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I never thought I would live that long. So I just crammed things in. I rock climbed and mountain climbed and ice climbed and raced my bike. I still worked, it’s just that I had… It’s not like I lived this life where I thought I would be around forever. You should do what you want to do first, and then you can always work till you die. So I kind of always lived that kind of life.
Michelle Grainger is a cycling coach, personal trainer and life-long athlete. Ingrid Alongi introduced us because Michelle was looking for someone to redo her website. Throughout the process of building it, we became friends. When she shared her life story with me, I knew it was something others needed to hear. She’s been to hell and back and today she shares a little of that with us as she recounts her Road to Paris.
Paris-Brest-Paris, the most famous long-distance randonnée
Its an ultra-endurance, self-supported support with a camaraderie, where you’re not supposed to be a racer. But it’s a timed event. It’s full of rules that are rich in tradition, but it’s not a bike race, it’s a gentleman’s timed event with a very wide range of timing. It goes from Paris to Brest and back, but it only comes every four years. People from all over the world can go, but you have to qualify. And you also can’t be a professional racer. And so we always said, we’ll do it, once I stop bike racing.
2009, A Year Into Training
In 2009 we were really gearing up and getting into it. We toyed with the idea if I could break the women’s record. And then on a training ride, riding through Boulder, I was hit by a truck. Everything changed. My whole life changed. I got immediate PTSD. I had some people get me off the road, but I decided I was ‘fine.’ I had chunks of skin out, but I was fine. I wouldn’t go to the hospital, I was fine. And I stuck to it. Until I couldn’t breathe because the truck had broken some ribs. And the unfortunate part is that because I soldiered on as though I were perfect, a lot of the injuries weren’t caught. Soon I was sleeping an hour a night, having panic attacks all the time, but I kept training because I was fine. But it wasn’t fine. Things were unravelling.
6 Months Later…
I hung to two things – my training and my work. And if I could do those two things, nobody will know what’s going on with me. Nobody will figure it out. That was my worst fear – that people would see how messed up I was becoming.
It’s such a fine line. I didn’t see it coming. I’ve always known about mental illness. I realize, you’re just one step away. I was on that line of no return. Like one more step…Had I not come in when I came in, I might have had one more month before serious psychiatric damage. But I was so scared, that brain, that fine line of not having your brain. Having lived my whole life in control, pretty much.
I learned over time there are choices. I had the choice not to go to therapy, I had the choice not to get surgeries. But I did.
In the midst of scheduling all these surgeries, they found out I had thyroid cancer. Which I was going to put off. But the surgeons made me deal with it. I was lucky and grateful.
Through this whole thing I used to say, I will not be defined by the car accident, I will not be defined by the car accident. But I don’t say that anymore, because everything we go through defines us. And sometimes it’s an about face.
Four Mile Fire
We had four people piling 4 cars full of stuff. We didn’t live at home for a month because we had so much smoke damage. But we survived it, we got through it. And then we were back on track. Back on the road to Paris.
2011 & A Broken Femur
Back on track, still training, still qualifying. 125, 185, 250, 375 miles. We get all the qualifiers done. On track, doing really well, not much therapy anymore. I’ve got our plane tickets, everything, all set up. I’m commuting down to work in Boulder, I make this sweeping big turn into Pearl and there are all these rows of gravel. My back wheel popped up, I came down right on my hip and I broke my femur. I knew it immediately. It was almost like a Monty Python, because I really took a lot out of my arm and it was gushing blood. But I knew that was it, I wanted it so badly not to be, but I knew, no more Paris.
I thought I was going to lose it. But I learned to meditate. And I thought, alright, it’s off the table again. And I had to reevaluate everything.
2012 – The Diagnosis
My twin sister that year had been having some trouble with her hand – losing some strength, twitching. And when I saw her, I thought, this is really serious. On the same weekend my husband got laid off from a job he’d had for 24 years, my twin sister got her diagnosis – she had ALS. The floor just fell out.
When my sister got the diagnosis, I remember thinking, that’s a 3-5 year prognosis.
What have I learned? I’ve learned that you be with them. How can you look into the future and be able to look back and live your life with no regrets? So I said alright, I’m going to help support her and I’m going to go see her all the time. So that’s what I started doing.
In a two and a half year period, I watched her lose everything – her income, her savings, her retirement, her physical abilities. Everything, absolutely everything. And it was really hard to watch.
August 2013, Boulder Flood
It started raining. I called Steve and said you’d better get home. Watched our driveway culvert, we lost the culvert. Steve and I knew things were bad, as the creek became a raging torrent. We stayed awake Wednesday night. And then started to try and save things Thursday.
By Thursday, an hour after dark, the water reached our yard. And we climbed out the back window and went to a neighbor’s house. A house that had a draw behind it. We were so fixated on the river, we didn’t think about the hillside. About the time we all started to get settled it, I had just fallen asleep, the house got hit by a mudslide.
As buried as I was and the size of the rocks that were on me, I knew nobody was coming. I knew it was up to us. And I knew it was bad. And so I figured this was it. I made it through the car accident, I made it through PTSD and this is what is going to take me out? And this is how I’m going to die? And Steve said, this is not how you’re going to die.
Steve kept saying, “You have to help me dig, you have to help me dig.” So I started digging. As the night unfolded, Steve got me out, and we started to dig another neighbor out. It became obvious we weren’t going fast enough. So I ran along a hillside to go get help and I found both dogs, alive.
Everyone’s screaming at this point, it’s chaos, just chaos. It’s 3-4 in the morning, pitch black. What’s really bizarre is that we’re standing in a pitch dark house, he’s standing over me and we can both see as if it’s daylight. Because you have hormones and adrenaline that in a life or flight situation, allow you to see. You can see, plain as day.
Some pretty phenomenal things happen when you’re going to die and you don’t die.
Really the lesson from almost dying in that situation was alright, I have these survival skills. The last 4 years have prepared me for this.
I’m not somebody who believes anymore in Fate, like we have a path. But I believe we have a path, but we can change that path too.
I started to realize that in 5 years, each thing that happened to me, was preparing me for a worse thing. And that in the end, that would be losing my sister. My twin sister. My everything person. The person who we had a connection of friends, the same school, same classes, same music. Our personalities – she was the butterfly and I was the bee.
I was able to be there right when she died.
And here we are, a Paris year, 2015. Steve and I started riding our bikes again in January, after having no base the last couple years. Now it’s not even my road to Paris, it’s just the road to Paris. The Journey. And now I just want to go. Let me go and ride my bike. Let me wave to the French people. Let me see 5,000 other people ride their bikes, too. Because getting there has been the battle. Riding 1200 km will be easy. Getting there – it’s a path, it’s a journey. The road to Paris is just going.
It’s life. The last 5 years have been life. Life happens. I think setting goals, I’m a coach, you have to set goals, we’re human, it’s keeps us moving forward. But I also think you really have to roll with all the change and disaster and death. And things that can change expectations.
It goes back to – I don’t want this to define my life. And yet, I won’t say that anymore because all of these things define our lives. I am defined by the car accident, I am defined by almost being hospitalized with PTSD, I am defined by the last 5 years. I am defined by that. I am a different person. I am not the person I was 5 years ago and I won’t ever be. And at some point you have to let that go. And bring parts of that with you. I hope I bring the good parts.
I hope I finish Paris, but I don’t have that expectation, because I know that maybe it won’t happen. And maybe that’s what the journey is.
It’ll be interesting, when I get to Paris, because it’s been a journey I didn’t see coming, in any sense of the word.
After Note – Michelle Grainger successfully completed the Paris-Brest-Paris on August 20th, 2015. We are ecstatic for her.