Only Mortal

All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

In 2008, a few weeks before I took off on a month-long bike trip to eastern North America, I accidentally ran a test on my self-confidence. You’d think that a 60+ year old man would be pretty familiar with his body and his limits, but you’d be wrong. One of the characteristics of folks who take on risky activities like sky diving, scuba, and motorcycling is the need to operate on some level of conviction that “I won’t get hurt.” Crashing and getting maimed and dying is for other people. They have my sympathy, but I’m not one of those guys. I felt that way, especially, when I was young and raced off-road. Some days–those few when I get out of bed relatively painlessly–I still feel a bit indestructible.

It’s an illusion. A fantasy. A conceit. We’re all not only mortal, but a little bit fragile. At speeds beyond a brisk walk, we’re downright breakable. Even me.

So, one afternoon after work I was on my way home; taking residential roads, avoiding traffic congestion, and ugly freeways. As I approached a collection of apartment buildings, I saw a trio of kids with arm loads of water balloons. I was in my usual armor. It was a hot July afternoon. They were having fun. I didn’t make any special effort to avoid them. As I passed, all three fired off a balloon in my direction. Two balloons harmlessly hit the pavement in front of my bike and splashed a little water on my boots. The third landed right in my lap.

At first, I was shocked that getting hit by a water balloon wasn’t as fun as I remembered it being. My grandson and I toss water balloons at each other all summer (I know, “You could put an eye out doing that.”) and nobody ever gets hurt.

I got hurt. I practically vomited it hurt so much. I’ve been hit by 200 pound guys in football gear and this was worse. I’ve hit the ground at 50mph in a dirtbike get-off, this wasn’t that bad but it wasn’t far off. The pain from the balloon impact was somewhere below crashing and breaking a rack of ribs and way above having a 10 year old grandkid jump on my stomach while I’m lying on the floor watching television.

Nursing my bruised gut, I did a little research on risk, just to see if I could learn something. I have learned enough about pain, I didn’t need any more of that sort of information. The Journal of Sport Behavior had some interesting things to say about risk: “Choosing risk for the sake of risk is not the goal. Rather, while being attracted to activities that offer novel or intense experiences, sensation seekers are willing to accept the potential risks involved.”1 The same article considered the mindset of the risk taker, “risk is necessary for sensation seeking to occur but that risk itself is not necessarily the fully intended goal of a sensation seeker. Choosing risk for the sake of risk is not the goal. Rather, while being attracted to activities that offer novel or intense experiences, sensation seekers are willing to accept the potential risks involved.”

I’ll buy that. Honestly, risk isn’t the reason I ride. The risk is the thing I try to avoid while I ride. Riding is certainly a “novel experience,” though. Driving a car, riding a bus, pedaling a bicycle, walking, or any other means of transportation have very little in common with the motorcycling experience. Riding a motorcycle is more like flying an ultralight, if an ultralight could maneuver in dense traffic.

In 1988, a researcher named Bogo found that “high-risk athletes were not fearless, but that they had learned how to handle fear. The climbers he interviewed viewed fear as an acceptable and potentially useful emotion in helping keep them safe.” We who ride do that, sort of. I’m not convinced that I think, directly, about the risk of riding. I certainly look out for strange cager behavior (is there another kind of cager behavior?). Maybe I’ve been riding long enough that fear has morphed into something else; paranoia, for example. However, that balloon-induced dose of intense pain brought back an awareness of fear and mortality.

Getting hurt reminds us that we aren’t immortal, bulletproof, infallible, or reliably lucky. Crashing, snagging a fingernail against the edge of a spinning tire, mangling a hand on a sheet metal edge, or getting nailed with a fast-moving water balloon reminds us that it can all be over in an instant. We’re indestructible until we destruct. Then, we think about the risks we’re taking. We re-evaluate the reward vs. the risk. We decide if the possible consequences of those “intense activities” override the joy we receive from the activity.

When someone tells me they used to ride a bike, when they were kids, but crashed once and decided it wasn’t worth the risk, I know what they are talking about. I’ve gone through the re-examination process several times; usually while nursing busted bones or some such aggravation. So far, I still feel that what I get from riding is worth what it takes from me. There will be a time where infirmity or risk-aversion makes me re-evaluate that position.
1A qualitative examination of risk among elite adventure racers, ” Journal of Sport Behavior

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