by Coach Steve
I took the hit on my right quad. Everything went black during the
air-born instant that separated peak fitness from convalescence.
As my shoulder, then head, hit the pavement, a burst of stars interrupted
the serene, undefined blackness. Lying prone in the oncoming traffic
lane with feet locked into pedals, I was wide awake, but in shock.
Not physical shock where the body reacts with panic to its newly
imposed state of dysfunction; I was broken yet physically calm,
but my psychological state was disbelief. In 30 years of cycling
on public roads I'd never been hit. The young woman in her designer
SUV put an end to that.
As I stood up—left shoulder immobile and drooping—the
sensation was familiar; I knew exactly what was wrong. Looking at
the woman with cell phone in hand, I wondered how it was possible
she didn't see me riding my brightly colored bike wearing a neon
orange jersey. And, why didn't she stop at that familiar red sign?
My logical world where traffic moves in predictable ways was changed
Was I just a nuisance for her, a metaphorical squirrel crossing
her path not worth slowing for? Hell, I brake for squirrels. Was
she on the cell phone oblivious to her surroundings? Was she attending
to the child strapped into the back seat? I'll never know, but now
I'm sure there are drivers who lack good judgement, so I am always
You might say: "He was lucky...could've been worse."
But on May 9th 2003 I was in my best cycling shape since the early
90s. Five days before I'd won my first bike race in years, now this.
With a broken clavicle; a contusion of my right quad and possible
femoral stress fracture; a sprained left ankle; a bruised left knee
where I already suffered from a 18-month old case of infrapatellar
tendonitis; and an assorted patchwork of road rash on my left side,
I felt far from lucky.
The orthopedic MD described my fractured clavicle as a "bad
break," and if I engaged in too much physical activity "it
might never heal." I thought back to when I was 18 and broke
my other collarbone skateboarding, recalling what the MD said to
my Mom: "It should heal up fine...he's not a swimmer is he?"
I was far from a swimmer then, in fact I couldn't swim a stroke,
but what a cruel fate if I couldn't get my hard-earned swim 'speed'
For many, patience is the fourth discipline that must be developed
before triathlon success. My patience had already been tested with
a self-imposed 6-months off from running. For all of 2002 I trained
with infrapatellar tendonitis, so after the November World Championship
in Cancun I hoped no running would give it time to heal. Now I couldn't
swim, bike, or run; patience was the only discipline I could train.
I had my first moments of ambivalence about my future competing
There was a far-off goal that kept me motivated though. The 2003
World Championship was late in the season (December) in New Zealand—a
place I've always wanted to see—and I was already qualified
for the event. I speculated about what level of fitness I could
attain if training resumed by such-and-such a date, hum...
The ortho-MD didn't want me to do anything that would jar the bone,
so my new 'sport' became hiking. I'd go to the park and hike every
day for an hour or more, left arm bound-up at my side, scapular
muscles in atrophy and cramping 24/7. At least I was enjoying the
outdoors doing something mildly physical as my fitness slipped away.
My clavicle was not healing quickly. There was no sign of new bone
on the x-rays weeks after the accident. A young athlete with professional
cycling career on the line I wasn't. I needed it to heal well; I
needed a fully functioning shoulder so I could swim.
I hate training indoors, but I 'made friends' with a borrowed stationary
trainer in my dark, musty basement. While my buddies were out riding
in the sun, I was going nowhere, holding the bars with one arm,
pedaling in place for as long as I could stand it. My asymmetry
with one arm caused problems with my back, but at least I was getting
my heart rate up for a little while!
Since the bone wasn't healing on its own after a couple months,
my MD prescribed a low-frequency ultrasound device. I'll never know
if it helped or if it was just a matter of time. Eventually he gave
me the OK to jog, which I though was odd given his advice not to
jar the bone. By this point I hadn't run a step in 8 months! My
first run in July was more of a walk-jog, and I couldn't hold an
8-minute per mile pace for even a quarter mile—a pace slower
than I had ever run in training before. I was outside moving quickly
under my own power though—a breakthrough!
By the end of July I had the OK for some cautious cycling outdoors
(I can't remember if it was my OK, or the MD's OK :)), and cautious
I was. Every car pulling out of an intersection sent a 'knee-jerk'
sort of nerve impulse from spine, to arms, to hands, to fingers.
Pull on those brake levers! I was never a nervous cyclist before,
so this was a new experience for me. Over time the over-reaction
has faded, but the memory of what can go wrong remains clear.
My first trip to a pool after 3.5 months was tough but liberating.
I chose a sunny day and an outdoor pool to maximize positive energy.
The range of motion for my left shoulder was pitiful. From lack
of movement, the muscles had shortened and strength was down to
maybe half that of my uninjured right side. Extending my arm forward
caused sharp pain, but after a few awkward laps it felt slightly
better. An all-out effort produced a painful 100 yards in 1:55,
'only' 40-seconds off what I used to swim for 16x 100. I'm not sure
whether the physical or mental pain was worse, but I was back in
So I was back to three sports, but slow. There were still 3.5 months
until the World Championship and I decided to participate regardless
of my fitness level. This was a trip I really wanted to make.
My first triathlon back was an Olympic distance sufferfest and I was at least 10-minutes off my usual time for the distance.
I thought that 10k would never end. If not for the satisfaction
of 'being back in the game,' I would've been crushed by my time
and placing. Though confident I could get my speed back, I had no
idea how long it would take. At this point it was 3 months before
the 2003 World Championship and the last month of racing. I committed
to a couple of local sprint distance races, then the OD National
Championship in Shreveport would be the last race of the North American
I felt more like my old self at each subsequent race, but still
not placing as I used to. At the last sprint distance race before
Nationals I took second to an athlete who I'd never placed behind.
