Turning Corners

As any serious athlete knows, being injured is pretty much an unavoidable part of the experience. What I didn’t fully appreciate until I was assaulted by an angry road user back in May is how common it is for injuries to be sustained because of some sort of attack, or a run in with a vehicle. There are no two ways about it, attacks on cyclists by vehicle drivers are becoming more and more common. I was touched by all the supportive messages I had from people who had been through similar, or worse, experiences. I also received lots of messages of support from people I had never met who just wanted to send me good vibes. Those messages, and the unwavering support I received from my family, friends, and support team kept me positive through some pretty painful days.

Loving life – taken just 10 mins before the assault

It was May 11th and I was out cycling alone, enjoying a fabulous ride about 10 days after Ironman Texas. I had a fabulous race in Texas and I was still high on life. I had recovered well, and was full of hope and positive expectations about the season ahead. I even stopped to take a photo , trying to capture the pure joy of being out riding my bike. Just after that, I was physically tackled off my bike by an angry van driver.

He became annoyed after an incident involving a dog in the road. But I was definitely not expecting that further up the road, he would jump out of his van and tackle me from my bike.

I flipped over in the air and landed square on my lower back. And with that action, in that one moment, my hopes and dreams for the season were shattered. The rest of the day is a bit of a blur, but I will always be grateful to the lovely lady who arrived at the scene seconds after it happened and took control.

I had already had a pretty epic “off” earlier in the year in Cyprus  which I had recovered really well from, training hard again after only a handful of days taking it easy.  So initially I approached this crash in the same way. Despite some serious pain in my lower back, glutes and head (yet another concussion!) I assumed I would still be ok to race the Bilbao Triathlon (half distance race) just 10 days later. I still couldn’t admit that there was anything seriously wrong. I was in denial, I had worked so hard for months on end to get the fitness and form I had at that time. While a high pain threshold is a good thing in Ironman racing, it is also a dangerous trait at other times. Looking back at the feedback in my Xhale training diary I also know I was not being honest with myself at the time. “Not too bad, pain about 5/10” probably wasn’t an accurate reflection of the experience of running with a fractured sacrum.

I packed my bike and flew to Spain the next day, a week post-crash, and hoped that the pain would subside enough for me to have a good race. But it was not possible.

Back home I went straight for a scan, and diagnosis of a clean but stable fracture to the sacrum was made. It brought with it my acceptance that recovery was going to be a long process, and that I would have to watch my fitness fade away over the coming weeks. There were positives though, and I gave those my full attention. The diagnosis was definitive, and the specialist was clear about what I could and couldn’t do. Healing time was pretty much fixed to 8 weeks, and I could swim throughout the recovery time, although no running or riding.

Straight away I saw the opportunity to work hard on my swim, and helped by some great advice from uber-swimmer Jodie Cunnama I set about making those weeks count. Once the pain was manageable, 28-30 km a week in the pool started to make a big difference and I was having breakthrough swims that I had never believed possible. Once I was able to I also began to aqua-jog. I did that every other day and I have to admit I came to enjoy it and it at least fired up different muscles to the swimming ones. It wasn’t all easy, and watching my rivals and friends racing throughout June and July was frustrating at times. But I have always been fairly pragmatic, and wallowing in self-pity wouldn’t change the fact that I was injured and out of action, so I didn’t. I love being around the sport, and spectating at events and supporting the people who typically are out cheering for me was great fun. 

As usual I received brilliant treatment from the sports injury specialists I work with and I gradually started to heal and gain movement back. After 2 months I was ready to start a gradual return to running and riding.

My first “run” was towards the end of June. I did it on the treadmill and it was 10 mins of 1 min running 1 min walking. Yes, that’s 5 mins running in total! It was hard not to just keep on running, but there is no short cut to rehab. I was disciplined and stuck to a plan, building gradually from that point up to my first outdoor walk/run the weekend of the Edinburgh 70.3 on 1 July. It felt amazing to be back outside, I had a new appreciation for the physical act of running. Riding was a bit easier despite what I had been told by the specialist, who thought that I would be sitting on the location of the fracture. Turns out there are advantages to the aero position, and I was pain free from the first ride so I was able to build this a little more quickly.

Return to full training was over a course of weeks not days. I had no idea how my body would react, and how much fitness I would have lost. But I didn’t second guess myself, instead taking each session without expectation and listening to the pain signals when they came. I felt great on the bike almost immediately, but I struggled with running. I began to doubt that I could ever run well again.

