Sunday, January 31, 2010

Early Bird Crit, Revisited

Last year after my horrible crash, when I was still unable to get out of bed without crying tears of pain, I was faced with the decision of whether I would get a kit (jersey + bike shorts) for the bike race team I had joined.  "Why in the world would I even consider this?"  The final diagnosis had been fractures in my left clavicle, 9 posterior ribs (if I add up all the fractures reported on the Xrays) and L2 transverse process, pleural effusion, severe bruising and road rash.  I have never gone through anything else even remotely as painful, physically, as that experience.  But, I decided that it was not a good time to make the decision to quit.  I would order the kit.

As the months passed, I thought a lot about what I would do with bike racing.  I debated, "Do I actually want to get over this crash?"  Was the right thing to recover and get back in the game, or take my exit?  One might say that it is brave to go back, to face the fears.  On the other hand, what about the notion of learning from one's experience in order to avoid harm in the future?  Perhaps it would be foolish?  What risks could I live with for something that was not required to get along in life?

So early this year, when I decided to attend the Early Bird clinics, I wasn't planning on participating in the practice races.  Last year, I had decided that I would never do a crit again.  Crits equalled crashing in my mind, even though I had seen many friends get through them successfully, uninjured.  I had done 3 of the practice crits and 8 hours of clinics leading up to that race; but those were trumped by one very bad race.  All of this year's Early Bird clinics and practice races, as well as the official crit, were on the same course where I crashed last year, and I hadn't been back since that day.  

When I got there the first week, all the memories came pouring back in. I remembered where I had tossed my arm warmers right before the start (and had seriously regretted later).  Were they still there?  I remembered where I had parked my car, and how a friend's friend had retrieved it for me, since I was in the hospital (and wouldn't be driving for 2 months).  I remembered that trip to the hospital on the spine board, wondering what this would mean for me.  This year, in the first clinic, we were practicing pacelines and one of the mentors was repeatedly encouraging me to move up right on the wheel in front of me; I kept resisting, frustrating him.  All my brain could handle was just riding my bike around that course; feeling pushed to do more put me over the edge emotionally and I pulled out in protest, muttering "I can't do this."  After some moments riding solo and regaining some composure, I joined back up and continued the drill.  Each time I passed that spot, an image of crashing flashed across my mind; but, I noticed that the emotional aspect of it lessened and I was able to focus more on the drill.

My plan was to sit out the practice race; but I thought that, perhaps, I could at least go to the start line. And maybe I could just do one lap, and see how I felt.  Taking the pressure off myself to try to do well, or to even complete the race, allowed me the freedom to relax and just take it at my own pace.  I went one lap with the pack and realized, "I am okay."  I went another and decided I could keep going a few more. When I say "with the pack," I should really say "behind the pack."  I just hung on, not really even in the draft much, prompting frequent "Close the gap!" comments from the mentors.  Really, I was listening; but I just couldn't get in there.

As the weeks progressed, I had some moments where I broke off ahead of the pack. Most of the time I was consumed again; although, I came in 5th at one race.  But in my mind, breaking off was basically an escape, as if the pack behind me was a tsunami wave that might consume me if I were caught.  When the pack did catch me again, I would drop to the back and give up the fight.  I just was not comfortable.  And a couple crashes in those weeks seemed to prove my point. See? I was right to stay out of there.  On the other hand, I also remembered something I had forgotten: I really enjoyed this.  Although I had enjoyed the practice crits the year before, these feelings had been completely silenced by the louder memories of my crash.

Today, I arrived in Fremont after attending all of the clinics and practice races; still I felt uncertain about this, the official race.  I would continue with my "one lap at a time" motto and allow myself to quit if I felt really uncomfortable.  I knew, though, that I would want to complete the race.  We got to the start and I was relieved to see they would continue splitting our field into racers who had completed 10 or more and those who had completed fewer than 10 races.  The weather was similar to last year--sunny and warm--and I could have tossed my arm warmers.  I kept them on.

