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 forever.

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 watchful.

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' back!

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 in triathlon.

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 the pool!

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 season.

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 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 through.

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'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

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