There are moments in our lives that change the course of the rest of our lives. These moments can be big or small; ceremoniously celebrated with a large group of people, or silently witnessed alone; they can be moments that you saw coming ahead of time, or moments that surprised you; you may recognize that these moments are about to change your life, or they might do so without your awareness: moments such as the day you first set eyes on your future life partner; your wedding day; the day your child is born; a time when you were in need and someone was kind (or unkind) to you; a conversation with a friend; a look from a stranger that penetrates you deep inside, a moment in a book that impacted you… No matter what these moments look like, somehow your life is irreversibly changed by them. I had one of these moments this year. This moment happened about 7 months ago during a long distance triathlon race in California.
As I looked around, I noticed that I was speeding past the other cyclists. Many of them wee now getting into the upright position, placing their hands on their brakes as they tried to control their speed through the descent. The hill must have been too steep for them. Not me though. I had trained nearly an entire year to go as fast as possible, and so I was not going to give up a fraction of a second unless I had to. I looked down at my Garmin which read 72Km/hr (45 mph), confirming my suspicion that I was officially going faster on my bike than I had ever gone before. I visualized myself in the aero position on my bike, which is essentially a near perfect horizontal position with my head leading the way. I tried to figure out if there was any way I could further reduce air drag. I knew that pedaling would not help at that speed: even in my fastest gears, I would have to spin over 100 rotations per minute to add to my speed. I tucked my elbows in a bit and leveled my pedals so that I might benefit from reducing my air resistance just a little bit more. I must have just been slicing through the air like an arrow. I looked down at my Garmin, which read 74km/hr (46 mph), and I smiled. That’s when I heard the loud “bang”, followed by the darkness. I had crashed, and at the very least, my race was officially over.
The race consisted of a 1.2 mile (1.93 Km) swim, a 56 mile (90 Km) bike through a very hilly terrain, followed by a 13.1 mile (23.1 Km) run—also known as a half marathon. This was a highly competitive race for which I had trained an entire year. I had joined a triathlon club to help with my training because I knew that completing this race would require a high intensity training regimen. We trained between 12 to 20 hours a week, which, over the course of a year, easily accumulated to over 600 hours of training. Although it was difficult to balance my training with my scholastic responsibilities as a graduate student and social demands, I had decided to devote this one year to training for, and completing in, this race. If successful in this race, this would be the pinnacle of my athletic accomplishments.
When the day finally arrived, I had barely slept—this is a common phenomenon among racers of this kind. Nonetheless, I was ready. During that year leading up to the race, I had learned to treat my body like a machine. I knew what it needed to operate at an optimal level, and I knew what I could expect from it during such an event. It was time to set my body loose on the course, and let it do what it had been trained to do.
The race began with a buzz of a horn that cut through the silent anticipation of the nearly 7,500 racers and 30,000 spectators that were in attendance. To be honest, I don’t remember much after that moment. I know that the swim always begins with an intense fight for air, as the large crowds of racers, who were cheerfully wishing each other well a few moments ago on shore, were now mercilessly clobbering and kicking at each other as they tried to get ahead of each other. I had managed to stay relatively unscathed for the swim, and in fact I was doing rather well. I had soon found my rhythm just behind the lead pack.
After the swim, I quickly transitioned to my bike within a couple of minutes—a process I had practiced for many hours to perfect. The bike course in this race was renowned for being especially difficult because of the rough pavement and the incessant steep hills. I was prepared though. I had spent many painful mornings climbing steep hills on my bike for up to 6 hours each time, so that my legs would be conditioned to handle these hills. In addition, I had studied the course many times before from YouTube clips and descriptions that previous racers had posted online. As with the swim, I was right on schedule on the bike, and my body was operating at an optimal level just below my threshold—the metaphorical redline. I was keeping my body well fueled and cool through constant sips of high caloric drinks and water.
I had managed to fly through the 50 miles of the bike course in a very respectable time. I had paced myself well, and felt strongly during the climbs, even the “Nasty Grade”, a nearly five mile grade which climbs 1,000 feet (300 m) from bottom to top. I was pleased with myself, but trying not to get overly excited—excitement burns precious calories that I needed if I was going to continue racing at that intensity. As running was my strongest of the three sports, I was looking forward to getting off the bike and running the half-marathon that remained before that highly sought after finish line. At my current pace, I would have finished the race in around 5 hours and 45 minutes—a very respectable time. The course average was around 6:30. I had now finished climbing over the last hill and was about to coast down Lynch Hill, the last descent before the transition area.
That’s when it happened. Flying down at 74Km/hr (46mph), tightly tucked into my aero position, my front tire exploded. I only had time to realize what had happened before everything went dark. When I came to, I realized that I was hurt, though I probably couldn’t have grasped the full severity of my injuries, in part because I didn’t feel any pain at the time. I later found that out, in the fraction of a second that I made contact with the ground, I had managed to break four ribs in 8 different locations; I had shattered my clavicle into a dozen or so separate shards; I had hit my head so hard I suffered a minor concussion, along with short term memory loss; my right lung had nearly collapsed and blood had accumulated in that cavity; and I had lost skin on over half my body. I was having a bad day. Lucky for me, my face was spared, as was my sense of humor.
It took me nearly 6 months to fully recover from the injuries. Though my body healed, the wounds to my spirit still persisted. I was bed ridden for nearly two months after the accident, during which I knew that I was lucky to be alive. However, there was a growing resentment that was wounding me from the inside, scarring up my heart a little more with each passing day. That injury was caused by the realization that, with each passing day, I was falling further and further away from being able to accomplish my goal of completing a long course triathlon. I had trained so hard, and had come so close. Now, I am in worse shape than I was before I had started racing—and possibly in my life—and I am haunted by the doubt of whether I will ever be able to get back in the saddle. The part that bothers me is trying to figure out why such an event had happened to me. On one of my more depressed days, I brewed at the unfairness of the situation.
Why Do We Fall?
The answer to that question came to me many months after the accident, when most of my body had healed. It was during a time when I had been contemplating when and how I might want to try to start training again. One day, we went to see the new Batman Rises movie. There was a scene in that movie that resonated with me. Bruce Wayne, who was reliving a childhood moment, had fallen into the well. There were bats flying all around him in that dark, deep hole in the ground. His deep fear of had overwhelm
ed him as he locked up into the fetal position until his father came to pull him out. When he had resurfaced, Bruce’s father looked at him and asked rhetorically: “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to get back up again.” Eventually, he became Batman specifically because he knew that the only way he could be strong again would be to directly confront his fears.
It suddenly became clear to me that I had similarly fallen; and in that fall, I had given my fears, doubts, anger, and frustrations the power to keep me from doing something I loved: training. Over the past few months, I have made a commitment to not let my fears dictate whether I continue to train. It’s true that I may not be able to regain the same level of physical fitness that I had prior to the race last year, or that I will even be able to find enough time to train sufficiently for the same race this coming year. I do know, however, that unless I find the energy to get back up again, that I may never find out for sure.
Getting Up Again
When I first crashed, I posted a Facebook comment saying: “these bones will mend, these wounds will heal, but what will remain is the thirst to cross that finish line.” This is as true today as it was when I wrote it shortly after the accident. In order to help keep me motivated, I have decided to sign up for the 31st Wildflower long distance race, scheduled for May 4th 2013. I know that having an objective goal helps to motivate me, and I can think of no better motivation than to get a second chance to fulfill a life-long goal.