Headline: George “Red Eyed Vireo” Vargas suffers a fractured femur from a low-speed fall!
On Thursday Jan 2, 2014 I went out for a hill repeat ride. There are plenty of hills close to my home in San Marcos, California. Here is the ride link on Strava. The plan was simple – do as many repeats as I needed to get 5,000 feet of gain.
Why was 5k of climbing the goal? New year new challenge. The previous day on 01/01/14 I created the 10K-1M club on Strava. 10K-1M is 10,000 miles and 1,000,000 feet of climbing for the calendar year. 1,000,000 feet of climbing may sound impossible but I did a little math and came to the conclusion that it more than doable.
If you break up the 1,000,000 feet of gain into weekly chunks it means 20K of gain per week. I then thought 4 rides per week with each averaging 5,000 feet would get me to my goal. Obviously some days you climb more and some days you climb less. Additionally, there are times I do training blocks of 5-7 consecutive days which facilitates hefty total gain numbers. Like everything else the more you ride the less you elevation gain you need per ride. For example, if you ride 5 days a week then you only need 4,000 feet per ride. If you are like most of my friends who ride 6 days a week you are looking at slightly over 3,000 feet of gain per ride. Riding more days is crucial because now you can do a 50 mile ride that only has 3,000 feet of gain which is a much easier ride than a 50 mile ride with 5,000 feet of gain. I believe 10K miles and 1,000,000 feet is achievable if you stay focused on the climbing aspect of the goal. The 10K miles will come.
As a baseline I used my 2013 numbers which were 11,000 miles and 700,000 feet of gain. I knew there were a lot of recovery rides on flatter terrain. I also knew I hadn’t done my typical work-up in preparation for big climbing events. These climbing sessions are often on Palomar Mountain with 11.7 mile 4,200 feet of gain repeats.
I left the house and headed towards San Elijo Rd. It is a popular area where the locals go to do hill repeats. I made a right turn onto Questhaven and headed towards a secluded climb that is quite challenging and offers fantastic views from its summit, the dead end climb of Valborg. In the first 7.4 miles I had climbed 1200 feet. I was off to a good start with perfect weather mid- 70′s in January! Temperarture was rising quickly and I was starting to regret having worn my long sleeve jersey.
I was feeling good and warming up for the much harder hills still to come. I began my descent from Valborg summit at a relatively slow speed. People who ride with me know that I am a decent descender …sometimes even fearless. However, this day I was taking it easy. As the grade leveled off my speed dropped and I thought t was a good time to reach in my back jersey pocket and grab some fuel. I must have lost focus for an instant because the next thing I know I am hitting a speed bump with only one hand on the handlebars. The front wheel jack-knifed and I went down with a solid thud no sliding just BAM! Where I hit the ground is where I stayed.
As you can see from the graph below my speed, blue line, was in the low teens. My best guess from the data is that I was only going 12.6 mph. Yep it was a low-speed fall. When I tell people I broke my hip many assume I was hit by a car or was bombing down a mountain but it wasn’t that dramatic, glamorous or even remotely spectacular. I didn’t rip my long sleeve jersey nor my shorts! From the outside I looked whole… intact.
The next thing I want you to notice from the graph above is the long flat elevation line in orange. Since this graph has time on the X-axis there is no elevation gain or loss while I was stopped in one place for that length of time. When I fell I was on the ground for at least 2 minutes trying to regain my composure. A motorist, rare on this climb, came by and asked if I needed assistance. I thought I might as well try to get up so as not to worry him. The pain was immense but bearable. I stood up but realized I couldn’t stand straight up nor put all my weight on my right leg. I leaned on my bike with my head hung low. I knew something was wrong but I couldn’t discern where the pain was coming from.
A few more minutes elapsed during which time I kept assuring the motorist that I was ok and that I could get home once I got back on the bike. I would like for you to look again at the graph. You will notice the red line, Heart Rate, is pretty stable save for 3 distinctive spikes. Each one of those spikes in Heart Rate represent an attempt to mount the bike by raising my right leg over the saddle. Each spike also represents the intense pain I felt lifting my left. It was very painful but all I could think of was I need to at least mount the bike so I can ride home.
The third attempt did the trick. I was now rolling down the rest of the descent. It took a lot of effort to clip into my right pedal. I ride Shimano Dura-Ace pedals. They are competition level and have a very strong retention spring. I ride the pedals with the retention spring tightened to their maximum setting. I take for granted how easily I can get in and out of clip-less pedals :)
Once I was rolling, a few things became apparent straightaway. Pedaling while standing was painful, more painful while seated, and very painful if seated and pulling up on the right pedal. I made the junction of Questhaven and San Elijo, a left turn would take me home a right turn would bring on more hills. I thought to myself that I just need to keep riding and “loosen up” whatever was hurting. I made a right turn. In hindsight, I should have made the left turn and gone straight home. Instead I kept riding, kept training…what was I thinking?
I climbed San Elijo Rd to the firehouse 1 mile, 8:21 at 194 Normalized Power. A far cry from the power I had intended on putting out today. My threshold is 260 watts. On these short efforts, fewer than 10 minutes, my training goal for the day was to climb them at 280-320 watts (4-4,5 w/kg). It was difficult and painful but I all I kept thinking was I have to keep riding and this will feel better. I had changed my goals for the day from VO2 Max work to just getting through the workout. I hit the summit and descended down Twin Oaks Valley Rd towards Cal State San Marcos hitting a maximum free fall speed of almost 48 mph yay! It felt great not to pedal for a couple of minutes after the last 8 minutes of agony I had just endured.
