Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Sidelined

Beat and Liehann in better (if sleepy) times, before the Crystal Springs trail race on Saturday. 
Liehann was the first of my good friends who was serious about racing the Tour Divide, and had a plan in place for June of this year. This weekend, he was over at our place discussing the build of my Moots 29er, researching Rohloff hubs, and mulling the finer points of bikepacking kits. On Saturday morning, we coaxed Liehann out to his longest foot race to date — the 35-kilometer version of the Crystal Springs Trail Run. Although he'd never been much of a runner before moving to the Bay Area from South Africa in 2011, Liehann recently started venturing over to the dark side, reasoning that all training is good training. He was off to a great start for an exciting year.

Then, on Monday morning, Liehann got on his mountain bike to commute to work, along five miles of paved bike path between his house and the Google campus. It had rained on Sunday and the pavement was slightly damp, but he didn't think much of it as he pedaled up a pedestrian bridge that passes over a busy freeway. As he started coasting down the other side, he hit the brakes just as his rear tire lost traction on the slick wooden planks, locking up the wheel and pivoting the bike, which slapped him on the ground like a dead fish. At first he was confused. He knew he hit hard, and didn't think he could get up, so Liehann called Beat and asked him if he could borrow a car, pick him up, and take him to work. By the time Beat arrived, a park maintenance guy was there with a small vehicle, and the two tried to move Liehann into the cart. When lifting his shoulders a few inches off the ground caused Liehann to nearly pass out in pain, they called 911.

Several hours later, Liehann got his first glimpse of the X-rays, which he described as "a shock." His femur was broken in five pieces, a web of fractures near his hip joint. The prognosis — minimum four to six weeks on crutches, three to six months recovery. Late that evening, surgeons inserted a few large chunks of metal into his leg.

And just like that, the first half of 2013 has been dramatically rearranged for Liehann. Beat and I went to the hospital to visit him on Monday and Tuesday evening, and it's been sobering to watch Liehann accept this — no Tour Divide this year. No MLK weekend trip to Hawaii. No more mountain biking or trail running for a long while. No work, difficulty conducting day-to-day tasks, and loss of independence for at least a couple of weeks. Several months of physical therapy and painful recovery. We try to reassure him with statements of "you know, it could have been a lot worse." And it's true — it could have been. But honestly, that statement tends to ring a bit hollow to me, because of course worse things can happen. Worse things can always happen, but these vague non-realties don't diminish real and disappointing setbacks.

Liehann's first baby step after surgery
And there's also that element of disbelief, that "wait a minute, these things don't happen." Liehann is an avid mountain biker; he rides rugged trails all the time. He's a new trail runner, where inexperience increases the chance of falling. A couple of years ago he participated in the Freedom Challenge, a 2,350-kilometer self-supported mountain bike race across South Africa. These things are dangerous, but badly breaking a leg while bike commuting to work on a paved path, away from traffic, in a solo crash? These things don't happen ... do they?

It's human nature to look for take-away lessons, some kind of rationale we can construct from the random and unpredictable events of our lives. In Liehann's case, only one lesson comes to my mind — "Life is dangerous. All of it. Dangerous." And in that regard, it almost seems silly to fret about running through the dark woods or launching down a rocky trail on a mountain bike. You can never know what will take you down, so why worry?

For his part, Liehann is taking it well, reaching acceptance and looking forward to activities such as swimming and, in a more distant future, gentle walking. Beat urged him to use this time to "write a kick-ass app." As for me, I made my slowest road bike descent ever on Monte Bello Road on Monday, throttling the brakes as fear gripped me and every tight corner threatened to take me down. But on Tuesday's trail run, I loosened up a little, making an concentrated effort to hold a sub-8-minute pace down the Wildcat Trail in my ongoing goal to become a more confident downhill runner. Life is dangerous, after all, so I might as well embrace it.