Thursday, November 1, 2012

We're Only Immortal for a Limited Time

“We’re only immortal for a limited time” - Neil Peart

That line from a Rush song kept going through my head on the day I became mortal.  

I recently began reading Neil Peart’s book “Ghost Rider.”  The book begins with that line and it reminded me of the day I became mortal, although I am constantly reminded of that day by lingering aches and pains. 

It happened in 1998.  I had just gotten a new mountain bike and decided to start racing again.  I had never raced mountain bikes but I raced road bikes when I was much younger (before bike racing was cool).  I had been riding a mountain bike for years but really had not developed any skills for going downhill.  This became obvious in the first few races.  I could keep up with most of the riders going uphill but I fell way behind on the downhill sections.  I raced in a small local race that was held once a week on a course just 10 minutes from where I live.  I rode the trails there almost everyday in the summers but I had always avoided one section of the trail that was part of the race course.  It was a big sweeping turn that was very steep, narrow and full of loose dirt and rocks.  One side of the lower section of the turn was lined with scrub oak and small Rocky Mountain Maples.  Before I started racing I would sometimes watch the race at this turn because that’s where the most crashes were.  I also studied the techniques riders used to make it through this turn.  When I thought I had it figured out I rode it a few times before I started racing to make sure I could do it.  

After a race or two the competitive nature in me took over and I wanted to get better so I could compete (win).  I started pushing myself much harder when I was training.  One evening I had completed 3 or 4 laps on the course riding as fast and aggressive as I could.  I was worn out but I need to push myself to get better and I decided to do one more lap.  The turn was near the bottom of the course and I was always a little nervous going into it but I had learned that it should not be ridden tentatively.  The center of the trail was full of deep dirt and rock so I tried to ride high up on the edge to stay out of the loose stuff.  The track edge was not flat so in addition to the straight ahead steepness, there was also sideways steepness that kept trying to pull the bike in to the dirt and gravel which makes it much harder to control the bike (at least for me).  As I entered the bottom section I was struggling more than usual to stay up out of the loose dirt so I rode as high as I could on the edge of the trail.  Small branches brushed my left side every time down this turn but this time a branch hooked my bar end and jerked my front wheel just enough that I lost control.  For a fraction of a second I stayed on the bike struggling to regain control.  Then gravity and momentum  took over and sent me helplessly flying over the handle bars and I landed in pile of stones in a washed out section of the trail.  My right shoulder and head took most of the impact.  My helmet was ruined but it did it’s job and saved my head.  I knew immediately my clavicle was broken... and I was mortal.  

The trail has changed since 1998.  I remember more trees on the right side and it was not as washed out and exposed on the left side.  The bottom of the trail has been redirected, it used to turn more and ran where the orange leaves are on the lower left.  I became mortal in the pile of rocks under the orange leaves on the lower left.  

I had never broken any bones before.  I had always been active, played many sports and my body had been banged around plenty.  I even had a reputation for crashing a lot when I raced road bikes.  One time even face planting in the road (my eyes were open the whole time, I can still see the asphalt coming towards me at impact, my face was the first part to hit), I got up after my head cleared a bit and my eyes began to focus, straighten my handle bars, chased down the leaders and beat them all in a sprint at the end.  I didn’t even have a bloody nose, I had never had a bloody nose.  Never had stitches (maybe I needed them but I never got them).  I got hurt plenty but my bruises never turned black and blue, my sprains never swelled, my bones never broke.  It wasn’t just injuries.  Bad things in general just didn’t happen to me.  I wouldn’t let bad things happen to me.  I felt I had control over things.  

I always knew in an intellectual way that I was susceptible to bad stuff just like everyone else and some day I would grow old and die.  But all that seem so far in the future that it would never happen in my lifetime.  

As I lay in the rocks I realized there were more injuries but I didn’t care about the pain.  It was the damage to my psyche that hurt.  Upset that I had lost control over things, mad that something bad happened to me.  As I walked my bike down the mountain I yelled “Damn it!  This shit doesn’t happen to ME!”  I yelled this very loud quite a few times.  If there was anyone within 100 meters I’m sure they would have heard it.  As I think back I can’t believe how arrogant, self centered, cocky and delusional that was.  

When I got to the paved trail and was trying to get back on my bike a few riders stopped and asked if I needed help.  I was covered in dirt, scraped, bleeding and obviously could do nothing with my right arm but hold it close to my body but I said “No.  I’m fine.”  Slowly I rode home one handed and mumbled to myself "This shit doesn't happen to me?" 

I didn’t check my collar bone too closely on the mountain because I though the bone may be poking through the skin.  It wasn’t.  It also wasn’t the most painful injury I received in the crash.  A deep bruise on middle of my left thigh was the most painful.  It didn’t turn black and blue, there was no external mark at all.  My left hand also hurt much worse than my collar bone.  It was probably broken in two places but I never got it x-rayed.  Those injuries along with the cuts, scrapes and bruises healed up but two other’s have not.  

About two months after the crash I was at a follow up visit with the orthopedic surgeon and I mentioned to him that my right ankle wasn’t shaped like the left.  I had sprained it a little in the crash but it didn’t swell up and I hadn’t thought much of it.  He order some x-rays.  A few minutes later he walked into the room with the x-rays in his hand and said “You must not feel pain.  Most people would still be on crutches with this kind of injury.”  He showed me where two ligament had pull completely off the bone and taken pieces of bone with them.  He explained that I no longer had two of the ligaments that attached my foot to my leg.  The pain in this ankle came later.  It’s still with me and I am sure it will be with me till I die, which is the second injury that hasn’t healed... I’m still mortal.  

Footnote:  After realizing that I wasn’t going to live forever and that my body might even deteriorate so that I can’t do everything I would like to do while I am alive, I felt a sense of urgency to do some of those things I “Alway wanted to do.”  The first thing I did was to go to Australia for three weeks.  I am about to go to Australia for the fourth time which means I should have some new photos share soon.  

And finally, my little tragedy that rocked me out of my childish self delusion of being in control and indestructible is nothing and insignificant compared to the terrible tragedies in Neil Peart’s life that lead him write “Ghost Rider” and begin it with a line from a song he had written many years earlier “We’re only immortal for a limited time.”

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