September 2015

Join adventure and endurance sports journalist Nikalas Cook on his painful road to recovery.

Accidents and injuries have a habit of striking when you least expect them. In the previous weeks I’d been riding on the track, my front wheel inches from the rider’s in front and clocking over 60 kph behind a derny motorbike. I’d raced in time trials on busy dual carriageways and, during a self devised challenge to ride three black routes at three North Wales mountain bike trail centres in one day, taken a fair few tumbles. However, it was during a routine morning run on my local hill with my dog and mate Paul, that disaster struck. It wasn’t even on a steep or technical stretch of trail and, engrossed in one of our usual deep and profound conversations, I think it was the pros and cons of Cannondale’s Lefty forks (for the record, they’re stupid), our pace wasn’t exactly scorching. One moment I was happily jogging along, the next, I went over on my right ankle, put my left leg out to catch myself, there was a sickening crunchy pop, a searing pain in my left knee and I was in the mud knowing that something had gone very wrong.

The point of this blog, along with giving me a chance to vent my miseries and frustrations, is to follow my recovery but, more importantly, to pass on the lessons I learn from it. Some will be practical, some psychological and who knows, if it goes really badly and I get desperate, maybe even spiritual. Anyway, back to the story.

“I’ve done something really bad!” I moaned with a liberal scattering of expletives. The pain was telling me this but also my left kneecap, which had migrated northwards and was currently occupying a new locale mid thigh. My dog’s solution was to vigorously lick my face. Fortunately, Paul was slightly more practical and got straight on the phone for an ambulance. We were on the top of a hill and considered calling Mountain Rescue but we knew how much longer it’d take and, with adrenaline coursing through my body, I reckoned I could hobble, crawl and swear the 1/2 mile to a road.

After what seemed like an eternity and some really stupid sounding questions, pain was making me intolerant, the operator confirmed that an ambulance was on its way. The hobble off was fairly horrendous but, now grotesquely swollen, my leg was doing a great job of splinting itself. Eventually we reached a cottage and knocked on the door. Despite it being before 8 am, a little old lady in a pink dressing gown answered and bundled me into her 4x4 and took me down to the main road where Paul had directed the ambulance to.

My wife was also there, Paul having called her, and, seeing her and with the adrenaline wearing off, the pain really hit me and I broke down. I’d like to say I was a stoic hero but I blubbed like a baby. Eventually the ambulance arrived, pumped me full of morphine and rushed me to hospital. Well, I say rushed but they went the wrong way and my wife beat us there. I was so high though by that stage that I didn’t care.

It turned out that, as my leg had decelerated, my quads contracted massively and, because of freakishly unlucky angles, had ripped my knee apart rupturing my patella tendon. The hospital experience was thankfully short, I was in for surgery the next day, plastered up and then home on crutches two days later.

Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to know the Team Sky and Great Britain Cycling Team physiotherapist, Phil Burt and I’d phoned him straight away after I’d been admitted. He was adamant that I stress that I led an active lifestyle, am a competitive cyclist and, if possible, push for it not to be put in a cast. Every day in cast means losing valuable muscle mass and you can’t get to the injury to speed the healing process. Unfortunately, the Consultant was adamant and, more worryingly, my next appointment was in under two weeks and would probably result in another cast being put on for a further four.

As it happened one of the top sports knee surgeons in the country, Professor Phil Turner, is based at Stepping Hill Hospital near Stockport. Ironically, the paramedics had given me a choice between Stepping Hill and Macclesfield and, as it’d be an easier drive for my wife, I’d chosen the latter. With Phil Burt pushing me, I started the process of transferring my treatment to Stepping Hill. You’re fully entitled to do this and, if there’s an obvious specialist for your treatment elsewhere, don’t just stay put.

Just over two weeks post surgery, I saw Prof. Turner and thankfully the cast came off and I was into a hinged leg brace. Unfortunately, due to how my injury had been pinned and wired, orthopaedics is basically Mechano, I wouldn’t be able to start working on getting back my range of motion. Apparently, if I pushed too hard, it’d cheese wire, his words, through my muscle. This added another 3-4 weeks to the 4-6 month rehab sentence I was already facing and, although delighted to have the cast off, I felt angry and despondent.

With Phil Burt’s help, we came up with a set of rehab exercises I could push on with and, on his recommendation, I hired a Game Ready. This device chills and compresses the injured area meaning you can push hard with rehab and then take all of the inflammation away. It cost £300 to rent for the month but Phil Burt is convinced by its benefits and that it can significantly reduce recovery time.

Five weeks on from the accident, it’s been frustrating but I’m off the crutches and have made progress with the rehab work. I’ve embraced one-legged rowing, my wife is kindly driving me to accessible high places with views and I’m just about holding onto my sanity. I had a bit of an angry “poor old me” low a couple of week ago but bizarrely shaving my legs back to their pre-accident racing cyclist’s look gave me a lift. I’m seeing Prof. Turner next week and I’m hoping he’s going to be impressed by the progress I’ve made and, fingers crossed, he’ll give me the green light to really press on.

Weeks 1-5: Lessons Learned

1) Always carry a mobile: I never normally have a mobile on my morning runs and it was unusual for Paul to have his too. Turn it off if you’re having a break from modern life but make sure it’s in your pack or bum-bag.
2) Ask questions: We’re way too reverential of doctors in this country. Ask questions, make sure they understand your situation and, if you’re not happy, complain and remember you have the right to go elsewhere.
3) You can always do something: Something is always better than nothing. You’ll always go through a sod it, if I can’t run/cycle/climb, I’ll just sit on the sofa, eat pies and binge watch Netflix stage after injury but there is always some small thing you can do that’ll positively progress your rehab.
4) Do some research: Phil Burt did it for me with the Game Ready but it shows there are tools out there to help you that your doctor might not tell you or even know about.
5) Reclaim your athlete’s identity: Suddenly not being able to be active is like a bereavement and you need to reclaim that loss. For me, it was shaving my legs but you need to do something that reminds you of what you did pre-accident and what you’re driving towards doing again.

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