The Luckiest

I rode my ol’ touring bike out to Ocean Beach and one of my favorite coffee shops yesterday. It was a totally unremarkable event except that it meant the world to me that I could ride a bike again. So, the headline, right up front: I’m happy, I’m healthy, and I’m almost fully back to normal life!

Three months ago on a routine fitness bike ride, something went wrong, and I crashed into a guardrail at about 35 mph wearing only a helmet and skin-tight cycling clothes. I hit my head just hard enough to erase all memory of the event and its immediate aftermath, but not hard enough to do any long-term damage. My throat was cut open just enough to earn me a life flight, but by millimeters, not deep enough to threaten my ability to breathe or to speak. With six fractured bones and three vertebrae among them, I didn’t “walk away” from this one, but next to what narrowly could have been, well, I must still be here for some reason.

Throughout the experience of recovery, my spirits were continually buoyed by overwhelming generosity from strangers and love from friends. I’ve never before so fully appreciated the healing force of community.

Recovery is a Journey

Recovery is a large set of small victories. The first of these for me, at the four-hour mark, was the return of my ability to make memories. I’ve since learned that I was conscious through possibly all of the timeline of the accident, but with my short-term memory temporarily knocked out, I must have “woken up in the hospital” dozens of times before the first time I remember waking up. I could sit up after one day, eat solid food after two days, and take a shower after four days. Once in the second week, I tried to reclaim some independence a bit too early, and I set myself back a whole day simply through whatever small movements that clipping my own fingernails translated up to a broken back and collar bone. It was a great day when I discovered how to work the button on a pair of pants, which is very much a two-handed activity, by putting the elbow of my immobilized arm against a wall so I could push against the wall instead of recruiting my injured shoulder or clavicle. Then suddenly I was no longer condemned to wear sweat pants. Progress seemed to pick up at three weeks when the arm sling became optional, and I celebrated ~5° increased range of motion every day over the weeks that followed. At the end of the fifth week, when I could reach my left hand as high as my neck, it meant I could finally change my own neck collar and put on my own shirt. Then my Mom, my wonderful caretaker, could go home.

Maker:S,Date:2017-3-16,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-Y

My various neck collars. From the left: the stiff collar, the foam collar I wore for showering, and the soft collar I wore while I re-trained my neck muscles to hold my head up on their own.

When I woke up in the hospital and still before I knew what put me there, I made a conscious decision accept that my injuries would define my life for a while, and I committed to myself that I would do whatever was necessary to make that “while” as short as possible. I would do whatever it took to regain as much of my ability as I could. It meant I strictly followed the orders to lay flat and still on gurney for 30 hours until I was cleared to sit up. It meant I had to find a way through my powerful fear of needles. It meant I had to learn to accept help, which was tougher than I thought it would be.

I’m not the type to enjoy giving up control over any aspect of my life, but when something this big happens, control is obviously an illusion. Once in the early days after the accident, my mother asked me why I was so calm. Her tone said that she was searching for something deeper: signs that I wasn’t all there yet, or worse, that perhaps I wasn’t taking this seriously. I was calm because that was my job. The doctors and nurses knew far better than me. They were in control, and all I had to do was find my happy place and stay out of their way. Maybe that was a kind of strength I found in myself, or maybe it was the drugs. Either way, it’s good to remember what that state feels like, and I hope I’ll be able to re-find that peaceful state next time life events require it.

My recovery continues today. I’m in a transition phase now, busy climbing back into the complexities of work and the cycles of normal life even while I still mark time as pre- and post-accident. Physical therapy is wonderful. It’s amazing that I get to spend time with kind people whose passion it is to make my pain go away. There are times now that I catch myself with a frustrated thought about an ache or lingering limitation, and then I have to remember that I’m crazy lucky to be at this point so soon, or here at all, where I am starting to forget my identity as an injured person.

