Friday, August 12, 2011

I heart rangers — not so much the ER

It almost seems like it should be an exhilarating experience — catapulting through the air before diving into a spinning kaleidoscope of leaves, grass, gravel and sky — but reality always manages to hit me before the ground does.

"This is going to hurt."

I've been here before. More times than I'd be willing to admit in casual company, at least to people who can't see the scars on my legs and arms. I have what I consider an unfortunate combination of genetic traits — my dad's sense of adventure and my mom's sense of balance. Which means, sorry Mom, that I'm incurably clumsy but I don't have the good sense to pursue a more suitable hobby like knitting or reading books.

Instead, I crash. Some are more spectacular than others. And, in the long-time custom of incurably clumsy people, my hardest hits always find me at the most benign moments — like a wide gravel descent on the same trail I've ridden at least a couple dozen times, on a beautiful calm evening, during a simple taper mountain bike ride two days before a hopeful "comeback" race like the Crystal Springs 50K. That's when it always seems to happen. I'm riding down Steven's Creek Canyon, confidently coasting at top speed because, hey, this is easy and I do it all the time. I launch into the steep section and hit the big rut in the same way I always intentionally hit it. But something goes wrong, and my rear wheel skids sideways, and there I am, again, flying through the air.

Yes, that's my brave face
This time, the Steven's Creek Canyon trail and I swapped souvenirs. I left behind a chunk of flesh from my right elbow and took a large helping of gravel embedded in my arm. Several seconds later, Beat found me writhing on the ground. This is another trait I inherited from my mom. We don't take our hits well. We swoon and drool and struggle to hold onto consciousness, even in the absence of a notable head injury. Beat propped me up and spoke loudly in words I wasn't quite in a state of mind to comprehend, but I did gather he probably thought I was about to pass out. "Light headed," I mumbled. "No injury. Impact. Just impact."

But the wooziness wears off fast and leaves behind a frustrating amount of pain. We were still more than four miles from the end of the canyon, where another eight miles on pavement would complete our loop home. Twelve miles. About a half hour of daylight left (we did have lights.) Searing road rash, tender hip and a nearly rigid knee. Blood dripping onto my shorts. I laughed and made jokes and tried to put on my brave face. It wasn't convincing. "Hey, it's OK if you cry," Beat said. "You're a girl." Beat's crash jokes are better than mine.

But I knew I was going to have to walk it off and get back on the bike. I accepted it, and even embraced it. Brave face. Boost onto saddle. One finger on each brake. Let of brake just a bit. Wheels over rocks. Ow ow ow ow. Impact. No injury, just impact. OK, tears. Fine. You win.

It was just after 8 p.m. when we completed the first mile. Eleven to go. And then I saw something I never thought I'd see in the narrow corridor of Steven's Creek Canyon — headlights. I didn't even know trucks could get in there, but sure enough, up rolled a ranger who had spent the evening removing deadfall from the singletrack section. She drove beside us and rolled down her window. She didn't need to ask what happened.

The ranger's name was Liz Wright. She was a former East Bay area police officer who made a hobby of heavy labor construction, then opted to seek "work where I can both build things and help people" in the service of the Midpeninsula Open Space Preserve District. A professional who builds trails and saves clumsy mountain bikers like me from painful walks of shame — I instantly adored Ranger Liz. She took charge and formed a plan to take me the other direction to the Page Mill parking lot while Beat rode the singletrack down the canyon and back home to get the car. I assumed Ranger Liz was just going to take me to the trailhead and leave me to wait for Beat — a service I was already more than grateful for. As the truck lumbered up the canyon, she exchanged code talk on the radio, and then turned to me and said, "You know, the EMTs aren't busy right now. Maybe we should just have them come take a look."

By the time we arrived at the trailhead, two other rangers were waiting in the parking lot. One had set up a flood light and Liz joined them underneath it, talking and laughing. Ten minutes later, two fire department vehicles arrived and five EMTs emerged to join the party. I felt beyond embarrassed that eight public employees had mobilized for my little mishap. Maybe they sensed it because they assured me that work was slow that night in Palo Alto, and they were just wrapping up a leisurely dinner. They cleaned me up and took my vitals. They expressed concern about my blood pressure because it was closing in on too low, but not quite ambulance ride low. "Hey, at least you're not about to upchuck a hamburger," said one EMT as he slapped wires on my skin to take further readings. "Sitting in the back of the truck on that winding road, man. I thought I was going to vomit." I laughed, and my vitals spiked to a satisfactory level. We wrapped up the social gathering and the EMTs and other rangers left. Ranger Liz drove me down to the bottom of Page Mill to meet Beat, pointing out the scenes of grizzly road bike crashes she had responded to along the way.

The EMTs told me I most definitely needed stitches in my elbow, so Beat took me to the emergency room, being that the ER was really the only option for medical attention at 10 p.m. I was hedging on even seeking stitches because I'm me, and really, what's one more scar? But I assumed it would be a quick in-and-out. I was covered in so much dirt that dust clouds literally erupted from my clothing when I sat down in the waiting room chair. I was starving so I wolfed down a vending machine Twix Bar and chips as I waited, covered in dirt and blood. Yes, any remaining fragments of dignity were finally gone.

After several cleansing sessions.
But that wasn't the end of the indignity. An X-ray revealed a somewhat alarming amount of foreign debris inside my arm. A nurse, an EMT and a physicians assistant scrubbed and scraped and worked at it intermittently for several hours in procedures that can only be described as light torture. Honestly, if I had been harboring any government secrets I would have told them anything just to make them stop. As the hours passed, the dirt-coated bloody swabs stacked up and the medical professionals became increasingly less gentle. It was well after 2 a.m. when the doctor announced she couldn't dig any deeper because she risked damaging nerves, but infection was a real concern that close to my joint. "You're going to have to see a plastic surgeon," she said.

Suddenly, I felt light-headed all over again. "Um, surgery, really? For a cut?"

Luckily, the surgeon I visited today is letting me take a wait-and-see approach. I'm on antibiotics and a cleaning regimen and, admittedly, somewhat strong painkillers. I decided after last night's torture session, I deserved a bit of a break from pain (this hurts a surprising lot.) But sadly, the Crystal Springs 50K is definitely a no-go. And I suspect that the crash will significantly rattle both my confidence and fitness ahead of the Aug. 27 Capitol Forest 100. But of course I realize it could have been, and can always be, so much worse. And I am grateful to all of the  rangers, EMTs, nurses and doctors who mobilized to help me last night. Every single one of them was great. And if I never get this gravel out of my arm, well, at least I'll have a little piece of Steven's Creek Canyon to carry with me always. I do like that canyon.