2009 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  SUE'S BIKE WRECK, PART 4:
THE FRAGILITY OF LIFE & OTHER RUMINATIONS
 
THURSDAY, AUGUST 6

 
"Life is short. Eat dessert first."
 
 

I went to some length in the last entry speculating about the cause of the accident. Even without knowing what caused it (due to continued post-trauma amnesia and no apparent witnesses) I know there are some things that I did right before setting out on that bike ride and some things I would have done differently, in hindsight.

Some of these points are relevant to any kind of outdoor activity, even ones that appear to be as benign as my short bike ride on a relatively non-technical dirt road. Goodness knows, I've gone out on numerous more risky solo adventures and came back just fine! My hope is that maybe something will click with some readers that will make their next activity safer. Thinking about it so much has certainly made me more aware of safety issues.

WHAT I DID RIGHT

  • I was familiar with the route I was taking, having run and ridden South Mineral Creek Road numerous times since 2006. When I'm on a new trail or route, I either take a map, written directions/landmarks, or GPS coordinates with me so I don't get lost.
  • I told Jim where I was going and how long I planned to be gone. I underestimated my time, but at least I gave him a ball-park figure so he'd know where to look for me if I didn't return.
  • Jim and I both tested the bike before the ride to be sure the problem I had the previous day with the gears/chain was fixed. Nothing appeared amiss to either of us and the bike rode fine until the wreck. Jim also filled the tires to the correct air pressure before I left. Although it's an inexpensive bike, it is serviceable and the knobby tires are fairly new.
  • The weather was good outbound and remained good inbound even though there was a storm farther east -- in my view on the return, but not a risk to me. I wasn't concerned about a storm.
  • I was dressed appropriately for the conditions and for cycling -- good bike shorts, shoes, and gloves; a bright neon yellow short-sleeved shirt from one of my ultras for visibility; an approved helmet. Unfortunately, the helmet is lost forever. It went clattering down the rocky hill into the creek and floated away when folks at the scene were giving Jim the bike, my glasses, etc. as he was leaving to follow the ambulance to the hospital. Neither Jim nor another fella (Rick) who was camped nearby were able to find the helmet.


Jim, circled, looks downstream for my helmet the day after the crash.
Unfortunately, it didn't get hung up in the beaver dam you can see in the center of the photo.

  • I had an ID card with emergency information, my driver's license, my medical insurance card, and my CORSAR (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search & Rescue) card in a plastic bag in my fanny pack. I always take them with me when I run, walk, or ride.
  • My camera was secure in a padded case at my waist on the belt loop of my fanny pack. The one time I took a photograph that day, I completely stopped the bike and got off of it. That way I didn't put myself at risk of falling. The camera was not harmed later when I DID fall. (I've had it only a few weeks, after dropping my last one in the mud farther down the stream, taking photos of Hardrock runners crossing Mineral Creek near the end of the race. I'm trying to be more careful with this one.)
  • I have good medical coverage. This accident won't send us to the poor house. I'd be an emotional wreck right now if I didn't have decent insurance. Not having to worry about the bill will help the healing process.
  • I was in excellent physical condition, which may have kept me stabilized after the accident (e.g., low heart rate and moderate blood pressure) and which should speed up my recovery.
  • I rode conservatively (I thought), since I am not well-trained on bumpy surfaces. I was definitely not trying to see how fast I could go.

WHAT I DID WRONG OR SHOULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY

  • I underestimated the time it would take me to ride about nine miles on that road and I had no way to let Jim know I'd be taking longer.
  • I should have taken my cell phone, even though there is no signal beyond a mile or two from our campground. Someone could have gotten Jim's number from the phone (he's listed as my first ICE number ("in case of emergency"). Fortunately, I was able to give them his name and phone number, even though I don't remember it.
  • I wore my best glasses and sunglasses, which is unusual. I see better in my newest pair but they are history now. The lenses are so scratched that they have to be replaced. Unfortunately, I chose not to get vision insurance this year so if I replace the glasses before January, the cost is all ours.
  • I may not have had my helmet strapped on tightly enough to prevent it from shifting. I don't know that it DID shift, but that could account for my sore head above my ear (may have landed on the edge of it).
  • I have no idea what caused the wreck. It could have been that I was going too fast for my skill level in those road conditions -- dry, dusty dirt and gravel road with larger rocks and ruts here and there and loose dirt/rocks all along the edge. I didn't think I was being reckless.
  • I may have allowed myself to be distracted with something and lost focus on the road. I'll never know if that was the case.
  • It would have been safer to ride with someone else. Jim and I have just one mountain bike and I didn't know anyone else to ride with.
  • I'm not as experienced with Jim's bike and it does not fit me as well as my road bike, which we left at our house in Virginia. I need more experience on this bike or, better yet, my OWN mountain bike. After what happened, I may never ride Jim's bike again. I am not afraid to get on my own bike, however -- my Terry road bike or a new trail bike that's all mine.

I'll try to keep all this in mind the next time I head out the door for a walk, run, or bike ride.