My frustration with my running led to Mark and I deciding that I needed a fresh approach if I was to take another step forwards and gain confidence for a strong marathon. Towards the end of July I began a new coaching programme with Will Clarke. A brilliant and experienced athlete and coach, Will is also a friend who I knew would help me to push on with my running. Return from injury is always hard for athletes, who mostly try to push too hard too soon. I know from experience I am prone to doing too much, and Will has been brilliant with me, challenging me each week but not giving in to my constant requests to do more. As a result I was able to put together 10 weeks of training building towards an interim race at Ironman Italy, with Ironman 70.3 Ruegen as a sharpener two weeks before. Our main goal has always been Ironman Argentina in December when I will have had more time to get myself back up to full fitness.

It seems now as if I blinked, and suddenly I was on the start line for the first race in Ruegen. 

Ironman 70.3 Ruegen Photo: Thorsten Radde

I knew I had done everything I could have in the time. I was excited to be there racing, seeing new places, enjoying the sport I love and spending time with friends. I still had residual tightness and pain from the fracture, and it was important for me to test it out in a race scenario before I committed to racing a full distance Ironman. I completed the race without any problems, and while it was a poor result for me, it was also an accurate reflection of both my fitness and my fatigue levels. I was probably a bit too self-critical afterwards, even though I had finished the race feeling strong. As with any race, even if you enter “just for fun”, poor results mostly bring with them a lot of self-evaluation and criticism. But there were also lots of positives, and after a few days of reflection we decided that Ironman Italy was still a good idea. After all, I was fit and healthy and more importantly my body was holding up well.

So I got on with booking flights to Italy and putting in a final 10 days block of training towards the race. I was hugely excited – Italy had been on my radar all year and I wanted to get back out on the Ironman circuit. It is the distance that I truly love. There is so much more to it than “just a triathlon”, and which only those who have trained for and completed (or tried to complete!) one will really understand. It’s an emotional journey of a day, not to mention the months of hard work leading up to it. Pain coupled with adrenaline, emotion masking discomfort, determination bolstered by elation, all felt over a period of hours. Every single Ironman is a huge challenge, and I learn so much every time I toe the line. I was ready. But more keenly grateful to be in that position than perhaps I ever had been before.

Race week was an absolute joy. I didn’t really know what to expect from my body on race day, but I did know that whatever happened I would give it everything I had. I love to race, and I no longer put unhelpful expectations on myself in the days leading up to an event. Having had to sit on the side lines for 4 months and watch all the races going off around the globe, I was happy to be there myself, eating and tapering.

I don’t want to go through a blow by blow account of the race, because the pivotal moment for me was at the 30km point on the run, and everything up to that point was just normal race day stuff. Swim hard, make front pack for the first time, try not to die on the 1km T1, bike hard, receive 5 min penalty, put it swiftly behind me and get to T2 as fast as possible, start run.

Ironman Italy
Photo: Finisherpix

At the start of the run I did not know what position I was in. I had friends out on the course supporting me, so I looked out for them hoping to get some information on the race dynamic. Much of the route is an out-and-back, and it’s a 4 lap course, but a loop at both ends means you don’t get to see your competitors running past you in the opposite direction. The first lap felt ok, not amazing but pretty solid. I hadn’t seen my support crew so I still had no idea on my place. I got on with the second lap and although I knew I was struggling to hold the pace I was aiming for, I had not been passed so I just kept pushing. At the 20km point I finally saw them and I was told I was in 9th position. I had sort of worked out that might be the case, but hearing it confirmed was a bit of a blow. Will and I had decided that I shouldn’t finish for anything below 6th, mainly because I needed to conserve my energy to bounce back for Argentina if a good finish was not possible. My third lap was a myriad of emotions. I convinced myself that stopping was the right and “professional” decision to take. I knew that what Will, and Mark, would be telling me that if they were there. But in my heart I did not want to stop, I wanted to finish whatever the pain and prove to myself that I had not been beaten by the accident. I was battling every step, the fatigue and pain hitting me hard as I got deep into the marathon. My pace dropped as the “you have to stop” voices won and I decided to jog to the 30km point and stop with my friends. Conflicting emotions ran through me as I saw them and jogged to a halt, saying “it’s not worth it”.

