A friend in California was telling me about one of his weekly surf sessions. He said that a shark had been spotted at his regular beach. Then he explained, "A shark only swims about 15 miles an hour, so we went to a beach 25 miles up the shore. I figured that would give us a solid hour before the shark could even get there."
I know his math is faulty, and yet, I understand his logic. Every thrill sport enthusiast creates their own twisted logic to convince themselves and others that whatever they're doing really isn't that dangerous. I mean seriously, you can get hit by a bus just walking across the street. Yet, if I jump my mountain bike from this dirt pile to that one over there, it's impossible that I will be hit by a bus. Therefore dirt jumping is basically safer than walking.
|Me and my old friend, The Ground
Surfers have sharks. Backcountry skiers have avalanches. Sky divers and mountain bikers have the ground. As an antagonist, the earth doesn't seem very malevolent, it's really just a matter of velocity, or how fast you're going when you make contact with the earth. In four decades of riding bikes I've had plenty of crashes and injuries. I've come to accept them as a calculated risk, like sharks or avalanches. I like to think I've learned something from each crash, and I still believe I will always be between crashes. The trick is to space them out really far. I'm putting this post together for the rider who's experiencing their first bad crash and injury.
I was really dawdling on this story for a few weeks. I toyed with an intro about my friends who took big injuries this year and I didn't want to make a war-story list of injuries I've had in the past. So I took the most logical step, I went out and slammed myself into the ground. As a bonus, I got to add Rollerblades to the big list of things that have hurt me. That's right, save your rollerblading jokes, they have no place here. I'm a few weeks into the 'blading life and I really had a feeling I was due for this. Over the summer my youngest child discovered rollerblading. She worked and saved up $50 to buy a set that came with pads and everything. Then she started doing it every chance she could. My older daughter is completely hooked on bikes, so I felt I should give equal support to the younger one. Hence, last night I was just cruising slowly down the sidewalk and both feet shot out in front of me. When it happened I immediately recognized it as a classic Home Alone fall.
Now, I'm ready to give my thoughts on managing injury. I won't say recovering from injuries because 'recovering' gives the indication that you will be good as new, 100%, fully recovered one day. I don't think it's constructive to hold out hope that you can go back to a pre-injury condition. Just accept that going forward you are now a human with titanium in your bones, or tendons from a cadaver. Even small injuries will leave you with tears in your muscle or scar tissue, hell, I'm not even symmetrical anymore.
|Plates and screws this side AC separation this side
This doesn't mean your performance will be limited, it just means now you have a different body to work with. No matter what shape you are in, your flesh and bone is not a museum quality Ferrari, it is a rental car, and you're not getting a deposit back. When I've healed enough to start riding again I show the injured component the level that I need it to perform at. I don't let my ankle keep me out of a rock garden, I say, "Ok ankle, this is a rock garden, you better not give out." Don't let your shoulder show you what it's capable of, show it what you need it to do, and it will adapt.
If you are recently injured and feeling the hurt, get your mind off it. You can't heal properly if all you are thinking about is how bad your situation is. Learn about someone who is in a much worse situation. Read a book about soldiers, watch a movie about surviving impossible odds, consider that a lot of people have had it much worse than you sitting on your couch. When I'm injured I'll even watch some scary movies. Sure, my elbow could be as big as a softball, but at least I'm not in a place where The Hills Have Eyes. Listen to other athletes describe their injuries. Stories from Tony Hawk, Travis Pastrana and Mat Hoffman will give you a new perspective on what the body is capable of.
The opposite approach works as well. Instead of taking the focus off your injury, spend a little time considering what your body is doing about your injury. You've watched a cut heal, you've seen bruises appear and then fade through a spectrum of colors. All of that is going on even when you can't see it. I like to imagine torn muscle weaving itself back together like the fibers of a tree branch. Or I picture a team of tiny welders working night and day to forge broken bone back together, like it's a construction site. You'll know that these construction crews are at work because a new character will be introducing itself into your story. This is the character of Pain. Pain can be merciless and cruel, or it can simply be a fellow traveler who is riding along beside you on your journey.
