September 24, 2010
In our regular series of wordy-features for the web, Geoff Marriott tells how he rode to keep himself sane as well as healthy through tough times but found himself in a lot of trouble after his regular off-road commute to work went awry. Put the kettle on and ignore everything for a bit…
I would imagine that I am very much like the silent majority of the Singletrack readership. We love the idea of mountain biking. We love the idea of big trips, big air and expensive kit; the reality is that we manage to grab rides on the commute to work and a few goes on our familiar trails, the bigger trips become annual occasions.
I have been riding for about 8 years and have stuck with the same bike that whole time – I am no demon on the bike! I could see that it was my skills and fitness which held me back on rides and not the bike. Biking has motivated me to get fitter and given me some fantastic memories – there is a basic formula that has maintained my interest in mountain biking since I started: getting some time away from your normal surroundings; enjoying some of the stunning scenery we have been blessed with in this country, spending time with your mates and feeling that you have earned the evening’s beers while you recall the near misses and moments of glory!
Riding through recession
2009- a funny year. My girlfriend, Katie, was expecting and due in July 2009, which was fantastic news. Meanwhile the country didn’t seem to be doing so well! I was working as an accountant in the construction sector. One by one sites across the north of England ground to a halt as funding for all the imaginative blocks of city centre flats dried up. I was made redundant in the February. It is amazing how much of our self esteem we all derive from our jobs, any prolonged period out of work can be very difficult to deal with, particularly when you have a little one on the way . I found that getting out on my bike really helped me to keep my head straight. I might not be able to control the economy but I could improve my fitness and skills with more riding.
Riding the recovery
Fortunately I did get another job starting shortly after my son was born. It was in Headingley – only 2.5 miles away. I could still go on the bike – in fact I knew ways that were largely off- road. The way in is mainly downhill, with a great section of singletrack with little jumps – quite enough excitement for me at that time of the morning! This leads to a short steep climb up the other side of Meanwood valley – which really gets the heart going – then through Meanwood woods to arrive in Headingley. On the way home you can head back to the top of Meanwood valley to have a quick fun descent before a long road climb home. So once I had settled into the new job I was on the bike every day – arriving at work feeling like I had already grabbed some fun from the day. As we had a very small baby in the house there really was no other time I would get to exercise, so I was massively grateful for that commute.
Of course I need new handlebars!
I put the effort in and biked in throughout the winter. The constant riding with the off road sections meant that I was getting the bug! I could feel my fitness improving and all the time in the saddle was making my bike feel like a second skin. I started to read more bikey magazines, I noticed every creak or missed gear. As I was on my bike everyday I started to rationalise new purchases for the bike. I’d never really understood upgrades but now I was developing the skills to merit new stuff! I was drooling over new gear in the local bike shop – I could appreciate bike porn! I had already upgraded the front brake to hydraulic and replaced through necessity the bottom bracket and cranks, but I also got carbon handlebars, new XT shifters and lastly new wheels, built around Hope Pro 2 hubs.
These purchases were to ready the bike for the arrival of spring. I have always got over excited by spring – it is a time of pure possibility! I send out emails to mates to try to get them to commit to weekends away biking – as we get older the ability to be able to do weekends away with just a couple of days notice disappears in a puff of smoke, getting it in the diary is the key – with as much notice as possible! This year come May time, I was imagining myself doing evening rides after work along local routes, with dappled sunshine and clouds of dust kicking up from the trail. I also organised a boys weekend camping near Coed Llandegla. We were due to go on the 22nd of May.
Training to fly
I mentioned the short decent on my way home from work – there is a point here where there is quite a steep natural drop- off. Just back from the top of the drop-off someone has built two kickers – one small one and one larger one. They taunted me every day! I have never really been comfortable with big air. Riding for me has been a ground based activity, but I wanted to improve, so I started hitting the little kicker, and then one day I went off the big one. The thing I found the most scary was not being able to see what you were landing on. I also didn’t really know what to do with my weight in the air – I sort of assumed I should try to keep it back. If you didn’t hit the kicker fast enough you just rolled wheel by wheel over the edge and grounded your bike and looked a right prat. So youhave to hit it fast enough to get a proper lift off – whilst having faith that you are jumping into a safe landing. I felt like I was making progress – I was hitting it every day and apart from the occasional rock left in the landing area it was going well.
I was looking forward to taking my great upgraded bike and my upgraded skills to Wales – I was secretly hoping that I would be able to kick my mates’ asses that weekend. On the Tuesday before the trip I was on the bike on the way home – I felt great and descended really really quickly to the kicker, hardly pausing at the top of the run in, I remember that I hit the big kicker a bit faster than usual. That is all I remember – until I have vague memories of being in Leeds General Infirmary A&E. Katie had been waiting for me to get home and relieve her of childcare duties for bathtime. I had texted when I was leaving work, so when I was not home an hour later and not answering my mobile she knew something had happened. Friends were called and a search party organised to check my route home. One good friend found me by following an ambulance as it turned off the main road to get to me. It had been called by a passerby. I have no idea who that person was but I am in their debt. My old housemate and regular riding buddy Andy picked up the message I was missing a little later but knew immediately where I would be. He arrived at the kicker to see me being loaded into the ambulance – completely boarded up but having regained consciousness and talking. They reckoned I had been out cold for about an hour and a half.
