About six months after my bike wreck I wrote a piece simply called bike wreck. I alluded to “The Demon” who knocked me off my bike. A couple of things that happened in the last couple of months have brought some of those emotions back, and now it’s time to finish the story.
In that post, I wrote about some of the everyday things that were difficult to do, or the need to find a different way of doing them. The original bike wreck story was written about six months after the race. I thought at the time I was back to normal, but it took almost a year and a half before my recovery brought me to my new normal whatever that is. You would have to know me well to understand some of these musings. I am quiet and laid back, but inside my mind is always churning with things that I hear, and the thoughts often morph into “where the heck did that come from” reactions from things I say.
Throughout my recovery, I noticed that my left side wasn’t as strong as it had been and seemed less coordinated than it should be. My swim times in races increased to the point where I was nearly last coming out of the water. People would cheer me on like I was leading the race, but inside I knew I was very slow and I was terribly embarrased. I didn’t let on, and I would joke about it, but inside I was angry at myself, and depressed that I knew I wouldn’t get much better. I would swim in pools and would get dizzy turning my head back and forth to breath. My otherwise straight swim line turned into a zig zag set of lines that added time and distance to my “manatee like” swims. Again, I was very frustrated but didn’t let on to anyone.
Then came the bike. I started training for the following year’s Ironman Wisconsin race to face down the demon that lived under the overpass on McCoy Road. Every time I got down in my aero bars I would spend 10 seconds of sheer terror, and would get back up on the handlebars where I could reach the brakes in time to miss the raccoon, or squirrel, or you name the animal that might run out in front of me and make me lose control of the bike. I rode a lot with the Trilander group but would hang back just in case someone slowed down to keep from running into the back of them. Again, I would come in last and would joke about being so slow, but I was angry that I couldn’t ride any faster and, like the swim, probably wouldn’t get any better.
The run was the least of my issues. I never was very fast, and being the last one to finish the run wasn’t unexpected. So it never really bothered me very much. Maybe I should have cared more and it would have made me work harder to run faster, but after a slow swim and slow bike, a faster run (still slow by race standards) wasn’t going to win the race for me.
Outside of racing and training, the changes still affected me. During my recovery, every once in a while, when I couldn’t remember someone’s name, someone would jokingly say something like “That’s not a surprise. You can hardly remember your own”. Most of the time I could laugh it off, because I knew they were just joking, but every once in a while I would get so angry so quickly that I would get up and leave so I didn’t say something to that person that I would regret later. My friends would ask Jean “What’s wrong with him”. She would shrug her shoulders and say “I don’t know”, but she knew. Wives always know. I’m sure if they had known that, inside, I was so angry because what they said was true, they probably wouldn’t have said it. Sometimes I would have to think hard to remember my last name when I signed a check. I don’t think I ever told that to anyone.
When I went to Mary Free Bed for post trauma evaluation, and I do remember doing some of the tests, they told me (and Jean in case I couldn’t remember) that most of what I had known in the past was in there, but my brain had to find new pathways past the damaged areas to draw it out. I’ve never said I was extra smart but I’m not a dummy either (no comments please). I had always prided myself in knowing over half of the answers on Jeopardy, and often getting the answer right on Final Jeopardy when none of the contestants did. But what I did notice, especially when I was watching with someone else who knew a lot of the answers and would blurt them out, it took me longer to get the word to come out. I wouldn’t have made a good on stage contestant because I would be last to press my button. It was frustrating and I would feel inferior when the only answers I got first were the answers that no one else knew. I never let on that this was a problem, but it deflated my already bruised ego.
I mentioned earlier that I needed to face down that demon in the next Ironman Wisconsin, so I signed up with Roch Frey and Paul Huddle’s on-line training program. I followed it faithfully during the spring/summer of 2004, and did what I could to be ready for the race. Since I wasn’t able to ride for five months after the wreck, I had no base to start the rigorous training schedule. Maybe it wasn’ the best idea to do the race, but inside I felt I needed to show that I could do it. As a part of that program, they held an optional training weekend in Madison. It was a little pricy (no, a lot pricy), but I knew I had to do the race course on the bike or I would never be able to do it race day.
I signed up for the slowest training group, knowing that I would be slow, and it allowed me to hang back and do things at my own pace without being dropped but the faster bikers. That morning I was petrified. For those of you who know Bill Bradley on race day, I was in peak Bill Bradley form. I was trying to think of every reason on earth why I shouldn’t ride that day, to the point of wondering how I could sabotage my bike beyond repair and not have anyone know who did it. I was so nervous I forgot my bike sunglasses and was wearing my wire rimmed bifocals. They were terrible for trying to look ahead to see where you’re going and also seeing right in front of you to not run over “the junk” on the roads.
The training ride consisted of riding 16 miles out to Verona, riding one 40 mile loop, and riding 16 miles back to Madison. We passed the 7-11 store, the last place I remember before my bike wreck. I was nervous, but didn’t show much emotion. When we got to McCoy road, Paul Huddle, leader of our bike group, drifted back and asked if I was OK. I said yes, why? He said this was where I had the bike wreck, at least two miles past my last memory. Outwardly I was “macho calm”, but inside a year’s worth of fears, frustrations, anger, and self deprication was raging. To be kind to myself, I was “kind of slow” finishing the ride, By that time, I had even been dropped by the slow ride group, and was alone when I passed under the bridge on McCoy Road where the demon lived. As I said in the original bike wreck post, I knew that the demon was me, but that didn’t stop me from waving that “one fingered salute” and I may have said out loud “Yeah, I kicked your butt”.
At the end of the training weekend, at the last luncheon, Roch and Paul asked me if I would mind telling the other participants what had happened to me at the last race. I did, in abbreviated form, and many of them came up and talked with me about my courage to come back and try it again.
Without going through a step by step (literally) recap of the race, I was slow on the swim, slow on the bike, and pretty much walked the run. But in the last loop of the run, people from the training weekend would come up and give me hugs and say “You can do it. Keep it up”. Strangers that they were walking with, after hearing my story, gave me hugs as well. Most of you who know me, know that I rarely show any emotion, but the emotion is always inside anyway, and I was moved to tears many, many times. I hid them very well (I thought) because real men don’t cry…or do they?
As I finished that last 1/4 mile I was sprinting to the finish line (it probably was a really slow jog, but it seemed like a sprint to me) emotions overtook me, and I don’t remember whether I hid the tears or not, but they were there. After the post race hugs, after the congratulations, and the after race meal of scraps of cold pizza left by the 2,000 people that finished the race ahead of me, three things became really clear in my mind.
Not just race day, but in all the trials and tribulations of training, your real friends and family are there for you. When you are your lowest point, they will be there to lift you up, so rely on them. Asking for help takes strength, it doesn’t show weakness.
With all of those negative thoughts inside, recognizing that you are “the real demon” isn’t enough. It’s taking that knowledge and knowing that with God’s help, you can make that demon go away. Once you know that, it’s easy.
Lastly, I beat my self up often for knowing that God was there to help me in my darkest hours, and I never asked HIM for the strength to get through it. But God knew that with my brain injury, I didn’t know enough to ask, and he was there anyway. Thanks be to God.
Written for Sara and Cody