As we began the race, I noticed that I was much more comfortable, at least staying with the pack (well, most of the time).  I again took the position in the back, but at least stayed in the draft more than before.  I didn't go for any breaks; my main goal for the race was to become more comfortable pedaling through the corners with the pack, remembering how I used to feel doing that.  As the race wore on and as one mentor, aware of my corner anxiety by now, gave me helpful pointers, my confidence increased.  Why, if I was going the same speed and following the lines of other riders, would I be the one to go down?  I started to feel the road better, and to feel my anxiety a little less.  I stayed in the pack a little more at times, but just focused on being safe.  I found the advice to keep a broader view of the race, rather than to focus on the wheels just ahead of me, to be very helpful in anticipating the pack slowing and surging.  I can't say that I was totally comfortable, but I wasn't miserable either.

We approached the last lap, which was when I crashed last year.  The last lap can be dicey, when people are tired and positioning themselves for the final sprint.  I wasn't sure if I would try anything or just coast in.  I could see that some people were not going for it and I thought I might as well move up a little.  I gave it a good effort and crossed the line feeling happy and relaxed (well, and completely winded).  It was over and there was no repeat trip to the hospital.

Earlier in January, I had wanted Tara to take me to the point on the course where she had witnessed my crash; I was obsessed with going over every detail.  I thought that I still wanted to hear her perspective on that today.  As we were riding over, I thought, "I don't even really care about this anymore."  She gave me her feedback, but somehow, I just felt like the story was old and over, like a movie that had become boring after too much viewing.  I was done.

I still suspect it may take me time to get totally comfortable; but I think, now, that this is more a matter of me just becoming more skilled, rather than carrying a lot of fear from the crash.  I will definitely be very mindful and careful and will respect my intuition; I will continue to give myself the freedom to pull out of a race if it feels unsafe.  But I am really excited to feel free of this mental block that has been holding me back.  I didn't know whether doing this race would really make a difference; my sense today is that it has. I feel excited and happy to be opening the next chapter, to see what stories will unfold.

Monday, January 25, 2010

New Year

Last year was one of those extra special years that leaves one changed forever.  Learning lessons in having patience with oneself and life's circumstances does not come without some struggle.  Becoming a more empathetic person can be painful.  As I approach the one year mark after my bike crash, my bones are healed and I am riding my bike again with joy.  Still, I have frequent reminders--pain here or there, or thoughts of reflection--that tell me it's not over yet.  And I wonder what subconscious lessons I have drawn from these experiences.  Am I less trusting of myself and others?  Will my sense of fear of re-injury and pain hold me back from taking risks--risks that could, ultimately, lead me to something greater than I could imagine now?  How do I let go and become fully engaged, both physically and mentally, again?

Originally for 2010 I had signed up for Ironman St. George, excited to race on a course familiar to me after running the marathon there several times.  I signed up when I wasn't even back to work after my crash, before I had taken a single pedal stroke on my bike again.  After Ironman Arizona in November, I told myself to wait until January 1st to make any decisions.  As the new year approached, it became clearer and clearer that I did not want to do this race.  My knee injury that bothered me during the marathon at Ironman Arizona was not healing quickly and I did not want to spend another several months playing the "Does it hurt too much to run?" game.  I needed a break.

I feel fortunate that I was able to do so many events during the second half of 2009: Death Ride, Barb's Race, Folsom Olympic, 3 road races, Lotoja, and Ironman Arizona.  As I wrote before, the Triabetes events in Tempe were amazing and made the struggle getting there 100% worth it.  But I feel like I need and want to take a step back from the super endurance events (Ironman and double centuries!) and focus on healing my body and giving my mind a break.

As soon as I made the decision, I was so relieved and happy.  After 4 Ironman races in 3 years, I was really caught up in the energy and thrill of the sport; and doing the last two with Triabetes has been a gift.  But I have to say, not having that big pressure is exactly what I need right now.

"Taking a break" to me means taking the pressure off any one huge event.  I am still training, focusing mostly on cycling this year.  I will also continue to swim, because I have really been enjoying it and also because it really helps my upper back and left arm stay loose.  And there will be events that I will target; still, I am allowing myself to take things at a slower pace and to appreciate incremental steps of progress.