On July 24, 2016, I crashed while riding my bike at Ironman Lake Placid. I was passing through an aide station at about mile 35. Grabbing a Gatorade bottle on the fly. Except things didn’t go as they were supposed to and before I knew it I was on the ground. Landing smack on the side of my head and left shoulder. Later I learned that my helmet had cracked. Saving me from things I don’t even like to wonder about. A visit to the ER confirmed what I already knew, I had a concussion and a separated shoulder.
Weeks after the race, I loaded the data from my watch and discovered I was only down for about three minutes after falling. That’s it. Three minutes of stars and spots popping before my eyes. Three minutes of hearing people running toward me and strange voices shrieking, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Are you okay?!” Three minutes of hearing my own distant voice replying faintly, “I think I really hurt my head.” And then, “I dropped the bottle … I think I really need that bottle …”
I watched from the pavement as things moved in slow motion. Mentally scanning my body for injuries while observing everyone’s focus shifting from me to the Gatorade bottle and the strange relief I felt in that — I must be okay if they’re getting the bottle. There was more shouting as someone laboriously tried to weave through all of the oncoming bike-traffic to get to the bottles. Once up, I seriously considered leaving without the nutrition I needed. Panic rising. I knew if I stood waiting for one more second, I’d plop myself back on the ground and never leave. I told myself I was afraid of the time I was losing. But that wasn’t it. Not really. Deep down I was afraid I’d get scared and second guess if perhaps I shouldn’t get back on the bike. As my jumbled head swam with indecision, I was handed a bottle. I scrambled back onto my bike — quickly — before there was enough time for me to decide not to. Just as I had a nanosecond of hesitation, my voice was caught in my throat as I got a push from behind. I was off …
The story that unfolds is curious one. It’s about how I spent around 11 hours telling myself that I’d know if I needed to stop racing. My head throbbed. My shoulder ached. And, yes, I was pretty damn terrified. But knowing when to stop is never easy. Iroman is all about pushing past your discomfort. How do you know if your discomfort warrants stopping? When I fall, I get back up. In my own way I always have. Isn’t that what life is about anyway? Getting up. Moving forward. Living bravely. I think so. I do.
This doesn’t mean I didn’t wonder whether or not I was being stupid instead of brave. I did. I spent my entire day wrestling with that uncertainty. I promised myself I’d keep going until I knew the answer for certain. Sure, things had to change; I had to adapt to the trauma I’d just endured by adjusting my pace to compensate for my headache and shoulder pain while riding the rest of the 77 miles. And running? Running wasn’t an option. The pounding was too much for my head and swinging my shoulder became too painful. Instead I walked the 26.2 miles. No longer was I pushing for a specific goal or time; I was assessing whether or not I could finish and maybe even more importantly — if it was even worth it to me to try. So much time and energy had been invested in getting me to race day. Letting it go, or giving up … or stopping felt worse than my aches and pains. I kept moving forward. Thinking to myself, “Let’s just see. Let’s just take this day a moment at a time and see.”
I had dark moments during that race. Black patches of fear, uncertainty and doubt. All races are fodder for the places that scare us. I often think that’s the biggest reason we do them. They allow us to get to know ourselves more intimately than we ever could without them. Race or no race, I have come to know that each and every one of us hates the dark scary places we can go to in our minds. I also know that once we’ve felt our way through, we are better for having navigated them. Always.
I also hit some dark places long after the race as I lay in the darkness of my bedroom. Day after day I waited for the pressure in my head to subside. I spent six days in bed. Talk about a trigger — having to stay in bed and wait for the pain to stop — it really doesn’t get much worse than that for me. I cried to Rob, “I’m afraid I’m just going to rot up there in the bedroom and no one is going to take care of me. That you’ll all forget about me!” I said this with such urgency, I was completely shocked when he burst out laughing. “Forget about you?! We’re your family. We love you. We will always take care of you.” And I laughed and cried at the same time because he was right and it was almost ridiculous that I’d think otherwise — they were and still are taking care of me.
Three minutes has turned into 34 days. This post-race month has had a sense of timelessness for me far slower than the three minutes I spent after crashing. I’m learning to let go of my fear of stillness. To ask for help. To rest without feeling guilty or apologetic. And to stop when I need to stop. All of these things make me anxious. It’s so strange to be still and not moving.
I may never be certain about whether or not I was fit to keep going. If I made the right decision. But honestly, I’m not even wondering about that anymore; I think we make the best decisions we can in the moment. I’m meeting with a neurologist who specializes in concussions next week because I’m still having difficulty with my eyes and balance. If I write or drive or do too much my head feels like it does when I’ve dived too deep in the water. The pressure is unbearable. I went from training over 20 hours a week to barely moving my body. I cannot tell you how difficult that has been. Going full speed to full stop.
At first I spent most of my time panicked and heartsick about all of the things I was missing out on. My mind, instead of resting, whirred with to-do lists drenched in despair. I sobbed about missing August, “We were supposed to play and do all of the things I put off since Ironman Texas in MAY! for crying out loud. Now I can’t do any of those things!” I wanted to run from resting my brain but now it seems it’s no different than the dark moments I’ve navigated. My mind is full of books I want to read and words I’m longing to write. A lot can happen when I quiet my mind; I’ve found it’s filled up with some meaningful thoughts instead of useless chatter.
The stillness has been an opportunity for me to get to know myself better. I find, more than anything, I’m curious about what life will look like when I’m well and fully recovered. I’m desperate to move my body again but I’m also afraid to get back on my bike. This is my second concussion in four years. Both took a long time to recover from. What would it mean if I endured another? Do I even want to find out? I’m not certain.
I don’t think there are many things in life we are every fully certain about. I am certain however that in this forced period of slowing down, I have found moments of deep peace and clarity. When I let go of all of the self-imposed busy-ness and embrace the simplicity of what is happening in the moment I don’t feel like I’m missing anything at all. I’m experiencing everything and I can feel life moving with me instead of flashing before me as I’m trying to keep up.