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.


19 comments:

  1. Hello, I'm your couch potato reader in Zurich -- the transplanted Alaskan. I read this with sadness - imagining your friend in recovery mode for a very long time.

    I am learning that the best thing I can do when someone I care about is in a tough spot, in pain, or whatever terrible situation it is: Just be there and say I am sorry this is happening to you.

    Human nature tells us to compare it to world hunger, (to minimize) or to make it more awful than it is (maximize). Neither are very helpful, I've observed -- whatever is happening, it is what it is - and it's awful.

    I'm sorry about it and wish your friend a healthy recovery.

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  2. My worst spills have been on the best terrain, always on moments when I've let my guard down.

    Sending healing wishes to your friend for a speedy recovery.

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  3. Best wishes to Liehann for a speedy and full recovery! I guess if anything this is a wakeup call that your life can change in the blink of an eye. We always seem to take some small comfort from those shallow words "it can always be worse"...(which is typically true but not always)...but this one is really something. Broken femur in 5 places from a bike path crash...great googly moogly!

    Maybe the city will need to ponder those bare wood planks, and maybe put some kind of traction strips on them or resurface them entirely...wet wood is uber-slippery! Somebody wasn't thinking in that design.

    Whenever I see a biker (road or Mt) riding without a helmet I think of things like this...you don't get to choose when you're gonna crash. As I learned WAY back in motorcycle safety class (which applies to bikes as well as motorcycles): there's only 2 kinds of riders: those who have crashed, and those who will.

    Best of luck Liehann!

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  4. Oh noooo! Poor Liehann, that's awful. My friend just went through this exact injury - he slipped on a paved turn on his cross bike and broke the head of his femur. He too had to have surgery to put some hardware in. It was awful - but he's made an incredible recovery and was riding within a few months and racing bikes again within a year. If you'd like to put them in touch for some encouraging words, let me know.

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  5. Wow. So sorry to hear about the accident, and best wishes to Liehann on his recovery.

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  6. Oh man, that sucks.

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  7. Anonymous2:42 PM

    So sorry to hear this happened! Perhaps when out of the hospital, Cady can console him with a visit. :-)

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  8. Damn that sucks. I wish him a speedy recovery - I rode with him through Coe and can attest he's a great rider.

    Reminds me of another friend of mine (expert cat mtb racer) who broke his hip going a measly ~5 mph taking a road corner, caught by a slick white stripe/road marking. It can happen to anyone, at any time.

    That rider recovered in half the time the doctors projected - hope that can help keep his spirits high...

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  9. I hope he heals Keith style.

    Life is fraught with landlmines and sometimes I feel like everyday that we don't stumble on a big one is damn lucky. Things like that remind me to keep balance and perspective lest that "accident away" become my future.

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  10. Well, when I was recovering from Achilles surgery for 2 1/2 months, and after 5 am still not back in fighting form, I can say he will WANT to write an awesome app, but might not feel like it. I would end up working my butt off for 3-4 hours, then sat in the recliner to "rest" a bit around 1pm, and was GONSO the rest of the day. What surprised me the most, was my stamina was sapped away that 2 1/2 months. Trying to get it back now bit by bit.

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  11. That hurt to read. I hope he has a speedy recovery and returns to what he wants to do.

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  12. A possibility of a bit of Snow is predicted for Santa cruz mnts today.

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  13. Thanks all for the kind words. It also seems we are an accident prone group. Everyone either knows someone with similar injuries or they have been through it themselves. Its also interesting how many injuries happen when you least expect it - low speeds, easy trails.

    I see this very much as a temporary setback and I'm sure by summer I'll be back on the trails. Certainly by the time Hard COEre comes around I hope to be ready. :-) In the meanwhile little victories like standing and rolling around in a wheelchair by myself feel surprisingly good.

    I think bike companies should get involved in recovery gear. A pair of titanium Moots crutches would be really sweet.

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  14. married to a woman from SLC12:40 PM

    at the risk of being crass, interested to learn more about your build kit for the Moots 29, wheels, gearing, bars.

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  15. Anonymous8:31 AM

    Enjoy reading your blog and living viciariously through your fabulous attitude on life.

    Sorry to hear about your bud. An acquaintance/mentor (although she doesn't know it) of mine - Janelle Morrison was in a gnarly crash a couple years ago driving through the rocky mountains on her way to a fundraiser for - her! She has an amazing journey, partially documented through blogs, and actually a move just came out about her physical journey to healing.

    Sounds like your bud will have time to read, so feel free to pass this along!

    http://www.janellemorrison.com/blog.html

    Cheers!

    Erin

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  16. Anonymous8:32 AM

    *movie - not move!

    Erin

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  17. Classic JRA - "Just Riding Along" I've had a few running JRA's but not of the scope of Liehann's injury. Heal up Liehan! I wish you a "Keith style" recovery as well! Maybe it's time for a follow-up piece on that one...

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  18. Thanks everyone. Leslie — I should write a Keith update. Maybe a photo of him shredding some backcountry powder six months after a broken back.

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  19. The statement that "it could have been worse" is certainly true.

    But... I'm pretty sure next time I reassure a crashed buddy that it "it could have been worse", I'll be using Liehann's crash as the "worse" example.

    Thanks for the post Jill.

    Get better soon Liehann.

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