Staying Safe on the Trails

We’ve all been there. Maybe it’s in the middle of a great training ride, when all of a sudden, that tree pops up out of nowhere. Next thing we know, we’re flat on the ground, hoping nothing is broken. Or, perhaps in an August race, you run past someone who looks a bit woozy and you aren’t sure if they are tired, or if it’s something more serious.

Even at the XTERRA World Championship, our most important goal is keeping everyone safe. Below are some guidelines for what to do if you or a fellow athlete is in distress on the trail.

Say Something
“Mountain bikers take spills all the time, and ninety nine percent of the time, they are painful but not serious,” said XTERRA World Tour managing director Dave Nicholas. “But always stop and ask how an athlete is if you have a concern. Even if they say they are OK, report it to the next marshal or aid station.”

Emergency physician, Richard Wall, M.D., who has been competing in XTERRA for 18 years agrees. “XTERRA can be extreme, and if you do enough of them, you will come across an athlete who is injured or overexerted himself. The best thing you can do is to ask, ‘Are you OK, do you need help?'”

Let’s face it – it can be embarrassing to bonk or realize you are undertrained – or improperly trained – for the event you signed up for. A friendly word from fellow competitors can ease the sting.

“I bonked a couple of years ago in Maui, and even though I was able to make it on my own, I appreciated the concern of everyone as they went by.”

Airway, Breathing, Circulation
Several years ago, Dr. Wall came off a “whoop de do” on the mountain bike course in XTERRA Saipan and saw an unconscious athlete lying next to his bike.

“You can be a hero just by remembering the ABCs of resuscitation – airway, breathing, circulation,” says Dr. Wall. His instructions are simple if you come across an unconscious athlete:

  1. Open the airway with a slight lifting of the jaw and sweep the mouth with your finger while maintaining straight alignment of the neck.
  2. Watch for spontaneous breathing. If none, begin mouth to mouth ventilation. Look for movement of the chest as a sign that the airway is clear and oxygen is getting to the lungs.
  3. Check for a pulse, and if there is none, begin CPR.

“Hopefully, while you are doing the immediate measures, other racers will come to assist and seek help. If not yell out for help, call 911 if you have a cell phone, and do the best you can.”

Respiratory Distress
Michael Fussell, a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) and XTERRA trail runner believes it’s always a good idea to stop and help an athlete who is having difficulty breathing.

“Respiratory distress can lead to panic, disorientation, unconsciousness, respiratory arrest, and cardiac arrest,” says Fussell. “If someone is having trouble breathing, stay with them until help arrives, even if they tell you to go.” 

Like Dr. Wall, Fussell believes that actions don’t have to be big to be helpful. Ask an athlete if they have an inhaler, try to flag down help, and never try to ‘outrun’ respiratory distress by trying to get a victim to the next aid station before they get worse.

“Attempting to beat respiratory distress by outrunning it is never a good idea.”

What is a good idea is to know where you are on the course. “That way, you can report your general location so someone can find you. Like, ‘I passed the last aid station 20 minutes ago and I run a 9-minute pace.’ That can be incredibly helpful.”

XTERRA Spirit
Jenny Burden, two-time XTERRA Regional Champ, had an experience with respiratory distress in an XTERRA race this summer.

“My friend Sara passed me a mile or so into the first loop, so I was very surprised to see her at the top of a hill not long after that,” said Burden. “I won’t lie – I was hoping she had a flat tire or something so I’d have a miniscule chance of beating her, but when I got close, I could hear her gasping for air and knew she was having an asthma attack.”

Burden – who competed in the XTERRA World Championship on October 29th – said that the choice to stop and help wasn’t just obvious, but it was also easy.

“If you pass someone on the trail, even in a race, who is having trouble breathing, you stop, even if they are your competitor,” said Burden. “Sara was struggling to get her inhaler, thanks to the tiny pockets on tri tops, so I helped her find it and pull it out, and stayed with her until her breathing was back to normal and she was ready to go. She probably would have been fine on her own – she’s a smart, grown adult who knows what to do – but it’s never worth the risk. I’m not going to win at the expense of a friend needing a ride in the ambulance instead of on their bike.”

Dr. Wall adds that doing well in races is important, but ultimately, we race to improve our health and well being. 

“Some of the nicest aspects of being a XTERRA triathlete are the camaraderie and race support within its ranks and leadership,” said Dr. Wall. “Caring and lending support to our competitors only enhances these goals while providing more safety to the crazy, extreme world we seem to relish. It might be a good idea to take a course in CPR. You never know when you might need it, or hope someone took a course for you.”