I AM A LUCKY GAL

The more I think of all the things that could have happened to me during this incident but DIDN'T, the luckier I feel. There are lots worse things that could have occurred than the injuries I did sustain:

  • I could have gone down the long, rocky embankment into the creek and either died or been paralyzed or so torn up I wished I were dead.
  • I could have run into a tree or vehicle.
  • I could have been run over by a vehicle coming around the curve where I wrecked; the road was narrow and I was several feet in from the edge.

  • I could have broken more bones than rib(s); it's a wonder my nose or left arm weren't broken.
  • I could have knocked some teeth out.
  • I could have seriously damaged my left eye. As important as my eyes are to me, I can't think of anything much worse than losing my vision.
  • Jim could have been out of cell phone reach or out on a remote trail, unable to be with me as fast as he was. I really appreciated his presence at the scene (once I realized he was there) and in the ER.
  • All my injuries could have been worse; I could be in a coma right now, but I'm alive and healing quickly and able to type this.

I am appreciative of all that Jim, the people who found me, others at the scene who did something to help, the EMS crew, and the hospital trauma team did to assess my injuries, answer my questions, and treat me promptly. In addition to profuse verbal thanks, I have sent cards with letters to the Silverton ambulance crew, the Swansons, and the Mercy Hospital ER staff.

Surprisingly, some other good things have come out of this incident besides a reminder of how caring people can be. Most bad situations, even emergencies, can be a source of something positive.

  • I've learned some valuable information about concussions, amnesia, rib fractures, and wound care that might allow me to help someone else in the future.
  • I've been able to connect on a different level with friends who've also suffered one or more of these injuries.
  • I've learned something new about the state of my 60-year-old vertebrae. If the cervical spine CT hadn't been done, I wouldn't know about some severe degenerative age-related spinal arthritis that I have. That's something I need to address when we return to Roanoke in a few weeks.
  • I've also re-learned that I can be a tough cookie when the chips are down. I have a lot of inner resources on which I can draw. I just hope they continue to be there whenever I need them in the future. Life is full of uncertainties, stress, and emergencies. This won't be the last crisis I face in my lifetime.

MY LAST CONSCIOUS THOUGHTS BEFORE THE CRASH

At the present time I am totally fascinated with the topics of shock and post-traumatic amnesia; I'm reading as much about them as I have the time.

This is the first time I've had amnesia and it's still there after three days -- no memory whatsoever of what caused this wreck, what occurred as I went down, or what happened in the next 20-30 minutes as passers-by stopped to see what was going on, as Jim arrived and gave me an initial head-spine assessment, and as the EMTs arrived and did the same. I was responding appropriately (apparently) to these people and others on scene but remember none of them except Jim. As soon as I was placed on the stretcher and loaded into the ambulance, everything is pretty clear to me.

That's freaky but fascinating. As I've mentioned, I'd like to know what happened to cause the crash but I don't want to relive the crash itself and the immediate aftermath before the shock wore off and I became aware of pain. I have to be prepared for the possibility that all this may return to my conscious memory, however.


Pretty scene along S. Mineral Creek Road  (7-27-09)

I do remember my last thoughts before I crashed and they sort of make me wonder if I was tripping out on an endorphin high when I lost control of the bike -- or worse, that maybe I'm a closet speed demon.

My aerobic activity of choice is long-distance running, partly because of the endorphins it produces to make me feel so good and be happy. It also takes me to beautiful places that many folks never get to see. Endurance walking and short bike rides (because I'm not trained for long bike rides) just don't "do" it for me, endorphin-wise. I don't get those same "feel good, no pain" chemical responses with anything but running or fast walking for several hours.

So I don't really seriously think I was tripping out on a 40-minute bike ride, as much as I was enjoying it!

I was about eight miles into what was intended to be a nine-mile ride when I crashed the bike. I went out and back from the camper and was just over a mile from the end when I wrecked. Outbound was net uphill, back was net downhill. I had to pedal hard enough to reach the turnaround that I took a short break to drink water and let my legs rest. I was looking forward to the return because I knew I could easily pedal and coast all the way. It would be my reward for working hard the first part of the ride.

The weather was great, despite the storm clouds in the distance. I was directly under sunshine and a warm breeze. The scenery along the road was as magnificent as always. I knew I was accelerating even though I was coasting and not pedaling after passing the campground where we used to camp:


Our previous campground is in the distance where the little white RVs
show in the lower center of this photo. 7-27-09

I remember cutting my speed a bit. I had both hands on the brake levers, one for the front and one for the back. I remember squeezing them gently but securely and in unison so I wouldn't brake too fast. My last thoughts were about effortlessly flying through this beautiful scene, almost as if I were floating on air. I remember feeling very relaxed and happy to be alive and in this place.

At that moment, I may have literally been airborne. I'll probably never know. I'm just glad it wasn't my last moment alive.

NOT FACE DOWN IN MY SOUP, PLEASE

One of the best quotes I've ever read was someone's comment on the ultra running listserve a few years ago to the effect that, given a choice, he'd rather die face down on the trail than face down in his soup.

