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7 Ways a Brush With Death Changed My Life

Choking on a cherry tomato wasn’t the way I wanted to go out.

One night at the Amgen Tour of California Race Experience I got a cherry tomato lodged in my throat at the team dinner. I tried to swallow hard to get it down. I tried to cough. I tried to talk. Nothing worked. And that’s when the fear set in.

Across the table from me sat two doctors (fortunately…) who noticed the distressed expression on my face. They asked if I was OK and I made the universal choking signal we’ve all been taught in years and years of CPR classes. Seconds later I was up out of my chair and one of the docs was executing the Heimlich maneuver. It worked (obviously), but the whole experience was one of the most terrifying moments of my life.

My father – also a doctor – once told me getting old was a privilege denied to many, and as I get older there are moments that bring that statement into clearer focus. Life finds ways to remind you of your own mortality, and those wake up calls are good opportunities to take a look at your life and what you’re doing with it. I wrote down some of what came to mind in the days after my choking episode.

Trust karma

The longer I live the more I believe in karma. What you put into the world comes back to you. What comes around goes around. When you do something good be genuine and pure and don’t expect anything in return. When I was about 20 an old man at the table next to me in a restaurant started choking. I did the Heimlich maneuver on him and it worked. I forgot all about it, but perhaps the universe didn’t. Equally, when you are wronged don’t waste or focus your energy on trying to get even. Rather, realize there are greater forces at work and that in the long run karma will deal with those who have wronged you. And even if it doesn’t, those people are likely to reach a period of self reflection and recognize they did wrong by you.

Ride more

There will always be more work to do. There will always be someone or something that wants more of your time. There won’t always be another ride. More time in the saddle gives more opportunity for physiological improvements, but the more important benefit is the opportunity to clear your mind from the daily build up of psychological stress. Every pedal stroke is a gift. If you don’t think you have time to ride (or run or hike or swim), that’s exactly when it’s most important to make the time for it.

Enjoy the descents

Many times in cycling and in life, enjoyable things come with some risks. Don’t focus on the “what ifs”, but rather have the courage to let off the brakes and embrace the speed. A sharp, fast, and curvy descent should leave a smile on your face, flying through the wind, slicing up the road, feeling the powerful deceleration from hard but controlled braking. Let off the brakes longer than you did before, feel the air rushing by you and embrace the power of speed that you control.  Be courageous in your descending but also be smart too.

Learn to draft

Drafting on the bike is an exercise in give and take. You give someone a draft to give them a break and help them out. They give you a draft for the same reason. You take a draft, not because you’re weak, but because you’re willing to receive help. Don’t make your life – or your ride – harder than it needs to be by refusing assistance freely offered. Similarly, don’t withhold assistance when you’re in a position to provide it.

Fear less, live greater

Focus your energy on what can be gained, not on what may be lost. Sign up for the challenging mountain bike race, the full distance Gran Fondo, or attack your opponents instead of waiting to see that happens.  Live life fully and with gusto… love deeply, push yourself into the uncomfortable zones and get comfortable being there. Greatness on the bike or in life is rarely given to those who wait and see what happens. Have the guts to go for it.

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Count your blessings

Many times we don’t know how good we have it until something is taken away from us. Those who have lost the ability to ride even a few pedal strokes would give just about anything to be back on the bike. The larger message is that, in the grand scheme of things, your life is pretty darn good. Be grateful for what you have. You can be mad or sad or frustrated by things that don’t go your way, but work through them and move on. Stop the pity party, pick yourself up, and be the fighter you know you are. Get back on the bike and be grateful/thankful for all you have.  Living gratefully helps you maintain perspective in your life.

Follow your heart, but don’t lose your head.

Life is too short to continue doing things that make you unhappy. At the same time, it pays to be pragmatic about how we pursue our dreams and goals. You can save yourself a lot of headache and heartache if you have the discipline to be honest with yourself, and others. One example pertinent to a lot of people in their 40s and 50s: are you thinking of a career change because you’re passionate about something else, or because you’re bored with what you’re doing now?

Choking on a cherry tomato also provided a stark reminder of the frailty of humans, not just me, but all humans. People can study and learn about science, technology, history, and countless other subjects. People can train their bodies to be strong and powerful. They can acquire money, influence, and power. And yet, none of that can save you when you get something as simple as a tomato stuck in your windpipe. Only another person can do that… or maybe cutting your tomatoes in half.

Don’t be afraid to let go of the brakes!

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 28

  1. Pingback: Chris Carmichael's List of the "Best of 2018" - CTS

  2. Je had geluk beste jongen, ik heb het gevoel zelf ook meegemaakt

    Harold door een wespensteek..

