Pushing the limits – by The Short One

A guest blog from The Short One after I responded to an SOS call to scrape her and her beloved bike off a local road………………

So this week I used up another of my 9 lives. Coming down Long Hill from Buxton, at 30mph, a combination of tiny errors and bad luck of a cross-wind meant I clipped the grass verge, veered off the road and hit a sign, my bike stopped with a horrible noise and I flew about 3 metres. I walked away battered, bruised and with a potentially horrible bill for bike repairs. My friends are keen to point out that I seem to have a habit of doing things like this; the list of activity related ‘incidents’ I have been involved in does seem to back them up. In the last year I have crashed my bike racing in a Triathlon in France, narrowly avoiding landing in the path of a car; I have come very close to hypothermia swimming in a reservoir; I have wiped out on my bike after hitting ice, and this doesn’t include the close escapes. If you go back a few more years the list goes on: I ended up in A&E having stitches under my eye after a high speed collision between my head and a slate wall whilst mountain biking in the Lakes. And just before I got married, I got a free helicopter ride having fallen about 12 metres and hit the ground whilst rock climbing.

Every time, I have walked away. But one comment after my latest mishap has made me question whether I am reckless and push the limits too far.

“Get a sense of fear, woman!” said a good friend.

Now this doesn’t resonate with me. I am a wuss at heart. Things scare me! Everyone who has ridden, climbed or swum with me knows how often I have to fight the fear. I am excessively cautious when I start anything. But it made me think, if I have a realistic sense of fear, how do I end up in these situations? Am I incredibly bad at what I do? Am I stupid? Am I unlucky? Do I take unnecessary risks? Do I just not learn?

I don’t think any of these are true.

Do I not learn? Every time I have had an accident, or a close call, one of the first things I do is look at what I can learn and I mostly take those lessons on board and apply them next time I’m out. I can tell you what I have learned from every one of my accidents.

Am I unlucky? I spend a huge amount of time riding, swimming and previously climbing. The more time you spend doing something, the more chance there is of bad luck striking. But I don’t think any of these accidents were bad luck. There was something I could have done to avoid them all.

Am I bad at what I do? Maybe? But every time I’ve had an accident, I have been well within the limits of what I can do. My climbing accident happened on a route that was well within my abilities, just days after I had climbed the hardest routes I have ever climbed. This week’s incident happened on a descent I have done probably 100 times. A route I have built up my knowledge of over time.

So am I just reckless? Do I just push the limits too far?

Again, I don’t think so. I am incredibly aware of the risks of all the activities I do. My close call with hypothermia whilst swimming demonstrates this. The Tall One and I spend a lot of time making sure we understand the risks of cold water, learning how to mitigate for them, and the fact that I didn’t end up with hypothermia is testament to this, I got too cold, but I was always safe: I had someone with me, I knew how far I was from the shore, we were prepared with clothes to warm up, we communicated. The learning from this, was that you need to anticipate how cold you are before you are too cold!

My crash last week was in part caused by a cross wind catching my deep profile TT wheels, but I knew this was a risk, I had even told my riding partner to watch out for the cross wind. I love taking new people out swimming, riding, walking, running and I always ensure I assess the risks with new people, and make sure they are aware of potential issues. It is completely in my nature to risk-assess and contingency plan. I consciously and sub-concsiously run through ‘what ifs’ when I do anything.

So – why I am I so accident prone? I think there is one common thread in all my accidents.

Complacency

I get complacent. All of these accidents happened when I was within my comfort zone. I was feeling confident. I don’t think I was being reckless, but because I had assessed the situation as being relatively safe, with no likely surprises, I may have stopped being as hyper-aware of new risks. My swim incident happened after we had been swimming all winter in skins. We had comfortably swum a mile the week earlier in wetsuits. We had got beyond the excessive shivering, hot-water bottle, 10 layers swims of the winter. We had assessed the new swimming location, we knew where to avoid, we chose a route that kept us close to the shore, we kept an eye on each other. The one factor I hadn’t taken into account was that being higher up, the water was a couple of degrees colder, and that’s all it took. Lesson learnt

My climbing accident happened on a route well within my abilities, I was still high from pushing my limits the weekend earlier, and I didn’t take into account that I was climbing on a rock type I wasn’t particularly used to. I hadn’t been risky; the belay stance was unstable, so I had put in protection before I even started climbing to protect me and my belayer. My gear placements were good. I actually fell before I hit the ground and my gear caught me. What I didn’t do is check my gear – I was complacent: my gear had caught me, I knew my gear placements were good (I had fallen enough times in the past to test that), what I didn’t take into account is the different way cams work in grit and limestone. Lesson learnt.

My friends are right when they tell me I push my limits, but these aren’t the times that I end up battered, bruised or mildly hypothermic. When I am pushing my limits I practically assess the risks, I am hyper-aware of my surroundings, I am in control of my fear. I love pushing my limits, I love finding out what is possible, I love the buzz of achieving something that seems just out of reach. I am extremely competitive, mostly with myself. The only way I can continue to improve is by pushing my limits.

So after much post-crash contemplation, what have I learned?

  1. Don’t get complacent. Every time you do something, treat it like the first time. Even when you think you have been in this situation a hundred times before.
  2. Always learn from accidents and near misses. Don’t ride a road bike on ice. Don’t look over your shoulder on a bend descending at speed with a cross-wind. Don’t ride so close to verges. Get out of cold water BEFORE you realise you are getting too cold.
  3. Always assess the risks of any activity. Both consciously and train yourself to do it sub-consciously. Be aware of what is different in any situation.
  4. Never stop pushing your limits. It is what makes life fun. It’s what makes you better. It’s what enables you to achieve the unachievable.

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