The Black Dog

Sometimes the black dog* steps on you.

Ironman 70.3 Monterrey
Monterrey, NL, Mexico ★ 2015.03.15
I never thought that all I would have wanted was for Michael Lovato to hug me tight and tell me it was going to be okay. But that is how my day in Monterrey ended, as a blubbering mess in T2, crying on Michael’s shoulder while he kindly took a break from very good his bilingual race commentary.
And I would never have admitted it, but I wondered before I left for Monterrey if racing in the rain was the best idea, especially for the first race of the season, on a new bike that I don’t have many miles on. I ride outside at home in the rain (when we get it, which was actually been relatively often – thankfully – this year), but I typically do it on my road bike – so my hands are always right by my brakes – and I absolutely only do it in certain places where I know the conditions of the road in the rain, where there tends to be minimal traffic, and where there’s very little in the way of technical riding. I’m sure it will surprise no one that, since my accident, I am extremely risk-averse on the bike. “Close calls” – particularly with cars – are deeply affecting. 
One of the scariest days I’ve had on the bike was on a rainy day, as I was preparing for my “comeback” race at Ironman Arizona in 2010, and a car ran a red light at an intersection. There was no way I could have stopped in time. I remember just waiting for the impact which, thankfully, never came. I chalk it up to my decision to ride with flashing lights (all the time), but of course I’ll never know why the driver stopped about six inches from hitting me, only that he did. I’ve only had one crash in the rain – during a race, when I was very, very green as a bike rider, and I slammed on my brakes to try to make a poorly marked turn. Compared with the many miles (it rained a lot when I lived in NY and Victoria, BC) I’ve ridden in the rain, I have had very few bad experiences. But I’ve ridden very little in the rain since my accident (mostly because California has been going through a massive drought)). 
We had some wet days in Mallorca. And some wet days in Thousand Oaks. And it was actually all that experience that made me think I’d do just fine in Mexico. I’m not prideful. I have no issue being a bit more cautious in races. I got passed by pretty much everyone I was riding with during the race today whenever we hit a place where you had to make a hard corner or, in particular, on the cobblestone section by transition. The cobblestone section was somewhere around 1km in total. Coming out of T1, it was – thankfully – pretty dry, and the biggest issue I had was more that I thought it was going to shake all the bolts loose on my bike (well, if I didn’t travel with a torque wrench). I waited to put my feet in my shoes until I got out on the highway (riding one handed on cobblestones and trying to put my feet into my bike shoes seemed like a good way to earn a Darwin award… or a broken collarbone). But I wouldn’t have described the exit onto the bike course as traumatic in any way. 
Coming around to start the second lap on the bike, you rode a longer section of cobbles, including a descent and ascent that wasn’t there on the way out of T2, and I got passed by a lot of folks here as I took it a bit more cautiously, but I’d say that I lost only a handful of seconds. I stayed in contact and was able to pretty quickly roll right back through the field once we were back out onto the highway. I was a bit nervous at times out on the highway during the second lap, but mostly because we had now overlapped with age groupers, meaning that you had to factor that traffic into the line you could now take as well as of course needing to be ready to react while remembering that you cannot react as quickly when it’s wet. But I was holding a strong enough pace to stay at the front for almost all of the second lap and to continue to put time into Tim Don who was alone up the road. I was on pace to ride somewhere around 2:02 or so. But coming into the cobblestone section as we headed to T2, the rain had picked up quite a bit and had made the cobbles very slick. What was especially challenging was the crosswalks, where bricks were laid out in a chevron pattern, running across the road, and the deep grooves between the bricks wanted to grab your tire and keep your from holding a straight line.
Having spent some time on a mountain bike, I know that the key to riding is to not try to muscle the bike. You need to relax and sort of gently guide the bike where you want to go. Whatever you do, don’t tense up. But I couldn’t help it. Once I felt like I didn’t have full control of my bike, I started to panic. Which of course gave me even less control over my bike. Which made me panic even more. And the cycle built. After coming down the cobblestone descent, I was in a full on mental state of emergency. I didn’t consciously think back to being in a hospital bed with a tube down my throat and a neck full of stitches and a lot of broken bones. But something in me sure remembered that. The idea of riding up the cobbles in front of me – as I watched athletes in front of me slipping and sliding (though, thankfully, no one crashed) – just overwhelmed me. I couldn’t do it. I started crying at some point. And I saw some other athletes get off their bike, and I got off my bike as well. I figured I could walk my bike into transition (it wasn’t that far) and still maybe run fast enough to make my way into the prize money. 
But when I got into T2, I was just too shaken. I’m sure I can project or inject all sort of feelings onto myself at that time as I sit here in my hotel room, calm and rational, but it wouldn’t be true. All I really remember is that I was scared – really scared. And I wanted to stop. Mostly I just wanted someone to hug me because I felt terrified and very, very alone. 
It seems crazy to write this. I haven’t had an issue like this since pretty much when I got out of the hospital. The worst thing to happen to me now on the bike – a close call with a driver – typically just makes me angry. Part of that, I suppose, is that it’s easy to get angry at someone. Here, it was just that feeling of helplessness. I had some bouts of that – anxiety or panic attacks – when I first got out of the hospital in 2010. They would come then typically when I was going to leave the house. Sometimes I just couldn’t. I don’t mean on my bike. I mean leave the house at all. I wasn’t even thinking about getting back on a bike at that point. But eventually I did. And I had some help with residual anxiety and fear on my bike. And that’s been pretty much it. I say – truthfully – that I’m scared every time I ride my bike, but that’s mostly because I share the road with cars. I’m a relatively tentative descender, though Dan Empfield has noted steady progress year after year in my handling of the technical parts of The Big Loop ride in the San Gabriel Mountains. Not that I’ve ever been – or probably ever will be – a daredevil on the bike. But I’ve gotten better, and more confident, and those things have fed each other in a positive way. 
I suppose if they were more prevalent in races, I could seek out wet cobblestones in training, though that also seems like a pretty terrible idea, kind of like voluntarily riding over wet manhole covers as opposed to around them. Mostly I guess I just need to be aware of my limitations. I almost died riding my bike. That won’t ever go away. I do what I can to stay safe and to ride sensibly, but some things are just beyond my control. Whatever it took to ride those cobblestones safely and confidently, I just didn’t have it on this day. Maybe I won’t ever have it. I don’t know.
I do know that I’ll keep on riding and racing my bike. Though I think I might wish a little harder for sunny skies for a while…
* Footnote: “the black dog” is from a WHO series on depression that I thought was a pretty good illustration of any sort of negative aspect of your psyche that can seem to show up out of nowhere and – when it does – be pretty debilitating.

