Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Shenandoah Saga

So here we are in Sept at the Shenandoah 100 after a hard season of 100 mile mountain bike racing. I was sitting 3rd in the points, however I had just received word that Josh Tostado placed 3rd at Park City. This meant I needed 2nd to reclaim 3rd in the overall points, quite a challenge knowing Christian and Jeff were out to kill each other and the pace was going to be all out. Shenandoah is one of my favorite courses. It’s like a Tour De France mountain stage on dirt guaranteed to make you scream for mercy. The race started quickly as usual. The XC guys were at the front pushing the pace hard up the first climb. I decided to just hang onto the back and not get too excited as the pack always seems to re-group on the descent. Sure enough we were all back together before heading out onto Tilfman Rd.

Things would begin to split up as we made our way up the next climb at Briery Branch. I kept a steady pace and I knew what my ability was on this climb since I pre-rode it the day before. Christian and Jeff flew up the hill followed by Sam Koerber and another local rider Kevin Carter. I let them go and focused on staying with the others as they passed one by one. We formed a group on the descent, but the group of 4 off the front were gone. We worked together somewhat for a little while on the roads until we reached Hanky’s. Sven Buaman, just off the plane from Germany, pushed the pace until it was down to just him and me at the top. Sven and I would continue together on the descent. We were working really well together and I knew if we could keep it up, we had a chance to regain the positions we lost. Up and over the next singletrack climb and onto the soul crusher, Sven and I were pretty much locked in step. By the top of the Soul Crusher, we had picked up Kevin Carter and we were bearing down on Sam in 3rd. I decided I was going to really push the pace on the descent and make the big effort to separate from Sven and go after Sam. The Chestnut descent comes off a 4000ft peak and in just a few miles, takes you all the way down to 2000ft, so this isn't your average roller. It's a full on downhill singletrack descent worthy of a downhill rig in some sections. The Superfly 100 was so smooth on the descent, it allowed for speeds far greater than I was used to on the hardtail. A quick little crash near the top should have been a warning that I was getting tired but I gathered myself quickly and was back to tearing down the mountain at warp speed.

I’d love to tell you that I kept riding at warp speed and caught Sam, then blasted up the return to Hanky’s and caught Jeff, placing 2nd and taking back my 3rd place in the points… but what was about to happen was the most horrifying experience on a bike I can ever remember.

So I’m flying down this descent. Not sure how fast I was going, but maybe 25mph??? I was barely on the brakes. I could feel my arms getting tired and pumped. Even my fingers were fatiguing from hanging onto the grips. Then just as I was coming around a sweeping corner I began to lose control of the bike. It was a steep section of singletrack with lots of big jagged rocks. I knew I was going down and I knew it was going to hurt. Then SMASH! As I tried to tuck and roll to the right, I went head first into a tree. My body flung around and I came to a stop lying on the side of the trail. My arms were up in the air like a praying mantis. I could barely move my legs. I was gasping for breath. I think Kevin was the first to stop, then Sven stopped. Sven decided to stay with me, giving up his shot at the podium. Thanks Sven, I owe you one buddy. Kevin carried on to let first aid know I was in serious trouble at the next aid station.

“Mike, you need to lay down, you have big cut on your neck.” Sven kept saying this over and over. I could tell he was extremely concerned. We laid there for a while as rider after rider passed. I kept telling him I was OK and I kept trying to get up. But something was definitely wrong. I had double vision and blood was dripping down my chest. I wrapped my jersey around my neck. I had no idea how bad this cut really was and I didn’t even notice the 5” long laceration on my forearm. I think I hit my helmet so hard that the chin strap drove right into my neck cutting it wide open. There's nothing like getting gashed wide open with a lycra strap. At that point, all I wanted to do was get off the mountain and down to my wife at the aid station. I even got back on the bike and started rolling down the hill again. But I was losing too much blood and the double vision came back quickly and I had to stop. Just then, one of the first aid girls got to me. She kept me company and got me to sit down on a log and wait for the evacuation crew to show up. About 30min later, they finally got there on the 4 wheeler and loaded me onto a stretcher. It was very slow go to get me the rest of the way out of the woods. I didn’t want to come out of the woods in a stretcher, and I was actually a little embarrassed about it. I knew my wife Mitch was going to freak. It also brings up the question as to how well prepared the NUE promoters are for this sort of situation. We all love to sign those waivers, but at some level, the overall safety for these events needs to be consistently provided for. But that’s a whole other bag of worms. I was just happy someone came and got me out of there. I just laid there looking at the sky as frantic helpers tried to figure out what to do with me. Next thing I know I’m in a helicopter on the way to the trauma center in Charlottesville as the hospital in Harrisonburg wasn’t going to be able to handle my injuries.

