Cyclocross Magazine columnist Paul Warloski profiles his return to cyclocross after a near-devastating injury. Follow Paul as he takes us along for a ride of trials and tribulations of a cyclocrosser with a refreshed perspective. If you missed it, check out Paul’s last column, Chase Fun, Not Points.
Finding Perspective: How To Play That Hand (or Bike) That You Were Given
by Paul Warloski
Although I’m no longer going to win any prizes for prettiest legs, the crash that nearly took my life has offered a surprising gift.
The day I was brought in by ambulance, the doctors took me into surgery immediately, the first of four, and I spent eight days in the hospital.
Many friends and family members came to visit, and in the first few days, memories of their visits were a little fuzzy.
On the fifth day, Jay L. visited me. I had known Jay from the track at Kenosha and from the various group rides around Milwaukee, but I didn’t know him well. So when he arrived, I was a bit surprised.
But Jay knew exactly how I was feeling. A decade earlier, Jay, a serious Cat. 2 racer, was hit by a semi truck and dragged underneath it. Most of the muscles in his right leg were literally scraped off. I knew the story and could see Jay’s mangled leg when he rode.
But Jay didn’t come to compare war stories. He simply told me what happened to him and what happened after his accident. He told me about the multiple surgeries and constant pain and therapy.
Jay still rides many Tuesday nights at the Kenosha track, spends his summer racing the Wisconsin Off-Road series, doing long group rides, riding at Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park, and enjoying the camaraderie of his friends on bikes. He loves riding anything on two wheels and has raised his son Nate with the same kind of love of cycling.
Jay loves riding his bike regardless how fast he is or how much he measures up in a race.
And when Jay visited that day, he was also letting me know that I was in for a long recovery, that I would never be the same kind of cyclist, that I could expect a painful and challenging therapy. Everything was going to change, and everything was going to take a long time, much longer than I’d ever expect.
He could never have prepared me for what was coming.
Therapy began for me at the hospital on the third day. The PTs had me walking to the bathroom and doing small steps with crutches. I had to learn how to walk again.
In the first four weeks, a PT visited me at home. I did everything he asked me to do and more, and when he left, I did more, stretch bands, rubber balls, simply raising and lowering my leg, firing the hamstring and quad muscles.
By the second or third visit, I was so sore from all the extra work I was doing, the therapist scolded me and told me I had to slow down or I wouldn’t make any progress.
But my identity was so wrapped up in being a cyclist that I had to push myself harder than ever. I couldn’t teach, I couldn’t ride my bike. What the hell was I?
Once I “graduated” from in-home care, Kim took over the physical therapy. I made more progress than the doctors ever expected due to Kim’s work and my stubbornness and determination. And when my leg was healed enough for me to walk without crutches or a walker, the doctors operated on my shoulder, repairing a broken humerus, torn labrum, and torn rotator cuff.
Therapy for the shoulder was a lot more painful and arduous than my leg. There were days Kim had me in tears both because the pain was so great and because we seemed to only make incremental progress.
Formal physical therapy ended, and I kept on with lifting and riding. That fall, six months after the crash, the my wife inc crew traveled down to Jackson Park in Chicago for the first Chicago Cross Cup race. My only goal was to finish and not be lapped by the 40 plus leaders. I managed to finish in the top 30. It hurt a lot, and I had to stop and walk over the barriers, but I finished!
I raced several times in 2009, mostly in the Cat 3s, finishing near the back of the field, but still finishing unlapped. In Cincinnati, I had several good finishes including a surprising top five in the 45 plus.
My knee, with the pins still in it, was really starting to hurt. So when mwi went to Louisville, and I had a hard time climbing the steep flyover stairs, I decided to call it a season.
My thoughts often returned to Jay throughout the season. “It’s a long process, Paul,” he kept saying. “Be easy on yourself.”
And again in the 2010 season, when the demons of expectations and self-criticism emerged full force that I wrote about in the last column, Jay kept reminding me about the long process and that I get to ride my bike again. I’ve been given that: I can still ride. I’m alive. I have two legs that work and can pedal.
In this off-season, while I put in the base miles and the time in the gym, Jay’s perspective is part of my mental and emotional training.
The results don’t matter. What matters is how hard you race, how much joy you bring to a race, how high is the fun quotient.
This fall, I want to ride my ’cross bike with the legs I have now.
We are just little boys and girls riding our bikes in grass, sand, dirt, and, hopefully, mud. We ride our bikes for fun.
Thanks for reading.
Paul Warloski races cyclocross for the my wife inc cyclocross team in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is 47 and a middle school English teacher. He was nearly killed in a 2009 crash when a large pick up truck broadsided him on a training ride. In this column, he is documenting a year learning how to be positive and content regardless of results as well as physical training. He maintains an irregular blog at http://warloski.blogspot.com.