There are two Types of Bicyclists….
The ones who have crashed and the ones who will, the prophecy goes.
To enjoy the great sport of bicycling, you have to put the inevitable—or as I prefer to look at it, possibility of something going wrong—out of your mind. Granted, after a crash especially, that’s easier said than done.
After eight years of road biking and several close encounters of potential disaster, my nightmare of crashing on a downhill became a reality on October 23. By the time my helmet hit the pavement, my rear wheel was completely detached from the bike frame.
Yet, I was super lucky.
I didn’t break any bones and was able to bike another half an hour to my car. It wasn’t until that evening when the pain of my swollen elbow and hips was overshadowed by a pounding headache.
The Next Morning
When I woke up the next morning, I was scared.
Feeling completely disoriented and unable to stand upright with my stomach and head hurting badly, I called my friend, a nurse, who stopped everything to drive me to the ER. The ER doctor diagnosed a concussion, but didn’t think a CT scan or MRI were needed.
At age 17, I had my first concussion after taking a spill on a motorcycle on black ice in my native country Germany. I slid across the road head first into a pole. I forgot how processing even the most mundane tasks takes so much longer after a concussion and realized quickly that “training” definitely wasn’t an option.
Many triathletes have trained hard for a major event and suffered a major setback right before it.
Being 14 days out from the ITU Long Distance World Championship in Henderson, Nev. (a 4-k swim; 120-mile bike ride; and 30K-run), I was devastated.
It may sound ridiculous to some people that an amateur triathlete who doesn’t get paid—to the contrary, we amateurs invest hundreds of dollars in entry fees, gear, coaching fees and so forth—gets so emotional about potentially missing out.
The truth is, we all get invested, some more deeply than others. But every long-distance athlete pours a lot of sweat, money, time and discipline and hope over months into preparing for such an event. Many balance a full-time job with family and training; others sacrifice time otherwise spent with friends for getting their early morning workouts in before work and then again after work.
After a disappointing race at Nationals in Myrtle Beach last year, I was overjoyed when my 2nd place dream finish at the long distance Wildflower triathlon secured my spot on Team USA for ITU Worlds. Knowing that this year’s ITU Worlds would be held at my favorite race venue and so close to home, I really wanted to qualify. I raced ITU Worlds last year in my other home away from home, Germany. I made new friends there (photo right: Victor middle; Melissa right from Las Vegas) and was looking forward to seeing them again in Nevada (photo below: Jeff 2nd from left; Chris 2nd from right and Peter right).
But after the concussion, I figured racing a long-distance event wasn’t in the cards.
The ER doctor forecasted that I will likely be able to race while two other doctors strongly advised against racing. Not knowing what to do or what to expect in the coming days other than seeing old friends and a bunch of really fit athletes, my training partner Paul (left in this photo) and I drove to Henderson on Thursday, two days before the race, as planned.
We drove straight to the registration and expo site. Seeing so many incredibly fit athletes who traveled to this race from all over the world, hearing the different languages and English accents (music to my ears), I knew I wanted to be a part of this race.
On Friday, the day before race day, the USAT team doctor basically told me to “just go for it,” but advised listening to my body for anything that ‘doesn’t feel right.’
Long-distance athletes are pretty tuned into their bodies, but in any 9-hour plus race, sooner or later nothing feels quite right. I was just hoping that I would figure out normal vs. abnormal. In retrospect was racing the “smart” thing to do? Probably not.
So here I was. After a sleepless night preempted by the pre-race pasta dinner and watching my training partners and military veterans, Mike and Chris, presenting the American flag to the other nations—it is safe to say that no athlete was stoked about waking up to a 42-degree race start.
The first announcement by the ITU: Because the combined air and water temperatures didn’t meet ITU safety standards, the swim is cancelled.
Granted, with the swim being my weakest link and the cold temperatures, I wasn’t exactly unhappy about the news. Yet, as I learned at Nationals in Myrtle Beach, where the swim was also cancelled, a triathlon turned duathlon throws off a certain rhythm.
We started on the bike in a time trial fashion followed by the 18.6-mile run.
I went into this racing feeling sluggish from not training, unsettled and a bit scared and though I tensed up on the bike, I was happy to be biking, at least until the three sisters (there are other names for these three hills at mile 55), sent a jolt of pain down my legs.
As soon as I exited T2, I knew I was in trouble for the 18.6-mile run.
The pain set in early and intensified with every lap. On the third lap out of four laps, women in my age group I had passed on the bike returned the favor. Reeling from mental exhaustion and physical fatigue and pain, I was envious of Paul’s big smile, Chris’ steely determination and the light footing of the German woman who ended up winning my age division.
During the 2:53:48-hour long run, I looked forward to seeing two people—my friend Ryan at the aid station, whose encouragement was priceless—and Victor, a chiropractor and friend, whose caring, watchful eyes made me feel safer.
Though it felt like I was passed by dozens more women, I took 14th place in my age division.
It surely was a race to remember and bitter-sweet.
Even when things don’t go as planned, the support and encouragement of those who care about you make it all worthwhile.
And here is a fact: There is always the next season and it’ll be here before we know it.