A year ago today, my life changed rather unexpectedly when I broke my right elbow on a mountain bike ride. It wasn’t a very spectacular crash. I made two small mistakes – grabbed a bit too much front brake going over a drop and went over the bars with an outstretched arm. I know better than to grab a fist-full of front brake. I know better than to stick my arm out to catch a fall. I have even advised others to know better, as well. But sometimes, shit happens.
My right arm took the entire impact – bike and body and momentum all crashed down onto my outstretched hand. At the time, I didn’t realize how that single crash, those small mistakes, would change my life.
My right radial head, which is in the elbow, was shattered into nine pieces. It was not repairable, so the bone shards were removed, and I was given a prosthetic radial head.
This is NOT how your elbow should look:
Neither is this, but that’s all permanent hardware:
I am lucky. I did not have a compound fracture (through the skin), dislocate my elbow, tear any ligaments, or break my collarbone, all of which are common associated injuries in that type of accident.
I am lucky. Twenty years ago, I would have had surgery to remove the bone shards and gone on living without a radial head and without much use of my right arm, either.
I am lucky.
But my life changed in that moment, although I didn’t realize it for quite some time. There is no use in speculating on whether that change was positive or negative. It simply is what it is. Change. And change is what you make of it.
When I broke my elbow, I was 26 and had been racing my bike for 10 years, 6 of which were at the professional level. I raced for two years as a professional mountain biker, followed by 4 years where I raced mostly on the road. I never devoted my schedule entirely to racing, as I was in school full-time throughout. Regardless, bike racing has long been a fundamental part of my existence. Bike racing has helped to shape me in a multitude of ways. Bike racing has brought me great joy, exciting challenges, and a bit of pain and sorrow to round it all out. I love bike racing. I love bike riding. I love what riding and racing have helped me to find, experience, and become. Bike racing is rarely easy – there are always questions and doubts, good days and bad, but I simply love it.
Unfortunately, riding and racing are now activities that cause me pain. Not a single day has passed since I broke my arm that I have not been in pain. Bike riding makes the pain worse, and bike racing makes the pain nearly unbearable.
When I broke my arm a year ago today, I was dead-set on getting back to full-time racing before I even got to the hospital. And I did. After nearly 6 months of painful rehabilitation, I could straighten my arm enough to reach the handlebars, so I dove right back into training. I won the AZ State Road Race Championships less than 9 months after the injury and finished 2nd in the State Crit Champs. I had a strong ride at Tour of the Gila, finishing in the top 20, almost exactly 9 months after the injury.
First ride post-break. Rocking the MTB w/ road wheels!
But shortly after Gila, reality caught up with me. The pain in my arm (mostly my wrist, ironically) started impacting not only my ability to ride, but also my ability to function as a normal human being. I had suffered my way through the early season out of sheer willpower – and a newfound high pain tolerance – but when I reached a point where I couldn’t even brush my hair without flinching, much less hold onto my handlebars, I knew that something had to change. Perhaps I had reached the “acceptance” stage of grief, and I finally started to realize that it might be time explore new paths.
Just to be certain, I did the doctor’s office shuffle – again – hoping to find “permission” to keep racing, hoping to find answers to help solve the pain, but only finding uncertainty. There aren’t many young people, much less bike racers, with prosthetic radial heads, so there is a great deal of uncertainty and concern regarding my elbow’s outlook – especially if I keep racing.
Pain sure can be a persistent teacher, but it is often a wise one. Elite athletes are good at ignoring pain. In fact, many are attracted to and fueled by it. But pain takes many forms. And in certain forms, it is not to be ignored. I had never encountered that form of pain, not even after many bad crashes and a rough knee surgery, until I shattered my elbow and consequently set out to return to full-time racing. As with any pain, of course, this kind isn’t just physical, but also emotional. But damn, the physical is hard to ignore.
After many difficult mental battles with myself, conversations with my husband, visits to different doctors, physical therapists, healers, etc., discussions with friends and family, and no shortage of tears, I finally decide to change paths. I hung up my bike. Mostly. I stopped racing. For now.
I have been racing and riding bicycles of all kinds nearly nonstop since I was a teenager. I fear that I don’t know myself without bike racing to help shape my world. I am scared, but I am excited to see what other shapes the world will take. Bicycles will always be a part of my world. More importantly, people who love bicycles will always be a part of my world. Racing is not necessarily out of the question, but for now, I have one goal and only one goal. And that is to ensure that I can happily and comfortably ride my bike for as many years of my life as possible. If I can race, awesome, but I want to be damn confident I can ride first. I am proud to say that I am working towards that goal now.
Racing to the win in the expert category at MTB Nats in Mammoth, CA, 2005:
NORBA National pro race in Phoenix, 2007:
Cascade Classic Crit, 2011 (Photo Credit: Jon Tapper)
So on this one-year anniversary of a rather surprising change in my life, I thought I’d start blogging. Writing about this experience sure is therapeutic for me, and who knows, maybe someone else will find it useful or entertaining. This blog won’t always be about this experience, although that was part of the inspiration for starting it. In the future, you can expect to see it filled with photos and stories of my adventures, as I explore new paths, geek out about bikes, geography, the outdoors, traveling, my dog, food, gardening, and more, as well as share photos, rant on occasion, rave on occasion, and generally seek out merriment and enjoy life. Thanks for checking in.