They gave me a good looking over and asked me all sorts of questions. I was actually thinking they would just sew me up that night and send me home… but as the E.R. doctor was on the way out of the door, she said, “I wouldn’t make any plans for the next few days.” I began to feel a little scared. They quickly moved me onto X-rays and CT-scans of the top half of my body. The news came back that I had 3 fractured vertebrae in my neck, a fracture in the base of my skull, and two fractured vertebrae in my back. The laceration on my neck was so deep, it had exposed both my jugular and carotid arteries. My heart sunk. Would I ever be able to ride again? Did I need surgery? The doc then gave me the good news that I was extremely lucky. She said the fractures were non-displaced, meaning that the bones were more or less just cracked and stayed in place. Most likely I’d just be in a C-brace for 6 weeks and they’d heel just like any other sort of bone break. She also gave me the good news that they were going to be able to stitch my neck and arm bedside and it wouldn’t require surgery… only pain killers and local anesthetic. “You must have had an angel there with you,” she said. “If the cut had gone any deeper, they wouldn’t have gotten to you time. If the fracture on the base of your skull was any larger, you could have been completely paralyzed and stopped breathing. I can't believe you have no damage to your nerves whatsoever” I didn’t know what to say. I just sort of brushed it off and chuckled at her. But the reality was that it hadn’t quite hit me as to what just happened.

Mitch, bless her heart, stayed by my side as they stitched me up and sent me off to the ICU. The next day, I was released from ICU. From there, I was on flat bed rest until the trauma team decided I was OK to release. Ryan O’Dell, founder of the NUE, stopped by and chatted with me for a while to get the story out to the press and let everyone know I was going to be OK. I was sort of in and out of it as whatever pain medicine they had me on, kept me pretty whacky, but I’m glad it did. Laying flat on your back for 3 days is like torture. Mitch slept in the room with me all 3 nights and made sure the nurses took care of me. She called all my friends to spread the news that I was going to be alright. Being laid up in a hospital is a terrible experience and I have nothing but sympathy for anyone that has to go through it. The doctors in the University of Virginia trauma center did a fantastic job putting me back together and I’m very grateful to have had such a good team working on me. Finally I was released, but dreading the 10hr drive home. Thanks to my father in law Dan O’Dea who soldiered out the 10hr drive solo through some of the worst downpours I’ve ever traveled in. I believe they even evacuated part of the highway the flooding was getting so bad.

Anyways, I made it home, and have begun the recovery process. It’s hard to believe I’m back here in my cubical when only 2 weeks ago I was almost killed in a bicycle accident. I'm sure this accident has left an impression with a lot of the NUE racers. Even the pro's make mistakes, and an accident like this is just a second away from hapenning out there when we're pushing the limits so far. It's something that's always in the back of my mind, but I've always tried to ignore it and just made the assumption that it wouldn't happen to me... but it did, and I was lucky. Makes me double take how I feel about racing. I mean I work a desk job, but I still need to be able to make it to work on Monday. But I think bicycle racing is in my blood. I still love this sport and I’m not not quite ready to give it up. It actually feels good to get back to normal. I have an appointment with the orthopedic surgeon in a couple weeks to check up on the bones, but so far so good. Thanks for reading!