5 thoughts on “The Black Dog

  1. Courage comes from recognizing your limitations and fears and then working to face and overcome those. You've clearing shown courage since 2010…Wet cobblestones are a really bad idea for a race route and safety comes first. Stay safe, kill it in Wildflower, and I look forward to seeing you take on Timberman, where I'll be racing as well.

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  2. Great post as always!!! I love that you are pushing the envelope on topics that are not often discussed. After a bad crash in April of '13 (3 rib fx, clavicle fx 3 places / ORIF – big plate and screws) my first ride back outside was with my training partner in Asheville, NC…he was really patient but it took everything I had mentally to leave the parking lot – no joke I was shaking. I am just now getting back to where I was mentally before the bounce. I actually reached out to Dr. George Pratt in San Diego (VERY high level sports / lifestyle guy – https://drgeorgepratt.com/ – he did segments on Larry King and also with Rob and Big) and he helped me out a bunch but it was still not 100%. Las Vegas WC 2 years ago in the rain…yup…I phoned it in on the bike after I slid through the first corner with 0 braking surface. Although cars didn't play a role in my bounce – I am really loving the off-road world and bought a Specialized CRUX CX bike which I rode all winter and LOVE IT – I named her “Dirty Girl”…we have a great relationship 🙂 Keep up the great work and thanks for the honesty…it is all to often hidden in the shadow of false bravado.

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  3. Adrenaline sears these past experiences deep into us and the memories will never fully depart. In hindsight, the paralysis you experienced is hard to fathom – but we are all human and under certain circumstances it could happen to any of us. Thanks for the thoughtful and honest post.

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