Monday, July 27, 2015

Contre la pluie

Paparazzi, take note: I'm no fan, either in the moment or afterwards, when photos eventually surface on social media or say, the official web site of Paris-Brest-Paris.

This one had a humorous caption: De quoi contre la pluie (something to protect against the rain).

There's enough going on to distract anyone, and the truth is I've forgotten about the shower cap. Jonathan and I are in Loudeac, Brittany at 1:30am, surveying the elements of a much-needed meal: roast chicken, potatoes, haricots verts.

It's August 2011, 2.5 years after the accident. I've realized I need to take steps to help myself and it might be a struggle. There's denial about how long the process might take.

By then it's also clear that exercise helps. A lot. Wouldn't more exercise help even more?

My brain was against it. Strong negative thoughts: no way could I ride a 1200K again. No way! I could stick to a routine, but it only took small variations for everything to go haywire: appointments and meetings, everyday items like keys, water bottles, mood. I was that person, holding up the airport security line. At work I could barely keep up and things were about to get much, much tougher.

It seemed hopeless. Therefore, I had to try.

Six months of training and qualifying and registering. Somehow, before dawn at the start line a fourth time. Riding hard and long the first day, again. With the theory that it would be good for the brain. Something familiar. Well-stocked controls. Thousands of riders, arrows at every turn. Hard to get lost...

After five hours on the road, it did seem that way. Mortagne-au-Perche at mile 100, only 650 to go. Un morceau de gateau!

The weather wouldn't be perfect; some rain was likely. It gave one day's warning on the radar maps, a crescent-shaped front moving in from the Atlantic towards Brittany, towards us....

On the road heading out from Paris we could see the clouds getting thicker, grayer. And there was a smell in the air, humidity and freshness. As the day wore on, it was a little too warm for my safety vest.

Then forty miles down the road the first thunderstorm cell burst, over Villaines-la-Juhel. Instead of getting back on the bike and heading out, I headed back into the control. Found stuff to do. Loitered and fiddled, waiting it out.

In the beautiful countryside of the Mayenne we rode straight into the second cell. Lightning flashed over a field in the distance. Then, closer, then outrageously close. We were surrounded by farms and pastures, nothing taller than a cyclist for many miles. Thunder booming and rain pelting down, epic angry torrents of rain.

All of us have cycled plenty in the rain. This is different. The road has dissolved into a mob of furious drops. The world is in shades of light and medium grey; no recognizable shapes. We're essentially blind.

The drops have so much mass, so much momentum they feel like pins against my face. It's painful to move forward. No way around it... try pointing your gaze slightly down and staying on the road, try riding like that. Thankfully, the few passing cars give us lots of room.

At some point, on goes the shower cap. Why not?

No one imagined the next 12 hours would be like this. The front was running exactly parallel to the course.  From the first dim flash in the distance, we knew the next cell was on its way to us. We learned the pattern, resigned ourselves to it. We were going to ride through the whole beast, this thing covering the entire sky.

We stayed in groups, wheels offset to avoid the spray. No one mentioned fenders; normal measures were not doing a lick of good. Together we were larger and less vulnerable, statistically speaking. If lightning struck, it might pick the rider next to you. There was a chance.

I lost count of how many cells we rode through. Coming into Loudeac, the last one was winding down. It poured on the descents into town, soaking the fences and barns and pastures, the road slick and black stretching out ahead.

It dialed back to regular rain and as we ate dinner, became an epic misty fog. 160 miles of jeopardy and misery and mortal fear. That's what is on my face in the photo. It brings back not only that day four years ago, that struggle to survive, but the entire experience of trying to survive and recover since the accident. All the days since then.

Storms are a metaphor that's used for recovery from some brain injuries. The ones that don't resolve completely, or right away. It's an iterative process that takes every bit of energy you throw at it. Sometimes it feels like the storm is following me. It's moving along the same track, and it covers the sky, and no one can really say when we'll be free of each other.

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