April 12th is always going to be a special day for me, almost as important as a birthday. While everyone has a day where they were born, I’m not sure everyone has a day where they can point to and say, “That day, that’s the day I learned what it means to be alive.”
Some parts of this piece appeared on Xtri.com in April of 2004. It veers hard towards that triathlon audience at the very end, but no matter what it is you’re doing – running, walking, paddling, rowing, swimming – whatever it is that you’ve chosen to get up and do, this still applies.
If you’ve read my work before, you probably know I used to race bicycles. From 1990 through 1995, I was a nothing but a road racer through-and-through. At the beginning of my first season I was scared of lots of things, namely (but not entirely limited to) descending, cornering, crashing, riding in a pack, wearing Lycra, and goofy looking, and loudly colored clothing (although I think I got over that one first).
Despite being scared of just about everything out there I’d never experienced, I rode, I learned. One ride at a time, one lesson at a time, I learned that my imagined fears were 10 times worse then the reality.
I learned how to descend by following others down roads faster then I’d ever been in my life. I learned how to corner by watching and following guys that made it look easy. Eventually, I did crash, and it hurt like hell…but at least I didn’t have to think about it anymore – I’d lived one. On one of the Wednesday night shop rides that was a staple of the local scene, I misjudged a corner At 30MPH. I nonchalantly rode off the edge of the pavement onto the grass, and fought to get back to the road. The thing was, since my wheels were busy bouncing off the grass, they were spending more time in the air than on the ground.
It made steering tough.
Just when I thought I had it saved I hooked a telephone pole with my right handlebar, and got flung back out into the road like a Frisbee.
When the ground-sky-ground-sky vista stopped, I was sitting in the middle of my bike. And I mean, IN THE MIDDLE. I was wearing the bike like a hula hoop. I had a chainring mark on my LEFT shoulder. Go ahead – been 25 years since that dinger, and I have no idea what sort of pseudo-gymnast kinetics put it there, but there you go.
Undaunted, I popped up, straightened the handlebars, and tore off down the road in pursuit of the lead group. I wouldn’t know until the end of the ride, but my helmet was cracked straight up the middle from the tumble. Some would say that I haven’t been the same since.
For good measure, I crashed again 2 days later during a Friday Night Road Race. I dumped it after getting hip-checked into a curb, but that one was fun. I landed on some wet grass and didn’t slow down a lick. I slid along on my back looking up at the pack (who were moving at the same speed, but with far less style), spraying water and mud in all directions.
I actually had enough cognizance to go, “Whee!” as my buddy Troy rode by. I would have waved if I weren’t still trying to steer the damn bike.
Basically, the more I rode, the less afraid I became. I was becoming surer of myself – more confident that I could do anything on a bike. I was starting to ‘get’ the racing vibe – after 5 years, I’d finally started to make breaks, and not just react to them. I hadn’t won anything yet…but I was starting to think about it.
April 12th, 1995 was a Wednesday – Time Trial Day on my weekly schedule. I was going to ride from my apartment in Troy, NY, out Route 2 up to Grafton Lakes State Park, then back down. I was a second-year graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic University. I’d managed to finish up my morning classes early, so I put on the gear and headed for the door. Before I stepped out, I called my girlfriend’s apartment to leave her a message. It was 11:50AM.
As I rolled out it was cool, but not cold. I was in shorts (my favorite Tommaso Bibs), arm warmers, and an fluorescent orange Pearl Izumi jersey. I looked like a 180-pound traffic cone, but that was the idea. In the winter in Upstate New York, everything in essentially grey from November through May, so bright colors are how you survive. It wasn’t raining, and it wasn’t going to. The skies were cloudy, but they were always cloudy.
I took the usual route through Troy, passing by the split of Routes 2 and 66, bearing left the way I did every Wednesday. I was riding the tops of the bars getting ready to wind it up – the “Starting Tree” was coming up on my right, when my rear tire blew. “KA-BLAM!”
“Son of a…!” I thought to myself. I had a spare, but I was just getting ready to pull the trigger and go, and now this? I looked down to see what I’d hit, and I saw…
Trees. Trees and branches where the ground should have been.
I was upside-down, and it was perfectly quiet. It only took me a millisecond to figure it out:
“Oh My God – I got hit by a car.”
I wasn’t scared – it was all very matter of fact. I was completely aware I’d been hit by a car, thrown in the air, and now I was upside-down. I was also still holding the bars, and as far as I can recall, still pedaling.
“Is this it?”
That’s as close as I got to the life-flashing-before-my-eyes deal you’re supposed to have in those moments. There was no panic – there was no worry. It was just so quiet.