In all, I was off of work on medical leave for a day or two shy of six weeks. I might have gone back a little early, but it’s hard to draw that line, and at some point reintroducing normal routines helps pull you forward as much as you’re pushing yourself. While I was off, I was able to collect disability insurance from the state, and my employer Autodesk made up the balance of my salary. I learned later that since I had been back at Autodesk still less than a full year, neither of those benefits were required. It’s good to live in a system with an appropriate social safety net like that, and it’s good to be so lucky to have a generous employer. Thank you California, and thank you, Autodesk.

For most of the six weeks, it was quite painful to move. It was even painful to type, and because of it, I’m still woefully behind responding to all the beautiful messages sent my way, which is a great problem to have, really. At first, mostly reading and movies occupied my time. My Mom insisted we go through all of the Avengers movies, and we did, but at fully 18 available via Netflix or Amazon, it was a heavy diet of superhero action that all blends together. My friend Doug asked me what I was doing for my brain: “crosswords?” I thought that was a great idea, and pretty soon I was obsessed, and I completed over a hundred NY Times puzzles. It also required very little typing.

roadkill

While I couldn’t move much physically, crossword puzzles were my mental exercise. Sometimes there were hidden messages, this one in the first puzzle I did!… too soon?

Crosswords became something of a morning ritual with my Mom. While we ate breakfast, we’d go through two or three of them together. There are all manner of things either she or I might say about the experience of spending a solid four weeks of quality time together in a small, San Francisco apartment after well over a decade since I moved out to go to college, but then I found this NY Times story about a mother who bonded with her adult son over crosswords while she nursed him back to health. Really, I couldn’t possibly describe the experience better myself. I think we both learned a lot about who we have each grown to be since the years before I was an adult myself. I’m thankful for that too.

Thank YOU!

Thank you to my friends who shared your experiences of injury and recovery.

I signed up for a new gym membership about a month before the accident, which came with an introductory session with a personal trainer. The first session is undoubtedly a standard procedure meant to make you buy more sessions, but I shocked the trainer with a non-standard answer to his question: “Do you have any injuries?” “No.” “Wait, none?” “No…?” It turns out nearly everyone has injuries, and for my first major injuries, days after that, I just happened to over-achieve.

Throughout my recovery, I was the beneficiary of a lot of other people’s experience having gone through similar trials. One friend who had had several recoveries in her life stressed patience and prioritizing physical therapy. Another friend shared that he woke up in an ambulance once after a bike crash; he had no memory, but the sole witness said something like “yeah,… it was his fault.” Several friends shared stories of their friends who were biking and simply missed a turn and ended up similar to or worse than I did. It helps tremendously to share these stories because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

Thank you to my friends for sending me cards, voice mails, emails, fruit baskets, food, who visited me, and who simply let me know you were thinking of me.

Any trauma, physical or emotional, can be a lonely journey. My recovery never was, and I count myself among the luckiest humans to have such deeply caring friends. I am still working through a pile of thank-you cards to write, which is really the happiest entry on any to-do list.

Thank you to my friends who rallied to “Rebike Colin.”

I wish I had better words to describe how it felt to open my computer one morning to find this. It’s at once a thousand warm hugs and also the most incredible validation of all I’ve chosen to do with my life that reaches far beyond any accident. It’s an honor I can’t imagine ever feeling worthy of. Forever forward, this is a reminder of the good people I have the privilege of working for all over the world. It’s amazing I get to play a part in trying to make the world a better place with people like you.

Thank you to my colleagues at work who made space for me to fully disengage from the daily stresses of work to let me focus my energies on healing.

Maker:S,Date:2017-3-16,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-Y

Thank you to my care-takers: family, friends, nurses, doctors, paramedics, physical therapists, 911-callers, and food-preparers. I promise to always work to pay it forward.

So What the Hell Happened!?

