By Kate Parhiala
In 2010, the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup announced that it would have an event in the United States, at Windham Mountain in New York. This same year was my first as a professional mountain bike racer and I had the opportunity to participate in the four-cross event at this race. Four-cross is a downhill event where four racers at a time go head-to-head down a track with flat and banked turns, jumps, rocks, drops, and whatever obstacle the course builder decides to throw in. In each round the top two racers move on and the third and fourth are eliminated. To determine groups everyone takes a timed seeding run.
Successfully navigating the jump where I ended up having problems later on.
I never got that far. Before the race there is an allotted time during which riders can take practice runs on the course. Everything about this course was huge, especially the jumps. I had been carefully inspecting and attempting the course bit by bit. By my third practice run I attempted to string the whole thing together. As I approached the big step-down jump I was much farther left than where I had been hitting it previously. There were two landings to this jump: I had been aiming for the closer one, same as in the other runs, but was carrying a bit more speed this time around. I ended up landing on the flat area between the close landing and the far one. All that I remember as I began to fall off the back of the bike was thinking “Wow, this is embarrassing.” About an hour later I woke up in an ambulance.
The big crash at Windham. The medics are trying to free my leg. I don’t remember any of this.
There is a considerable chunk of time that I don’t remember. I have been told that I was physically unconscious for about 30 seconds but mentally I was completely blacked out for at least an hour. The medics were asking me questions to check on my cognition. I knew my name and what my bib number was but couldn’t remember signing up for the race or how I had gotten there. Apparently my left foot had not come unclipped from the pedals and my left leg had become pinned between the rear wheel and the seat. The medics had to let the air out of the tire to extract my leg, which they thought was definitely broken. I was carted down the mountain and into ski patrol where they put an IV in and eventually an ambulance came to bring me to the trauma center in Albany, about an hour away. We were almost there when I finally came to, strapped to a backboard and very nauseous.
My helmet after concussion #2. I should have bought a new one instead of just replacing the visor.
I remember very little of my stay in the emergency department at Albany Medical Center. I think they got me in right away for a brain scan and x-rays. Luckily no bleeding in the brain and only two badly sprained ankles. I don’t believe I was given any instructions on how to care for a concussion after I was discharged because I spent the next few days doing things I shouldn’t have been doing. With two more days booked at the World Cup, my boyfriend (now fiance) and I wanted to stick around and watch the races. I was hobbling around the mountain on my crutches in the bright sunlight with the loud crowds drinking the occasional beer.
The day after the crash – concussed and sore in front of the jump that took me out.
It took until going to work the Monday after for me to realize what a mess I was. I just remember sitting at my desk staring blankly at my computer not being able to think. It hurt to think. I couldn’t remember a lot of things that I had previously been working on. My speech was a little slurred and it was difficult to come up with words. By mid-day I finally told my boss that I had to go to the doctor. After taking the subway and the bus home I got in my car to drive to the doctor’s office. Very quickly I discovered that I could barely control the car. My reaction time was so delayed that I kept almost crashing every time a car was stopped in front of me. The doctor told me that I needed to take it easy for a while after a bad concussion and should take at least a week off from work. I left my car at my parents’ house so I wouldn’t try to drive it.
It took at least a month or two for me to start recovering from the most acute symptoms. It was such a relief when I could finally concentrate for most of a workday. I still have trouble remembering anything from that general timeframe. In addition, something strange happened with my memory: things got rearranged. Memories from 10 or 15 years ago were suddenly vivid like they had occurred yesterday while more recent events felt like the distant past. I began having extremely vivid dreams as well (more so than usual) and started remembering little things that were long forgotten. These strange memory issues are still affecting me today.
