A serious post.

I joked a little about recycling old unpublished stuff. And mostly that’s true but in this case it really isn’t. Coming up four years ago, my friend Russ Pinder has a massive crash on a brutal descent in Wales. The outcome was a “T4” which means he is paralysed from the chest down. But he’s doing ok and that’s almost entirely due to his mental strength, refusal to succumb to misery and the love and support of his family. He’s an inspiration to everyone but his survival is due – at least for the first days – the air ambulance.

The “hour of life” which differentiates those dying in inaccessible mountains and those being cared for in hospital is often down to the charity funded yellow helicopters. You can read more about a foundation Russ and his friends started to support them here. If you’ve got a spare quid, there are far worse places to spend it.

Anyway here’s the article written in March 2003. It was too raw to publish after the accident and I’m only doing it now in the hope that at least one of you who occasionally find the hedgehog amusing may like to donate to a fantastic cause.

I have a friend called Russ. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not some schoolyard pal or a soulmate whose take on life complements mine. He’s just a bloke I’ve been riding with, on and off, for the last eighteen months. He’s fast everywhere; uphill, downhill, over technical challenges and on the road. He’s passionate about our sport to the point of being a little intense. He’s a bike per genre kind of guy with a lightweight hardtail, a pimpy full-suss and a FR/DH bike. Sometimes he’s a bit condescending and his competitive gland is scarily overactive but all in all, he’s a generous, warm hearted, committed mountain biker.

Like I say I’ve got a friend called Russ. He’s lying in a hospital bed paralysed from the chest down. He wanted to be the perfect mountain biker, straining for the pinnacle of his sport and yet for all he has put in, the rest of his life stretches away in a chasm of paralysis that his wheelchair can never cross.

It’s a week since it happened but details are still sketchy. Whilst my downhill medium was snow and skis, a bunch of the usual suspects had taken advantage of the unseasonably dry weather to tackle the famed Tal-Y-Bont loop. Last year, I’d done the same and been blown away by the pace and the mountains. It was a pretty intimidating ride on all counts but Russ was in his element – fast and confident, excelling in his chosen sport. This time out, the world schismed and we’ll probably never know why. But on the descent from the Gap, Fate tipped the balance delivering a partial sacrifice to an uncaring God. It’s a brute of a descent – steep, scary and unforgiving at the top tending to stupidly fast whilst retaining it’s rocky backbone toward the bottom. I vividly recall Russ blowing by me last year –Gulfstream to Cessna – accelerating to Motocross speed with only a light plastic compound helmet as protection against a fall.

I’m working off eye witness accounts swayed by aftershock and grounded in guilt. ‘What else could we have done?’ his riding companions plaintively ask. Probably nothing but the spectre of passiveness in the face of nebulous evidence will haunt them for a long time. Maybe for ever. No one actually saw the accident but empirical evidence from the aftermath is compelling – the front wheel 50 yards behind the battered frame, itself lying beyond the trail boundary fence, equidistantly bisected by a permanently damaged and limp Russ, lying motionless on the unyielding rocks which broke his fall and broke his back.

His riding friends were magnificent. They kept him warm, took a GPS reading and urgently called an air ambulance. This in the light of Russ’ helmet being nothing more than polycarbonate shards and the man himself crying ‘I can’t feel my legs’. I just don’t know who to start feeling sorry for first.

Helicopters, hospitals, logistics and worrying ate up the next 6 hours as Heather (Russ’ wife) is driven from Didcot in Oxfordshire while his riding buddies crowd into the ward waiting for news. There wasn’t much and none of it was good – rumour and introspection are not happy bedfellows.

Fast forward a day. He’s due at the Spinal Injuries ward in Stoke Mandeville hospital. That’s good – it’s the premier institution in the UK for such injuries and it’s only five miles from my house. A friend of I go to see what’s happening. No Russ as yet but the ward is still terrifying – not the nurses who are kind and calm, but the distress of the patients and the signs on the wall accentuate the long term hell for anyone that passes through these doors on a trolley. It’s hard to look at a noticeboard displaying a rota for bladder training and not lose the plot completely.

A marker here – I hate hospitals. Irrational and stupid but I still do. I’m shaking as we leave and it gets worse. Outside the entrance to the spinal ward is a bloke our age in a wheelchair apparently paralysed from the neck down. He’s talking earnestly to his seven year old daughter who looks on with wide eyes and no understanding. The chair reminds me unpleasantly of Davros of Dr Who fame and I can’t shed the image of a restless body confined to 5% of the movement it was born with. This is real and it’s scary shit.

Click fast forward again. The MTB forums are aflame with questions, updates and messages of goodwill. They ring hollow in my head: “Get well soon and back on the bike Russ?. Yeah right like that’s going to happen. I’m angry now, the piousness and hypocrisy is cloying – I know I should be touched by the core of their sentiments but I’m not. Later I chill out a bit – maybe the threads are a little naïve but they’re heartfelt and now I’m proud of our little community. We really care for our own.

It’s been a week. The tape wind forwards but not much changes. No visits except the family made up of Russ’s brother, wife and two kids both under 10. Heather is hanging in there by all accounts but what can she tell the kids? They’ve only known daddy as a sporty, athletic can-do-anything kind of guy and now they’re facing a major readjustment.