My wife has performed physical therapy on thousands people, she is well acquainted with pain, and how different people react to it. She is convinced that my tolerance for pain is one of the highest she's ever encountered. So I have to admit, this does play into my injury management program. It's not that I don't feel pain, I just think I can compartmentalize it or turn it down and focus on other stuff. Right now I can feel the pain in my shoulder, but it's running like a background program while the rest of the computer keeps performing other tasks.
I don't suffer chronic pain, maybe all of these injuries will catch up with me in old age and unleash a daily fury. But I hope not, for now pain comes and visits, then goes away again. So while it's visiting I let it do it's job. It tells me if I'm lifting my arm too high, or when I should rest it. It tells me if I'm due for some ibuprofen. I'm a big fan of vitamin I, it's been my go-to for a long time. I think it out performs acetaminophen. But I know that neither of them are good for my liver. That's why I keep my overall alcohol intake pretty low. I made a deal with my liver, I won't punish you with alcohol, but once in a while I need you to process some high levels of Advil...deal? Liver seems to be ok with that.
So, even when I'm not injured, I'm preparing for the next time I will be injured. I spend a lot of time in the light part of the Yin Yang, but I know that the dark part is around the corner.
I view the body's ability to repair itself like a fire suppression system. It is something that needs to be tested once in a while, if you let it sit dormant for decades can you really be sure it will function when you need it to? I also believe dirt jumping prevents Alzheimer's. Seriously, no one suffering from Alzheimer's right now is an ex-dirt jumper. That's just science.
It's important to remember that your body is taking detailed notes about each injury. Surviving an injury teaches the body how to react in an accident. I didn't put my arms out when I fell backwards last night. My instinct was to pull my arms in and take the hit with my core. I think this was a reaction to protect my elbows. From experience, my body knows that another elbow injury would have been drastically worse. I read an interview with Kyle Strait and he explained that he has conditioned himself to almost always get his knees under him in a crash. If you teach your body that you will always have good knee pads on, it will do everything it can to use them. Interestingly, I started to search Kyle and google autofilled it to Kyle's signature design knee pads, I bet they are really good.
So, I've established that if you're in pain, ignore it. And when you are returning to the sport after an injury, just send it. Really great advice. Look, I know that's easier said than done. A quick google search showed an infinite amount of articles about dealing with pain, and overcoming fears after an injury. I'm sure they were all written by really smart people, are any of them mountain bikers? maybe a couple. Will any of them be at the trail head or sitting at the slopestyle drop-in at Valmont? I doubt it.
Does a mountain biker need the same sports psychiatrist pep talk that an NFL player gets? I don't think so. Think back to the beginning, you walked into a bike shop. You saw your bike sitting there brand new. It had big knobby tires, shiny disk brakes, a light frame and more suspension than you needed. And you thought, "well that looks like safe wholesome fun." Of course not! It could have been a hand grenade sitting there or a badger. It's not safe and you knew that.
That brings me to my last point. Has anyone told you "Well, at least you'll have a good story to tell."?
Here's the truth, you do have a good story, but you won't get to tell it very often. You'll learn really fast, this isn't a story you want to share with family, coworkers, or non-biking friends. It feels like crap to hear some version of, "Well I guess you won't try that again." or "That's what you get." I've even been laughed at for being injured from a thrill sport. These people will never get it, they have no idea what's inside of the light part of the mountain biking yin yang. They believe that by staying home and watching tv they made the safer choice with their free time. The fact that you're injured is proof to them that they should just stay home.
You do have a good story, but only other adventurers will understand it, You can tell a surfer, or a back country skier, or another mountain biker, they'll get it. Just say as little as possible at work, it's not worth it.