Sunday, August 1, 2010

RAO - Hindsight is 20/20

It's been a while since I've blogged. Life is busy. But our most recent adventure definitely deserves a write up and I hope that some people may learn from our experience.

Tom rode at Race Across Oregon last weekend. In fact one week ago at this time we were leaving Maupin OR. We had 80 miles left in this 535 mile saga that started at 5 AM the previous morning. There were 2 big climbs to go, we were all set up for night riding and follow support. Tom looked great. Energized by the cooling air. We thought we had this race in the bag. We followed our plan to a tee. We survived the heat and had 9 hours to finish. What could go wrong? The answer is A LOT.

Up to this point Tom had ridden steady. He kept his effort level as low as possible so we didn't have any major issues in the heat. And it was hot. Tom's GPS read as high as 113 deg F climbing out of the canyon after Condon. The crew (Matt, Julie and myself) were having a hard time staying hydrated sitting in the car. I honestly don't know how Tom was able to keep moving in that heat.

The idea is that the rider sleeps as little as possible. So the first night Tom did not sleep at all, he plugged away the entire night and made good time while it was cooler. In the morning we stopped for a break to feed him a couple of sandwiches and make some coffee in Long Creek OR.

At this point Tom was still looking steady but showing signs of fatigue and discomfort. Who wouldn't after 310 miles on their road bike in 25 hours. But we stuck to the plan through the heat of day two and got into Maupin in good shape at about 7 PM, about 38 hours in. We had a longer rest break to hydrate and get some food into him. Pumped up for the last stretch.

Tom was good after leaving Maupin, for about an hour. Then climbing Tygh Grade (a 7 mile 6% climb) he started talking about the jigsaw puzzles at the side of the road. He was hallucinating. I was prepared for this. Most ultra riders will hallucinate, it's all part of the game. As long as we could keep him connected to us and talk him through it, he'd be safe. So we descended Tygh Grade - Perfectly. Then began the last climb up forest service road 44 from Dufur. Tom was still handling his bike well, he knew all the turns without being reminded. He was strong but was continuing to hallucinate.

At one point he stopped his bike suddenly. When we stopped with him he said, "Why am I stopped? I didn't mean to stop." Then started riding again. Shortly after that came the "Something is wrong phase." When Tom kept repeating this and I couldn't get him to articulate what it was that was wrong. Then he got off his bike and started walking. Realize that I've had a week to reflect on all this and although I didn't know it at the time, now I'd have to say that Tom had completely lost touch with reality but was still so focused on finishing this race that he was determined to continue with some sort of forward movement, even if he couldn't ride anymore. Actually, even at this point when he was riding, he was riding better than 90% of the population does when they are fresh. He can literally ride his bike when he is asleep.

Here's the hard part. My role in what was to come. I was crew chief. I was responsible for his safety. I was instructed to get him to the finish line.

I got Tom back on the bike. He was riding along at about 6 mph when he suddenly fell over. By the time I was out of the car and at his side (10 sec max) he was dead asleep in the ditch at the side of the road, still clipped in to his bike. I unclipped him, set him up with blankets and called a nap break for 45 minutes. Tom would wake up for brief moments with eyes wide open, darting wildly. I told him to rest and he would fall right back asleep.

After 45 min I got Tom back on the bike. I woke him up, got him moving and when he walked past the back of the van he crawled in onto the bed. I woke him up and guilted him into getting back out there. It was our trump card, only to be used in emergencies. It worked. My thinking was that if he looked bad we would take him back off the bike and sleep more. Worst case scenario, he falls into the ditch again at 6 mph. I was wrong.

At some point, Tom's mind disconnected such that he was no longer registering what I was saying to him or if he was, he would not listen as I had become part of this nightmare he was trapped in and couldn't get out of. Tom started to ride and was behaving oddly. I yelled at him to stop and he wouldn't. He turned around in front of the car and started back down the hill gaining speed.

Matt jumped out of the car and sprinted next to him. At this point all I could see were Tom's lights and hear Matt aggressively pleading with Tom to stop, to put on his brakes. Then the lights went off the road and tumbled end over end at least 3 times. I have never been so terrified in my life. I ran as fast as I could to the crash site. Tom was face down in the dirt in something akin to a fetal position. He was awake and said, "That was real, wasn't it?" I checked him over thoroughly and decided it was safe to move him. We put him in the back of the van and he was already checked out again and not making any sense. This is when we decided to pull out of the race. We had to get Tom someplace where I could monitor him for a head injury, clean his wounds and let him rest. It was a difficult decision. Especially when we had 5 hours left, only 10 miles of climbing, 40 miles in total. I toyed with the idea of letting him sleep in the van at the side of the road for 2 hours then trying again, but my crew quickly brought me to my senses.

Once the decision was made and we started down the hill, I fell apart. I don't know when the last time was that I've cried that hard. When we got back to the house, Matt helped me get Tom in and undressed. While I was cleaning his wounds, Tom told me he didn't remember the house and he wasn't sure who I was. It was heart breaking but I knew that it was extreme exhaustion. I stayed up for several hours to check Tom's vitals frequently. All was well in that department. Finally I went to sleep after setting my alarm to check on him in an hour.

I woke up 3 hours later, very upset that I had slept that long. I checked his pulse. It was even and strong and his colour had come back. I got up to do some things around the house. I was wide awake again from scaring myself. Soon after, Tom got up and headed to the bathroom for a shower. When he came out he walked into the kitchen, took my hand and led me to the couch where he asked me to tell him what happened. He didn't remember anything after Tygh Valley.

I'm not sure what the moral of the story is here. I know that I feel more connected to Tom than before the race. Somehow this experience has strengthened us as a couple. I know that I feel guilty, that I let him down somehow, that I should've been able to get a finish out of this. Then I feel guilty for putting him back on the bike and the resulting crash. All for what? Then I get the heebie jeebies thinking about what could have happened if he had fallen asleep on the descent off of 44 or on Hwy 35. I don't think I did anything wrong but somehow I still feel horrible about it all.

What I do hope is that other crews might learn from this experience. Sleep deprivation is a dangerous thing. Try to plan for it. Watch for the signs and know that when it gets bad enough you no longer have control of your rider, the crazy nightmares in their heads will gain control instead. When that happens, you are no longer safe.

My next adventure... Ironman Canada August 29th. It seems so minor now in comparison.


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  2. Rarely do I read of such courage and determination. Thanks for the write up.

  3. I've been a crew chief for 3 RAO teams. One of the hardest decisions I ever had to make was to pull a rider who was clearly not capable of continuing without a high probability of grave injury to herself (and potentially others.) It's a decision you really can't "train" for and it's gut-wrenching to make.

    You did the right thing in getting him off the course. Finishing a race isn't worth risking a life.

    I'm sure you and he be back again next year, drawing on these experiences to make you an even better team.

  4. Great write up. Thanks for sharing your story. You are a most excellent crew chief. Clearly you have been trained by Terri and George. It is good to knwo what happens to racers.

  5. Thanks everyone.

    I appreciate the words of support.