Probably my own behavior.
I first knew I needed to get help when I calmly took off my watch and threw it as hard as I could at the head of a 15 year old kid (I was 24) for the crime of being a goofy 15 year old kid, we’ll cover this more in a bit, which has nothing and everything to do with this ride.
The start of the El Granada 200k is the lighthouse in Santa Cruz. There probably isn’t a more iconic local landmark, and no better symbol for why I’m out doing this ride. A lighthouse is a guide, it shows you where to go and it warns you of the dangerous waters where you may run aground. I’m out here today partly for myself and partly on behalf of Managing The Ghosts. To try to help provide a light in the darkness, and a warning of treacherous waters.
Everyone gets their Brevet Card, instructions are given, and the 7am start is underway with sunny, perfect, blue skies. My start in EMS (Emergency Medical Services) wasn’t quite so perfect. I’ve worked in EMS for 18 years, 2 as an EMT, 4 as a Paramedic, and now 12 in training and education. Its a wonderful job, and I am proud to serve my community. I work with some of the most dedicated and caring people on this planet. Its a rewarding field and can enrich your life in numerous ways. It can also show you things you, especially a 23 year old you, have no idea how to deal with. These things can build up, and if you don’t find an outlet, you may see yourself behaving in ways you would not imagine (throwing a watch at a kid, just as an example). Life can get overwhelming and really scary.
We aren’t even a mile into the ride and my rack trunk is lightly bumping the backs of my legs on every pedal stroke. I had everything adjusted well yesterday but something is off now. 10 hours of that and I’ll be a giant bruise so I pull off, adjust the bag back where I need it, and I have now officially lost the pack and wont be seeing them for the rest of the day. Time to settle in for a long solo.
I feel pretty lucky. The incident with the watch happened early into a ten day stretch in the middle of nowhere in the south west. I came to realize over a couple of days that the path I was on wouldn’t lead anywhere good. I reached out for help. I found it. I was able to make amends to the kid (he hadn’t been hit, which is somewhat irrelevant) and started on a path to emotional recovery for which I am very grateful. It could have gone differently. For many in EMS it goes very differently.
12 miles in and our notorious coastal headwinds have decided to get an early start. The only thing good about our winds are that they are pretty steady and almost always blow from only one direction, so headwind out and tailwind home. It makes the first half of any ride north a bit harder, and the second half very rewarding.
33 miles in and we hit the first control in Pescadero. I buy water, fill out my brevet card, and get right back to pedaling. Up until now I haven’t seen anyone else from the ride. That changes 200 yards up the road as 20-30 other riders are all having breakfast at the same two places. Interesting. I like the group tactics, I may have to try those next time.
Some info about EMS. It’s really high stress work. You see really abnormal things on an almost daily basis. And your brain has to deal with all of that abnormal stuff you see. Its not a matter of IF you are going to deal with it, it’s just a matter of HOW and WHEN. There is also a really strong “suck it up” culture in EMS, we tend to be very afraid of vulnerability and appearing “weak”. So there is very little effort to teach people how to be proactive about their hows and whens. Most peoples hows and whens choose them, and often they aren’t very productive. Substance use runs really high, and every 33 hours in the US a police officer, firefighter, EMT, or Paramedic commits suicide.
51 miles in and we are at control #2 and the start of the Higgins Creek climb. The horrifying thought “I’m 51 miles in and I still have an entire Tour de Tahoe to ride” occurs and I quickly put it aside. The constant headwind of the past 2 hours has me a little weary. I just need to make the halfway point, things will get better after that.
About a year ago I was doing a lot of research into peer support for EMS related work stress. There is very little available, and what is available doesn’t have great science backing it up. There is increasing evidence that some of our most ingrained “support” practices can do more harm than good. Right about that time I made good on a 3 year promise to have lunch with a friend of mine, Jared, from Paramedic school. Jared and I don’t see each other frequently but our lives have a funny way of intersecting at the right moments. Jared told me he had just started a non-profit, called Managing the Ghosts, to start developing awareness and peer-support groups for post-traumatic stress in EMS workers. The tagline he chose. “What the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”.