But then I returned to Earth. Then it wasn’t quiet anymore.
Like a bullet shattering a pane of glass, sound came roaring back into my ears as I landed vertically, rear-wheel first. My right leg had unclipped from the pedals and folded into what was left of the crushed rear wheel, which had been broken in half by the front of the car. The disconnected spokes lanced through my leg, crushed into flesh by the weight of a bike and rider who were now at the mercy of Sir Isaac Newton.
Gravity being what it is, my ass hit next and, predictably, I bounced a good foot into the air, flipping not-so-gently right over onto my head. I never let go of the handlebars as the slide began. I can still remember the scraping sounds my helmet made as it ground itself to bits on the pavement – It lasted so long that I remember trying to lift my head up because I thought I’d burn through the thing in another second…
And then it was over. My personal plane-crash finally stopped.
It was quiet once more, so I lifted my head out from under my torso and looked around. In a moment of amazement I thought, “Oh my God – I really got hit by a car!” I sat up. The fact that I was incredibly pissed off served as an initial signal from my brain to the rest of my body that for starters, I wasn’t dead. I knew I was in the road and sure as hell didn’t want to get hit again, so I dragged my body and bike to the side of the road using both hands, sitting upright.
I took inventory: I shrugged both shoulders, and they worked! No broken collarbones! I unclipped my left foot, and it unclipped! I could move it! No broken leg! My right foot was already unclipped, and when I tried to wiggle it – it moved! YES!
Somehow I missed the fact that there were about 16 aluminum spokes, and one half of Mavic MA-40 rim running through said leg. If I really thought about it, I was now a Bob-Ke-Bob, but I was too busy with my triage to think about such things.
While making plans to stick to the training schedule (and figuring out how I’d put this episode in my training diary), I’d failed to notice that my left hand wasn’t quite right. When I’d landed, because I hadn’t let go of the handlebars, when my body weight came down on top of them, my left hand was crushed between the brake lever (which I was STILL using), and the bar. I’d broken two bones, dislocated a few more, and made a complete mess of a perfectly good limb (as well as an orthopedic surgeons afternoon and evening). But that wasn’t important. I had a ride to finish!
“’I’ve just got to change that tire, and I’m getting this ride in!” I seriously thought that. Right about then, my thoughts turned up the road. What hit me, anyway? I sat there, bleeding, skewered, looking for the car. It was stopped, but not close to me – it was a solid 50 yards away.
I remember the license plate – it was a vanity plate. Three initials and a number, on the back of a White Lincoln Grand Marquis. There were no skid marks leading up to me, and I never heard any horn. As I tried to do my best to put the whole scene together, the driver opened his door and wobbled out. He was old, frail, and completely and utterly unapologetic.
Admittedly in hindsight, I got our relationship off on the wrong foot by screaming in my best Italian, “WHAT THE F(@*#! WERE YOU LOOKING AT?!”
“I didn’t hit you, you swerved!” He countered. Truth was, he was 77 years old. I don’t know what he did, what he saw, or how it happened – the fact was he came onto the shoulder and without braking, swerving, or reacting, just drove into me. I slid up the hood, hit the windshield, and backflipped over the car, bike and all, still pedaling, still hanging onto the bars.
He drove on until he noticed that his windshield had shattered, and stopped to figure out what had just happened. In deposition a few years later, he was asked, “When did you first see the plantiff?” His answer, without the slightest hint of irony was, “I guess when he came through my windshield.”
But as I sat there on the side of the road on that day, on a day that was supposed to be like any other Wednesday before it, that’s when fear found me again. When I saw the ambulance and knew that this time it was for me? I started to shake and cry uncontrollably. I felt small, scared, and vulnerable; my shell of confidence was gone – ripped away in a moment of someone else’s ignorance.
While I sobbed and sobbed an EMT wrapped me in a blanket, held my hand, and just let me be scared. I’m sure she’d seen it hundreds of times before; as the adrenaline of the aftermath leaves the victim, they sink into the reality they’d been thrown into, all alone.
Nobody ever plans on having an accident (if they did, they’d be called purposes, or something much more clever), and there’s never time to think about it while it happens. It’s after it’s all over and you’re alive to know how close you came to checking out for good – that’s when the fear comes back.
They cut the spokes away, put me on the back board, and loaded me into the ambulance.
When they asked me, “What hospital do you want to go to?” I was stunned. “What hospital? What do you mean what hospital? The one with the doctors! I’m the guy who got mowed down, and now it’s time for Jeopardy?” I had to laugh – I had to make them laugh – I had to do something to pretend I had control over the moments. Less then 5 minutes ago I was sobbing, and now I was doing stretcher-based stand-up (which you can call lie-down, I guess). I was all over the place – trying to figure out just where that was, now.