For a split second, as I rolled over the summit of the climb, I doubted whether I should descend Twin Oaks Valley Rd into San Marcos. I knew the climb back to where I was now would be much steeper. I was gliding over the top at 10 mph. I also knew this was the point of no return going down Twin Oaks meant I was going further away from home and adding another steep climb to make it back to my home. Now coasting at 15 mph. Once gravity took over, and I started to feel mother nature pull me down the hill, the speed increased almost exponentially on the 9% grade 20, 25, 30, 35 mph, more refreshing wind in my face, 40, 45 mph I just couldn’t resist the exhilarating feeling of the descent.
I made a U-turn at Craven, the bottom of the hill. I climbed the 1.6 miles, 15:42 193 Normalized Power. The numbers were very disappointing but I had now given up on being able to produce power. There are 9% sections on this hill and they were very difficult which is to say painful. I thought maybe I was feeling better and I should keep going. Was I in shock? Was the pain being overcome by my endorphins?
I was now back at the firehouse. I descended a short hill and turned right onto the -steepest hill of the day, Double Peak. I could have easily gone straight and by-passed Double Peak. It is 1 mile gains 450 feet with pitches that are 15% or more. The second half of the hill averages 11.4% and gains 300 feet. My Normalized Power was 219 watts. It wasn’t my intention to put out 219 I was quite happy in the low 190′s but that’s just what you need to get up the damn steep thing! This climb was very difficult and very painful. I was being stubborn and trying to use good form so I insisted on pulling up on the pedals on the 15% grade and that shot the pain factor through the roof. After a few pedal strokes of that nonsense, I just stood up and climbed the remainder of the hill standing. Surely, if I could ride and climb 15% grades standing I can’t be hurt that bad right? This was my inner dialog justifying my riding.
I descended off of Double Peak made a right turn onto San Elijo Rd. I had a short descent and made a right turn onto Wild Canyon Rd. Another hill I could have by-passed and headed home. I climbed the short hill until it made the junction to Double Peak but decided I was now in too much pain to climb that steep sucka again.
I was running out of steam, as in motivation to train, or loosing focus on blocking out the pain. The pain of my right leg was not diminishing. In fact, it was more and more pronounced. My pedal mechanics, which I pride myself in working towards having a fluid supple style, was now reduced to a herky-jerky square, and an unsightly mess. I was no longer sitting squarely on my saddle. Instead I was favoring my right hip. I knew I had just enough pain tolerance left in me to get me home. Earlier, just after the crash, the pain continuum spanned from discomfort to extreme pain. Now that I made the decision to turn for home discomfort was no longer on the scale. There wasn’t anything I could do to avoid pain. Just sitting on the saddle and hitting cracks and road imperfections was shooting sharp pain signals to my brain.
As I approached my driveway I realized I had not disengaged my right leg for the last 1.5 hours. It now became very aware that I had a major hurdle to overcome – unclipping from my right pedal. I hadn’t considered how much pain making the twisting motion required to get out of my pedal was going to cause. I tried and tried but the pain was too much. Finally, I made a major effort and let out a loud grunt and was able to disengage from my right pedal. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just loosen up the straps of the shoe, remove my foot and leave the shoe attached to the pedal? Yes of course! But remember in my mind I didn’t think I was really injured.
Graph of ride AFTER the crash– Little did I know I had just ridden 16 miles, 2200 feet of gain and 1.5 hours on a fractured femur.
You know what the funny thing was? I was denial. I got home grabbed some ice and Ibuprofen. Someone had just recently told me that it helps with swelling and therefore helps the healing process. I thought if I started icing straightaway I would be ready to lead the Saturday morning REV Cycling team ride.
I carried on with the rest of my day running errands for the business (bank, post office etc) and spending time with my son. I was in complete denial until my son noticed that I was in extreme pain just getting in and out of the car. Why does it take a 9 year-old to tell you something is seriously wrong? “You should get that checked dad”
I fell asleep early that night about 8:30 pm which is very rare for me. Did I pass out from the mental exhaustion of putting my pain aside? The following morning I couldn’t get out of bed. I had to lift my right leg with both hands because the pain moving my leg with it’s own muscles was unbearable. I always gauge the progress of my recovery from a hard workout the previous day by those first few steps. The pain and stiffness had intensified overnight. This was NOT good. I got my son ready and then drove him to camp. When I returned home I was still thinking – “I need to ride to loosen this thing up” I knew that I could barely walk from the pain but I remembered from yesterday that being on the bike wasn’t nearly as painful as walking.
I stood in the garage looking at the bike I remembered how difficult it was for me to straddle and dismount the day before. I remembered how painful it was to “unclip” as well. I stood there for minutes thinking about how to avoid the initial pain of getting on and off the bike. “Once on the bike the ride will be fine”, I reasoned. Fortunately, this inner dialog of justifying the need to ride with the reality of “there has to be something wrong” came to a sensible end. The rational part of my brain finally said “uncle” and made a convincing argument to take my irrational self for a trip to the ER and have an x-ray taken. Would you believe I drove myself to the hospital just thinking I would get my leg checked out and be released with some pain meds?
The x-ray confirmed that I had a subtle subcapital fracture of the femoral neck. Amazingly it was not significantly displaced even though it had been 24 hours since the fracture and I had ridden and walked on it.
Thank you for reading my blog. In the next blog post I will talk about my hospital experience.