I know you’ve been wondering too. I have no memories, and there are no known witnesses, but there are plenty of clues to how this happened, and I got to play detective. I was recording my ride on Strava, but I lost my phone and the ride data with it because no one pressed “Done” to upload the stats to the cloud. Circumstances, like which hospital I ended up in and the severity and locations of my injuries, suggested I crashed north of the Golden Gate on a downhill with a guard rail on the left, so probably Hawk Hill. Google confirmed that. Of course they know far more about me than I’d ever want, but I can’t argue that sometimes that’s useful. My Google location history had stored the fact that on May 15th, my phone left my house at 5:20 PM and traveled by bicycle, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up Conzelman Road past the Hawk hill overlook. My phone stopped moving at 6:19 PM on the left side of the road just past the second right turn, well short of the hairpin turn I had imagined felled me. The EMS report I requested through a medical records process says that I was found by someone, possibly plural someones, next to the guardrail five minutes later. The ambulance arrived ten minutes after that, EMS technicians were on site for five minutes, and I arrived at Marin General at precisely 7 PM.

It was unknown for a while whether another person were involved in my crash, and I admit I found comfort in the prospect of never knowing. If this were someone else’s doing, I didn’t want their name ricocheting around my head while I struggled through recovery, and if this were my fault, I didn’t want a new reason to feel humble. The crash location rules out that I was hit from behind because the road is too narrow for cars to travel much faster than 20 MPH and too steep for bikes to go much less than 30 MPH. My habit on that road was to wait at the top of the hill until any cars in front of me were out of sight so that I could [cough, cough] go really fast [cough]. The road is also too narrow for a bike and a car to pass one another, so it wasn’t a side-swipe. Other car interaction possibilities remain, but anything I can imagine seems contrived. Then the EMS report removed the last doubt that this wasn’t a solo misadventure.

Patient states he rides section all the time and usually does less than 20 mph.

You see, that’s a lie. I don’t remember any of this, and the report makes it clear that I was generally confused, but I answered correctly when the paramedics asked my name, the time of day, and where I was. You know what other sentiment must have survived the impact: guilt! Data from my previous Strava rides for that road at that point suggest 30-35 MPH was more typical, and I’m quite sure that after thousands of miles of tracking my statistics across the continent last year, I would have known that 20 MPH was ridiculous. It must have been like when an officer pulls you over for speeding and then asks you how fast you think you were going—no one would round up.

The answer to “how” comes from the road and the pattern of my injuries. The guard rail stopped me from going further down the 700-foot hill at a ~45° slope down to the ocean. The guard rail there is low to the ground, and I hit it on an angle across my chest, neck, and left shoulder, so I was off of my bike before the impact (else I would have been launched and landed far down the hill). My left shoulder was partially dislocated as if my arm were pulled down and backward, which is consistent with me flying over the handlebars faster than I had the chance to let go. That means the speed of the bike changed much faster than my speed did. Either I hit something, perhaps loose gravel disguised by the setting sun which would have appeared directly in my face as I made the turn, or I panicked and hit the brakes too hard while turning, which is the biggest of no-nos. The two biggest take-aways that I learned earlier this year in my motorcycle safety class (I got my motorcycle license on a whim, which just sounds harebrained now) that most solo motorcycle crashes are caused by either navigating a turn too widely or touching your brakes while turning, which triggers a quick chain reaction that causes instability. I was going somewhere around 35 MPH, which meant that engine or not, the same laws of physics applied to me as to motorcyclists.

I’ll never know which of the two scenarios caused the crash—hitting gravel or hitting the brakes—but it’s more useful for me to assume it was the one I can do something about. Here’s where I have to admit that I had two minor bike crashes earlier in the year, too, on my city commuter bike. In both cases, a driver was stopped at a light then a last-minute decision to cut right without checking to see if anyone was there first. In both cases, I reacted in time, but the brakes on the bike were too weak to come to a complete stop in time. I was never injured, but it should have been a wake-up call that that bike was dangerous, and I was probably learning dangerous habits from it, in particular that I had to squeeze hard to slow down. The new carbon frame bike I crashed on was probably far more responsive than anything I was used to. It means I have two bikes to fix or replace, and it means I have to take the time to re-train myself to be a safer rider. (No, it doesn’t mean I should stop biking, so stop it.)