I made a good impression on the medics. On my accident report someone had written, “Patient has two broken bones, two dislocations, severe road rash, contusions. Patient is awake, alert, and engaging.”
They took me to a hospital right around the corner from my apartment. It had doctors. Good ones. A surgeon put my hand back together. A nurse dressed the road-rash I had all over my body. In a few days, I went home. I had two pins in my left hand and about 50 yards of surgical gauze wrapped around me, but I was alive.
Completely, totally, and powerfully alive.
At 24 years of age I was incredibly aware of my own mortality. I had the kind of experience that nobody should have, but one that opened my eyes like never before. I had come within a whisper of dying, but walked (alright, been carried, rolled, drugged, re-assembled, then escorted) away. If I catch a red light at Route 2, it doesn’t happen. I don’t place a phone call, it doesn’t happen.
Getting back on my bike scared me more then I thought getting knocked off my bike ever would. I wasn’t sure if I would ever road race again – I didn’t have enough desire to race, but I did find enough to start riding again. On a borrowed mountain bike at first – around the block a few times, then a few miles away. I couldn’t ride alone, but my friends helped me. With each passing week I’d go a little farther, sometimes a little faster.
Skin and bones healed. My teammate Troy found a used frame for me to replace my beloved Serotta Colorado II I’d called, “Artemis.” I remember when he called me, “DUDE! It’s this crazy beam-bike called a Softtail or something – it’s yours!” In August of that year he brought it up from Virginia, and we took what parts we could off of Artemis to build up the new rig. We ‘borrowed’ some wheels from the neglected corners of the local bike shop, and using the random bits that young bike racers have in their toolkits – we had a bike. I had a new bike.
In September, I started riding the bike…alone. On rail-trails only, but I was back to riding again, something I wasn’t sure I’d be doing not too long ago. I was still too scared to get on the road by myself, but I was getting there. In my head I knew that I’d probably be racing again in the Spring for racing’s sake, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to: My motivation was gone. The secret to racing aggressively was to be above the fear – to have confidence that you can do it.
I’d worked to get there once: I’d tasted what it was like to be unafraid, but now I’d fallen a long, long way – I wasn’t sure I’d ever be back there again. When the days got too short to ride outside after work, I joined the local Bally’s to start lifting weights and tone back up for the season to come – whatever it would be.
On November 18th, 1995, Troy called me up out of the blue. He told me, “Hey – the Ironman is on TV. I thought you might want to check it out.” We were on the phone less than 15 seconds. I was heading out the door to go lift, so I hit ‘record’ on the VCR and taped it.
Later that night I sat on my floor, and watched the whole thing. I wrote down in my journal that night that before the decade was over, I would finish an Ironman.
My fear disappeared as quickly as my head could imagine me running towards a finish line. I could see it – I knew what I wanted to do.
That is how I got here.
It took nearly dying to find the triathlon life, but that was it. Troy and I had decided to call the new bike, “Phoenicia” – the closest thing we could come up with that sounded like a female Phoenix, as she would bring me back to life.
I rode that bike through my first season, my second season, and through my first Ironman. Though I no longer train on that frame, it still hangs in my basement. However, the Campagnolo Athena brakes that Troy and I salvaged from Artemis on that August afternoon – one piece of my old cycling life – those brakes that survived the crash, still ride with me on my current road bike.
All of us have had to fight fear, and we’ve all beaten it. Do you remember what it was like to sign up for your first triathlon? Can you remember what the butterflies were like? That high-voltage combination of joy, panic, and adrenaline that made the whole sordid drill of asking someone out in High School seem like nothing at all? You had the strength to sign up, to train, and to finish. Have you taken a moment to savor how awesome that is?
So many people look at something, sense fear welling up within themselves, and then back away. We might have before – maybe we all did so in our own lives before a certain point, but something happened to us.
Somewhere along the way, we decided one time to not to back away. We decided to look into the fear – to look past the fear: To see what life might lie beyond our self-invented, self-imagined obstacles. We saw fear not as something to be avoided, but to serve as a marker – a flag: To be seen as a chance to grow, and not a chance to shrink.
So whether you’re a first-timer reading this column to get ready for your first Ironman, or a calm veteran looking to rekindle the spark you once had when racing was new and exciting, you don’t need to look any farther. Look at where you’ve been. Look at where that will take you.
Get out there, and have the best season of your life.
You’ve got nothing to be afraid of.