The Dark Side: Being injured

The KTM BLOG spoke to Red Bull KTM’s Tommy Searle on one of the hardest facets of being a motorcycle racer: injuries. How do racers deal with them mentally? How do they affect their day-to-day lives? We asked the former three times vice champion – who has been dealing with vertebrae, shoulder and arm problems in a tough 2015 MXGP campaign – to open up …

Tommy Searle Qatar 2015

Tommy Searle Qatar 2015

Of all the sensory enjoyment of motorsport – sounds, smell, colors, entertainment – there is also the knowledge that for the stars of racing the sweet odour of champagne can easily be replaced with that of surgical disinfectant at any moment. This is especially the case in offroad where a fall at any speed no matter how fast or slow can have repercussions in terms of breakages. On the asphalt and MotoGP is a slightly different beast with abrasions aplenty and more than enough fractures through sudden impact with the tarmac. Injury data is sparse in the series but the 2014 championship did see a total of 981 crashes logged, 206 of which were in the premier class (61 in the eighteen races). Something like Motocross would have a higher count simply because on the trickier tracks it is not uncommon for even the very best to lose control momentarily and then get back into the race, sometimes without losing a position.

In fifteen years of covering MXGP I can say with reasonable confidence that the majority of falls did not involve significant physical problems. There have also been some truly shocking dismounts from great height or speed where you end up amazed the rider escaped unscathed, and then other incidents where it is rapidly apparent that things are about to change for the rider involved. “Immediately after a crash you do the ‘body check’,” says 26 year old Tommy Searle, Britain’s most successful Grand Prix racer this century. “You are like ‘Arghh … … legs? Arms? Where does it hurt?’ In Thailand [round two of MXGP] this year I don’t remember too much of the crash because I was knocked out. I hear road racers say the same; they check themselves and then try to get up. Sometimes it is hard to really know what is wrong. With my last injury in Spain my shoulder was sore, it was hard to breathe and I was coughing up blood. Some injuries turn out to be worse than you think. It might be a small crash and start as a small problem but then nerve damage comes into it.”

The very first phase after a crash whether in a hospital or not seems to involve finding a degree of acceptance. “There is denial,” muses Searle. “I’ve driven home after a crash using one arm thinking ‘I wouldn’t be able to do that if it was broken’, the same for opening a door or whatever. You try and deny it for a bit but then you go to the doctor and they say “it’s broken”. First question is “how long?” They say “six to eight weeks” and already in your mind you are thinking: ‘it’ll be four weeks …’ I’ve learnt over the last couple of years that four weeks is just not enough for it to be done properly. I broke my shoulder and it took eight weeks before I was able to be pain-free.”

Tommy Searle Thailand 2015

Tommy Searle Thailand 2015

For athletes that spend their whole lives preparing to go fast the period when their bodies are crying “something’s wrong” doesn’t necessarily mean they slow down. “You do everything you can to get better,” the Brit says. “I tend to spend more time messing around driving to physio, treatment sessions, paying medical bills or to see specialists or get opinions. It is a lot of time, money and effort trying to get better. And it is the same with every injury. People might think you are just at home on the couch but you actually become busier when you are injured compared to when you are not! You spend much more time in the gym trying to be strong again.”

But what drives that compulsion to get back to the activity that caused much pain and anguish in the first place? Why push the body through the stress, trauma and anxiety? Maybe it is something that ‘normal’ people would find hard to fully comprehend but for a professional athlete it is one of those barriers they have to overcome. In a way, like a tough rival on the track blocking their path to success. “My life revolves around racing and I have a very good life because of racing. I’m allowed to have this life because it has been made from racing … so it is difficult to enjoy myself generally if things are not going right at the track,” he reveals. “You don’t think ‘why am I doing this?’ because of pain. If you have to ride in pain then that’s s**t. When I was young I never thought about it … now I’m a bit older you think more but pain is still not an issue. I worry more about the damage I am doing if I am riding. If there is no chance of damage and I can cope with the pain through an injection then that’s OK. If you have pain then usually there is a reason for it.”

“I don’t think the injuries I’ve had will affect my life later. You see old racers now like Harry Everts, he has a bit of a limp but he still loves life and is in the paddock all the time. I guess you’ll get some arthritis in the joints … but I bet none of the old guys are thinking ‘I wish I never raced’.”