As for the state of the bike, I’ll have to follow up in a post later on about what to do. It’s unclear still whether it’s fixable or whether it should be replaced; I’ve had conflicting advice from two bike shops. Either way it will take some coin, and the donations from those who wanted to Rebike Colin will certainly be used precisely for that. Thank you again, dearly. The sentiment is far more valuable than anything with a dollar sign.

The Luckiest

I’ve been simply overwhelmed with love over the past few months. I’ve always known that the great love among friends is one of the most rewarding parts of the human experience, and this experience simply provides more proof. I’m also very conscious that in most parts of the world and for most people, this story might not have ended so well. I had insurance, I didn’t lose my job, I didn’t lose my home, I had family who could take care of me, I had excellent medical care, and I’m not left with an addiction to pain-killers. I can’t say I know what to do with all that awareness yet beyond how I already vote and try to interact with the world, but I’m trying to figure it out.

I’ve found a new acquaintance with my own mortality through this injury and recovery. A lot of what that means is so personal that I’m unlikely to find words for it, but I know I’m thankful for it. Being hurt definitely sucks, but recovery is also a valuable part of the human experience, and I’m privileged to know it, and to share it with others when they face it too. Thank you all.

An Idle Tuesday

Last Tuesday I decided to go for a quick bike ride after work. It would be my last chance to ride my gorgeous new Cannondale high-mod carbon frame road bike before nearly two weeks of travel, and my legs were restless. It would also be my first solo ride with my dream bike, so I probably had something of a romantic notion to ride my favorite road in the Marin Headlands, about a 90-minute loop I’ve ridden maybe a hundred times. I remember leaving my apartment at about 5:30, riding north on Laguna St., and riding west through the Presidio along the shore. I also remember enjoying the relative lack of ambling tourists on the narrow approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. Then I woke up in the hospital.

Everything hurt and nothing in particular hurt. My head was immobilized with a collar. I wiggled my toes and fingers to make sure they were still there—they are. I asked someone standing over me what happened. “You were in a bike crash. Do you know your name?” I answered. “Your birthday?” “Do you know what day it is?” I got those right, after noting a wall clock that read 10:00, so it was likely in the evening of the same day. Then—I’m not joking—he asked me: “Who’s the President of the United States?” I answered: “I’ll tell you who I wish was the President of the United States.” He smiled, looked up, and yelled something like “okay, I think he’s with us.” Mercifully, I have a complete gap in my memory for 3 to 4 hours before this.

They told me what they knew. I had a fractured vertebra in my neck and two fractured vertebrae in my back. Fractured sternum. Broken rib above my aorta. Broken left collar bone. My throat was cut, and they were worried that I had punctured my trachea and damaged my vocal chords. My heart and and liver showed signs of injury. I had been found “on a guard rail,” by someone who called for an ambulance. I was responsive and repetitive in the ambulance, and I clearly had memory loss, which indicated a concussion.

The possible complications with damage to my aorta and trachea were the triggers to transfer me by helicopter to a Level 1 Trauma Center. This would have been in San Francisco except for a city ordinance forbidding medical flights (SF NIMBYism at its finest, no doubt). At about 11:30 PM, I was strapped to a board and flown to the next-closest trauma center at Stanford. I suppose I’m glad I remember what I hope remains the most expensive flight of my life.

Marin Headlands

The glorious downhill section of my favorite road, somewhere along which my accident occurred. (With one arm now in a sling, making this graphic was also a test of my one-handed Photoshop skills.)

