The Journey Back to Riding - Val in Real Life

The Journey Back to Riding

How do you make a comeback? An epic one.

I don’t have a formula for you. I can only share my experience. I do know that mine has had three important pieces to the puzzle so far: logistical, physical, and emotional. And they’re all intimately connected.

For those of you who need a recap, the short version is that on January 25th, 2015, I was hit by a car while riding my motorcycle. The driver didn’t see me.

My left leg took a direct hit from the car, crushing it against my Bonneville. It left me with a shaft fracture in my femur and a shredded femoral artery. The injuries required a titanium rod and screws and a saphenous-femoral bypass to repair. There’s a laundry list of other injuries to go with it but “Frankenleg” has been the governing factor in my recovery.

Regaining your body…

The Journey Back to Riding - Val in Real Life
I’ve come a long way in seven months. I’m not 100%. I’m learning to accept I never will be. But I will get as close as I can.

So much of returning to motorcycling is physical, obviously. There’s no two ways about it… the only way you get back to your life after major injuries to work hard. There’s no fast-forward or easy pass. Your body will never be the same, but you have to push for closing the gap as much as possible.

Sometimes I feel numb when I think of the countless hours with my physical therapist as well as working on my own. Through six weeks of non-weight-bearing frustration, learning to walk again, trying to rebuild strength and stamina. I’ve fought hard. I’ve cried my way through exercises and yoga more times than I truly care to admit. It hasn’t been pretty.

Having said that, the people involved in my recovery are fairly astonished at my progress. When I step back to look at my journey, I know what I’ve accomplished in the last seven months is remarkable given the extent of my injuries. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to be done working so hard to reclaim my life and being frustrated at not being further along. But the specter of living a half-life urges me onward.

The mental game…

Plowing through this kind of recovery is a roller coaster. I’ve had lots of good days. Ones that feel like it will all be ok someday soon.

The Journey Back to Riding - Val in Real Life
Revisiting an unhappy place in order to put it behind me.

And lots of bad. Ones that leave me feeling defeated. Crushed. Days when clinging to tenacity seems a fool’s errand.

I’m not an expert on trauma and recovery. I’ve pieced this process together one day at a time. But as my fellow blogger, Jen Charrette, eloquently said… you have to keep showing up. At first, that’s all it is. Just showing up. Getting out of bed each day. You build from there.

I’ve learned a few other things along the way:

  • A support network is crucial. An army of friends, family, doctors, and therapists all play into your ability to keep moving forward. From the early days of not being able to care for myself through getting back on the bike, the support I’ve received has taken so many forms.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Tap into your tribe. The people who care about you want to help. And they might need your help one day. Then you can repay their generosity.
  • It’s ok to acknowledge it sucks. It’s ok to grieve. But don’t dwell in that place. If you’re struggling with it, get help. The sooner, the better.
  • Give it everything you have. The alternative is languishing in disappointment and what-ifs. Your life has changed but it isn’t over. Reclaim all you can.
  • Look for inspiration in other stories. Let other successes help calibrate what you can accomplish. Seeing what others have overcome is fantastic motivation.

Back on the bike…

It took five months for me to return to motorcycling. As much as I wanted it, there were a lot of obstacles to overcome. Building enough strength to handle a motorcycle was one step. Overcoming the mental barriers was another entirely.

The best advice I’ve read to date is from the fabulous Liz Jansen. Her tips on riding after a crash are spot on. They are wise words and an important reminder that this is not a simple or easy process even for an experienced rider.

The Journey Back to Riding - Val in Real Life
I managed a solo ride on my second day back in the saddle.

When it came time to face riding again, the factors that kept running through my mind were:

  • I hadn’t ridden in five months.
  • I had new physical limitations and uncertainties. I was no where near 100%. I’m still not.
  • I had a brand-new, unfamiliar bike.
  • The last time I rode ended in a life-changing trauma.

So I broke it down into steps:

  • I rode pillion with a friend first. I was only responsible for holding on but it was the boost I needed to take the next steps and recapture the joy of riding.
  • I enlisted the help of an experienced rider to head out with me the first time. I ride solo much of the time but I knew that would be foolish under the circumstances. So my buddy John Cloonan joined me. I knew I was ready but I was also uncertain what would shake out once I got back on the throttle. Having John patiently riding behind me was a great comfort.
  • I returned to the MSF Campus for a Bike Bonding course. Just like when I was learning to ride, having focused time on a closed course with knowledgable instructors was priceless. And using one of their nimble little 300F bikes for practice instead of my mine reduced the stress of performing low-speed skills since that’s when you’re most likely to drop the bike. The pressure of worrying about damaging my new bike would have been a distraction from reforming my motorcycling skills.

The Journey Back to Riding - Val in Real Life
More training was part of my strategy to regain my riding confidence.

To my surprise, my first ride with John went really well considering. My skills were not as abysmal as I expected them to be. Admittedly, my cornering was not fantastic. And it took a great deal of concentration to not be too jumpy when cars crossed my path. But I did it. What I simultaneously desired and feared had been conquered.

I was so stoked that I went out again the next day. Solo. I was feeling strong enough to ride through the dreaded intersection. I felt I needed to face the demon, so-to-speak.

It was oddly serene that day. Very little traffic. Clear skies. Hot and humid. Stifling compared to the crisp and cold day when I was there last. I glanced down at my instrument panel as I waited at the red light. It was 21 weeks to the day. Almost to the minute. And an eerily similar scenario to that fateful afternoon.

That almost got me. The events of previous last five months tried to come crashing down. But having a meltdown wasn’t an option in that moment. So I took a few deep breaths and eased the throttle open when the light turned green.

Moving forward… mostly.

The Journey Back to Riding - Val in Real Life
Moving beyond trauma is a gradual process. Getting back to what you love is essential.

In spite of those early triumphs, this is not a linear process. I waver through confident rides and not-so-confident ones. And I’m still surprised by intense feelings.

Like when I returned to the intersection a few weeks later to take some photographs for another post. Having already ridden through, I thought I was good. But parked there, watching the traffic in a drizzling rain, a meltdown wasn’t avoidable. That time, everything did come crashing down on me.

There are hard fights to be won when it comes to getting back on the bike after a crash. They’re worth battling for something you love. I really can’t say it better than Liz Jansen.

If you truly want to ride, don’t let anything or anyone stop you. Not only do you deny yourself the pleasures of riding, that message of defeat carries with you into other areas of your life.

In the process of all this, I’ve had people tell me I’m fearless. Hardly. But I do refuse to let fear dictate my life. I didn’t have a choice about the crash. I do have a choice about reclaiming my life. And I refuse to let a stranger, who already irrevocably altered my life and took so much from me, take the joy of motorcycling as well.

Live large. Live fiercely. Cheers, friends.

And now for your moment of green…

Gibbs Gardens - Val in Real Life
The trip to Gibbs Gardens has become one of my favorite little rides to rebuild my skills. In the serenity of the Japanese Garden, I can assess what skills I need to work on during the ride home.

2 thoughts on “The Journey Back to Riding

    1. Thanks, Tami. It’s a long road. Lots of ups and downs. But trying to stay focused on moving forward.

      Cheers! 🙂

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