It was standing there on the side of the road, watching fellow PRO athlete Jenny Fletcher run past, that I had a moment of clarity. Being a professional athlete in one of the toughest endurance sports in the world is a privilege. Having the health and fitness to compete at Ironman is a real honour, and it is not something I should take for granted. Quitting races is common for PRO’s and I can see why; I have done it myself in the past. Sometimes when Ironman goes wrong it goes so far wrong that finishing only results in additional fatigue, longer recovery time, and sometimes injury and illness. If you are an amateur doing one or two races a year, and having to pay big entry fees, then of course even a poor result is a huge achievement.

For someone trying to make a living on the sport, with only a few big races possible each year, it can be the wise decision to just walk away when things go bad. Racing again soon after is then more achievable, and perhaps the next time the race goes your way. But, by walking off the course you also do damage to your reputation, to your mental capacity to suffer, and I feel it is enormously disrespectful to sponsors, supporters and the hundreds of people that follow you who would give their right arm for one of your “bad days”.

Photo: Getty Images/Ironman

One of the friends supporting me in Italy has had double knee reconstruction surgery this year. She put her knees at risk that day, putting herself back two weeks on the rehab path just to stand at the side of the road all day supporting me and her wife. She would much rather have been racing, or even just well enough to go for a 3km jog. Another athlete with us there had a bike crash 3 weeks before the race, sustaining terrible injuries which forced him out of the race. Moreover I had some bad news only a few days prior to Italy that another athlete friend of mine had just been diagnosed with cancer. These are just a few examples of people around me who I knew would be tracking or watching, wishing they could be there racing. It is how I had felt just a few weeks earlier on the sidelines at both IMUK Bolton and 70.3 Edinburgh, wishing I could race but being so far from fit that it felt impossible.

Ironman Italy
Photo: Finisherpix

Thoughts of these people, and many others (PROs included) who I know are injured or sick, crowded into my head and my legs took me off the pavement and back onto the route of their own accord. I was fit, well, not in pain (other than “normal” Ironman pain!), and there was no good reason for me not to finish. I knew that I would not be racing again until December and that there was time for recovery. I don’t do Ironman just for the glory days. I don’t do it just for the fabulous races, the easy ones, the successes. I do it because it’s incredibly hard, and I love it because of that. It is more than a sport, it can change people’s lives. Every time you race you learn something more about what makes you tick, about how you react when the chips are down. I walked to the next aid station, and then as I started running again my body was flooded with adrenaline and I had a lump in my throat. Like all incredible experiences in life, the ones that you really have to fight for are the ones which mean the most. They are the times that you feel most keenly, the moments that stick with you forever. I fought my way back onto that course and every step of the way to a very emotional finish line.

Ironman Italy was a bad day performance wise, but it was one of the most affirming and positive Ironman experiences I have had. You never know what is around the corner, and I have no idea how long I will do this sport with the passion and health I throw into it now. From one moment riding along loving life to the next lying in a crumpled heap, screaming in the middle of the road, that incident in May has made me even more appreciative of the opportunities I have. I am so lucky really that my injury healed fairly fast and I was able to get back on race circuit within 4 months. Many people have far longer out of action. Many people are never able to complete an Ironman.

That evening I went back to support my friend Liz who was one of the last finishers in Italy. By the time she was on her last lap the crowds had gone home, the aid stations were manned by just one or two volunteers, and it was dark and cold. She and the other troopers who were still out there had nothing to keep them going except their own commitment to finish what they had started. We greeted her at the finish line and I was able to give her that special medal as she completed her 19th Ironman distance race. As we waited I watched the emotion pour out of people as they crossed that line, accompanied by the Italians partying, after nearly 16 hours of racing. I was absolutely buzzing, overcome by a pure love for the sport and the people who do it, no matter how fast or slow they are. Liz kept apologising for keeping us waiting, I don’t think she realised just how much I admired her spirit, and how much I was enjoying the whole experience. I was high on life once again.

So it is without expectation, but with a real desire to find out where my limits lie that I approach my next challenge. A training camp in Kona, with a small race to support out there, and then some hard hard work before Ironman Argentina. Kona will be fabulous as I watch those around me step up for one of the toughest events in the world and pit themselves against the heat and humidity. I only hope that I can do enough in the next 6 months to earn my place there in 2018.

As I said at the start, I have been very lucky to have had the support throughout this time of all my sponsors and supporters. Details are on my sponsor page, but I would like to thank Lee Evans especially for helping me find the mental strength to tackle each challenge, and for investing so much time in my recovery. Living in the moment and staying positive are habits I am developing to a whole new level, and I love it!