Tommy Searle Spain 2015

Tommy Searle Spain 2015

One area of the burgeoning field of sport science studies in the last thirty years has touched on psychology, and the way Pros deal with the swing between the vast highs and lows of their pursuit. Research and case studies has shown that the most common emotions upon injury are frustration followed by anger and tension. Support programs from a trainer and friends, and goal setting have been recommended as the most effective way to deal with the psychological side effects of a significant lifestyle change.

The cutthroat nature of racing – that even prompted former Motocrosser Ryan Hughes to comment in Mikey Neale’s exceptional upcoming feature film ‘FearNot’ that riders are “like tear-offs; when they get dirty people throw them away for the next one” – and a calendar of events that does not slow for athletes that are convalescing means that injuries also carry immense pressure for the racer to heal quickly and be back on the track.

Searle touches on this: “Being injured is mentally tough because you doubt yourself and your speed. You have to put in so much effort to get back where you need to be and it doesn’t come easily. An injury can be OK if you come back, and you can feel 100%, but the position we are in means we can never wait to be 100%. We don’t have time.”

“You are doing all this work in the gym and you think ‘f**k, I cannot even get on the bike. How am I going to feel when I’m on it? I could be making the injury worse’. You are cycling but your shoulder is not quite right, your back also and the doctors are saying: “don’t do too much” and you don’t know if you are doing too much or too little. Is what I am doing helping me keep fit? Or prolonging my injury? It is very easy to get lost. Some people will advise exercise and others tell you to rest. It is really difficult … unless you are at the end of the season where you can decide to sit at home and rest.”

“Is what I am doing helping me keep fit? Or prolonging my injury? It is very easy to get lost.”

When we start to ride again then you are worried when you are driving to the track, you are not excited,” he adds. “You are nervous and you cannot enjoy it because there will be pain or discomfort. You are going around the track asking those questions again: ‘am I making it worse? Should I be at home?’. Perhaps you are not in a position to come back but you have to because that’s what you are paid to do. Earlier this year I had six weeks off the bike. I could not cycle or run or do anything and I ended up getting straight off the sofa to race. You could get down about it … but it’s part of the sport.”

“Injuries set you on the back foot because the truth is that at a race nobody cares about your problems,” he goes on. “People write you off very quickly. They don’t think ‘he’s coming back from a wrist injury …’ When you are on the line, then you are on the line. I guess it is the same for any sport. You just have to learn that you can depend on the same group of people around you. At home, and to my friends, it doesn’t matter if I am winning races. There are people who think they know about racing and will say: “he’s finished, he’s too old, he’s washed-up” but then when you do well again they are back on the bandwagon. You have to understand that this is how it is.”

Tommy Searle Latvia 2015

Tommy Searle Latvia 2015

Perhaps how an athlete responds and bounces back to perform at the highest level is one of the truest tests of their character … but then some problems and rehabilitation time frames – maybe like the accident that caused the injury in the first place – is out of their control. Aside from the personal pride and the sense of identity of being able to return and race at the top there are also practical concerns: a crash can turn a promising career around in a matter of months. “It is weird. Ed, my friend, had a crash and hurt his shoulder and then he said: “Now I know how you feel” and I said: “you have no clue!” He was just going to chill for a few weeks. His life wouldn’t have changed too much. For us this is our livelihood. The injury I had last year in Thailand when the bike stopped on the jump through no fault of my own, that moment ended up costing me hundreds of thousands of Euros because I was setting myself up for a good season in contract year. My salary was more than halved. It changed my life. Teams are different [with contracts] but I actually got fined for missing time. It is cruel sport in that sense …”

From despair to hope to resurrection, the journey through the void of injury can hopefully end with a rider back on the podium and back to his level of potential. In true sporting cliché sense – or maybe with any tribulation in life – the hard parts can swiftly be forgotten or discarded. “You forget it all so quickly,” Searle affirms. “When you are injured all you want to do is be back at a race and you do everything in your power to make that possible. I do so much to get myself healthy.

“And then all of a sudden you can ride again … and you take it all for granted.”

And then all of a sudden you can ride again … and you take it all for granted. I’m trying to enjoy being at every race now because everything I have done for the last six months is just to get here! Even if you are not having a good day you need to realize that you are actually in the paddock and this is what you do and what you love and what you dream of doing. We are lucky to be here. It is easy to take it for granted and I’m trying not to do that.”

Photos: Ray Archer