In the wee hours of the morning in the Stanford E.R., doctors verified that the damage to my trachea did not include a puncture, which greatly simplified things thereafter. I don’t want to know more about why they were worried that my vocal chords were damaged, but I can assure you that I have no trouble yapping. They glued the hole in my neck shut along with a hole in my left foot. It would appear that I kicked the corner of an I-beam pretty hard, which left matching slits in my foot and my otherwise pristine bike shoes.

I called my parents in the morning. I have no defense for having waited so long; I should have called as soon as I was lucid. I remember thinking about the three-hour time difference and not wanting to wake them, which I suppose is classic focus at the wrong level of detail when you’re overwhelmed. When I reached them, they were literally on their way out the door to drive to a woodworking conference in Iowa. They dropped everything and got plane tickets, and after all manner of airline delays, they arrived at 2 AM local time the next morning.

A funny consequence of the accident is that my phone was lost, and with it, almost all my ability to contact the outside world. The phone was loose in the back pocket of my cycling jersey, and since it was absent among my recovered belongings, the likeliest explanation is that it continued over the cliff when I was stopped by the guard rail. The only phone number I know is my mother’s, and that’s only because it’s similar to mine. What’s more, I’m security-conscious, so I use a password manager for everything, where my phone is the second factor for all two-factor authentication. Without it, I don’t know any of my other passwords! I’ll get a new phone this week, and all will be right with my digital world, but I’ve taken the point that my digital life can be rendered just as tenuous as my physical life.

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Me and my new bike, a week before the accident, at the top of Hawk Hill on my favorite road in the Marin Headlands.

Every day has brought noticeable improvement over the day before. Milestones so far: no existing or immediate risk of spinal cord damage, heart and liver enzyme levels returned to normal, discharged from the hospital, first shower, and yesterday was my first day without needing Oxycodone for pain. Mom offered to stay in San Francisco to take care of me for as long as I need her. I would be in a rehab facility otherwise. I must wear a neck collar for at least the next six weeks, and my left arm will be in a sling for all or most of that. I am crazy lucky that the fractured vertebrae in my back are just high enough that they’ll heal on their own as long as I don’t twist my back; were they much lower, I would be lying flat until July.

We’re still figuring everything out at the moment, and all I can say for sure that I know I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. Perhaps the craziest part is that after all of this, it’s a reasonable expectation that I will make a complete recovery, with normal function restored as early as 6 weeks from now.

A very large number of people are doing everything they can to make it easy for me to win. The doctors, nurses, pilots, drivers, custodians, therapists, and administrators at Marin General and Stanford Healthcare are top notch. I’m also keenly aware of the sacrifices my Mom and Kert are cheerfully making to help me heal. Thanks also to my colleagues at Autodesk as well for their kind words, flowers, and for taking on more in my temporary absence.

As for cycling, even now I can’t imagine that I would ever stop. Being on a bike is the happiest place I know, and it’s changed my life so strongly for the better. I have some investigation to do, though, and some healthy soul-searching to find a way to keep the risk lower in the future. Mom asked me in the hospital if I would ever have set out across the country last year if I knew then what I know now what those dangers truly mean. While working to reduce risk should always be a fundamental, personal disposition, I hope my answer is always yes. Everything worth doing carries risk, and fear should never be disabling.

One nurse I met at Stanford is a cyclist herself. Years ago, she was riding with a friend down the California coast on Highway 1 when her friend inexplicably missed a turn and crashed badly. Her friend was life flighted to a trauma center and eventually recovered. “They say all cyclists have either had a major accident or are about to,” she said. I’ve heard that before too. So my new goal is to remain a subject only of the past-tense clause!

Thank you for your thoughts!

