The Timeline of Injury
The spring racing of 2017 was relatively short lived for me. Feeling optimistic, I felt fit, fresh and had a great group of friends around me, many of which are still close to me to this day. My optimism was probably the reason why I decided to get involved in a bunch sprint in one of the early season races. The race had a strong line up of a couple of the UKs top pro teams. As anyone that knows me will tell you, sprinting of any sort, yet alone a chaotic spring dash is not something that comes close to one of my skills.
An optimistic start to 2017 - Even with a 'Man Bun'
300m to go I was lying on the road, which crosses Abberton Reservoir, to the finish just before the village of Layer De La Haye. I must have raced over this road over 100 times, never a moment to take in surprising beauty of it or be mindful of the peace and tranquillity of the nature reserve it passes. I only came to see this place with completely new perspective for the first time, when I was riding back from a short bike packing trip in the Autumn and was able to ride the same piece of road with new eyes. I stopped for a moment to take it in. No memories of the past, or expectations of the future, just appreciating it was what it was at that moment. This somewhat left me with more questions, like what else I had missed seeing, appreciating or embracing with my metaphorical blinkers on.
Layer De La Haye, with fresh eyes. Riding past Essex Wildlife Trust in 2020.
When lying on the road, my only thought was whether this pain in my elbow was a serious enough indication to prevent me from racing next week. I told myself and everyone around me at the time that, yes, I would be pinning on my numbers again the next week. On the drive home, and overnight, the pain didn’t dissipate like some of my previous crashes. Still in denial I was somewhat forced to go to A & E for an Xray. Apart from that ‘beaten up’ feeling any cyclist who’s crashes knows all too well, I felt ok, so the revelation of a fracture to my radial head came at a bit of a surprise. This wasn’t a serious fracture which required no special attention, just keep the elbow safe, don’t risk making it worse and within 4 weeks or so it will heal with no lasting complications. When given a clear timeline and reassurance of when an injury heals itself, the pain becomes less immediately, knowing it will come to an end. The mindset changed to how this injury is going to work for me, and not what it’s taken away.
I started adapting an old bike to accommodate my injury and stay in my indoor trainer, as riding outdoors was an impossibility. One of my most bizarre modifications was zip-tying an old washing up bowl upside down onto the bars, then placing a generously padded cushion on top to creature a vert strange aero bar setup to take the pressure away from the injured area. Surely and confidently, I continued to train solely indoors for the next 4 weeks. I discovered the world of Zwift and its wonderful community, and surely enough within a few weeks I started to feel my injury heal and by April I was off to Mallorca for a couple of weeks to work as a guide for one of my long-standing friends and supporters, Stuart Hall during the busy Spring period. The indoor training had added a forced focus to every session, which although over time can become very draining, gave me a drive and sure enough, I saw improvements.
Out in Mallorca, guiding, training and having a great time with Stuart Hall Cycling.
Back from Mallorca with a good base and much needed tan after the weeks inside, what started out as a warm brisk paced group ride turned into another visit to A & E, although this time, more serious. A small sunken manhole cover jolted my hands from the lever hoods, sending me onto my top tube and into the firm ditch on the opposite side of the road. My face took nearly all the impact. Ironically, this was again on a piece of road I had ridden hundreds of times, although never in anger. Once back from my blackout, my first thought was to get myself home, which was only a few miles down the road. Tom, one of my good friends told me with a concerned smile this wasn’t going to be a possibility, mainly due the visible injuries I had not yet felt, but also the practical implications of my front wheel being almost folded in half.
This buckled unit was not getting back.
On advice from another good friend of mine, Andy, who luckily was a doctor, I was called an ambulance and made the undignified trip to the Norfolk and Norwich in bloodied, sweaty kit. The immediate injuries were taken care off – the cut to my eyelid was glued, my jaw was checked for fractures and I was given some basic advice about what to do about my concussion and then discharged. It wasn’t until that evening I realised the full extent of the damage to my face, where I gruesomely discovered I had ripped the gum and cheek away from each other on the right side. At first, I didn’t take much notice, as the haze of the concussion made me certain nothing was missed when I was being looked over – I had already resigned myself to a liquid only diet for a few weeks so what difference would it have made? Mouths heal particularly quick right?
Ok, Now I see the second reason i'm not riding home!
A few days later the pain on the right side of my face became unbearable. I made an emergency appointment, with my GP. He looked over the damage as calmly as possible. suggesting I made another trip to A & E. By this point in the year, I had become quite bored of the processes, but also all too familiar. With the follow up appointments with Orthopaedist this must have been my 5th visit in only 2 months. A long wait was inevitable due to the oddness of my injury but nearing midnight I was seen. I was given a strong course of antibiotics for the infection causing the pain and told to wait for the healing to begin, then come back for a re assessment in a couple of weeks.
The concussion made it almost impossible to enjoy the spring sunshine, with the bright sunlight often giving me a searing headache. The liquid diet, which I told myself would only last for a few days, lasted for weeks and the lack of energy and general misery that comes with drinking every meal though a straw, often made me moody and really required a lot of patience from those around me. Slowly things improved. I remember vividly the euphoria of being able to eat a smashed avocado with a spoon, the first thing that wasn’t a liquid in a month.
The whole right side of my chin was still completely numb, and my follow up appointment revealed the reason why – the nerve in the gum had possibly been severed, although it was impossible to tell for sure. There was a chance it would improve with time, but it was important to learn to adapt to the damage, to prevent that side of my face from going into hibernation. I recovered steadily over the summer, some of the symptoms of the concussion lasting a lot longer than anticipated.
In complete contrast to the first injury that year, the second was filled with uncertainty and with no clear timeline of recovery. The perception of pain, discomfort and suffering was amplified by the non-linear nature of the situation. It’s very easy to find comfort in uncomfortable situations when a clear line of progression and ending are laid out before you. The truth is in life, very rarely is this the case. For the 6 months after I was hyper aware of any possible changes in feeling in that side of my face, but slowly over time I began to accept it would be as it was. I had forgotten about it completely, until a couple of weeks ago, over 3 years later, I noticed one morning a slight tingling sensation where the numb patch once was. Over the next few weeks very small incremental improvements began to happen.
Ultimately in times of difficulty we search for a clear logical way out of our problems yearning a definitive end date. Answers and solutions can come when you are least searching for them. My injuries were not severe, but still made me acutely aware of the need for a timeline of progression to gain a sense of hope and perspective when recovering from anything, whatever that injury or pain might be. The challenges of 2020 have brought home that some pain and suffering cannot be seen, nor given a time or date when things will improve. Male suicide rates hit a two decade high in 2019. With the pandemic and mental health access on the NHS being pushed to the maximum during this year, I fear this statistic will only get worse. It’s great to hear so many people speaking about not suffering in silence, but the sad truth is for many this is not an option, for whatever reason.
Personally, I find this topic incredibly hard to write about, not because of ‘stigma’ or ‘taboo’ but rather writing about a subject which is so personal to each individual who has suffered in a way that cannon be seen, nor even obvious to those closest. Each individual will have their own circumstances, things that may or may not help and needs, so personal to them.
I will link some of the things that have been particularly helpful personally for me.