61 miles in and control #3. Things are looking up! I joined up with 2 other people between Higgins and here. We haven’t been together the whole time as our speeds don’t totally match up but we leapfrog back and forth as we variously stop to swap bottles, check maps, or just rest for a minute. It’s nice to share vague pleasantries with another person. The 3 of us fuel up together at the control and then one by one get back on and keep riding.
“Whats the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”. It’s the question I most commonly get asked by people when I meet them for the first time and they find out what I do. It’s also the question I most dread. The last thing I want to do is drag up memories of the worst things I have ever seen. When I was younger and in a much more confrontational mindset, I would stop dinner parties by describing in great detail, and at sufficient volume, a tale of some of the worst things I have ever seen. I don’t do that anymore. It’s also a question that, with sufficient distance from my field career, I can’t really answer. When people ask it they are usually looking for some blood and guts tale, and I have plenty of those. But those mostly aren’t the worst things I have ever seen. I also don’t think I could pick a “worst”. Is watching an 80 year cry on Christmas morning while reading the card from his nearby family who aren’t coming to visit better or worse than picking up a homeless veteran covered in bodily waste for the 3rd time that week and knowing that you will do it again next week and you can’t find a way to get him the resources he needs. At some point, it’s all not ok. There is no worst, there is just sad.
83 miles in and control #4. Feeling pretty good, the ride up to here was great. Early wildflowers are just starting to bloom and the hills are about as beautiful as it gets. Like perpetually riding a bike into a post card. I was passed by one of the breakfast groups from earlier and I’m a little envious. They seem to power for 30 miles in a paceline, stop for a decent break and refuel, and then power another 30 mile paceline stretch. It’s a good strategy, and one I may look to join in on in the future. They flew past me so quick I didn’t have a change to attach, but the day is so nice and the scenery so perfect that I don’t really mind having the landscape mostly to myself.
Miles 85-87. Who decided that this was a great spot for a climb? On fresher legs climbing 650ft in 1.5 miles would be no problem, even enjoyable. Right now, I’m having a terrible time of it. Some of it is the damage done by fighting that headwind solo all morning. Part of it is that I should have eaten more at the last control. Either way, I hit the top of the climb, pull over to the side of the road, and sit down to eat and feel sorry for myself for a bit. A good hard climb is always a good time for reflection. I’m really grateful for my own recovery from traumatic stress. I found a mentor and a good group of peers to talk with, and one of the things I rediscovered was cycling. Some of the people I worked shifts with would get together after work and go for rides. It was time for talking, processing, and burning off some energy and frustration. Bikes helped out big time in me getting back to a better place mentally and emotionally. Group rides for chatting, solo rides for processing. Finally two years ago I took the plunge into commuting by bike, giving up much of the stress involved in daily car use, and now I’m working to spread that to my coworkers. Bikes can enrich your life, and the community and camaraderie is really grounding and supportive.
Mile 102. Back to the highway, it’s basically a straight and mostly level ride back into town. The wind has almost stopped so that tailwind I thought I had earned isn’t here. But, the sunset over the ocean is always a good view and no wind is better than a headwind. When Jared told me about Managing the Ghosts and his goals for peer support, I instantly thought of Randonneuring. I had been kicking around the idea of riding some brevets, and the 12 and 24 hour rides (the same length as most EMS shifts) had a symbolic value as a way to start spreading awareness of PTSD in first responders. Raising awareness is the first of many steps (pedal strokes?) we need to take so we can help our communities to heal. I have lost friends and co-workers to substance use and suicide. That isn’t an experience I am looking to have again. I want people to know they aren’t alone. I want people to know they don’t have to live in the shadows. I want people to know that the solutions probably don’t exist in a bottle or a needle. And I want people to know that it can get better.
Mile 127 and the finish. 12 hour shift on the bike in the books! Brevet card signed, sealed, delivered. That was a great day on the bike. Time for some veggie nachos and rest my weary shoulders.
(Side note: after 15 years of faithful service this was probably the last long ride for Betsy (my Specialized Allez), as her drivetrain is near worn out and the overall position has become a little too aggressive for me. Something more relaxed is in my very immediate future.)
I’m happy to be here at the end of the ride, I’m happy to be here in life right now. I’m grateful for Jared and Managing the Ghosts, and I’m grateful for Ryan and Twin Six for giving me this platform to tell my story. I have a lot of rides planned this year, and I have some racing planned as well. One ride down, lots of rides to come.