One Woman, One Crash, and 514 Days of Recovery (and Counting)
Because sometimes the injuries that take the longest to heal are the ones you can’t see
Sunday, July 12, 2015 started like most other weekends — I woke up early, brewed a single-cup of French press, took too long to pick out socks, and hitched a ride with a friend to the Liberty Criterium. I was on the fence about doing this particular race; I wasn’t familiar with the course and was feeling the mid-season burnout — inevitable for bike racers in NYC, where there are countless racing opportunities every weekend and weeknight. I ultimately don’t know why I decided to race. I can only assume I was motivated by the same thing that often gets racers to the line: the ever-present possibility of fun and success.
Plus, that season felt different. Although I had always prided myself on being a super domestique — the type of rider who is happy to cover the front of the race, lead out our team’s sprinter, and then roll through the finishing stretch, gasping for air in last place—my teammates and I had stopped gelling as well as we had in seasons prior and I was starting to feel the fire I needed to put myself on the podium. It wasn’t about getting my cat 2 upgrade necessarily, just the realization that I might actually be strong enough to do something great for myself — an unfamiliar feeling, and one that I struggled with while earning my category 3 upgrade.
Arriving at the race in suburban New Jersey, I immediately noticed that it wasn’t much of a crit course — unhappy news for someone who enjoys cornering at speed. It was a giant oval, with one long uphill and one long downhill, something I would later analyze and overanalyze in terms of what it meant for safety.
The first few laps of the race were speedy, but not insane. With each lap of the oval, I felt more comfortable, managing the surges and finding the best place to position myself within the pack. Twenty minutes into the race I found myself near the front of the 1/2/3 field feeling calm and collected — confident even. I started to wonder if I might actually have a decent finish.
And then a rider attacked.
The field accelerated and the two women in front of me bumped into each other. The details are fuzzy, but I faintly see their shoulders collide, their bodies leaning into each other.
I remember thinking: I should bail. There’s about to be a crash. I should bail.
And that’s it. Everything went black.
The crash — and the following 12 hours — only exist in my mind as mini-episodes, small flashes of memory. The rest of the details were eventually filled in by friends and family. But here’s what I’ve been told happened:
The two women in front of me locked handlebars. I hit them going 30 miles per hour, sailed off my bike, and landed on my face. For more than 20 minutes, I laid sprawled out on the pavement, soaked in blood, waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
If I concentrate really hard, I can faintly hear a friend’s voice asking if I am okay. I think I reached up my hand to take his. I vaguely remember hearing someone ask for a doctor. There was one on site and she asked me a series of questions to see how badly I was hurt. I knew my name, social security number, and who the president is. But there were more questions — like, what race are you at? — that I didn’t know the answer to. I was aware of and frustrated by my own confusion and rather than being concerned about my face or my body, I declared over and over: “My brain has to be okay! I need my brain because I’m starting a Ph.D. program this fall! Or, did I already do my Ph.D.?”
I clearly remember hearing another friend say with authority, “Take her to Morristown Medical.”
Once there, the questioning began again.
“Liz, do you want a plastic surgeon to sew up your face?”
“Liz, what hurts?”
“Liz, can we call your Dad?”
My back, my neck.
No, don’t call my Dad, but call my best friend, Lisa.
My back and neck were broken. Having suffered a compression fracture to my spine in a non-cycling accident in high school, I just knew. I remember whimpering, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it again. I can’t recover from another spinal injury. I just won’t.”
And then I added, perhaps only to myself, I would rather be dead.
After several hours of tests and waiting, the diagnoses rolled in and my worst fears were confirmed: fractured T8 vertebrae (upper back), fractured transverse process of the C2 vertebrae (neck), at least two “superficial” skull fractures, and, as I would discover a few days later, two cracked molars.
A three-hour spinal fusion — during which a surgeon would drill two titanium rods and 10 screws into my upper back — was scheduled for noon on Wednesday. Until then I would lay completely flat in bed. Sometimes I was allowed to roll slightly left or slightly right, a maneuver that took at least three hospital staff to execute and, if I was lucky, a friend to hold my hand. Numb spots began to form all over my once-capable body.
What Was Lost
At the time of my crash, I was serving my second year on the Board of Directors of the Century Road Club Association (CRCA), the oldest and largest bicycle racing club in the country. That year was particularly special, as I had the honor and responsibility of serving as one of the first female presidents in the Club’s 117+ year history. In addition to volunteering countless hours of my spare time to make bike racing happen in New York City, I was also a devoted teammate, waking up before dawn to train in Central Park or across the George Washington Bridge and traveling to races on the weekend. My life revolved around cycling.
The Liberty Criterium took all that — and so much more — away.
I was released from the hospital only four days after my surgery wearing a cervical collar and a back brace and feeling totally overwhelmed. I had lots of help—my dad flew in from Louisiana and friends stopped by almost every hour of every day to make sure I had food, clean sheets, and company—but still, time crawled. Most days, I spent the majority of my time lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, crying, and unable to concentrate on much else.
