole brain make, so despite my confusion, I called 911 and explained what had happened.
Hoodland Fire Department responded very promptly and stood around talking to me while the ambulance came to us. They were both professional and reasonable, and didn’t ask me to hop on the backboard or into the c-collar before the rig got there (thanks boys!). Over the next several hours I was carted to the nearest decent hospital (my choice), where I was taken care of by doctors and nurses who I know and who recognized me despite my pretty face. I took my first trip through a CT scanner, built up a thunderhead of a headache, and tried to puke it out. Thankfully, my brain, though beaten, had not bled, and I was eventually allowed to go home with strict instructions to rest my brain and neither drink nor drive.
I crashed. That’s for certain. But questions remain:
1. Where? Unfortunately, Strava only records moving activity, so even though I have a guess based on this data, I’m not sure on what feature I crashed.
2. How? I, frankly, was riding super well the moments before I wrecked. I was feeling it– that mythical flow state. I was considering distances and consequences and confidently executing. I wasn’t flinching or getting gripped. I suspect that whatever feature I crashed on had a hidden element to its landing– further, lower, or steeper than I expected.
3. Was I knocked unconscious? There are reports of up to 2 hrs of amnesia without loss of consciousness (LOC) as well as of prolonged LOC with no amnesia. Both are possible. I think that my amnesia lasts about 10-15 minutes. I suspect that I had brief LOC, not longer than 1 minute, but that’s pure intuitive speculation.
4. The biggest mystery of all: how did I get back to the parking lot? I’m pretty sure that I did it on my own, but I had never been on that trail before. I didn’t know where it emerged. My best guess is that my concussed self jumped right back on the bike, possibly after a short period of unconsciousness, and rode off down the trail to the car. No-pro-blemo. Guess there’s some technique stored in the brain stem.
When I returned home, I lay in a dark room for hours and nearly slept. I wandered twenty blocks to my friend’s house and stared into her fire, shelling chestnuts. I drifted into naps easily, but when I lay down for sleep, I tossed and turned in hots sweats and cold chills, my mind alight with conversation, calculation, and unending speculation. The next day, even the slightest movement of my head served me a more potent headache than I’ve ever had. My brain was a quivering, insulted mass of jello, and it protested the littlest jiggle. Today, the pain has mostly subsided. I still feel quiet in constitution, ready to rest, and a little bit slow-witted. My mind is still on the mend.
I am humbled by this accident, and immensely grateful both for how well it turned out and for all of the friends who helped me, beginning with my confusion and not ending at retrieving my car from the trailhead. I got lucky, and I recognize that. I came close to reaping the downside of riding alone, and I will think about solo riding in a new light. Jumps are not for alone days.
I’m also going to buy a full-face helmet. Sometime this season, I bought kneepads, and then quietly crept across the blurry line between aggressive cross-country riding and freeride. My ambitions too quickly outdistanced my protective equipment, and a full-face helmet might have saved me from a debilitating concussion. Eventually, I’ll need a bigger bike, too, but having less suspension is not making me unsafe.
“What I’m not hearing”, you say, “is any talk of maybe not riding that kind of trail”. That’s true. The thing is, it’s damn fun, and I do that that the risks can be safely managed. I showed a lack of judgment that coincided with bad luck, and I was punished for it. My approach in the future will be different. Riding with a partner, inspecting lines ahead of time, and using better protection will all factor into doing it again, but safely.
In the meantime, I’m off for a month: to risk another head injury after a significant concussion has a multiplicative effect. I can’t risk it. It’s time to wait for the snow to fall, and start waxin’ them skis.