Last Sunday evening I sat in my chair1 sipping a beer and thinking about the week ahead. It was only about 6 PM or so and it was completely dark. This is of course is not unusual for this time of year, but it can be a shock to the system given that I live in an area of the country where it often stays daylight until nearly 10 PM during the summer months.
I’m not sure if it was the Backwoods Bastard, the early darkness, or the fact that I had the volume up to eleven (one louder than 10) on the TV but I found myself thinking back to a ride I did in late October of 2008 when I was still living in White Oak, PA.
It was an ill-advised solo night ride that started at the Boston trailhead of the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail. The plan was to ride the trail down to Sutersville, then hop on a shitty paved farm road loop for a few miles before heading back to the trail. The mileage would be roughly 33 miles, and almost entirely in the dark.
I was no stranger to riding at night; weekly mountain bike group rides on singletrack and 24 hour racing had me quite used to riding at night. However I had only ever ridden the rail trail at night for a few minutes as I chased the setting sun on fall rides, and had never even thought about riding on those back roads at night. They could often be dangerous enough to ride in the daylight!
It’s hard to tell by looking back at the blog post I wrote about the ride on The Soiled Chamois v.012 but if I’m honest with myself that ride was very much done as the result of anger, sadness, depression, and self loathing.
Where I once would throw myself at food as a kid, and to an extent alcohol at various times in my life, that ride was my indirect way of saying “I don’t care. Fuck you, and you, and you. Fuck everything and if I die, I die.” The ride wasn’t exactly like wading out into the cold Atlantic, or venturing off alone onto the Great Divide Trail for thousands of miles with nothing but a PowerBar, but it was a way for me to act out without outwardly harming myself. But if an “accident” happened, so be it.
I know this sounds like hyperbole but let me put it in context. Aside from the months in which I’ve lost a family member or a friend, October 2008 was one of the worst months of my life so far. Not long after another crap performance racing solo at the 2008 24 Hour Champion Challenge at Seven Springs where I completed just 9 laps, my right leg developed severe and painful swelling. I ignored it for nearly a month and even did a few 40 and 50 mile solo rides in the mountain with it. However it eventually just got too painful and I went to the doctor. Less than 24 hours later I would be diagnosed with my first DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis, also known as a blood clot). Soon after I would be giving myself shots of the clot buster Lovenox in the belly and eventually be put on the blood thinner Coumadin for a few months.
Now at this point all I could think about was how lucky I was to be alive. I had hobbled around and rode my bike alone in the mountains for weeks with a blood clot in my leg. A clot that could have broken free and caused a pulmonary embolism, and possibly death, at any time…but didn’t.
I came to grips with adjusting my diet and riding to meet the needs of the meds as best I could, but it didn’t take too long before I was back on the bike (against doctor’s orders) and riding.
Then, not even two weeks later, while at a dinner at my sister in-laws, I bent over to pet her dog, stood up and all of a sudden I couldn’t hear in my left ear. I excused myself, went into the bathroom and tried cleaning it. I thought maybe Wifey had gone all Kahn-like and stuck a larva in my ear like he did Mr. Chekov, but to no avail. I wasn’t happy but figured I had picked up some sort of ear infection and would just ride it out. After nearly a week of only having one good ear I went to an ENT doc to find out that I had developed Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss. Why? Don’t know. Brilliant.
OK, now I’m really depressed; I’m only 37 years old, I have a blood clot in my leg, I’m deaf in one ear, and taking blood thinners for my clot and steroids for my ear. Add in a job I hated, having a young B-Man, some rocky finances that were just starting to get back on track, and life long self loathing, I said “fuck it” in the only way I knew how at the time: I went for a cold night ride, by myself, along the river by some sketchy neighborhoods and then onto some dark, winding, shit paved farm roads with only one good ear, and a blood clot still in my leg.
Despite having a loving wife, and an amazing boy at home, I came home from work the day of that appointment, grabbed my bike, my lights, and headed out for a ride alone, not really caring if the clot, a car, or a trailside meth head wielding a knife might get me. “Might as well happen doing something I love.” I stupidly thought.
Since this all went down 9 years ago, and I’m typing this today, it’s obvious I survived my 33+ mile ride in the dark. When I look back at the blog post I wrote that night I can’t even really discern any traces of the anger and depression I know I was feeling at the time.
“Oh well, I didn’t let today’s unfortunate news deter me from riding. In fact it fueled my desire to escape on my bike. I took the Mamasita to the rail trail and rode up to Sutersville and then hit a bunch of side and back roads.”
