I decided to write this post to possibly bring hope to those triathletes who are currently injured, or who will one day be injured. After my bike crash in April, I scoured the internet (and Slowtwitch) to find people who suffered similar injuries, and all I read were doomsday scenarios. I’m a believer in having the right mindset when facing a challenge, and the grim stories were not doing me any favors in giving me the mental edge to overcome this difficult time. With that, here is a recap of my crash, as well as the three strategies I employed to help me rise from being immobile in both arms to setting a new PR just 9 weeks later.
On Saturday, April 12 I crashed while riding my bike, fracturing the third and fourth metacarpals in my left hand (requiring surgery) and sustaining a grade 3 AC joint separation in my right shoulder. The day was supposed to serve as my capstone spring workout prior to the St. George 70.3. The workout included uber-biker pro triathlete Andrew Yoder, National Age-Group champion Justin Galbreath, and The Real Starky’s man-crush Mike Egan. After a hard 4,500 yard swim workout in the morning, we went out for a 70 mile ride through Chester County where Andrew led us on some tortuous 20 minute interval repeats. With less than 10 miles left in the ride, as we were cruising home, I (allegedly) looked down momentarily to grab my water bottle, and while doing so, clipped Andrew’s rear wheel. Down I went, at 25 mph, rolling twice and skidding several yards down the road. I immediately jumped back on my feet, completely in shock, but at this point without any pain. I looked at my shoulder and noticed that the end of my right clavicle was pushing my skin about an inch higher than normal. Despite Andrew and Justin assuring me that it looked normal (haha!), Egan broke the bad news to me, and called 911. Soon thereafter, the pain rushed throughout my body.
Naturally, my immediate thought was that the season was over; I blew it; I’m going to lose all of my fitness. All I could think about was when I could start training again. Well, that was going to be difficult, as my left hand was splinted, and my right arm was in a sling and had absolutely no range of motion. For several days I was completely immobile—couldn’t feed myself, change, get into bed, drive, etc. Research on the internet told me that the shoulder would prevent me from swimming for a few months and cause lingering pain for years, and other accounts informed me that due to the complexity of the hand, fractures take months to heal, let alone gain back strength. My doctor told me racing would be unlikely this summer. I was not satisfied with that timetable, and was extremely frustrated.
My 3 Step Strategy
I met with sports psychologist Mitch Greene from GreenePsych to discuss the situation. I had already been stressed while going through the tedious business-school application/waiting process, and now triathlon–my escape from outside stress–was taken from me. Here’s what helped me get through:
1) When you stop giving excuses, you start looking for solutions: The crash happened, and I couldn’t change it. My only option at this point was to do the best that I could from this point forward. I told myself that I could either use this as an excuse to write-off/caveat the season, or find a solution to get myself back to where I was. While the excuse is always the easier option that is tempting to succumb to, a solution always exists—it just may require some time and effort to find. I shifted my mindset from one of feeling sorry for myself, to one that viewed this time as an incredible opportunity to push the human limits, both mentally and physically. I love solving problems, and this was a new challenge for me to crack. While difficult to do, “Stop giving excuses, look for solutions” is a motto that I try to live by in every difficult situation that I am in.
2) The 3 P’s: No, these P’s are not a subset of marketing’s Price, Product, Promotion, and Placement. They are staying Positive, Patient, and Persistent. Early on, I would re-live the crash and pretend I could alter the outcome. It was a useless exercise, and only made me upset. Given the daunting task ahead, I knew success would largely stem from mental will power, and will power originates from optimism. I instead focused on improving one step at a time, as I knew seeing tangible results would help with positivity. As a result, I came up with a list of mini-goals (mentioned in the next section). Another important element is patience; one that I definitely struggled with. For about 6 weeks I was going to physical therapy four days a week (for both shoulder and hand). After experiencing early improvement in my hand, I hit a plateau for about 3 weeks when my hand was gaining limited additional range of motion. I remember becoming frustrated with my occupational therapist, and was approaching my wit’s end. Fortunately, I stayed persistent with the exercises and the small things that I needed to do each and every day, and by late-May I hit an inflection point where my progress turned exponential. Persistence was key for me. I figured out what I could do, and I did that activity as frequently and as rigorously as I possibly could. Whether it was during therapy or during my regular training, I stopped thinking about what I couldn’t do, and instead tried to perfect what I could do. When I couldn’t swim, my goal was to become the best kicker in the water. When I couldn’t run, my goal was to train like a cyclist on the CompuTrainer, and push myself until I couldn’t go any harder.