The prognosis is bad. Russ has been told his spinal cord is shattered – there is no cure – he’ll be paralysed for the rest of his life. He is 38 years old. But he’s a fighter with a positive mental approach yet I can’t help thinking this must be too much too soon for anyone. One minute in your prime, confident and successful supported by a loving family and the next WHAM, you’re a cripple, a dependant, fighting daily embitterment and questioning always questioning ‘WHY ME?’ to a world that has branded you different. You must think of all the things you used to be able to do but now you’re an object of pity or ridicule defined and imprisoned by your wheeled cage. Christ it’s keeping me awake so how is Russ coping surrounded by the sterile hospital environment, lying awake with a broken back and broken dreams? All the time in the world to think and no physical ability to do.

We went for a ride. Many of the guys who’d witnessed the accident were aghast at the prospect of getting back on a mountain bike. But we had demons to exorcise. It’s strange because I was sure we’d take it easy – maybe ponder the pointlessness of our sport or tell tall tales of our rides with Russ. But we didn’t. We nailed everything right on the razors edge pushing uncaring into the adrenal zone and loving the rush. Maybe that’s it – it’s a risk and reward gig and even with Russ lying in hospital, that’s still not enough to make us stop.

Mountain biking is sometimes an exercise in not thinking. It strips away the social conventions that drive you to ‘do the right thing’. It reduces life to simple pleasures and binary decisions; left or right, slow or fast, spin or race. It makes you love it – the lifestyle, the danger, the bullshit, the dopamine hit, the difference even when you think you’re hating it.

Don’t misunderstand me. Russ’s accident has shaken me to the core. I’m dreading walking into his hospital ward because I know he’ll see the truth in my eyes: ‘Sorry Mate, I’ll do whatever I can but THANK FUCK it’s you and not me’. I’m not proud of that neither am I alone in thinking it. And it scares me – our sport is a drug – yet I’ll never give it up until I’m too old, too scared or too damaged. And I know Russ would have done the same. He’s not a martyr and I’m not going to canonise him because we all embrace the danger and we have to live with the consequences. It’s not fair and it’s not right but it’s our choice. There is no middle ground.

Mountain Biking is in our blood. It’s like the Hotel California – you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

I’ve got a friend called Russ. It’s early days but I’ve got a feeling he’ll come good. In two years time, we’ll be cheering on the Mall as he races past in his wheelchair, arms pumping and race face in place, against the other heroes who we applaud but will never quite understand. I hope it’s not wishful thinking but I just know in my heart he’ll be fine. And if he isn’t, he’s going to have a whole community of like minded people who will never stop helping him be all he can.

I’ve got a friend called Russ. I’m proud to be his mate.

PS: I never got to see Russ race down the mall but he’s back on a 4 wheeled bike now and he is off skiing next month. Which is about as close to a happy ending as you could hope to get.

8 thoughts on “A serious post.”

  1. That’s a nice write up Alex. I knew Russ from a different world (gofar – pre STW), rode with him a few times and you’re right about everything you say about him. The thank god syndrome is gut wrenching, but only human.

  2. Wow.. what a moving post. I can agree with every sentiment in there. I’m part of a Mountain Rescue Team and gladly give my money to the air ambulance, they provide us outdoor lot a safety line to warm secure places if things go bad.. Nice article Al

  3. Alex, I’m having a really shitty day, but that’s put it into its proper perspective. There but for the Grace of God, etc. Very moving.
    Another vote for the air ambulances, too; seen it in action here at work and at our kids’ rugby club. Didn’t see it when running a sponsored race in Cambridge for cash to build a helipad for it at Addenbrookes; it was due to flypast but was called away on duty. Twice.

  4. I can honestly say that’s the first blog post that’s ever brought me to the verge of tears (not a place I get to very often). I have a close relative going through a medical crisis and so your thoughts seem particularly insightful, and welcome.

    I wrote something fairly immediately (though much less poetic) and also held off posting it – it seems quiet catharsis is a common theme. Though that’s hardly a surprise.

    I’ll do you a deal – a tenner for my nearest air ambulance if you’ll download Boinc (http://boinc.berkeley.edu/), attach to the Rosetta@Home project and donate some spare CPU cycles.

  5. Great writing Alex. As someone who takes part in the sport which actually calls on them most I too am grateful for their presence.

    It has always amazed me that the Police helicopters are funded out of taxpayers money, but the air-ambulance relies on donations. Skewed sense of priorites there I feel.

  6. Er, thanks. I spoke to Russ today and he’s in fine fettle. Re-reading that nearly four years on, it still feels pretty raw.

    Someone once said to me that one day you’ll be too old, too ill or too scared to ride and that day is coming.

    I think I’ll go and ride my bike then.

    Nick – there’s an argument the AA guys used to tell us about why charity funding was actually preferable because they weren’t accountable to budget cuts or government policy. It does mean – of course – that like any charity, the public generosity is literally their lifeblood.

  7. Maybe the Air Ambulance should get their own version of the police helicopter PR that is “Police, Camera, Action!”.

    Last time we needed to call out the air ambulance was in 2003 – fortunately not for one of our own party.

  8. All the Welsh trail centres in one day? With one gear? That’s a fine effort in a ‘are you completely bonkers’ kind of way 😉

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