By Christopher Cudworth
Something in us is wired to recoil at the sight of blood. Yet the phrase “bloody” or “bloody good” is used as an “intensifer” to describe all sorts of activities from drinking to comedy to simply hanging out with your homies. If you’re British, that is.
Whenever I try to give blood I faint. It’s not the sight of blood that gets me. I last all the way through the withdrawal process only to fade at the very end. Some sort of imbalance takes hold and out I go. So I don’t try to do that any more.
Last year I got stuck in the finger by a tiny sliver and it infected the joint in my middle finger. That required bloody surgery, stitches and a pick line in my arm that looked like a Frankenstein experiment. There was blood under the clear bandage that perpetually looked fresh and frankly freaked me out. Was I leaking?
Then came the accident last June in which I had my head down during a bike ride and crashed face first into a fallen tree. That required four stitches to sew up the bloody wound on the front of my chin. Right after the accident a sweet young couple had ridden up behind me and asked. “Are you okay?”
I told them I was fine, but she pointed to her own chin and grimaced, stating, “Um, you’re really bleeding.”
Indeed I was. There was blood all over my neck and face. I wiped it up with cycling gloves and it finally clotted into a dark black clump. The doctor hosed that down with alcohol and sewed me back up. But he missed. A fleshy dome of skin still hung from the wound. If I touched it the wound reopened. Later I met a nurse who told me the doctor messed the thing up. There was nothing to be done by then. For weeks afterward the bruises under my skin migrated around my body carrying dead blood to who knows where. It was like a map of destruction, colorful and crazy in its construct. The bruises settled in my ass crack and migrated up the shaft of my penis, then disappeared. Like a magic act, the blood performed its functions and then vanished into thin air, or thin blood.
While shaving my legs for cycling this summer I resorted to some cheap fixed blades and wound up taking chunks of my skin off the shins and knees. While writing this blog that morning the blood ran down my legs and pooled on the ground by my feet. I hadn’t noticed the wounds that much. My feet smeared the blood on the floor. It looked like a crime scene. My girlfriend blanched that evening when she saw the raw flesh. “What did you do?”
I lied and told her it was yard work that caused the blood. Actually it was that too. Shaved legs do not hold up well in the garden. Every loose stick or thorn bush takes a chunk of flesh. Cyclists who shave their legs should probably not be gardeners as well. I dumped those cheap blades just the same. It was not worth the compromise to shed so much blood.
Then over the next couple weeks I would absentmindedly pick at the scabs and the blood would come rolling out again. Don’t pretend you don’t do that too. Scabs are irresistable. It’s true whether they are physical or emotional. We pick at them because we want the flesh or emotions clean again. Yet here comes the blood, reminding us there is something deeper to the issue.
People who cut themselves gravely crave this cycle of bleeding and scabbing. People who can’t leave emotional wounds alone suffer the same fate.
Those of us who run and ride cut into the soft flesh of every new day with hard or soft efforts. We’re rehearsing the pain that comes of full intensity. We bleed ourselves from the inside out. Our blood carries oxygen to our muscles and returns to the heart blue with exhaustion. Our veins and arteries do their work without complaint unless we open them up. Then the conversation turns bright red. Then our animal nature is exposed.
It hurts us when we see our pets exposed to the horrors of blood. When my girlfriend’s cat was attacked this summer by a neighbor’s dog, the blood flowed freely. Only it was not just the cat that got bloody. That sweet feline clamped her claws and teeth into the face of that dog. The dog paid dearly in blood and pain.
We speak of becoming “blood brothers” when we exchange blood as a bond of loyalty. Slicing the hand open and pressing it to the flesh of another bleeding palm is a pretty strong commitment. Likewise the moment when a man penetrates a woman for sex during menstruation. The aching need for love transcends even blood. There’s a clinging lust in the warmth and draft of all that. Some can handle it. Others cannot.
At a running race I once visited a Porta-Potty where the bright red blood of a woman’s period graced the top of the messy pile of urine and feces. It struck me that men know nothing of this export, this ability to bleed without dying. Yet women do feel pain in the process. The cramps of the female body unloosing eggs that will never see or meet sperm. It’s so earthy at some level it was considered taboo by those who wrote the laws that became scripture. Menstruating women were considered “unclean” and were to be isolated from the rest of society until their “period” was over.
Without blood we’d all be dead in a minute. A soldier shot on the battlefield bleeds out, becomes cold and then shivering on the brink of death. In great battles it has been reported that blood flowed like water down the street. Human lives washing down the gutters.
I once had a teammate whose nose burst forth with blood during a cross country race. His white uniform was splattered with his own blood. Yet he kept running despite the bubbling red froth in his mustache. We all stood in awe at the sight of him. “It doesn’t hurt,” he blurted while spitting red bits of blood around him. “Why stop?”
Similarly I was once arm-wrestling a kid in 8th grade study hall whose nose spurted blood from the effort. It shot all over the table and my companions all shouted and jumped back in their chairs to avoid the pool of blood rolling across the table. The study hall teacher came angrily over to check out the situation and was aghast at the scene. She gave us a stern lecture and ushered the wounded kid off to the nurse’s office.
When he left we all stared at each other and said, “Coool.”
So we love and hate the sight of blood. When blood spills in the movies, we marvel at the special effects or label it “fake” if the blood looks too red or not gory enough. The blood spilled from the body of Jesus during the film Passion Of The Christ was meant to change the hearts of those that had never considered the gore and pain endured by the man the Jewish populace of those times called Yeshua. People either worship the man or ask “What’s the bloody difference?” if they believe or not.
Surgeons and nurses mop blood off bodies and off the floor. They witness the warm smell and feel of blood and it is nothing to them but an occupational necessity when getting in and out of the human body. The same goes for veterinarians, scientists and everyone else who turns the universe of the body inside out.
During college biology I conducted a series of experiments on animals in the lab. One test involved convulsed the leg muscles of a frog using electricity to test its performance as lactic acid built up in the muscle fibers. I have never forgotten the sight of that frog’s legs twitching their last, too fatigued by lactic acid to carry on. The blood could no longer carry away the bad stuff and replace it with good stuff. It gave new meaning to the term “frog’s legs” to me. I have had that feeling in my own legs many times over the years.
That experiment with the frog went well enough, but the tracheotomy on a live rat did not. My lab partner cut the carotid artery and blood spurted straight up and hit the ceiling. It pulsed like a geyser until the rat finally died as the blood fell in a shallower ;arc until the experiment was over by default. Nature seems to use the color red as a warning, that life is just beginning, or may be over.
Those experiments may seem cruel to some, but they’re really not so different from what we do to ourselves in events like a marathon or Ironman. We push and push and push, blood coursing through with vital nutrients carried to muscles that die without them. We either transcend or bonk on the way to the finish. Our faces grow flush with blood just below the surface.
Then there are those pursuits that put life, limb and our very blood on the line. If we crash in a high speed accident during a criterium, the blood spilled on the coarse road surface marks our commitment to speed.
We literally race to defy the end of life. We wrestle with youth and age with blood racing through our circulatory systems in defiance of the dust to dust reality that is so dry compared to the plasma to platelets reality of our day to day existence.
We speak of “feeling the flow” during peaks in performance. That is no coincidence. It is all a product of a blood good time when you run and ride. Here’s to hoping you have the best of luck with your blood without showing too much of it at the same time.