In those early weeks of recovery, mustering the courage to survive one more hour was my only concern. But as the hours stretched into days, the days into weeks, and the weeks into months, the enormity of what had happened began to sink in. Soon, all I could think about was the athletic confidence that had just ignited within me — and was now gone. The job that I had just gotten and loved, and how happy I had been to wake up every day and go into an office where I felt appreciated and respected. The man I had just started to date, who, although quirky, was interesting and smart and had an obsession with cycling that rivaled my own.
I thought about all this and I felt absurd. Absurd for not only thinking that my life was great, but that I actually deserved that greatness. I felt ashamed that I, even for a moment, thought I could be anything other than the domestique — the girl who works her ass off and finishes last. I was embarrassed for thinking I could be anyone but a behind-the-scenes volunteer who not only doesn’t expect anything in return, but doesn’t feel that she deserves it either. The crash and my injuries validated all the self-loathing and self-doubt that was buried inside before my crash, and that I felt like I was just starting to address and maybe even overcome by channeling it into success on the bike. Suddenly, I had the perfect reason to feel all those things. And so I did. I hated myself.
Less than two months later, school started. I went from being totally unable to concentrate on anything — even O, The Oprah Magazine — to being in a demanding Ph.D. program. I was still in physical pain, but more than anything, I was mentally overwhelmed. By everything. Personal relationships fell apart. I questioned my place in an elite education institution, feeling incompetent and dumb. I was ashamed of my body for having broken my spine for the second time in my life, for the bright red scars that dotted my face, and for constantly feeling tired and in pain. I felt alone. Over and over again I told myself that I didn’t deserve to be happy. And the more I said it, the more I believed it.
The Road Ahead
Perhaps the one good thing about being so fucked up is that you don’t have any choice but to recover. It didn’t come to me in an “aha” moment, but I would slowly realize that there were two paths ahead of me: I could wallow in my physical and emotional pain or I could choose to recover.
But recovery meant recovering at everything: My return to riding, training, and bike racing would also mean facing fear in other parts of my life and learning to love myself, maybe for the first time in my life. That included navigating personal relationships, speaking up in seminars, feeling confident about my work, and coming to terms with my new body — titanium, scars, aches, and all. I had to face it all at once, and I had to face it in a weakened state, both physically and mentally.
And so I set out to heal. I was diligent about my physical recovery: I went to acupuncture. I went to physical therapy. I did prescribed exercises at home. I went on walks. I took vitamins. I ate well. I slept a lot. When I felt strong enough and brave enough, I started riding my trainer, even though I was still in a neck collar. As soon as the surgeon OK’d me to ride outside, I went. Less than six months after my crash, I restarted a structured training plan.
I tried to give myself the downtime I needed to recover as well, but this was far more challenging. I scaled back volunteer commitments, skipped social engagements, and in general opted to be at home and alone over anything else.
I felt like I had sacrificed “enough” in the name of recovery and yet was never getting enough mental rest. I struggled to juggle class, work (despite being a full time student, I was still working part time), and the seemingly endless appointments I had to keep to stay on top of my physical health. Several times I needed to stay up late working on a paper or study for an exam but was physically incapable of holding myself up and would just fall asleep in a weepy, snotty mess.
The amount of physical change I experienced paired with the lifestyle change of giving up my full-time job and going back to school often felt like too much to process. The mental recovery was debilitating, and being thrown into an intense work environment allowed me to put off addressing it. At times, I felt thankful for having so much work to do, because it allowed me to ignore my mental recovery.
But the issues resurfaced. I was plagued by flashbacks that flared up when I was tired and stressed. Memories of my crash would hit me without warning regardless of whether I was sleeping, up late preparing for class, walking down the hallway at my office, or riding my bike. It was always the same — a heavy feeling of sadness and total helplessness would overwhelm my entire body. Visions of what little I can remember would flood my mind and I’d become completely frozen and disabled. Sometimes I could stuff it back down and move on. Other times I’d have to take a seat, or stop riding my bike, drop my head, and remind myself to breathe.
Even worse than that, I began suffering panic attacks. I can still remember the first time it happened. I woke up and decided I was too scared to ride outside, so I hooked my bike up to my indoor trainer and started my workout. After about 30 minutes, I couldn’t take it. I fell over my handlebars and sobbed, all the memories of my crash pouring into my head. Suddenly my back hurt. My neck hurt. My face felt swollen and bloody. I pictured the ceiling of the hospital that I was forced to stare at for so many hours. I visualized being rolled into the OR and the surgeon taking scalpel to my back. I had to get off my bike. I had to cry.
I was shocked when my therapist told me I have post-traumatic stress, not wanting to believe I could have such a thing. It felt foreign, like something only soldiers or victims of domestic violence suffer. No one else. Especially not me. I had trouble accepting that I had experienced something that could be classified as a “trauma.” Although I was making progress in certain areas of my life, I felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Don’t Call it a Comeback
Despite all the pain and trauma, never once did I resolve to quit bike racing. Racing again was always the goal. But I was scared — not only of crashing again, but of being too afraid to even get myself to the starting line.