3) Set Mini-Goals
Early on, all I could think about was when I would be “recovered.” Was it going to be July, September, in a year? It was too complex of a question to ask, and it caused too much mental anguish to think about as it was both extremely ambiguous and too far away to comprehend. I stopped thinking about the end-game, and instead starting thinking about how to get to the next step. To keep me focused on the present, I wrote down a list of small goals that I wanted to accomplish (note: I did not share these with my Doctor, as they would not have been condoned). Because I am obsessively goal-focused, this was a good solution for me. Here’s what they were:
|April 19 (1 week post-crash):
Ride on the trainer
Rode on the trainer—two days after the crash! My friend Bryan Verdeur came over to set up my bike and my CompuTrainer, and helped me get on (I couldn’t put any pressure on either arm). I rode lightly while sitting straight up—that’s painful on the butt!
|April 27 (2 weeks post-crash):
Went out for a run with a splint on my left hand (sling had been removed from right shoulder). I remember an incredible conflict of emotions—being outside on the beautiful spring day running was amazing, but the overwhelming muscle cramping in my upper back and right shoulder was nearly intolerable!
|April 27 (2 weeks post-crash):
Ride on trainer in the aero position
Shoulder was feeling strong enough to put light pressure on it, so went for it (widened the aero pads to make more tolerable). A lot more comfortable than riding while sitting up!
|May 7 (3.5 weeks post-crash):
Kick in the pool
Showed up to the pool with a bag over my left arm to keep my incision dry, and kicked 2,000 yards with a board.
|May 15 (4.5 weeks post-crash):
Do a track workout
Went to the track with my splint and ran mile repeats.
|May 19 (5 weeks post-crash):
Attempt to swim
Taking my splint off, I decided to see how it felt, and swam 1,000 yards. To see how much speed I lost, I attempted a 100 long-course meter freestyle as fast I could, yielding a depressing time of 1:22. Two days later, I attempted it again, and went a surprisingly impressive 1:10. This gave me a mental boost.
|May 24 (5 weeks post-crash):
I had already been registered for the Eagleman 70.3, and given my progress was coming along quicker than expected, I naturally wanted to see if I at least had the bike/run fitness to consider racing. I did a quasi-70.3 race simulation, riding 2:15 on my CompuTrainer at 273 watts and then running 9 miles at 5:59 pace. The results theoretically seemed good enough to make me somewhat competitive.
|June 15 (8 weeks post-crash):
If I wanted to attempt to do Eagleman, I needed to see if I could actually ride my bike. I went outside for a 30 minute ride on the SRT—this turned out to be one of the scariest rides of my life. I was a nervous-wreck while riding, and my hand was so weak that I was not able to shift with it. Nevertheless, I stayed upright, and (with no family agreement) decided the next day to race that weekend.
|June 8 (7 weeks post-crash):
Despite being in first place (amateur) after the swim and bike, my body simply wasn’t ready for a half-Ironman at this point. The bike leg caused back and shoulder cramping, and during the run I developed bad cramps and lost the strength to carry my right arm (and so it dangled). But, I finished!
|June 22 (9 weeks post-crash):
After Eagleman, I told myself I needed more time before I tried racing again, and that Philly Tri was too close. Naturally, my mind changed before the race. Bolstered by a strong swim and bike, I won the elite amateur race and set a new course PR in 1:54.
The season was a success. I went on to win my 8th Islandman triathlon, and then won the competitive HyVee 5150 US Championship in August, a victory that had alluded me the prior three years. I also earned acceptance to business school. In the end, everything worked out, but it required lots of perseverance to get there. I still sense weakness in my hand and shoulder at times, but they continue to get stronger each day (I wrapped up formal therapy for my shoulder in early July, and with my hand in mid-June). Hopefully this post will give optimism to anyone who stumbles across it. There are two things I found fascinating: 1) The body is a powerful and unpredictable healing machine, and 2) your fitness returns far quicker than you would think. My advice: stay positive and figure out what levers you need to pull to keep you focused on improving.
Thank you to my family and friends who helped me throughout my journey: of course my parents, but also my coach Eric, Mitch Greene, my UMLY friends–Justin, Egan and Conlon, as well as Bryan Verdeur, Dave Cox, Patrick Mckeon, Andrew Yoder, and many others!