I laughed and related. This was a fellow athlete who shared my passion for exploring the outdoors -- and his limits. It's not that he had a death wish; he simply was bluntly stating that he'd rather die doing something active that he loved than doing something sedentary and ordinary.

I guess where I'm going with this is to say that I am grateful that I didn't die on that bike ride -- I still have a ton of living to do -- but I can only wish that when I do die, it is with a smile on my face, a warm breeze in my hair, surrounded by gorgeous scenery, and having the same last conscious thoughts of floating through the air that I experienced on Monday.


In a happy trail trance at Lake Tahoe recently

The only thing better would be if it all happened while I was out running or walking on a trail, and not riding a stupid bike!

LIVE EACH DAY AS IF . . .

Jim and I have both thought a lot and talked about the fragility of life this week. I've written before about the importance of making every day count, because you never know when your life may be snuffed out.

This accident has been quite stressful to Jim, too. He worries more about me when I go off to run or ride than I've ever worried about myself -- or him. I have some concerns about his safety when he goes off alone to run, but I don't worry about his safety. I know he's careful, sensible, wise, and has alternative plans in case something goes wrong. I think I do the same, but I've somehow ended up in more outdoor trouble than he has the last few years..

I first realized how much Jim fears for me while I was running/hiking the Appalachian Trail four summers ago. In over 2,175 miles I had my share of falls, visits to doctors, encounters with bears and rattlesnakes, scary flooded river crossings, and dangerous storms above treeline. The same things have happened on other trails before and since. I think the more times I go out, the more worried he is about me.

I am probably more of a risk-taker than Jim, although most of the risky situations in which I've been involved have been inadvertent. I don't think I'm a daredevil or speed demon, yet I admit that some risky outdoor activities are an adrenaline rush.

I'm more likely than Jim to continue hiking up a mountain above treeline when a storm is approaching, for example. The more times I've been caught near lightning and not gotten hurt, the less it concerns me. That's not the best way to stay alive and I know it, but sometimes the goal of reaching the summit overtakes rational thought.


Into the storm, or turn around and head for the trees?  7-26-09

This has happened as recently as last week, when Jim, Bill Heldenbrand, and I were hiking and running on Colorado Trail Segment 25 between Molas Pass and Rolling Mountain Pass. This is one of my very favorite trails in the Silverton area because it is so beautiful -- and so runnable on the way back down to Molas Pass.

When we got above treeline on the way to Rolling Mountain we could see storm clouds rolling in. I was really looking forward to entering the mile-long "hanging gardens" at 12,000 feet and reaching the 12,500-foot pass another mile beyond that because I hadn't been up there for two years. I also wanted to share it with Bill, who's never been on this trail.

Bill was the first to say that he didn't feel it was safe to continue toward the storm. But he followed us a little past the spot in the photo above, to the rocky entrance to the wet, lushly flowered area of the hanging gardens. As Jim and I debated our options, Bill turned around. Jim soon followed suit. I hate to admit this, but I probably would have keep moving forward if I'd been alone. I was on a mission and might have thrown caution to the wind. Instead, I turned and followed Jim back down the trail. We got into rain and sleet once down below treeline but at least we weren't fried by lightning up in the high basins.


Decisions made, Jim and Bill head back down the trail to safety.

In the same vein, I think riding a bike fast downhill is awfully fun. I just do it with less abandon and more caution now that I'm 60 and the figurative "end of the road" is closer than it was when I was 30. I'd really rather get my adrenaline/endorphin highs from long, slow runs in beautiful mountains than going fast on a bike.

When I was in my 30s and 40s I used to ride down a steep paved hill at Stone Mountain Park near Atlanta at speeds exceeding the limits of both the park regulations and common sense. I knew it was dangerous, especially with cars occasionally entering and exiting a parking area near the bottom of the hill, but I often flew down that hill at 35-40 MPH. Although I always wore a well-fitting helmet, it wouldn't have saved me if I'd run into one of those cars or over the curb at that speed. The only thing that slowed me down was an officer's very stern warning one day . . . and that mostly just made me more aware of whether any cops were nearby to catch me doing it again.

As I've aged I've become more risk-averse. I know I'm more vulnerable to accidents at my age and recovery takes a lot longer at 60 than it did at 30. I also feel much less invincible with every passing year. One of these days my time's gonna be up and I want to have as many more new experiences as possible before that occurs.

I really do want to live to be a hundred years old, so I suppose I should "start acting my age" to increase my chances of making it.

I have no clue if my bike crash three days ago was caused by too much speed or other risk-taking behavior but those are two of the possibilities. I'll probably never know. All I can do is try to minimize as many risks as possible before and during future rides, runs, and hikes -- without taking all the fun out of them. I don't see myself making any significant changes in my personality or lifestyle. I have too big a need for both physical fitness and adventure.

And I'm not likely to "act my age" any time soon, either!

Next entry: an update on my recovery and beginning the next "chapter" of our trip

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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