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.


  1. Ouch! Our riding styles seem... cut from the same cloth!

    Feel better, Jill! Good vibes from Colorado!

  2. Scars—and the stories behind them—are awesome! Get well soon!

  3. peter e. schumacher3:29 AM

    Das tut mir leid! Gute Besserung, Jill!

  4. Join the club. currently feeling sorry for myself with a dislocated, possibly cracked elbow. Thought I was getting better but I've just been trying to fix the cooker hood and managed to dislocate it again. Hope you get better soon.


  5. Oh, dear. How I understand clumpsy. I fall about anywhere, and have scares. This is the MAIN reason I will NEVER bike. The impact of falling off the bike at the bike's speed is far worse than one I get by running straight forward - or even downhill (my favorite time to fall). Once (at OP50) I had so much rocks and sand imbeded, I decided not to try to get them out abd let it get crusty, and then was pulling all the mass together off as puss dried, and repeat. I feel for your surgeon. He is a good dude. Here, in US, everyone wants to put stitches right away. We have a saying back home. Scars make a man a much more handsome one. You (and I) that man:) I do hope no infection developes. Jill, you are a thrill. I ordered your books. Now that I am on "machines" for cardio (back, again, sigh), I need a good read. Yours is it. Heal up.

  6. greatful. i like your post

  7. nice blog, enjoy it.

  8. Love your writing Jill. Get well soon !

  9. Oh, ouch ... to say the least! How fortunate for Ranger Liz! Yes, those injuries at joints get tricky. I experienced this myself in far less spectacular fashion when I managed to embed a thorn into my knuckle while gardening. It had to be extracted by an orthopedic surgeon. I still can't believe it.

    Feel better!

  10. Wow that is a wicked dirty cut! Cuts and burns can be some of the most painful injuries. Hope time and antibiotics will heal your wound. Take care of yourself and dont push yourself too hard! There will always be more races and challenges in the future. You can miss one or two ;)

  11. Only scars on the soul are really hurting. Scars on the elbow are only a proof of being alive!! ;-)

  12. I hate the phone calls that start "I'm OK, but...". My husband had a nearly identical accident a month ago, ER time and all. He's out riding 200k today. The good news is that you will heal. The bad news is that it takes longer that you'd like.

  13. Anonymous1:46 PM

    Damn Jill! So there are still rock pebbles stuck deep in that hole...OUCH. I hope you have a full recovery.


  14. Its kinda cool that you have little rocks stuck in your arm. Why are you so tough?? I've read both of your books so I'm not really surprised at your toughness anymore, but it does frequently impress me.

  15. Oooh, I can totally relate. I did a superman over my bars and ended up with stitches in my chin and gravel in my knees/ elbows. The scrubbing they gave my knees/ elbows in the ER was enough to make me never want go near a hospital again (not that I particularly enjoy ERs anyway). OUCH.

  16. sharon roes5:18 PM

    Jill, hope you heal fast and that there is no infection. Looks like it is really sore. Take care of yourself.

  17. Jill, this is one of my favorite blogs. I hope you get well soon!

  18. Hope you're feeling better soon. I spent all day worrying about Fatty in the Leadville 100 and here I come home and find out you're hurt. Eek!

  19. Once upon a time I broke my arm (smashed my radius & ulna), my scapula & collarbone, and six ribs when a car hit me on my bike. After all the patching, mending, surgery, etc, the surgeon expressed concern about the deep, nasty looking scrape that covered my right thigh. My husband and I replied in unison: "oh, that's just road rash!" He looked at us both like we were crazy. Five years later, I think there may be some pieces of tiny gravel somewhere in there. Get well soon.

  20. Ow, ow, ow, OW!!! Glad you were able to get so much help so quickly, but I can imagine how sore it is. I had an egg shaped lump on my left elbow for around 2-3 months after a similar style open-trail-at-speed crash, I was just lucky to miss the gravel as it was pissing down with rain and I had 2 long-sleeved layers on that day.

    I'm feeling marginally better about the fact that I currently look like an abuse victim on my legs as a result of a good mountain-biking session last weekend and four lots of surfing this week - glad I'm not the only clumsy one that persists with the silly sports!

    Hope you're on the mend soon and there's no infection.

