3 Year Crashiversary

On April 9th it will be three years since the bike crash.  I was 39.3 miles (per my Garmin 910xt) into a 90 miler with my friends as we were prepping for Ironman Coeur D’Alene.  I remember the day vividly.  

Since the post is long, here’s an overview of the injuries first, for those who don’t want to read the whole story.  I haven’t been able to write about this day itself for 3 years because I still become emotional about it.  I wrote a "lessons learned" post a month after the wreck but nothing detailed.  http://kelly-tri-adventures.blogspot.com/2011/05/wreck.html 

The wreck changed my outlook, gave me perspective, taught me who and what is meaningful to me & ultimately made me a stronger athlete and person.  It shaped who I am today but it is still a tough day to think about.

On top of epic road rash scrapes, full body bruising of a typical wreck, I suffered a grade 3 concussion (with memory issues and post-concussion syndrome to boot), a broken collarbone and a broken shoulder blade  (scapula).  I also broke a tiny bone in my jaw that was overlooked at first due to the more serious looking issues, but my jaw is permanently damaged.  To shed some light on the nature of these injuries, collarbones fracture frequently when it comes to bone break statistics, but the shoulder blade is difficult to fracture and is only cracked in the most traumatic impacts.  I’ve come to understand that the triangular shape makes it structurally sound.  It is covered by muscles that cushion most blows.  Many people who break their shoulder blade do not survive.  Apparently, if the shoulder blade is broken there's often severe head trauma, lung damage, severe wounds and internal damage along with it because the nature of an accident that could cause a bone like that any damage is normally very severe.   Unless there's a sharp development in technology when I'm older, decades from now, I will never have a full functionality in my jaw and will always suffer from TMJ, which is quietly difficult nearly every day.   All things considered, I am very lucky that is all I had to face and so grateful I survived and healed and am able to continue not only in the sport but also in life itself.  I know I am very lucky given the force of the impact of my crash.  I’m very blessed to have had good friends at the scene to take care of me, incredible health care providers along the way and an amazing support network of family, friends, co-workers, and the RVA triathlon community caring for me along the journey back.  I’m so happy to be here, where I am and to have overcome these setbacks.  Every year around this time I find the most sentimental place in my heart and I think of how lucky Nick and I are to be where we are and how happy I am to have the opportunities I do for each new day. 


The story starts with the season itself and my mindset and the hype of the season.  On this morning, I was still feeling euphoria from falling madly in love with open water swimming in the James River the day before.  I was invigorated, excited and was ready to ride 90 miles with my teammates and I was as fit as I had ever been.  Everything was coming together and I was stronger than I could have imagined being.  I was on the verge of a real breakthrough season while training for Ironman Coeur D’Alene.  IMCDA was a race I begged so many of my friends to sign up for and our community had at least 30 local triathletes registered and enjoying the training camaraderie together.  I was hoping to go under 13:30, maybe even beat my FL13:27 time, but on a harder course.  In the preceding 2 months I had seen my very first podium spot a local 5K, went under 45 minutes in a 10K and had taken 13 minutes off my half ironman time for a 1:41 PR. That was “just” the run.  The biggest gains I’d seen were on the bike where my confidence was growing.  I’d started using heart rate monitor (run and bike) in training and understanding how to push myself, especially on long rides.  I could not wait to finally test it all out at Rumpus in Bumpass triathlon in just a few short weeks…maybe even break 6 hours at the Kinetic half in May.  In the meantime, I was finally able to keep up with my friend, Trish on the bike.

Each Saturday our team would meet in the parking lot,  pump tires, try to figure out the perfect clothes layering strategy for the frigid starts that wind up sunny hours later and take off together.  After a lot of catching up and joking around, we’d be “cheeks on seats” and rolling through the countryside for hours.  We’d break naturally into pace groups and I recall that day I was with my training partner in crime Trish, my new pals Jay M, Jay C, Mark D, and my longtime bike mentor Jack M.  Our conversations were taking interesting twists as always with Jack and Jay entertaining us with their witty quips.   My HR was nice and steady in the perfect aerobic pace and I was really starting to feel good on Stella, the Cervelo.  We were having a great time tackling the very tough climbs riding well through all the rollers.

