The Back Story

“What’s strange is taking a leak and getting air in the hose—like when you first turn on the sprinkler. It’s probably the coolest part of getting catheterized—that first post-decatheratization pee.  Of course everything else about it sucks ass.” Day 7

Today it’s been 13 years since I went over the bars on my Mrazek mountain bike and broke my back in the year of 2000. I still consider that day to be both the luckiest and unluckiest day of my life. I was with friends at Cline Butte, outside of Bend, doing shuttle runs and testing rims for Shimano. It was hot and late, and I was thirsty and tired. I just wanted to go home, but I relented and agreed to do one more run. As luck would have it, I should have driven shuttle.

Midway through the run, just before a low spot in the trail, something hit my pedal or went into my fork crown, or maybe Mr Hyde pulled my front brake. The resulting catapult over the bars cleared this low spot and lawn darted me squarely into the far-side upslope. I remember the ground coming at me. I remember bouncing off the top of my head. I remember really loud sounds and intense pain in my head and running around screaming– trying to escape it. My friends made me lie down. The noises in my head subsided as pain in my back came into focus. “Am I lying on a rock or a pine-cone or something?” I remember asking. They checked. “Nope” I spit out some dirt and rocks from my mouth as I waited for the EMTs.

I’d broken two vertebrae. One in half, the other into quarters. The pieces were separated as if someone had hit them with a hammer. It was like diving into a front lawn from a rooftop. There was a bruise on my collarbone from my jaw. The rocks I had spit out were not rocks. They were teeth. I’d broken nine of them. One of the fractures was a millimeter from my spinal cord. The doctor’s analogy of my back breaking was that of “pushing on a straw”. You didn’t know where it would break, but if you pushed hard enough, it would break somewhere. I had been wearing a motorcycle chest protector and a hydration pack (downhill runs on a Mrazek), but for this accident, I’d have been better off riding naked, with that tiny bit less intertia.

I spent a couple days in the Psych ward at the hospital waiting for a time slot with the surgeon. I was moaning too loud for the other floors. I remember waking up in a dark room a few times, shallow breathing–panting like a dog. Every breath made the bits of bone in my spine click and grind against one another. I’m glad I can’t remember much of that.

Upon waking after surgery, I felt far, far better, yet far from good. Tubes were coming out of everywhere, and I had dozens of staples sealing my back and my hip where the surgeons had mined for bone to make the glue that (along with some cadaver bone and rods and hooks) now held my spine together. But I could breath again, mostly. I’d spend a total of 9 days at St. Charles learning to breath, learning to pee, learning to eat lying down, and eventually learning to walk on shaky legs. I began writing a journal in a Winnie the Pooh notebook. A notebook I stumbled across last week. I read it again, in light of my anniversary.

“You would think that hospitals would cater to their bedridden customers more. They may have nice sculptures in the lobby or pretty views for visitors, but their ceilings all look the same: perforated white pressed panels with the occasional sprinkler and the occasional stain. What causes those stains anyway?” Day 8

Upon release, I moved back in with my parents for a month so that they could help me bathe, eat, and use the restroom. For two months, I’d be relegated to wearing a full body clamshell brace with a neck-stabilizing tower. I couldn’t drive. I’d struggle to stop using pain killers.

“Been home a week and lovin’ it. Roommate feels sick and I get to take care of him. It feels good to be self sufficient, even if I do have to be careful lifting milk jugs. I’m off of all the meds and have been going to Cascade Cycling Classic stages to watch and socialize. I actually had time to watch the Tour on TV this year for once in my life. It was great, but I hope I don’t see the whole thing again until Lance and I are both retired.” Day 40

A month before I shattered my back, my insurance premiums went up 14 dollars. As a “pizza delivery professional”, I considered cancelling the policy that I’d begun the year prior due to what I considered wonton profiteering. But I didn’t. And in the next 12 months, my insurance paid out $105,000 in medical expenses.

My doctor gave me a high probability of living a normal life once healed. But he said my days of bike racing were over. With this, he offered a gift: an ornately framed magazine article about a competitive diver who’d broken her back and had returned to a normal life, free of diving. I suppose it was intended to be inspirational. He had an awkward bedside manner.

A year later, I was racing, albeit the worst I ever had, at the Big Bear NORBA National. I remember pulling into the feed zone and telling my girlfriend that I was quitting—done. She ruthlessly shamed me into continuing though. I struggled on to finish 98th that day.

I struggled a lot for a long time. It took a couple of years to get back to where I had left off. It’s not that I had a “never say die” attitude. I just kept at it. Making little gains, moving forward, inching my way up, the same way I’d begun years ago as a kid racing a BMX bike at mountain bike races. Eventually I was riding pretty well. I made the US Worlds Team. And I signed my first contract with Giant Bicycles some 30 months after the accident. I’ve been there ever since. Thirteen years after my crash I have a back that feels crappy if I take care of it and crappier if I don’t—about right for anyone who’s been racing bikes since 1984. And for that, I’m grateful.

Since then, I’ve had two friends break backs while riding bikes. One friend’s wasn’t nearly as bad as mine. But the indefatigable Tara Llanes’ break was much worse. Catastrophic injury doesn’t happen often, but it’s a risk we all take to some degree. It’s a risk I think of when I have a close call. Or when I see others taking chances. But most of the time I don’t think about it. Because I know that riding bikes is worth some risk. And much like the lottery, you’re guaranteed not to win if you don’t play.

I’ve known a few people who have lost something to a bike, but I know legions who have gained so much more. People like me who have built their lives around bicycles and the people that live to ride them. On this 13th day of June, exactly 13 years after my number came up, I’m still certain that the odds of a television slowly killing me are far greater than those of a bicycle doing it quickly. And those are odds I can roll with.
Keep the rubber side down,

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11 Responses to The Back Story

  1. Patrick J. Trowbridge says:

    Great write up Carl! I thoroughly enjoyed that! Spot on perspective when it comes to choose to live fast or die slowly. I am with you on that one. Having spent considerable time studying hospital ceiling tiles, I too wonder where the hell those spots came from :)

  2. Patrick J. Trowbridge says:

    BTW is that truck tipped on it’s side Diggler?

  3. Sadcow says:

    Well played, Carl. Well played indeed.

  4. Patrick says:

    This is a great story, Carl.

  5. Alan says:

    Damn, Carl you’re a fearsome competitor. I have always admired your riding skill now I admire your writting skill as well.

  6. Derek Chavez says:

    I completely agree that it’s worth the risk. I love mtb. I used to race motocross and have struggles for over 10 years with back pain from injuries. It has been one of my biggest limiters on the bike. But after 3 years of riding and racing my back feels the best it has in years and now I’ve even moved up to cat 1. Cycling along with learning some new stretches has greatly improved my life and health and for that I’m am very thankful.

  7. damn Carl, I had no idea. Very well written and I’m glad you got right back on the bike.

  8. Herb W Bool says:

    CD is my hero

  9. Elke Brutsaert says:

    Thank you for writing this Carl. Eb

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