  21. yeah, that scraping sucks...my story:

  22. Sorry to hear about your fall in the canyon. I'm happy that your encounter with Ranger Liz was to your benefit rather than a financial detriment. Usually riders are not very happy to see Midpen rangers in Stevens Canyon - because the rangers use radar for speed enforcement on the upper fire road section, and the 15 MPH limit is awfully easy to exceed.

    Anyway, I hope your elbow heals soon and without complication, and maybe someday I will cross paths with you in the Canyon.

  23. Mike from Melbourne11:37 PM

    Ouch! I hope you heal quickly Jill

  24. Anonymous1:26 AM

    Very interesting points. Thanks!

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  25. "if I had been harboring any government secrets I would have told them anything just to make them stop" ... terribly funny.

    Thanks for making me laugh on a Monday morning. BUT don't like the photos .... O U C H. May I suggest carrying a action wipe or two on the next ride ... :-) As always ... pleasure to read someone who is truly great at writing about a experience. No photos needed. Get better fast Jill.

  26. Anonymous9:28 AM

    Have you tried a 29er yet ? More stable, more confidence over the
    rough stuff, smoother ride for sure.
    Everyone I know who spends some time
    on big wheels never goes back !

  27. Thank you everyone. Healing is going slowly. I feel a bit like I have a bullet wound in my arm (or how I imagine one might feel) and my reluctance to move it has been a hinderance in doing much of anything. But it is coming along.

    I rode a 29" hardtail as my main mountain bike from April 2008-June 2010. I still use it as a singlespeed. Switched to little wheels and full suspension for more nimbleness on rock gardens and technical terrain, but I am just about ready to admit that the big wheel hardtail and high-mileage tourist riding was more my style.

  28. Ugh, that looks incredibly painful. Heal up quick!

  29. Yo Jill..I'm with Bill...you really cracked me up with that line (I DO work for the gov...so I hope nobody ever tortures me for my secrets..cuz I'd give it up all too easily I'm afraid).

    Get well soon...dirty road rash is the WORST! Tho I've never been taken to the ER (yet) for my crashes...sure hope you DON'T need surgery. Cuts heal fast, it's those gigantic scabs that are the worst...

    You're gonna have to work on that 'rubber side up' thing. Heal fast cuz I love reading about your adventures!

  30. Hi Jill. Ouch, I remember falling on a gravel path when I was a child, so I can relate to the torture of cleaning. Heal fast and well, or in Beat's language 'Gute Besserung' which translates as 'good healing' as he will tell you. I sure hope no surgery is required.

  31. Anonymous4:49 PM

    Oof! Sorry to hear about your fall, and missing out on your next race. Your final 2 lines made me laugh out loud, though. Way to look on the bright side! May your pain meds be effective, and your healing fast!

  32. Anonymous5:15 AM

    Emergency rooms in spandex are no fun.

  33. Durango Joe6:41 AM

    Hey, no big deal, all in a days work for a serious mt. biker. Everyone here in Durango sports scars like that. I remember the days before HIV/Hepatitis where if you crashed in a race, the medics soaked a coarse steel brush (the kind you use to clean the grit off of auto parts) in betadine disinfectant, handed it to you and had you scrub the rocks out of your own flesh until it was really bleeding again. Those were the days. Don't be queasy - get as much of that gravel out as possible.

  34. Durango Joe....reminds me of a fly in canoe trip a few years ago. Got the end of my finger taken off in a rapids mishap. Part of the story:
    "We washed the finger as best we could and used a clean toothbrush to scrub it up a little. Hint: when scrubbing an open wound with a toothbrush, don’t confuse dirt with the ends of small blood vessels and continue on to the point of removing flesh."
    Blog entry for the whole story: http://motoscotch.blogspot.com/2008/10/canada-bloodvein-river.html

  35. Hi Jill - get well soon! Steven's canyon downhill can be tricky, I once helped a kid there who crashed and broke his collarbone. You know the trails well by now but may I suggest riding the canyon up then south along skyline and taking the Grizzly Flat downhill - this trail is wider and less technical, but you can go fast and practice two wheeled drifts :-)

  36. Anonymous1:09 PM

    I love your stories! That's one nasty wound on your elbow, good luck with mending. Isn't it true that it's always on your home turf, mine was a trail I must have ridden 50 times, heading home thinking about some derailleur problem I had to fix for my ride the next day, surprise washout, OTB, and busted collarbone.


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