I joined another team in the CRCA full of women I had known for a long time and who I thought — more than any other group of women in NYC — would be most supportive as I navigated my recovery. I trained alongside them throughout winter and although it was a long slog, I gradually started to feel stronger — not like my old self, but stronger. Once the NYC race season started in March, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d want to race again, too. I desperately missed the adrenaline rush, that special connection with teammates that only happens at speed, and above all, that elusive post-race glow.
I planned for my first race back to be just a few days after I handed in the last paper for the first year of my Ph.D. program (the fewer things my mind needed to occupy itself with, the better, I reasoned) and chose a Central Park CRCA race so that I could compete against people I knew on a course I could ride with my eyes closed.
Still, in the weeks leading up to the race, I couldn’t commit. My internal dialogue was a continual debate: Should I race or not race? If I race, will there be a crash? Unlikely. But, if I do crash, will I have to repeat everything I went through over the last year? Unlikely. But even so, am I ready to crash again? It is, after all, an inevitable part of bike racing. Even the greatest bike handlers hit the deck every now and then. So am I okay with crashing?
I looked to my coach to decide for me. Despite much prodding, he wouldn’t. I asked friends and teammates to tell me what to do. Everyone said the same thing: Race if you’re ready. Don’t if you’re not. It’s ok if you don’t race right now. It’s ok if you don’t ever race again.
Paralyzed by indecision, I decided to take the advice of a teammate and go through my pre-race routine, taking everything one step at a time, always giving myself the option to quit.
So Friday night I pinned my number onto my jersey and set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. At 5:30 the next morning — exactly 10 months and nine days out from having my spine screwed back together — I showed up in Central Park and made my way to the starting line. When the official blew the whistle, I clicked into my pedals and rolled off with the group.
Things more or less fell into place. It was a five-lap points race — with sprints at the finish line of every lap — and I led out two teammates who took first and third in the first sprint. Later, when one of those sprinters got dropped, I buried myself to make sure she made it back to the field to contest the remaining sprints. I got dropped with one lap to go, but I didn’t care. I felt like I had won.
What Was Found
Now that I’m back racing, I frequently get questions like, Are you back to normal now? How does it feel to come back after such a bad crash? And sometimes, the casual comment that is perhaps meant to show admiration but to which I never know how to respond: I can’t believe you’re racing again after what happened to you.
It’s a fair point. I can’t believe it either.
I wish I could say that the familiar feeling of racing came back as soon as I rolled off the line, and that everything has been wonderful ever since. But the reality is, I cried on the starting line of that race, and have cried at and during many races since then because of fear. I have DNF’d a few races because of fear. I often sit on the front of the field or slightly off the back of the field or just attack when it makes no strategic sense, because of fear.
When I raced my first crit post-crash, I couldn’t help but visualize everyone in front of me crashing — the entire peloton going down like little plastic dominoes, with me getting crushed and laying at the bottom of a bloodied pile of spandex, again with a broken spine — because of fear.
And I still struggle with pain. It’s not uncommon to see me going home early or taking a moment to sit or lie down and talk myself through it. My upper back is still numb to touch; there is a bulge that I affectionately call “my bolt” that sometimes bothers me when clothing rubs against it or when I lean against a wall. My neck and shoulders get tight and ache a lot. Sometimes it feels like I can’t hold my head up.
I’m still working through the pain in the rest of my life, too. Personal relationships are challenging. It’s hard for me to imagine falling in love with someone who will never know who I was before the Liberty Criterium, so I’ve been afraid to date. But I’m trying to push myself to open up and trust people. I’m getting better about speaking up in classes and having confidence in my writing and my ideas, but some days it just feels too scary to assert myself. The fear of humiliation from confidence always looms.
So, no. I’m not back to normal. I’m learning a “new normal.” Recovery never really ends. There’s no magic formula for how to manage fear and mental pain. There’s no training plan for confronting trauma. It’s a chaotic and unpredictable process with no real end in sight.
By most measures, my physical and emotional recovery have been remarkable. But I still have a ways to go. Some days I feel like I’m on top of the world, and other days I feel as damaged and as ashamed as I did the moment I rolled into the ER. Thankfully, I have an understanding coach, therapist, physical therapist, massage therapist, and acupuncturist and the support of family, friends, colleagues, classmates, professors, wonderful teammates, and a huge community of cyclists to help me figure things out along the way. (I often think about two very close friends in particular who came back from bad crashes stronger, smarter, and more committed than they were before. Lisa and Shane, you are my inspiration.)
I rationally know that I am not alone in this recovery. And hopefully the longer I’m back at it, the more the anxiety and physical pain will wane. Maybe one day all this recovery will help me love myself more than I ever did before my crash. Until then, on days my back aches or I have flashbacks or I get dropped from a race and DNF, I’ll remember the advice my coach gave me when I uploaded that incomplete workout file following that first panic attack:
“Most of your days have been good. Let yourself have days like this.”
Liz Marcello is an urban planning Ph.D. student at Columbia University and a member of CRCA/CityMD Women’s Racing Team. She lives in Manhattan with two cats and a large stuffed giraffe named Jared.
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