Not Dead Yet: a Sharon Sloan Story
I don’t think it’s unreasonable that I’ve been hot and cold about getting back out on a road bike. For those who haven’t heard the story about how I was destroyed by a car 14 months ago, it’s been a tough year. There was a med-evac flight, a code, a week in a coma, a few weeks in a rehab hospital, a couple months in a back brace and full-leg cast, and endless puree instead of actual food. I’m still rehabbing the extensive orthopedic and neurologic injuries, we haven’t entirely finished the obnoxiously painful process of putting my face back together, it’s unclear if I’ll ever regain full sensation in my feet, etc. But I figured you can sit around and hurt and sulk about how much you’ve lost, or you can be outside in the fresh air with friends and distract yourself from pain and celebrate the fact that somehow you’re still alive. The car seems to have made me more driven than I was before, like the sport came at me and missed. I’ve been riding trails for months and with a huge NECX embrace, bought a mountain bike. But the road was harder. I’m jumpy around cars, even when walking on a sidewalk. I had way too much time to lie on the couch and think about all the near-misses in my not-even two years of riding. The months of internal struggle was finally decided in the favor of wanting to be able to join my teammates on group rides, and I pulled the trigger a few weeks ago. The SuperSix arrived, it was beautiful, and then I was too scared to ride it.
So when I described the Myles Standish race to my coach/voice of reason, I was possibly secretly hoping he’d say no. But lo, he thought it was a brilliant idea, and I was committed. I’d managed two rides on the new bike before race day, and while it felt super-fast, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable on it. Though I still don’t feel nearly as fit as I did pre-smash, I’d had a lot more group riding experience than I did for my few previous road races, and I thought finishing with the pack for the first time seemed like a reasonable goal. But driving down to Plymouth, I found myself becoming increasingly nervous about being back out in a group ride, at high speeds, on unforgiving pavement, possibly with some sand. I was forcing the uneasiness down, but I arrived early enough to see the 9am races go off, and the announcer, trying to fill time while officials finished clearing the course, took himself on a tangent from warning about cars on the course to regaling us with tales of misadventures with cars in previous years’ races. Like the one about the Winnebago that riders had to get around, causing some to end up in the lake. At this point, I had to get away and wandered back to my car, sat on the bumper and put my head down, trying not to hyperventilate, and reminding myself that Sharons do NOT get panic attacks.
It was then, thankfully, that Lydia wandered by and saw me like this (laugh-crying) and started trying to talk me down, saying “You don’t have to do this.” That snapped me out of it, because of course I did. I’d never have forgiven myself if I didn’t try. Within a few minutes I’d seen Hannah and Alex, too. Knowing there would be teammates in the race was comforting.
My heart was already at race pace just standing in the chute. A masters men’s field went, then the women’s 1/2/3, and then we set off, at a pretty good clip. I was terrified, but trying to follow a line and not be tense and ride smoothly and be aware of what was going on in the periphery so as not to accidentally cause any crashes and maim someone who was focusing. It felt like we were flying. At the start of the second lap I vaguely heard that we were gaining on the 1/2/3 women, and then shortly after saw them on a hill up ahead. There was some confusion as we passed them, and we heard that someone had fallen into the lake. But it seemed that everyone else got through unscathed, we heard she was OK, and there were some cheers and encouragement in the group. Still feeling pretty uncomfortable but with a rush, I found myself yelling out “now let’s go catch some old men!!!!” Then back to abject terror. A couple miles later, the sharp downhill finishing turn was back, and in avoiding someone who’d moved over, I suddenly found myself skidding hard (and shrieking). I have no idea how I managed to stay upright, but somehow did, got myself back together, chased back up to the group, and then finally started calming down and being a bit more aware of what was happening outside of my immediate bubble. Around then, I realized that Hannah was at the front pushing the pace, and that Alex was up there a lot, too. Even a couple days later, I’m still feeling guilty that I was too scared to go up there to try to help them. I got stuck in the back of the field after we were neutralized to let the 1/2/3’s pass us back, and couldn’t figure out how to get back up near the front. I resigned myself to finishing in the second half.
I’m not exactly clear on how I managed to finish as well as I did. I think the pace got pushed in the last lap and possibly the group stretched out. All I was thinking was “stay with the leaders.” At some point close to the end I was still in the back. Someone ahead of me in the group bobbled, someone moved diagonally across the middle of the field, and it seemed like everyone scattered and there was finally room to move up. “Stay with the leaders.” I vaguely realized I was in the running for a top ten. “Stay with the leaders.” And then suddenly that turn, where I’d bobbled and braked and been popped off the back the previous three times around, was there, and I had no choice but to rail it, on the inside, at full speed. I remember an unsettling “I am definitely not perpendicular to the ground right now” floating though my brain. I think I flew by a few women on that turn, and then, as there’s nothing I love more than a nice smooth car-free downhill, gunned it. And wound up rolling through in sixth place!!!
That was an amazing feeling. It’s not like this has made my road fears immediately go away, but finding I could survive and even do decently on at least one fast ride, with elbows and shoving and announcers talking about car crashes was such a relief that it’s possible that I was tearing up a little (shh, Sharons also don’t cry) during the drive home. I think I’m still going to have to battle myself each time I need to choose pavement over dirt, but it’s so good knowing I have awesome supportive teammates who have my back and seem willing to put up with my neuroses, and that it’ll get easier over time.