(Un)breakable

December 4th 2020, mid-day. I’m on my way to make the last delivery of my shift. I’m riding fast on a wide boulevard when suddenly a truck stops right in front of me. I brake but can’t avoid it. My knee hits the backdoor flush and I fall to the ground, screaming in pain like never before. I can’t get up… An ambulance picks me up and drops me off at the nearest hospital. A couple of hours later, a doctor comes to see me with the x-ray and some bad news: the upper part of my tibia is separated in two fragments. I’m not going to be able to ride a bike for 3 months. I feel like the world is crumbling around me. It seems unreal. It can’t happen. Not to me at least. Sure it happens every day, but not to me. That’s not possible. 

Denial…This is my first reaction.

I have had more than my share of accidents and crashes. But nothing serious ever. I had come to think I was too skilled and too lucky to sustain any serious injury. I felt I knew how to avoid most accidents and the one I couldn’t, well I always knew how to come out of them virtually unscathed. You know how they say judo practitioners know how to fall? Well I have never been on a tatami, but I was convinced I had a natural ability to hit the ground in the least harmful way possible. Just like a judoka.

I was wrong.

I spent three days in a hospital bed trying to come to terms with the fact that it happened. Possibly the three grimest days of my life. This time, I crashed and couldn’t get up. This time, my bones broke. Three days seems enough to come to terms with reality. But what are three days compared to a lifetime of being healthy? An entire existence with countless crashes, some of them pretty spectacular, and never worse than a sprain?

It took more than a month hopping on crutches for it to start feeling normal. An entire month where I would have moments while lying on the table at physio, telling myself “What’s happening? This is not me, this is not my life. What am I doing here?”

Night time was the worst. For two weeks, the pain kept me from sleeping. I couldn’t find a comfortable position in the bed. It took me two to three hours to fall asleep and the pain woke me up every fifteen minutes or so. Painkillers and sleeping pills did nothing. Every day I was dreading the time I would have to go to bed. 

In the meantime, I was struggling with sadness and a form of anxiety. A lot of negative and dark thoughts, about death and decay. For example, I thought of the plate of titanium the surgeon screwed to my tibia and the fact that it would outlive the bone. I imagined the piece of metal intact in my coffin when my body would be long gone. Having something unalterable inside my body reminded me of my own mortality. This body that seemed capable of extraordinary feats now appeared so fragile.

There’s not much you can do with such thoughts. I had to deal with them and try not to get too depressed. But I was still rejecting the idea of the fracture as part of my life. I felt the necessity of separating my life in two parts: one before the break and one after. I see now it didn’t make sense. This injury is a part of my journey. I’m human and my bones can break. They did and I have to accept it. 

Normally my job is to ride bikes. But for three months, my job was to overcome these hard times. Manage the pain. Physically and mentally. If there’s one thing I learned racing ultra, it’s that nothing lasts forever. Sometimes it seems like it does, but eventually, every hardship ends. Be it a snowstorm, a 10km long hike-a-bike or 3000m of ascent in a single climb. What I have learned from bikepacking is to patiently endure whatever the trail throws at me. The key is to keep moving forward. Keep at it and you will reach the end. 

It’s the same with a serious injury. Only it’s much longer. My advice to anyone finding himself in this situation is the same as to someone facing a long hike-a-bike: take one step at a time. What I did was to focus on being dedicated and thorough with my physiotherapy. At first it was lifting my leg up, then slightly bending the knee, then a bit more. I monitored my progress every Saturday by measuring the angle. Counting the degrees kept me motivated and focused. It was very important for me to visualize progress. I knew why I was going to PT every day. I was surprised that some people thought it was a chore. On the contrary! I was looking forward to PT every day! That was the time of the day when my leg was feeling alive. The time of day when I was feeling like what I’m supposed to be: an athlete. 

I also worked out my upper body more than I usually do. Just because you have a broken knee, it doesn’t mean you can’t exercise. Keeping active helps you heal and is much more productive than cultivating self pity. Mind and body are tightly intertwined. If you’re in good physical shape, you have better chances of having the right mindset to face the challenge. This was not easy though as an injury like this takes a lasting toll on the body and leaves you very tired. The healing process takes up a lot of the energy you usually have.

An accident like this is a very traumatic experience. Much more than I could have anticipated. To this day, I feel uneasy talking about it. Even though I can now ride my bike pain-free most of the time, I don’t like thinking about the crash or my days in the hospital. I haven’t grown accustomed to having a foreign body in my leg. Nietzsche said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m not sure I agree. When that kind of stuff happens to you, then you have to learn how to live with the fear and the trauma. It’s a bit more baggage that you have to carry through life. Maybe it makes you more suited to deal with other traumatic experiences. But I feel, it’s pretty much the only strength it brings you.

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