Seven weeks ago, I had a big crash in a women’s criterium that ended my racing season before it really began. Early in the final 200m sprint, where I was sitting in the top 10 (I thought I’d be safe there), there was a surge from behind and riders moved sideways. It took the girl next to me down. I had a moment where I thought ‘Thankgod-I’mok’, but of course it was a pile up. Her bike flew out in front of mine and down I went, along with several other ladies. I was sprinting and I high-sided and landed on my left-hand side. My Garmin data says we were going 52.1km/h.
Hospital and surgeries
Then it was as you’d expect. A bit of moaning, waiting, the green whistle, injections, an ambulance ride, scary tests. I was told I had a broken hip and shoulder and I asked if I could go home. Nope!
I found out right before surgery that the ‘broken hip’ was an exposed compound fracture of my pelvis. Basically, the iliac wing had crunched into a lot of pieces and some of them were sticking out of me. When they prepped me for surgery I was amazed to see the bed was completely soaked in blood. I was sitting in a pool of it. Broken bones bleed a lot! They talked about skin grafts, plastic surgery later on, infection, all kinds of things. I signed the consent form and off we went for My First Operation.
The next day (no skin graft necessary!) I transferred to a private hospital and two days later I had surgery on my broken shoulder. Here, the humerus was snapped and my rotator cuff torn and I had a couple of screws inserted and the tendon repaired. For the next few days I had seven tubes connected to my body, including a catheter, which I discovered is both a blessing and a curse! I went home six days after the accident, once I had learned to get myself up stairs. I am really lucky that I broke the iliac wing – it isn’t weight-bearing at all, and our house is full of stairs!
While I will probably make a full recovery, this was not a straightforward injury. The first few weeks were hard. I needed a lot of care… I couldn’t walk, shower, or get dressed on my own. I couldn’t cut my food, brush my hair, or dress my wounds. I had flashbacks every night that woke me up at the moment of impact. I was so confused from all the meds I was on that I couldn’t administer them myself, and I had a bit of pain. Things got better, and we were astonished when, after just two weeks, the surgeon said I could spin for 20 minutes a day on the home trainer. I waited a few more days, then gave it a go.
Learning to recover
I’ve learnt some new lessons from the recovery process. Surprisingly, missing riding and all the social and fitness and emotional benefits it gives me every day has not been that bad (I had always thought losing fitness would be THE WORST THING EVER. It isn’t). I found little ways to compensate – like walking up and down the local baby pool, or hobbling around the botanic gardens nearby.
The really hard things have forced me to take a good look at myself. It’s been so difficult to come to terms with the sense of what might have been. And I’ve had to learn to be flexible in my goals and my approach to sport, and life more generally. Yes, I was fitter than ever when this happened, and yes, I had worked very hard and had a huge year of racing planned, including XCM National Champs and World Champs. 2017 should have been my last big year, and although at 36 I have an acute sense that time is running short, I want to squeeze in one more in 2018. That said, I think I see the bigger picture of racing now, and it will be a different Imo who lines up at the next event. I was always grateful to be able to ride, but I’ll never again take the privilege of making it to a start line for granted (that’s right, even if it’s RAINING). I’ll be (a bit) less focused on results, and more on the amazing gift of a capable body, and the support from sponsors, friends, husband, and coach.
Recovering from injury is like doing time in a fleshy prison. Instead of walls, you’ve got muscles that won’t move and pain that keeps you rigid. You tick off bad days hoping that each time you do, you’re getting closer to a good one. I’ve had to learn patience and how to deal with a whole new kind of intense anxiety about what I might have lost permanently. I have a new relationship with my body: I have a bunch of ugly big scars and the whole shape of my pelvis has changed forever. I probably won’t ever get full range of movement back in my left arm or shoulder. Now I look at my body the same way you might look at your favourite teacup when it gets a chip – with just a pinch of sadness. Then again, I can still drink out of my metaphorical teacup, so I also look at my scars with relief. I have a new-found respect for the miracles our bodies perform – what they forgive us, and how generously they give.
The crash changed the way I see riding, achievement, and even reshaped my plans for the future. From the day it happened, all I could think about was how much I wanted to get back on the bike. Despite the risks, the looming danger of crashes and accidents… I just love bikes! A week before I crashed I had finished a long and difficult PhD (there is no other kind) and was gunning for an academic job, all the while turning down opportunities writing in the bike industry, as I have for years. I’m more open now to going with the flow of life, and seeing where it takes me. Life is short. Do what you love.
By far the hardest thing has been dealing with anger at what was, effectively, a senseless crash that ruined a lot of plans, cost a lot of money, and caused a lot of suffering – to me and many others. I feel that now, after seven weeks, I accept it, but acceptance is an ongoing process, just like recovery.
At the moment I have about 50% of normal range of movement in my arm, a weakened left leg and arm, and a lot of pain in my lower back and especially in my shoulder. I walk with a limp or a crutch. I rarely sleep through the night but I’m not going to go back on opiates to kill the pain. On the bright side, I have leave to ride outside again and I believe I can make a full recovery if I work hard enough. Looking ahead, my challenges are going to be balancing the drive to get back to fitness and racing with my body’s need to take it slowly, and countering the disappointments, which are small in the long run, with the fact that I made a very lucky escape.
I’ve learnt that everyone’s injury is different, but I also learnt that you can’t do hard things alone, and I feel I am better equipped to ask for help and advice now. There is so much wisdom to be found in others if you listen. I want to thank my incredible husband for the immense sacrifices he made, putting all my needs first for six solid weeks, and all those friends, family, and sponsors who messaged, visited, and wrote – every one giving me some piece of help or advice that lifted me through the hard days.
I found a bit extra inside myself as well. When I started getting bad news, I remembered a saying (Chinese?) that I’d read years ago. It goes ‘fall seven times; stand up eight’. I like it because it reminds me that though there might be a bunch of blows, if you keep getting up, eventually you will stay up. Some days I said it to myself dozens of times, but I need it less and less now. I also feel lucky that I have the opportunity to recover, to get back up, if that makes sense. Others are not so fortunate.
I should be able to participate in mountain bike events in a few months, and while I’m very limited in what I can do I’m trying to start to build my riding up a little bit already. If all goes super well there’s a chance I’ll be able to go and do some late-season races in Europe in September, but I’ve learnt not to plan too far ahead or set my heart on things. If you have any questions or anything more you’d like to know about the injuries or recovery, just post a comment below.
See you out on the bike soon!