Until I went bombing down a hill.  I downplay the seriousness of this accident a lot, but it was horrific.  
I think a car came in the other direction and I got nervous and moved to the right side of the road.  My mind is fuzzy on why I did it, but I definitely remember moving over into the shoulder of the road sharply during the hill where I was travelling very fast.  I should have just held my line as the sudden movement into the shoulder was a tragic mistake.  My skills had improved significantly from taking a mtb class over the fall yet I made a quick move on a hill I wasn’t familiar with and wasn’t thinking about how the shoulder of the road isn’t the safest place with all that debris.  I crashed.  Hard.  Fine print: No one is immune no matter how strong a rider or flawless you think your skills are…accidents do happen from newbie to pro- but we CAN empower ourselves to avoid and prevent them as much as possible and be prepared in the event one does occur.  I’ve been criticized about my crash on many occasions, especially about a month afterwards, since I wasn’t hit by a car and it was my mistake combined with the conditions…but that’s pretty much any accident…human error meets the wrong timing of conditions and circumstances.  I feel that my injuries and permanent damage to my jaw are punishment enough and I really didn’t “need” the admonishing.  I’ve seen/heard this kind of disappointing response repeatedly with others who have wrecked over the years and I am always quick to defend the victim.  I almost wonder if this stems from athlete’s internal realization that we are in fact fragile beings… or just simple insensitivity …A post for another day, but this was part of my experience.

My tire slid in a little big of gravel that tends to collect in the shoulder in the spring on the side of the country roads.  My back wheel just flew out from under me and in those seconds, I struggled to get it back and right myself.  Mark D recalls thinking in an instant that maybe I was going to "save" the fall, but it was too much, too fast and I went down. Hard.  I smacked the pavement forcefully.  My bike and I were torn apart and my body scraped across the pavement until landing in a patch of dirt beside the road. This is where my memories played tricks as I started to recall the aftermath with in the weeks after my crash.  

I lay on the dirt and wanted to finish the ride.  I was really hoping my bike was OK.  My friends however, would not let me get up.  I’m forever grateful for their response in the situation.  911 was called and Jay C knew how to respond to an accident victim.  He probably did not have training in managing a triathlete who refused to watch his hands with my eyes until he used those fingers to press “stop” on my Garmin.  Once my watch was stopped, I cooperated.  I recall being bored and confused and really wanting to finish my ride.  They said they wanted the paramedics to look at me first.  My friends kept me warm and entertained.  I kept thinking we should do something so I had them take pictures and video to try to keep us entertained.  They called Nick and kept him informed. A local beagle took interest in me but I demanded we shoo her away.  She retreated to the woods but was very caring and returned with a deer leg bone she must have had stockpiled and wanted to contribute to my “cause”.  How adorable!  Even the local animals were on the scene trying to “take care” of me.  I was very lucky.  I remember thinking everyone was being a bit dramatic and really wanting to get up and get on with the day.  I was covered in leaves and dirt and wondering if I could finish my ride after the EMTs came, or if I’d have to do it on the trainer by myself later.  I thought maybe I could get back to the office later in the day to get some work in too.  I was perhaps in shock.


When the ambulance arrived, reality hit.  The pain set in. I realized I couldn’t lift my arm.  I think Jay C had noticed that too, but I wasn’t acknowledging it until emergency response was on the scene.  My head hurt.  They put me on a STRETCHER!  When on the stretcher, I started to panic inside because no one ever thinks they will be on a stretcher. Then, the EMT said, “You seem OK but the bike didn’t make it”  I burst into tears. Turns out my frame was cracked and my helmet had cracked apart from the impact and truly saved my life. As we were riding along, I really became upset inside but tried to keep up a good front.  However, we were out in the middle of the boonies and the worker who appeared to be responsible for my care asked me my name and the date several times.  I thought, “OH no, these people can’t even remember my name, why did I have to crash out in the middle of nowhere?”  I kept answering her repetitive questions and then finally admonished, “If you can’t remember these things, could you just write it down?”  Whoops, looking back I realize I must have been quite a trip.  Nonetheless, they took good care of me.  My arm and back really hurt and then I began to vomit.  Puking is horrible enough as it is, but doing so while my jaw would not fully open and trying to get to my side with broken bones was not fun. 