    1. I am very much inspired by this, not just for cycling but also for life. I use to make excuses about why I could not ride because of my job. Now I know there are no excuses. I am going to spread the message thank you.

  3. Life is busy. Sometimes we eat too fast and others we delete emails without reading them. I am sorry that you may have experienced the result of the later and I am happy I resisted the habit of deleting your message. You made your “near death” event a true tool of Karma, by sharing it and attaching your resulting perspective. Thanks Chris. I will be thinking of you on my next ride, especially on the descents!

  4. I did the Hemlick maneuver successfully on my Dad who was choking on a vitamin. It kept him around for a few more precious years. I like your points. Especially Karma and Counting your blessings. Let go of “injuries” and give thanks and celebrate what we have be given. Cheers!

  5. A wonderful coach once taught me the exercise of slowing down and mindfully chewing 25 times at least one mouthful per meal. Thanks to this article, I’ll do that mindfulness exercise again tomorrow.

  6. How can humanity be on a path to self destruction when there is so much positive energy such as in the above comments? Congratulations Chris for sharing another insightful article. So glad that you survived.

  7. This is a great perspective on how we should all try to live our life. Thanks for sharing this and I am happy to know you had people around you that knew what to do.

    Karma, yes, absolutely.

  8. My new mantra for life: chew, then swallow…
    Also measure twice, cut once.
    Thanks for the tips, both on and off the bike.

  9. Great points Chris,
    In summary, “live like you are dying” – we are all heading that way and how we live and treat others in this short existence should be a model for those most important in our lives.

  10. At 57, I’ve seen a few bad crashes. Mostly due to crossed wheels and inattention. It’s a fine line sometimes between paying attention, having fun, and occasionally yelling at someone.

  11. Great words! Let’s all remember who first said them? That was Jesus Christ my Lord! The problem is that we can’t do the principles on our own! Philippines 4:13 states “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Thanks Chris for years of encouragement to all cyclists!

  12. Very glad you’re still with us Chris! Obviously, God has continuing plans for you! Thanks to the doctors who acted as well!

    Take care

  13. I reviewed the Heimlich maneuver and CPR protocol after reading this article. You can do the Heimlich if you are by yourself. Lots about this on internet, of course. Nice article Chris and glad it turned out OK!

  14. I did the Heimlich on a guy in a crowded restaurant in Sacramento in 2005. He choked on a peanut inside some sort of sushi roll. Probably 75 people in the room. No one moved but me and it was finished in 15 seconds, maybe less. Good for you to do the choking sign. The guy I helped did too and I’m hard to hearing but I knew the sign. Everyone should know the Heimlich. I’m not a doctor. I’m a real estate agent. Back then my wife and I just had our first child and we took a CPR class. The Heimlich works. Every time if you know how to do it. I’m sure it’s on You Tube.

    I’m happy you are ok. Yes regarding karma, yes life is fragile, yes embrace the descents, yes ride more. Work will always be there when we are finished. I’d add that we all need to eat slower. Numerous benefits to doing so.

    Again, I’m glad you are ok. Scary.

  15. Interesting perspective on the existential reality of life: Not everyone got the privilege of waking up this morning…

  16. Glad you’re ok, and thanks for sharing a great reminder of the best values of living that so often correlate with riding. One thing I would add as I have experienced near similar episodes what you did Chris, be present or enjoy the moment. When I have had near choking episodes the one thing I can reflect back on was I was in a hurry to eat because of life and thinking where else I needed to be instead of slowing down, enjoying the moment of eating my food. Tasting it, the smell of it, the texture, or the company you are eating it in (much like “Enjoy the Descents”).

    Thanks for a great reminder and reflections on the value of really living.

  17. I’m glad that you are okay Chris. I always enjoy your insights and I love your thoughts conveyed here. Thank you for sharing! Live and love life to its fullest. Happy Memorial Day weekend.

  18. Glad you are ok, Chris. Food stuck in the throat is pretty scary. I had to have a procedure where they inflate a balloon thing in your esophagus to widen it…age…

    Jesus said it best of all: “You reap what you sow.” “Give and it will be given back to you beyond measure” King Solomon too, “Whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” And the Apostle Paul, of course, “Let’s never get tired of doing good, for in time, we shall reap a harvest of goodness.”

  19. Whew! Glad you dodged that one, CC. My Mom told me to chew my food, THEN swallow – helpful training. Nice column, so true in many ways. As the pedals go ’round, the good in the world goes around. Cheers, Marc Frank, Westminster, CO

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