It made no difference to me though. Even as he passed me on the
run I was totally OK with it because most would have given-up on
their season under the same circumstances. It was enough to be going
for the win until the last couple miles. The fitness would keep
improving if I could stay injury free for another 10 weeks.
But another test was in the works...in the afternoon post race
I could hardly walk. The bottom of my foot had a sharp pain right
where the Plantar Fascia connects to the heel bone. At first I had
no idea why it hurt, but then vaguely recalled stepping on something
barefoot while on the run from swim exit to transition area. In
the heat of the moment I remember the sharp pain, but as any triathlete
would do on race day I just kept going. I had no recollection of
pain on the bike or run, but 6 hours post-race I was crippled.
Just walking caused sharp pain; for a week, running was not an
option. I couldn't tell if it was just a bone bruise, or if I had
damaged the Plantar Fascia. The Nationals were in 2 weeks. I ran,
no, jogged twice for 2 miles during the week before the race and
by the end of each outing I couldn't run another step. I went down
to Shreveport with blind faith that it would heal before race day.
Two days before Nationals I had to test it. I did a jog on the
sidewalks around my hotel and for a while it was OK, but at 2 miles
it was the same sharp pain all over again. I limped back to the
hotel room feeling very stressed and wondering how I'd get through
this race. I knew the swim was no problem. I knew the bike was no
problem once I made it through the barefoot run from swim exit to
transition. The run course began and ended with an off-road section
that made me even more apprehensive.
Back at my hotel after that last test run I started cutting away
the midsole of my race shoe. My idea was to create a void under
the sensitive area of my foot so there was absolutely no pressure.
After an hour of cutting, then gluing the pieces back into the shoe,
I tried on the shoe to see if I could run in it. With contact points
at heel and ball of my foot, but nothing left to support my arch,
a whole new set of problems were possible. But I was being pro-active
with my shoe modifications, so a much-needed shot of positive energy
came from that. I only had to get through this one race, then 2
months for my foot to heal before New Zealand WC. I had no illusions
of a great Nationals placing; I just wanted to finish and qualify
for the 2004 World Championship by placing in the top 16.
Race morning couldn't have gone less smoothly. After taking every
anti inflammatory I could find the day before, my foot hurt from
the first step as I got out of bed. The transition area was nearly
a half mile from my car and I made the round-trip three times, the
second and third trips going back for forgotten items. Each step
was a reminder of how much my foot hurt. The good news was that
my lack of fitness from only a month of training didn't cross my
mind once. And a painful, stiff shoulder from collarbone broken
a few months before...never gave that a thought either!
I made it. My foot went numb and I was hardly aware of it, but
I paid big time for lack of run training over the last 5k. The finish
time was a few minutes slower than over a similar course at optimal
fitness, but I still managed 6th. Within 60 seconds of finishing
I was back in my private world of foot pain. Funny how that works;
what happens to us 'in the heat of battle' that allows us to get
through? Thoughts of lifting cars off accident victims come to mind.
No endorphin high for me post race, I was looking for a wheelchair,
some crutches, perhaps someone to carry me! I sat down near the
muddy waters' edge and contemplated my 'journey' to Shreveport.
It would be a long time before I got up.
What's another 2-3 weeks of no running when you've only run only
about 100-miles for the year so far? I was feeling pressure to get
run specific fitness back, but until my foot healed fitness would
have to come from swim and bike training. With 6-weeks to go to
The World Championship I could finally run relatively pain free.
So as the days got shorter at home I made the trip to New Zealand
Spring. Two Springs in one year is a treat. Without any races over
the last 2-months in the US, I knew the Aussies and Kiwis would
be tough to compete against at the peak of their early season fitness.
I felt like my swim was 85-90% of what it could be; my cycling
was at 95% (not 100% for lack of races); and my run was...well I
avoided thinking about that.
Race day went well. My mantra for the day was: "I'm lucky
to be here, so I'll keep pushing to my limit regardless of how the
race goes." I was leading my age group after the ride, but
was passed by a fast-moving Kiwi at 3k. Due to the 4-lap run course
and overlapping age groups, it was impossible to know what place
I was running. I passed runners, and several passed me (post race
I realized the others that passed were a lap behind). By the finish
I thought my placing could be no better than third or forth, but
the announcer said, "And here's our second finisher..."
In fact only the Kiwi had passed me, but the suspense held for quite
a while as we waited for the official results to be posted. It was
a good day, and especially satisfying considering the year I'd been
As I look back at my 2003 season the highs and lows were extreme.
Perhaps that's the satisfaction in it. With a broken body and no
training in my near future I had to find other distractions to keep
me busy. When I got back into it I had more energy and enthusiasm
for training than I normally would.
Many of us try to find a reason when bad things happen—some
sort of counter-balance or karmic logic to justify the negative
experience. I'm not sure "everything happens for a reason,"
but I'm sure you can find some benefit from dealing with adversity.
Going through the process of de-training (injury), then re-training
(building fitness) is similar to our initial experience of getting
fit as we first became endurance athletes. Maintaining a constant
high level of fitness is satisfying, but eventually many of us will
get bored, looking either for more speed, or new challenges. Starting
from scratch for me was both frustrating and revitalizing.
I make this analogy: Most of us enjoy the sensation of acceleration.
At a constant speed you feel nothing except the occasional turn
or bump in the road; you see the world passing by so you know you're
moving, but it's a constant. Hit the brakes hard to decelerate and
you feel the force pushing you forward. Push the pedal to the floor
in a fast car and weee...you'll feel the sensation as you're pushed
back in the seat. This is the sensation I prefer, but wouldn't get
to experience if I'm always maintaining top speed.
Change keeps things interesting.
“The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there
were no dark valleys to traverse." – Helen Keller