If you are active and sporty you have probably been there. On the floor in pain wondering how long the pain will last and what the consequences of it will be. I found myself there last weekend in Newcastle. Like any cyclist I have had a few crashes in my time, but this was the most absurd. It was a non-event. I was approaching the hurdles to practice a dismount, swung my leg off and somehow got tangled up and keeled over onto my left hip. I was hardly moving, and I think that was the problem. With the ground still hard I took the full force of the fall directly on my left hip. It hurt. And more of a worry was the fact that it kept hurting.
If I fall off I usually like to lie there for a bit. I like to really feel it and have a little think about it. I wait till I have stopped holding my breath and then slowly check all the bits of my body are where they should be. Last Saturday I took my usual approach, but to my dismay I found that I was unable to get up. A paramedic at the race course ran through a quick check list and confirmed he felt I probably had not broken anything. Then several helpers tried to get me to my feet while I swore like a trooper. I swear quite a bit best of times but the air was particularly blue and I was crying with pain.
On reflection I hope that this was a good sign as they teach you in any first aid course to ignore the patients making the most noise. I was making a lot of noise and had there been other casualties, probably would have been ignored, and quite rightly. Compared to previous incidents I am hoping that this was a clue that my injuries are less serious than on previous occasionss
As a junior I broke my collar bone at the now dilapidated Leicester track, a beautiful wooden 333m outdoor track now sadly redundant. It was a lovely day but down the back straight on the last lap of a scratch race there was a ‘coming together’ of wheels and pedals and I was catapulted into the track centre landing with my feet still strapped into the toe clips with my knees and ankles at an unnatural angle. Once my feet were released it was my shoulder that started hurting and I went fairly quiet. What I remember most is the nice fat man who propped me up against him while the ambulance came. The sun was shining and his belly was SO comfortable I felt like drifting off into this injury induced state of bliss (unconsciousness). The next thing I remember is the uncomfortable drive home and my dad buying me a feast ice cream from a garage on the way. I have a ‘pokey’ collar bone as a souvenir, but otherwise recovered well, though my nerves were challenged when I lined up for the national points race only 6-8 weeks later.
When I broke my elbow at Manchester track back in the late 90’s I made less noise still. In the difficult months that followed I made the most noise every time I saw the fella that took me off in the students union. A fairly long rehab followed and I was off the bike for a long time, getting in the pool and down the gym, determined to get the use of my arm back following reconstructive surgery. I remember sitting in lecture halls with metal screws and plates in my arm, every one of which I could feel through the desk I was leaning on. I remember the day my arm finally straightened in one satisfying ‘clunk’ as I hung a dumb bell from it in the gym (this was my home grown rehab idea that started with a baked bean tin whilst watching hours of ‘friends’). The orthopaedic surgeon had warned me that I may never be able to straighten my arm. I disagreed. No one was in the room to share my excitement so I went home to proudly show my parents a matching pair of straight arms. I have a big scar on my elbow but a bigger sense of pride in how I approached that recovery. Unfortunately after that incident I developed a slight suspicion of wooden tracks.
When I broke my jaw going over the bonnet of a car the same year I made the least noise yet. I remember hitting the ground hard and landing on my back badly winded. I managed to lift my head off the floor just long enough to wonder whether I would start breathing again or if I might die. I remember that I was not wearing a helmet and could have broken my neck, and I remember how effective a broken jaw is as a weight loss program. I have two crowns and teeth that are not quite as perfect as they might have been to remember that one by. Sometime later I received a couple of thousand pounds through the courts in compensation which I should have spent on fixing my teeth. The dentist I saw at the time was not sure if they would fall out all together at that stage and it seemed silly to fix them up for them to fall out again, so I took the money and went to Australia.
In Australia I got a lucky break and a chance to ride with the British team in the Tour de Snowy in February 1999. The luck didn’t last and on day 2 I crashed on a wet descent landing heavily on my hip and knee, leaving me unable to continue and unable to ride for the next month or so. This was probably the most poorly timed of all my accidents and I was absolutely gutted. Slow progress with physio followed and though I was able to race well later that year, a window of opportunity had closed and at the end of that season I would give up racing for a long time.
These days my life is very different to what is was more than 10 years ago, and like Jeremy I am self employed and depend on my body working properly for me to do my work. More than that, my work is all about helping people get their bodies working better so they can enjoy them all the more.
I work with people in pain all the time, moving them from rehab back to full fitness, so if anyone should know how to deal with an injury it ought to be me. A working knowledge of your own anatomy does not always help when you are in a state of panic and have half an idea of what you could have done. After my fall this time I was pretty sure I had a bone injury of some sort as all my muscles were working fine and there appeared to be no ligamentous damage. It was a relief that the x-ray came back clear but I was anxious that I had damaged the labrum (the cushion that supports the ‘ball’ in the ‘socket’ of the hip), which is a serious injury usually requiring surgery. My colleague Tim Allardyce checked this for me on Monday and the tests he did were clear, suggesting that by this weekend I would be off crutches and on the mend, albeit with some soreness. As I write it is now the weekend and I am still on crutches and in pain. On Monday I am likely to organise an MRI for a closer look.
As Jeremy’s tale points out an injury or illness tests an athletes’ mettle and determination more than any race. You always want recovery to be a sprint but it ends up a steeple chase. No sooner have you got over one hurdle than you hit the water jump.
For me when I was younger cycling had all kinds of anxieties attached to it. Was I ‘good enough’? Was this really the most important thing for me to do with my life? Why did I feel so lonely? I have thought several times recently that if I stop racing now, it is unlikely I will come back to it, as it is such hard work to maintain and regain fitness after a lay off, and especially when you are racing against girls half your age. In spite of this I have obviously not had enough yet because, like Jeremy, I am keen to get back racing as soon as possible because it is what I enjoy doing.
These days my cycling is just part of who I am and what I do, and an injury just confirms for me the value of my work and how much I enjoy it. I want to get back to work as much as I want to ride my bike, and not just because of the money. Without these injury experiences I would not be able to empathise when people are in pain and I may not have appreciated what a gift a happy and healthy body really is. Knees and hips that don’t hurt when you walk, arms that bend and straighten on demand, and teeth in your head for chewing with, these are all things that we take for granted.
I’m not going to pretend I am in a good mood. I am not. I am grumpy and irritable. But if I come to some mysterious end and am dug up from a ditch in a few hundred years time, I hope anthropologists of the day will have plenty to think about. “Ah yes…” they will say, “this was an active woman….we can see from her strong bones that she endured several nasty accidents…this hip and pelvis shows signs of bone thickening caused by a heavy impact to the left side….perhaps a fall from a horse in the heat of battle….Mmm, yes, together with these other fractures, I would say this woman was some kind of warrior….”