Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reliable klutz

Beat and Liehann, trying not to look cold because it was about 40 degrees, drizzling and windy at the ridge.
After a mountain bike crash last August left a quarter-sized crater in my elbow, I started demoing different elbow pads. After all, it took a full painful month of wet-dry bandaging to extract all (or at least most) of the gravel from that thing, and I really didn't want to have to go through that again. I briefly tried a roller blade pad — stiff and inflexible — and moved onto mountain bike armor — hot and uncomfortable. Just before a 25-hour bike race in November, I discovered lightweight pads for basketball players — basically a thin piece of foam on a sleeve. It seemed better than nothing, so I wore them a few times, but it didn't take long before I went back to arms au naturel.

Just as the pain of dragging a sled a hundred miles through frozen Alaska fades all to quickly from memory, I had conveniently forgotten all the ways in which I was kinda miserable for most of the month of August. Laying in bed with my arm propped above my head, unable to sleep ... jogging slowly with my hand in a sling ... not biking at all. All of these memories are still fairly fresh. They should be reminders of why I should wear body armor and maybe just not go outside at all, but memory is a funny thing. It manages to gloss over weeks of teeth-clenching soreness and yet acutely remembers a single moment of getting back on a bike after six weeks off, and how incredibly liberating that felt. Padded arm sleeves, on the other hand, do not feel similarly liberating.

Good thing my friend Martina remembers that I'm a klutz. Before we set out for our planned 18-mile run on Saturday, she pointed to my scar, which was covered with a blood blister I incurred after I smacked my elbow on a bathroom drawer a week ago. "Are you still wearing elbow pads?" she asked. "Uh, yeah," I said, and pulled them on for the first time since November.

It was a hot day for January, nearly 70 degrees, and that's before we hit the oven of Rogue Valley. I rolled the sleeves over the pads but didn't take them off, although I really wanted to, and this is perhaps the first thing that went through my mind at mile 9.5, when, while running uphill along a narrow piece of singletrack cut into a steep slope, I caught my foot on a rock and started going down. My face was headed toward a veritable abyss and all I could think was "good thing I'm wearing elbow pads." Instinct directed me to grasp for the trail before I tumbled down the mountain. My right elbow smashed directly into the rock, scraping along the rough surface as my body slid a couple of inches horizontally down the sideslope.

I pulled myself up quickly and continued running, too filled with klutz's remorse to even stop and assess my pain, which was relatively immense. Martina caught up to me about the time the adrenaline wore off. I couldn't really muster more than a staggering shuffle anymore, so I had to admit I had clumsily tripped and landed directly on my bad elbow. It hurt a lot more than I thought it should. I noticed blood dripping beneath my sleeve. I pulled the pad off and sure enough, my scar looked like rotten hamburger — a mess of torn gray tissue and blood. The joint itself was cut and swollen, and turning a pale shade of purple. "Well," I said with a resigned sort of gratitude, "it could be worse. There's no gravel in there. At least I won't have to go to the hospital for a scrubbing this time."

The wound continued to throb with pain as we tried to catch up to Beat and Harry, who were a ways ahead of us. Beat finally came back down to see what was wrong, and agreed to continue downhill and get our car at home while Martina and I climbed to Black Mountain and walked a shorter route to the road. I was angry with myself. All of those easily forgotten bad memories about August trickled back into my consciousness, and I wondered how much I had set myself back. Would I not be able to ride a bike for a while? Would I have to run with my arm in a sling? Would it hurt too much to run at all? What exactly happens when you rip up scar tissue? Does it ever heal?

For most of Saturday, I was genuinely worried that I had singlehandedly undone five months of careful healing in one clumsy blow. Luckily, it does seem to just be a simple arm bashing rather than a deep wound. The swelling went down and I was feeling better this morning, so I decided to pop a few Advil and join Beat and his friend Liehann for the first paved miles of a long mountain bike ride we had been planning. Even with the full-squish bike on pavement, every tiny jolt caused enough pain that I rode most of the miles slowly with my right arm dangling. I have enough diagnosed nerve damage from the original injury that I'm not exactly sure how the healing will progress this time around. I admit not even the slightest hint of a scab has formed. The new wound isn't deep but it is still bleeding. Still, I remain optimistic that it's just a small setback, hardly worth mentioning, really. Except for this blog post ... because it's kind of a funny story, don't you think?