You might be a hero in a morgue. But you’re still in a morgue.
I crashed at the 190th kilometre of a 215 km ride.
Joey, my co-rider, told me later that when he saw my body smack the road and stay still, he was absolutely certain that I was dead.
I was relatively new to road cycling.
Knee damage had driven me to abandon the squash courts and forced me into a less joint-crushing sport
I’d just topped my 2-week old personal distance mark of 180km. I felt phenomenally fit and fresh. I figured if I kept this up, I could become the oldest Tour de France winner ever…
In my inexperience and inattention, I misjudged the damp rail tracks. Either I mistimed my steering correction or I touched my brakes a tad late or too hard. There was no warning wobble, no gradual slide, and no cautionary instant of instability. One second I’m gleefully rehearsing my victory speech, the next, my mind explodes with the thwack of my helmet’s collision with the tarmac.
The brief disconnect between my body and my brain was terrifying. My legs refused to obey my desperate instructions to get up and get out of the way of oncoming traffic. Fortunately, motorists were slow and nimble enough to give my inert body some berth.
Don’t ride alone. Having someone talk sense to you while your judgment is impaired is your first defence.
My legs and brains eventually resumed communications and I dragged the bike to the roadside. I hastily remounted and tried to pedal a few wobbly feet. Joey forced me to pause, asked a couple of questions, and shone a light into my eyes. He was too polite to yell that only a brain-damaged idiot tries to ride off immediately after a spectacular wipeout. Markham Stouffville Hospital was a few hundred yards ahead. He insisted that I go get checked out.
Get off the road. Even if following cars don’t hit you, there’s no guarantee that oncoming ones won’t.
I can’t fully explain why I rejected his perfectly rational suggestion.
A deep, dull throb ground through my left side – I suspected that bad stuff was happening inside my chest. But, my judgement was impaired by the endorphins flooding my veins. My adrenalin high impaired my ability to process my predicament and kept me stubbornly fixated on completing the ride. Testosterone didn’t help either — I felt profoundly embarrassed by my amateur error. I needed to reassert my masculinity by putting plenty of miles between me and the scene of my humiliation.
Acknowledge the hormones of confusion. The adrenaline /endorphin/testosterone cocktail is intoxicating.
Joey relented and allowed me to test my bike and body over a couple hundred yards. We agreed that I would abandon the ride if either appeared to be seriously damaged. I wiped the blood off my scrapes and cuts, wrenched the handlebars back into alignment, wrangled my chain back into its sprockets and resumed pedalling as fast as I could.
X-rays later revealed that I’d fractured three ribs and my left lung had collapsed.
I didn’t know that then. All I cared about was finishing my ride.
You’re probably not OK. Even when you’re certain that you are. Don’t trust your own instincts.
It was a very bad idea. I suffered seventy minutes of escalating agony over those twenty-five excruciating kilometres. On the up-hills, pedalling made my teeth chatter, my eyes spurted tears. Every inhalation was a battle. As we entered the city and navigated denser traffic, I feared I would faint from the torture and fall under the wheels of the passing buses. But I pressed on. I refused to endure the double humiliation of crashing AND failing to set my new record.
Give up the ride. Finishing is not worth it. Especially if the ride finishes you. Don’t be a hero in a morgue.
I finished the 215 kilometres!
I was half-crazed with pain and near-paralyzed from exhaustion, dehydration, and hypothermia. All the intoxicating hormones which propelled me after the accident had worn off leaving me alone to face the consequences of my rank folly. I steered the 40-odd km home with my chest almost pressed to the steering wheel – I was unable to extend my left arm without agony.
En route, I phoned my 18-year old, “Meet me in the driveway in 10 minutes. You’ll be driving me to Credit Valley Hospital emergency”. I don’t know how he comprehended my babble through my chattering teeth. But he’s the thoughtful, silent type; the kind of buddy you want on your side when you need to bury a body. Or, drag your own sorry ass to the ER.
The emergency physician was unimpressed with my wisecracks. His scorn was palpable as he lectured me on the possible consequences of my misadventure. Riding with those injuries was potentially more lethal than the crash itself. Blood clots could’ve plugged my lungs. The broken ribs could’ve fatally aggravated the bleeding in my chest. I could have lost consciousness and crashed my car.
Don’t be too proud to seek help. Because you’re able to stand on your feet does not mean that you’re fine.
He injected a local anaesthetic, made an incision and pushed a drainage tube between my ribs. With growing horror, I watched the tube and its tank promptly fill with the blood which had accumulated in my chest. My lung re-inflated as the blood was evacuated.
I spent three days in the surgery ward confined to a bed marinating in my own stink. They don’t allow you to take showers when you’re hosting a chest tube. In my morphine-induced haze, I even found some of my predicament amusing.
Recover fully before returning to your sport. Don’t shorten your healing time because you ‘feel fine’.
What was a little less funny were the two months it took my chest to heal. I was forbidden from all vigorous activity. THAT too. It gave me plenty of time to properly ponder the wisdom of defying pain and disregarding injury.
So, here’s some advice directed to cyclists, but also applicable to any sort of outdoor sports injury that you might be tempted to ‘shrug off’.
It’s not worth it.
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Deji is a Toronto veterinarian. He is a former world-class squash player (in his own imagination). He’s a competitive Scrabble player and an enthusiastic road cyclist. His main passion is the documentation of unspoiled nature. He enjoys discovering remote wildernesses and capturing – in words and photographs – vulnerable wild species in their natural habitats. Some of his images are viewable at www.deji.ca and Instagram @dejiiam