Upon getting to the hospital, it was chaos and pretty scary.  Apparently they “name” incoming trauma patients and mine was “pyramid” in their computer system.  The scene was full of urgency.  They actually cut off all my clothes to treat me.  My black bike pants, bright red yard legwarmers, brand new 2xu sports bra, grey under amour top, red cycling jersey, wind breaking vest and even my wicking headband all got snipped off.  Laying down while your beautiful (expensive) cycling clothes are all being snipped off your body is pretty horrible to experience, but I totally understand the reasoning behind it.  That had to have been the scariest part of the day.  The urgency, and being treated like I wasn’t even there, watching it all go on at a faster pace than my mind could absorb. I was treated very quickly but of course another trauma patient came in before they could move me.  This man was intoxicated and had been shot in the arm by a friend on accident.  He was swearing up a storm and cursing out the entire ER staff.    I was thinking, “WHO managed to get shot at 10AM?” and he was probably wondering "Who rides a bike at 10AM on a Saturday?  While laying there all the commotion having moved on to the newest patient, the 2nd round of tears came through. I was in this emergency room and in really bad shape.  I found out I broke my collarbone and scapula and that ironman CDA was off the table. Everything hurt and I was puking seemingly nonstop.  Eventually they wheeled me to a room and Nick was able to see me.  I was in and out of sleep by then.  I freaked out the nurse with my super low athlete HR and was really proud of that, until I realized it was slipping away and I was so very sad.  I know I had many visitors and I’m really lucky for that.  I struggled with short term memory loss and so it was fun a week or three later when a memory would pop into my head about the hospital stay, and I’d ask Nick and he’d confirm that yes, Trish did come visit me wearing a really adorable “surfing Santa jacket” that Allan swung by and we had a long conversation about his crash, that I advised people that I broke my spatula instead of scapula.  There was a nice oral surgeion doctor who kept asking me about my training and triathlons as she was going to go do Miami man.   I spent the weekend in the hospital but upon my release the recovery had only just began.

I had a ton of support from family and friends.  My mother flew in for a week to help care for me and I had friends bringing me milkshakes and spending time with me or making us meals.  I’m not one to ask for help, but the unsolicited support of the community was really amazing.  I’m forever grateful for everyone who helped Nick and me.  In those days, at home on the couch covered with frozen peas and unable to chew food I was pretty useless, devastated, bored and very scared but I vowed I was going to come back stronger than ever.  I did not enjoy the progress of the sport I’d worked so hard at being taken from me and I vowed that I would see the age group podium in a triathlon and have an “unparalleled and dominating comeback.”  

I was in a sling for many weeks and then I could not lift my arm for a few weeks after that.  I worked hard in PT for both my shoulder and jaw.  I did jaw PT twice a week and also had a failed jaw surgery in August.  Dr. Moose Herring treated my shoulder and my PT, Kevin Dintino saw me 3 times a week for months to get me back on track.  
First time I could lift my arm above my head
Coach Michael Harlow built me a comeback to triathlon plan.  It entailed riding for 3 hours on a recumbent bike with my arm in a sling sometimes.  I set up the bike trainer in the driveway once I was out of the sling and allowed to ride with the bars flipped upside down.   I lived vicariously through my friends and hung on to their every report of racing and training.  I planned group runs for people from my house, walking for hours with chalk to mark a route for them to run on.
Group run support

   My friend Holly reached out to marathoner Shalane Flanagan (before her Olympic marathon) who I had been a fan/admirer for years and asked for her to send an autograph, which really had me feeling so uplifted.  

I went to IMCDA and I supported my friends in the race who had allowed me to share their journeys and be part of the experience even though I wasn’t racing.  The first time I rode my bike outdoors post wreck was half the bike course of IMCDA.  I did come back into fitness later in the summer and I didn’t just go sub 6 in a half iron, I went sub 5:30 that October.  I didn’t just get on the podium, I won my age group at a local sprint triathlon, which to me, at the time was thrilling as when I set the goal, I really didn’t know if I could win a race but I had needed a goal to work for.  I was never in contention for podiums before my crash so to come back like that.... its one of my favorite triathlon memories.
Mentally, the recovery was longer though as I postponed dealing with the feelings while trying to build my body back and bury myself in both my work and my rehab and training.  The wounds did heal but coming to terms mentally with the with trauma (and fear on the bike) that I had kept bottled up while trying to be "brave" was the hardest part in all of this, but doing so has made me a more empathetic person and a stronger character. 

Yet, its hard to end this post because the story never ended.  Even 3 years later, it’s a part of me and has shaped me.  I am not going to just “get over it” as it is an experience that changed my life. The crash really shaped me as a person as well as an athlete so looking back and celebrating my crashiversary is important.  Each year, I do something to honor the day. I’ve done hill repeats on the hill where I crashed and met the dog (and her owner) that had helped me on the day of the wreck. I have ridden in the Blue Ridge climbing both Vesuvius and Wintergreen with my “hardcore ironman junky” friends.  This year, I will race a 70.3 in Florida where I hope to beat my old time of 5:25.  Hopefully, the meaning of the anniversary will serve as mental fuel to keep me going on the course, as it has been an experience to draw from in so many aspects.