RIDE, HEAL, GROW
How Ryan Dahl went from injury to a journey of self discovery
In the past, when asked to do something that brought me out of my comfort zone, I’d politely pass. So when Brian asked me to write an article about my recent injury and what I did for recovery, my instinct told me to do just that - pass. But that was then. I’m a different person than I was a year ago. I’ve experienced so much pain—physical and emotional—and with that pain came so much growth. I’m happier at times than I’ve ever been, sadder as well, and ultimately I’m more awake now than before. I’m compelled to plan less, say yes more, not be afraid, and, like right now, take the uncomfortable route when it presents itself. After all, this life is temporary, why not make it an interesting one?
On June 9 I met up with a group of good friends who came down from the Orange County area. We were going to inflict pain upon one another on the world-famous Swamis A Ride. This was a friendly rivalry between the North and the North County, and I just so happened to be on my best form, most likely faster than I’d ever been before. My confidence was high; I sat at the back and chatted it up with all my friends. There was no rush to flex, now was the time to take advantage of the draft and relax.
As we rolled down La Costa Avenue, someone hit a raised manhole cover and lost their bottle. The bottle miraculously lodged itself in his rear wheel, but he didn't panic and casually waited until the bottle popped out. Crisis avoided. Well, it was, until he went to pedal and realized he had dropped his chain. His forward momentum stopped and people began to swerve to avoid him. The group was 100 riders strong, so the slowing turned into skidding, and riders began to crash into one another.
I was observing everything from the back and veered left to avoid the chaos. Just when I was about to pass the pile, a bike flew out in front of me minus its rider. I hit it, my fork sheared off, and I head-butted the ground at a Strava-recorded 32 mph. My chin hit my chest and my body weight was absorbed by my cervical spine. When I came to a stop, I knew I was broken, and I knew it was my neck. I crawled to the center divider, rolled over, and laid on my back. When I reached up to take off my glasses, my right hand fell onto my face lifeless, and that's when I realized my spinal cord had been injured.
I pride myself in being a non-crasher, but when I do crash, it's always bad. This was no different. After a CT scan, it was confirmed that my C5, C6, C7, T1, and T2 vertebrae needed to be fused. My C7 had to be removed completely and replaced with a titanium prosthetic. Another 2 mm and the specialist said I’d be paralyzed from the neck down. You can usually get a pretty clear idea of how bad injuries are by reading the doctors’ expressions, and he looked pretty fucking concerned. Luckily for me, one of the best neurosurgeons in the country was on-call when I was admitted. Surgery went extremely well, and I was given high accolades for my fitness levels that allowed them to take their time and do it up right. Yay fitness. Total time in surgery: six hours
I awoke a new person.
Not just because my neck now resembled a robot with $160,000 in labor and titanium, but because my identity had just been taken away. I'm a cyclist; I've been a cyclist since the age of 12. My friends are cyclists. My work is around cycling. Everything I do is in some way tied to cycling. I love, love, love cycling, and to be quite honest, I would rather die than not be able to cycle. Yes, I know that last bit sounds dramatic, but it’s the truth and some of you will get it. So when my surgeon told me I should give up the bike and take up swimming, you can understand how I was emotionally nuked.
The following months were incredibly dark and challenging. In the past, I’d just pour my stress, worries, and fears into the pavement. It would always ground me and give me a sense of self, a sense of accomplishment. It made me truly happy. But now I had no bike, no escape, no outlet, no identity, and I wasn't even sure if I had the hope of returning to my former self, the hope of returning to the sport I’d die without.
Something else had also been happening in my life over the past year. The day of my surgery was the day that my wife of 14 years and I had mutually decided to separate. All the events leading up to June 9 had one common theme—that living a mediocre life wasn’t acceptable anymore. It was something I had been processing for the previous 12 months and, with the best intentions and openness, we both agreed that coexisting at medium wasn’t healthy for anyone. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t just see a few Instagram posts and think the grass was greener. This was three years of working, counseling, and reflecting to get to a point where we both openly acknowledged that our paths had taken us in different directions and that life apart would be fuller than together.
I’m not the most spiritual person, but the planned separation was to happen the same day I came out of surgery. You may see this as just a random coincidence, but I kind of feel it happened for a reason. The strength I needed to stay my course with the hard decision to separate was overshadowed by the severity of my injuries, making the choice painless in comparison, the choice to not come home. After that I was totally overwhelmed by support from the cycling community. OVERWHELMED. I felt incredibly cared for, loved, and not alone. The total shake-up followed with a massive flood of support eased me into my new life, without it I’m not sure I would have seen it through.
Physically I was incapacitated and was left with no other choice than to feel. So feel I did—every single emotion. I’ve never cried so much, and I’ve never dug so deep to understand what it was I was feeling and why. Self-improvement became the theme; I read everything and anything trying to make the pain stop and give me a sense of comfort in an otherwise lost sense of self. The more I read the more I felt, the more I felt the more I dug, the more I dug the more I learned. I’ve been on this earth for 42 years yet never really felt awake or alive until now. It dawned on me that all this pain wasn’t a negative at all—it was actually the catalyst for growth. The smooth sailing comfortable life I had crafted for myself through consistency, planning, safety, and complacency had stunted my growth, and now I was making up for it in droves.
The physical aspects of my injury and recovery were minor compared to the emotional. Believe it or not, the only pain medicine I took after the hospital was a few Tylenol for three days. I am SO fortunate. We’ve all heard the horror stories that come with spinal injuries—if you aren’t paralyzed, then often you’re plagued with chronic pain. The pain was there, but it wasn’t bad and I could always figure out what to do to make it go away or at least make it better. Before long I was walking around the house, then the yard, then the block. I was back on Strava, which can be just an ego-stroking platform, but for me, it was my connection back to my community, and I felt every single kudo I got. It motivated me, and before long my one-mile walks were turning into seven-milers. Six weeks after surgery I was back on the trainer Zwifting. I worked up to nine hours per week by week eight. Trainer miles are tough, especially Saturday morning when all your friends are out hammering away on a beautiful sunny day. Those mornings were hard, but we know about pain, don’t we? Pain is simply an indicator that growth is happening.
The trainer was a constant along with journaling, reading, and talking. I’m so thankful for all the ears I had, my parents and close friends especially. I was kind of a self-help mess/monster, but I was growing and life was becoming rich again. By month four I had ventured outside on proper bike ride and, yes, it was fucking amazing. Probably a bit early if you ask any specialist, but when you take into account how badly I needed it emotionally and how careful I was, it was totally worth the risks. The training began and I was careful; the thoughts of ripping a screw from my vertebrate haunted me. The bit where my surgeon said, “If you fall at this phase you’ll die,” played over and over in my head. My fitness was actually quite good (thanks Zwift), and by week 20 I had actually set my all-time one minute, 10 minute, and 20 minute power PRs. My motivation levels were, and are, higher than ever before.
I now have a new-found appreciation for life and how important a life with substance is. It’s transcended everything I do and, to be completely honest, the accident was the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. It gave me a greater love for the journey and has taught me that pain should be perceived as a positive because without it we could not achieve the levels of growth needed for the life we all deserve to live.
Ryan Dahl is the founder/owner of Wend Wax, has been racing since before the days of Lance Armstrong and is one of the last few SoCal locals. He can be found at the business end of any ride.