To this day I remember it though. That “fuel” was the anger, depression, and a need to punish myself in some way. Possibly hoping for the worst possible outcome. But it didn’t, in fact my ride ended that night with me so jazzed up with adrenaline and endorphins it had the opposite effect. I found riding those winding roads alone at night amazing, and the sounds of critters, shadowy figures, and trees back-lit by the light off the trailside river exhilarating.
Eventually my hearing came back for the most part. Today I have about 60 to 75% hearing in my left ear and a sweet case of tinnitus but so far I’ve not needed a hearing aid.
In the year that followed, 2009, I would have one of my best seasons racing my bike: I completed four N.U.E. races, and a bunch of other endurance races despite being on blood thinners. Not the smartest thing, but it seemed safer than more night rides alone on dark, sketchy back roads.
Sadly, I was not done with the blood clots. I would get another one in 2010 and one of my worst ones in 2013 which now has me on a blood thinner for life, especially since there is no discernible reason that I get the clots. Every blood test, for every type of clotting issue, has come back negative. With all that, and now being 46, I don’t race anymore. I can’t say I miss it. I miss being as fit and as thin as I was then, but I don’t miss the racing. I still ride–I have about 3,500 miles in this year–just not the same way; I’m slower, I don’t go as far, and I stop to take a lot of photos.
I guess the early darkness on Sunday night made me think of that night back in 2008 and those feelings I had. It made me think about how over the past few years I’ve struggled a bit. My lifelong battle with the “black dog” settled in, I said goodbye to the magazine I maintained for 5 years, and finding work that is both something I’m qualified for and enjoy has proved to be a challenge. I’ve gained weight, struggled with accepting my role (that I’m actually quite good at) in our family, and other family relationships back home are strained. Then last summer, just as I was losing weight, feeling fitter, and making progress, one of my best friends was killed less than a mile from my home while he was riding his bike. Fuck.
Despite taking an antidepressant I found myself “all in” with doing the same things that I did in the past with food and alcohol; essentially trying to slowly do as much harm to myself as I could. Just like I had done back in 2008 I once again found myself thinking “I don’t care. Fuck you, and you, and you. Fuck everything and if I die, I die.” Of course we all know that’s no way to live, and it’s sure as hell not the way I want to die.
Wifey was a huge help. First she gave me my space to grieve about my friend and see if I could get back on track. Then after a couple of months of watching me struggle she made an appointment for “us” with a counselor. Part of me was mad about that, part of me accepted that it needed to be done.
We entered the office for our first session, Wifey talked first. She explained a few things, told me what she was feeling and what her concerns were; she was done in about 5 minutes. Now it was my turn. I opened my mouth and didn’t stop talking for the next 55 minutes. I felt like someone had lifted a 16 ton weight off my chest. That was in mid-August and I have been going back solo nearly every week since. I can’t thank Wifey enough for all that.
Not much has changed with my life since then, but I have grown to accept who I am and what I offer my family. Finding the root causes to the life long angst that I’ve had, and just assumed was all chemical, has been eye-opening and a huge help. It’s all very much a work in progress, but recognizing the signals and triggers is huge, as is learning how to not beat myself up mentally or physically for things that I have no control over or happened 35 years ago.
I still have my “fuck it” days, we all do, but learning not to spiral, and “use” food or alcohol is key. I still enjoy beer, and God knows I like my Cat 5 Cooking, but we all know the difference between using and enjoying.
I’m happy I did that ride back in 2008 and happier still that I’m still around. I did a couple more night rides on the rail trail after that, but I never did venture out onto those back roads at night again, but now 9 years later I would be lying if I said I don’t kick around the idea of charging my lights and heading out for loop on the gravel roads some night. This time however it will be done purely for the love of riding my bike, not because I want to punish myself in some way.
If you read all this, you deserve a medal. If you know someone struggling with some of the same stuff you may have read here, I ask you to be kind. Often it’s not just a case of just “cheering up.” Don’t fuck with them like that. And what they, or you, are dealing with probably won’t be gone overnight, it can often take years. I still have a lot of work to do, and every week I learn something new about coping and finding peace. This post is not about preaching, saying I’m cured, or anything like that…It’s just me being honest. You can take all this however you want.
- Yeah, I’m old enough to have “my chair.”
- The first incarnation of this blog was even more abysmal than the crap you see here now. I was in lust with the idea of racing my bike and I thought I needed to write and talk about me, crap “training,” crap race results, bikes, races, pro deal sponsors, and other general narcissisms. I get nauseous every time I look back at those posts. Lucky for you it’s been removed from the public eye