Data As Story

This is the story of the numbers. My journey from Boston to San Francisco, mostly by bike, was relatively tech-ish, or at least more techy than any cross-country ride 10 years ago could have been. Everything I needed was in the form of one app or another my phone. In Colorado, I met a couple at Lizard Head Pass in Colorado who were taking in the view when I reached the summit. The gentleman had done his own cross-country ride decades ago when he was in his 20s, and he told me he had to carry a big road atlas to navigate. That would be different…

I recorded my ride every day with two apps on my phone: Ride With GPS and Strava. Sometimes Ride With GPS was also navigating me along routes I had pre-planned, and sometimes I used Google Maps to override my original plan. I took pictures with my phone, checked the weather with Weather Underground, shared pictures with Instagram (@mccronecolin), blogged with WordPress, and kept in touch with friends via texts, Facebook, Twitter (@colinmccrone), and Gmail on my phone. It felt odd but also pleasantly old-timey when I switched to using paper maps between Pueblo, CO, and Carson City, NV.

With tech comes data. Elevation gain and loss is notoriously difficult to calculate, and the two apps I used to record my rides gave different results. Either way, the scale of the thing is still insane even for me to think about.

Tot Distance                  3,614 miles       5,816 km
Tot Moving Time                 317 hr            317 hr
Tot Avg Speed                  11.4 mph          18.3 km/hr
Tot Elev Gain (Strava)      141,783 ft         43,215 m
Tot Elev Gain (RWGPS)       179,620 ft         54,748 m

Max Distance/Day                111 miles         179 km
Max Moving Time/Day            9.05 hr           9.05 hr
Max Speed                      44.7 mph            72 km/hr
Max Gain/Day (Strava)         6,101 ft          1,860 m
Max Gain/Day (RWGPS)          7,648 ft          2,331 m

Weight of Bicycle                75 lb             34 kg
Weight I Lost                     9 lb              4 kg

Yes, 44.7 mph on a heavy bike is terrifying. Each time I “bombed” down a hill, I was hyper-aware of pebbles, sand, or any possible cracks in the pavement that could ruin me. I hit the greatest speed on a stretch of UT-12 on Boulder Mountain. I learned later that the Tour of Utah uses the same road, and cyclists regularly hit 100 mph there. My normal daily maximum was more like 35 mph.

Obviously I daydreamed several times during the ride about how I would visualize all the juicy data I was collecting when it was all over. Part of my professional self-definition is that I’m a “computational designer,” which mostly means that I like to solve design problems with math and logic. At Autodesk, I was once the “Computational Design Evangelist” (exactly as it appeared on my business card, in fact) for Dynamo, which is a visualscripting program for architects and engineers. I won’t show you the script, which would be meaningless to the uninitiated, but the results are fun to see.

In the visualization tool I made, data about the distance traveled, time, moving speed, and elevation gained each day are shown with an animated bar chart, while a drawing of the bike (or the rental car during my week-long New Mexico side trip) makes its way across the country. You can play with it yourself at Colin’s Cross-Country 2017. You just need an Autodesk ID to sign in, which is free to setup.

DynamoStudio

Making this little toy was another way for me to process what I just did with my life. And numbers, we all know, often tell a different story than our memories might. For me, looking at the data, I learned a few things:

  • The ride from Denver to San Francisco was just as long and at least twice as difficult as everything else that came before. So it really was kinda crazy to plan to fit that into 3 ½ weeks as I did. I think I only made it because I was stronger than I realized after the eastern half of the country trained me.
  • My average moving speed each day was relatively constant, even after the plains turned into mountains. That says something about the physics of bike riding and air resistance, but also that my strength increased significantly over time to compensate for the increasingly challenging terrain.
  • That second day in Western Mass, which at the time I sheepishly called “A Little Too Ambitious” really was that hard. It was was tougher, elevation-wise, than every other day save one. For where I was physically at the time, that was a mistake.
  • My cross-country ride had three very distinct phases:
    1. Boston – Cleveland: rushed and somewhat inconsistent
    2. Cleveland – Kansas: Steady, consistent, with evenly-spaced rest days
    3. Denver – San Francisco: Intense rides every single day with no break
  • The middle of the country isn’t nearly as flat as we all think it is.

So here it is, data-as-story:

ColinCrossCountry