In 2014, 2.87 million emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths occurred as a result of traumatic brain injuries – a 53% increase from the numbers seen in 2006.
Traumatic brain injuries, commonly called concussions, are caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain. Symptoms such as impairments to thinking, memory, sensory, motor, or emotional function can last for weeks…or a lifetime.
Picture an average high school student the week before finals. Cramming and stress are typical themes that come to mind. Yet for Burlington High School (BHS) senior, Gaelen Kilburn, “pre-finals freak out” means jetting off to Belgium for a three hour road race.
Kilburn’s interest in biking started when his dad brought him to the Wednesday Night Mountain Bike Series at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston, VT at the age of five.
“I was on a single speed little kid’s bike, and then the next day we went out and bought a bike with gears,” Kilburn said.
Kilburn was hooked; he began racing in the Catamount series every week, which eventually led to other local mountain bike races.
Kilburn encountered his first concussion in the Killington Stage Race during the spring of his 8th grade year. Kilburn describes the event as the worst crash he’s had in his 13 years of biking.
“Some guy took out like ten of us. For some reason his tire just blew up…I just went over the handlebars,” Kilburn said. “I think we were going 40 miles an hour.”
Though initially knocked unconscious, Kilburn was able to recover and got back to racing within six weeks.
At 14 years old, Kilburn got serious. He joined the Cyclocrossworld team, a national team that races what’s essentially a “road bike with knobby tires.” Cyclocross began in France in the early 20th century and has since spread throughout Europe. Cyclocross courses are often built in cities and tend to run through city parks in order to ride on hills without the gravely grit preferred for mountain biking.
Kilburn raced for Cyclocrossworld throughout his freshman year until transitioning to the Hot Tubes Cycling Team, a group that identifies themselves as “the premier junior development cycling team in the US.” In the past 20 years, Hot Tubes has produced more than 100 national titles and two world champions. Kilburn raced with them for three years, beginning the spring of his freshman year.
In the fall of his junior year, 17 year old Kilburn accompanied many of his Hot Tubes teammates in rejoining the Cyclocrossworld team. Here, Kilburn faced his second concussion.
“I crashed in a Cyclocross race and landed in some mud. I went over the handlebars, but it wasn’t that bad. I kept racing and finished the race,” Kilburn said.
Kilburn opted out of the next day of racing. He took a month off from biking and refocused his attention toward roller skiing and nordic skiing.
The third and worst concussion hit Kilburn at the end of his junior year. Kilburn traveled to Belgium for a road race. According to Kilburn, Belgium is known for fast and aggressive racing. Kilburn averaged 27-28 miles per hour for the three hour race, saying the flat landscape doesn’t suit his “climber” style. On the cobblestone roads, some bikers choose to ride in the smoother pavement of the gutter. When they try to ride back onto the cobbles, they can sometimes catch a tire on a ledge.
“The two guys in front of me just went down….I had nowhere to go. They’re super narrow little roads,” Kilburn said.
He flew over the handlebars, got back up, and kept racing.
“I didn’t think I was concussed from that. I didn’t even hit my head really, my helmet wasn’t dinged up at all,” Kilburn said. He later discovered that the whiplash was enough to knock the brain around and cause a concussion.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Those who have had a concussion in the past are also at risk of having another one and may find that it takes longer to recover if they have another concussion.”
Kilburn returned to face a week of final exams and the ACT, all while a bad stomach bug hid his concussion symptoms. Standardized tests with a head injury proved to be more of a struggle for Kilburn. The concussion caused Kilburn to process more slowly and compromised his achievement on the timed tests.
With school wrapped up, Kilburn flew back across the globe for more racing, still unaware of the head injury he carried as additional baggage. He continued to race throughout the summer. It wasn’t until a race at Mount Ascutney in Vermont, where Kilburn’s heart rate averaged 190 BPM, that he knew something was up. Instead of flying to Ireland for the six day Junior Tour of Ireland stage race that evening, Kilburn finally saw a concussion specialist.
“The protocol and everything is just changing constantly. When I had that first concussion, and even the one in fall of junior year, [the protocol] was ‘don’t do much of anything’,” Kilburn said. “I would listen to like audiobooks and that was kind of it.”
As of November, 2018, the CDC recommends a six-step plan for athletes recovering from a traumatic brain injury. In the CDC’s plan, athletes are encouraged to return to light aerobic exercise as early as the second step.
Months and lots of treatment later, Kilburn still faces something called Post Concussion Syndrome (PCS). PCS is diagnosed in people whose various concussion symptoms may last weeks or months beyond the expected healing time.
“Now they’re saying exercise, especially for the post concussion syndrome, exercise and the increased blood flow to the brain is actually really good,” Kilburn said.
Kilburn was able to return to his other passion of Nordic skiing this past winter, although he missed out on racing for the Burlington High School team. Still, despite athletic injury and decreased cognitive functioning during the college application process, Kilburn committed to ski for the Dartmouth College varsity Nordic team after graduation.
“I think it would’ve been nice to do some races this year and show [the coach] that I’m getting better at skiing, because I just haven’t skied that much, and I wasn’t really able to do that,” Kilburn said.
Kilburn still sees biking in his future, but he says he may choose to give up road racing this year in the interest of safety. According to Kilburn, recreational riding is simply a lot less risky.
“I definitely could be on a very different kind of path. A lot of my teammates are moving on to Action, which is like the top U23 team in the country right now. They might go to college for fall semester but then spring semester they’re off racing in Europe and all over the world pretty much,” Kilburn said.
Instead of preparing for and competing in races every week, Kilburn spent this past summer swimming, kayaking, and fishing at his uncle’s house in Maine. Kilburn also spent the last year rediscovering his love for the fiddle, and he now tours with the musical group Young Tradition Vermont.
Ever the player, Kilburn has not given up on his athletic goals, though many have shifted focus from bike racing to nordic skiing. As he manages the struggle of overcoming repeated head injuries, Kilburn hopes to one day compete in the Cross-Country World Cup.
“[The concussions] taught me that there’s more to life than just bike racing.”