This was not my first concussion, it was my third. My first happened during a BMX race in 2003. I crashed going over the first jump and hit the left side of my head really hard. There was a bright flash of light and an immediate headache. This was described to me as a mild concussion and I did not notice any residual symptoms. My second concussion actually went undiagnosed. I didn’t realize that I had one. In July of 2010 I was at a downhill mountain bike race and crashed during practice. It was one of those crashes where I went over the bars and the first thing to hit the ground was my face because it happened way too fast to get my hands off the bars. My full-face motocross helmet actually dug some rocks out of the dirt as my head plowed through. I hit so hard that I felt like I should have blacked out. I was definitely out of it and a little confused but I chalked it up to being shaken by the crash. I didn’t think this was a concussion because there was no loss of consciousness and no flash of light. In retrospect it definitely was. I just did not feel right for weeks afterwards but I replaced the shattered visor on my helmet and was back in action the next weekend. This was only a little over a month before the big crash at Windham.
Fast-forward to the 2011 season: I ended up suffering a fourth minor concussion over the summer and a fifth in October, both practicing for downhill bike races (even with a new helmet). The cumulative effect of this, in addition to the memory changes that I still deal with, includes mood changes and migraine headaches. I became significantly depressed and anxious after having 4 concussions in 15 months. In addition I started getting migraine headaches so bad that I would throw up (luckily only a few times a month). Still, it was difficult for me to realize how all of this fit together but I finally decided that I needed help when none of it was improving during the 2012 season.
I began seeing a new doctor who referred me for neuro-psych evaluation. Most of the testing done was negative but a brain MRI actually revealed mild atrophy in the temporal and parietal lobes of my brain. It was strongly suggested that I quit anything that put me in significant risk of further head trauma because further injury could be devastating. This especially meant no more downhill and no more BMX. This was very difficult news for me. I had focused my life around these things for quite some time and it was hard to go from thinking about what World Cup races I wanted to enter the next season to selling my downhill bike and letting my sponsorships expire. I really miss that life but I had no other choice.
It’s a very strange feeling to have an injury that I can never recover from. Even though the symptoms are somewhat managed with medications the physical damage is irreparable. Even before the doctors advised that I stop racing downhill I knew that things weren’t quite right. It is always difficult to get back in the saddle after a bad injury because you’re shaken and anxious. But with time one can usually overcome this. Because I’ve injured the very part of me that controls those thoughts and emotions I was never able to recover my confidence in the two years before I finally quit. I was getting faster and developing better technique but becoming more and more scared and anxious. I know that before continuously landing on my head this wasn’t the case but it’s hard to remember what that felt like.
Since the brain scan results I’ve had to dial the excitement back a quite a bit. Being an adrenaline junkie causes my happiness and sanity to be dependent on doing active and exciting things. At this point I’ve tried to create a balance between acceptable risk and not being bored and miserable. I continue to alpine ski and still race (while wearing a great helmet, of course). While there is still risk, I have not suffered a head injury in the 26 years that I have been skiing (and I hope to continue this trend). On the biking side I have been doing more cross country mountain biking and have started racing cyclo-cross. In addition I am becoming more involved in mountain bike coaching. I still do easy jumps and drops but try to stick to a controlled environment and will not ride beyond my ability.
When it comes to mountain biking I firmly believe that fewer injuries of all types would be sustained if people sought professional instruction, specifically on bike handling, rather than the trial and error method. This is part of the reason I have become more involved with coaching. If a rider learns solid fundamental skills before attempting larger obstacles he or she will be able to more safely progress. Many riders, including myself, did not have this opportunity. To paraphrase my friend and fellow coach, former pro Karen Eagan, if you feel lucky that you just landed that drop DO NOT go bigger; Practice it again and again until you are completely comfortable and then you can progress to the next one. Mountain bike instruction has only recently become more widely available and is something that this sport has been severely lacking. Downhill racing can never be made completely safe, and it shouldn’t be (that’s part of the allure), but riders can at least be equipped with the skills to sufficiently tackle any course they are confronted with.
Having this experience has caused a significant change in mindset. I’ve become comfortable with backing down from certain challenges like drops or jumps if I don’t feel completely comfortable. I can always try another day when the conditions are right. Why go for it now? Is it really worth it? Some things I will probably never attempt and now I’m ok with that. I would rather be riding my bike and skiing for many more years than possibly risk it all because I couldn’t tell myself no. As written of world-renowned steep skier Andreas Fransson in a recent issue of Powder Magazine, “He is most proud of the runs he didn’t take, because backing off is harder than dropping in.”