I had a CT scan at the hospital with unremarkable results. I was discharged after overnight obs. But on returning home it was clear all was not well. My speech was slurred, I was confused and leaning to the left. I was taken back to A&E and was admitted this time. Another inconclusive CT scan followed and then an MRI scan which showed results consistent with some hemorrhage and “diffuse axonal injury” – this is the result of shaking the brain violently and shearing connections in the brain. Recovery requires the brain to find alternative routes for messages. I wasn’t going home for a while.
I’m fine, honest!
In Leeds General I had a bed on the fifth floor next to a window. Every day we went downstairs to have a coffee on a roof terrace which looked out over the Leeds skyline. Yet when asked by an occupational therapist what floor I was staying on five days into my stay– I was insistent that I was on the ground floor.
That first week is hazy to me now – I vaguely recall some visits – but have forgotten others entirely. I had been brought in biking mags by friends and fixated on what new bike I would get. I didn’t really think that there was anything wrong with me. I was phoning work each morning and telling them I would be back in a couple of days. Katie was phoning them each afternoon and saying that there was no way that I would be there for the foreseeable future. I also had fantastic business ideas – like the Gledhow Forest Trail Centre, incorporating chalet accommodation with hot tubs – where the day’s aches and pains could be soothed away. Never mind that this is public space and that the demand for chalet style accommodation with hot tubs within the boundaries of Leeds ring road is unproven, I was ready to approach the banks for funding! As you can imagine this was not an easy time for Katie, who had to get time off work, look after our little boy, support me and act as visiting coordinator. Meanwhile I was insisting I was fine and on the verge of making the business deal of the century!!
After a week I was transferred to Chapel Allerton Hospital where they specialise in rehabilitation from brain injuries and strokes. It was here that I slowly began to appreciate that I was not behaving in the same way I was before the accident. My speech was still a bit slurred – I wasn’t myself – I also realised that I was not going to be back within weeks, but rather months. I had great support from the hospital team, which includes clinical psychologists, physios and occupational therapists. I made rapid physical progress aided by practicing on the Nintendo Wii and balance board. I could also see that I was sleeping a lot, needing long naps as my brain repaired itself. The type of traumatic brain injury I had often results in the higher brain functions taking a while to recover. I could’t deal with lots of information or people at once. Time off work was needed.
After two weeks in Chapel Allerton Hospital I was discharged back to thecare of my family. We had a discharge meeting with the doctors. We were keen to find out their view on something else: Katie and I were due to get married on July 23rd. The venue was booked, the invites were out. But would I be up to it?? Would I remember it if we did go ahead? Would I be able to take on the speech? Their advice was equivocal – we should definitely consider postponing.
One other piece of advice knocked me for six. I broached the subject about how long I should stay off the booze for?
“Well really you shouldn’t drink again…..”
……I’m sorry…. did you say just say I shouldn’t drink again!?
Eventually they said if all was well in four or five years then I could consider drinking sensibly again. The booze ban was because a traumatic head injury increases your chances of having epileptic seizures and getting drunk can increase this risk further. Although having said that and despite extensive and desperate research I have yet to find a website or any literature anywhere where the medical world encourages anyone to drink! I have stayed off for several months but am now allowing myself a couple of drinks – moderation is my new watchword! I was also told that I wouldn’t be able to drive for probably about six months. We decided to see how I was in two weeks before making any decisions about the wedding.
The support I have received after being released from hospital has been great. Regular meetings with an occupational therapist and testing to see where my brain works and where it doesn’t have been really great. They will also have a joint meeting with your employer so that you can come up with an agreed plan to get you back to work, while everyone understands the time-frame and potential dangers and pitfalls.
I have also been very lucky to have a great boss and employer who have been completely supportive. I can imagine that without this support you would have another pressure which could delay your recovery further. I made good progress at home. After a while I was able to look after my little boy on my own again which felt fantastic, especially having spent three weeks away from him. That said, progress was always slow, getting back to the old me sometimes felt impossible.
A damn good knees up
Katie and I decided that there was enough of me still there for us to be confident that we would still have a fantastic day on July 23rd. Preparations ramped up and I got on with speech writing. The accident at least providing good fodder for the speeches. The 23rd proved to be a sunny and warm day. Everything went like a dream. The accident had made us focus on what was important to us – and that is family, friends and each other. So many people had provided us with fantastic support when we needed it – it was great to be able to have something to celebrate with everyone after everything that had happened over the last few years. My speech went down a storm and I didn’t get tired or overwhelmed by all the people, it went as well as I had ever dreamt my wedding day would. The honeymoon provided the chill out period that both of us badly needed after all that had happened.
Back on the bike
I have been back on my bike since the accident – starting with tentative rides to the shops, graduating to short trips on local trails and then heading out to the Dales at end of September. Understandably I was nervous getting back on the bike – and initially very hesitant. But it has been a useful way for me to be able to assess my recovery – testing my coordination and spatial ability. I think it will have a lasting impact on my riding – once you have had it impressed upon you just how breakable our
bodies are you will add a degree of caution to your riding. But risks are part of riding and you cannot expect to remove them entirely unless you want to remove all the fun – I think I will be leaving jumps alone from now on though! My fitness has been completely destroyed – but you can always get that back – I am very, very lucky to be getting back to who I was before the accident.
Things to remember:
My lessons are clear: Wear a helmet! I would be a mess if I hadn’t. Ride with a friend if you are planning anything tricky. It is more fun anyway and safer.
Having said all this – biking is a fantastic hobby and this experience has not dented my passion for it – bring on next spring!