When, as a mom and a wife, Marilee decided that she needed something just for herself, she found mountain biking. It provided her with an identity outside of the home. As Marilee fell in love with riding, she introduced her then four year-old son Jake to it. The pair rode a loop of hills, roots, rocks, and berms year round – even in the snow. It helped them form a close and unique mother-son bond, a strong relationship that would help them survive the break up of their family and would continue to span many years and many bikes. Three years ago, after a failed shoulder surgery, Marilee discovered that she would never ride again and is now assessing what a life without bikes means to her.
Jake was five when they moved closer to the trails, and six when they started riding the park. Two years later, at eight, he and his mom entered a local grassroots race together and he became the youngest participant ever. Over these years riding together, the twosome cultivated a family culture of riding trips, race weekends, after school trail exploration and independence. They became recognized contributors to the mountain bike community that they were embracing.
|I have this one picture of us in the gondola in Whistler from when Jake was 7. The look on our faces said it all, does it get any better than this?|
Matching abilities for a few years, Marilee still remembers the exact moment that she realized Jake had surpassed her. “It was my last summer of riding and we were on a fairly technical trail in the bike park, and sudden he was just gone. He always had me when it came to getting air, but I had him for a long time on tech.” She adds proudly, “Now he is riding at a level that I have never been at.”
Four years ago Marilee was just dropping into a trail when she hit an innocuous patch of ice, went over the bars and dislocated her shoulder. It was a fairly standard, short-term-in-the-big-picture kind of injury. Her memories of that time are a little foggy, but she remembers going to a party that night in a sling and not being too bothered about being off her bike since it was winter anyway.
During her following season Marilee experienced discomfort in her shoulder when riding. “It wasn’t that bad,” she recalls. “At most, I would have to take an Advil after a day in the bike park.” But her doctor recommended surgery to repair the torn cartilage in her shoulder and she acquiesced in October of 2010. She recalls leaving her office for her procedure and announcing to her coworkers that she would be back working the following Monday. She did not return to work though, and has been on medical leave from her job for the last three years.
Marilee had been living with a rare form of arthritis, but she had it under control with medication and it had never affected her lifestyle. When the surgeons got inside her shoulder for a look they realized the effects of the inflammatory disease combined with the damage caused by her crash had left a mess that they could not repair. During this medical exploration something caused Marilee to develop a syndrome called Central Sensitivity where your body sends a continuous pain message to your brain. “Structurally my shoulder is not perfect, but the pain I experience does not add up to what is wrong with it.” Three years post surgery and Marilee still has not been able to ride her bike.
|It is amazing what having a little bit of hope does for you. I just try to be realistic about it.|
At this point she has been through every doctor and procedure imaginable, and is currently managing the pain with a recommended combination of medication and physical therapy. In December, doctors tried one last procedure that offered a lot of hope, but her body couldn’t tolerate it. Knowing that there is nothing more that can be done at this time has made the last few months challenging. There is a point when acceptance starts to eclipse hope, and when coping, over curing, becomes the focus.
She has grieved the changes in her life, and the loss of years riding with her son. Marilee now just wants to be the best person she can be in this situation. With a social network developed around riding, it is especially difficult to be injured in a sport that offers no rink or field to hang out at. This is where she now finds herself, sidelined in a community that she can no longer participate in. Now remarried, to a mountain biker, she is living in a home that is still as bike centric as it was before her surgery.
|I really miss being able to ride with Jake, that was magic.|
Marilee is in a position that would easily warrant self-pity and resentment, but she refuses to use her pain as a crutch or to let it define her. She balances her propensity to put a smile on and pretend that she feels fine with being honest and genuine about her situation. “Most of the time I just don’t talk about it because it really isn’t that interesting.” And she still identifies as a mountain biker, her biggest fear is that she will become that person that people only go for coffee or lunch with, and she does not want to be relegated to being an indoor friend.
She continues to encourage Jake and her husband’s riding and embraces race weekends as the one place that she can still be immersed in bike culture without participating. On these weekends she has the opportunity to feel connected to the community, to be around bikes and talk about bikes. Race days are long though, and it can take a week for her to recover from the time on the road. She explains her pain as a snow globe, “it takes some time to settle after you stop shaking it.” But she refuses to give them up, explaining that the pain and exhaustion is worth the chance to be involved, and to see Jake ride.
|It is not what defines me.|
Marilee stays focused on the future, and doesn’t often allow herself to think ‘What if?’ She and Jake will go for walks in the woods to spend time together and she has memories to sustain her. She smiles as she dreamily recounts a time when she was sitting in the back of a pick-up truck, bikes laid over the tailgate, bumping along a logging road. Sweaty and dirty, with dust swirling everywhere, she was eagerly anticipating her next run. And she recalls thinking ‘I can’t believe this is our life’. Then she says “And I had that. A lot of people may never even have that feeling in their lives, but I did.”