A Most Bothersome and Preventable Tragedy

Two bone breaks, both caused by stupidity

(A Spanish island’s where we lay our scene)

This training breaks down under scrutiny

I’m so far now from where I could have been.

From forth the awful year of Covid woes

I sought a brand new coach to breathe new life

But “misadventured piteous overthrows”

Sums up my body’s consequential strife.

The loss of practising the sport I love

And the continuance of miserable rage,

Which, now I’m diagnosed, is part removed,

Has helped me to become somewhat more sage;

And now, if you with patient eyes attend,

It may help you – and all the while, I’ll mend.

A quick bit of back story: 2018-19 were great and I was on a very marked upward trajectory. By the end of 2019 I’d had my first Ironman 70.3 win and a couple of further podiums, and raced a full distance Ironman for the first time since having hip surgery in 2014.

2020 was shit, mostly “because Covid”; I had massive anxiety by the end of the year. Aided and abetted by well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful unsolicited advice, I decided that the best way to deal with this was to throw out the coaching system that had worked for me in the past, and instead to have another bash at the “coach writes every session for you in Training Peaks” model of coaching.

Two weeks into said coaching model, the Netherlands finally caught up with the rest of (mainland) Europe and announced a lockdown including the closure of swimming pools. So naturally Ed and I found somewhere that had managed to keep the pools open and decamped there for the “five weeks” (haha) that lockdown would last.

Training programme while in Fuerteventura, Day 1: 4400m swim; 35 min easy run; gym session including box jumps onto an 18 inch / 45 cm box.

For those of you who have seen me attempt to jump, spring, or not be out the back of a rowing race at the 250m marker – even when I then go on to win the race – it will come as no surprise that I did not make it onto the aforementioned box.

I picked myself up off the floor – feeling like a massive idiot but imagining myself to be largely unscathed, as one does – and thought that perhaps I wouldn’t try any more of those today. I then realised I couldn’t really move my left arm…

The collarbone healed straightforwardly, and in the meantime I continued as directed with biking and running. I started a tiny bit of swimming again 4 weeks after the break and built up gradually, and for a while everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. I was training more than I’d ever done before, and it even seemed as though some racing might be starting to come back in a few countries.

But the training was hard. Really hard. With no recovery weeks, or even blocks, as far as I could tell. (I’d previously taken 3-day rest blocks every 3 weeks as well as more rest integrated into the programme – not a recommendation since everyone is different, but that seemed to work well for me.) I was getting more and more tired, slower and feeling stiff and beaten up.

I reported back to coach that I was tired and feeling stiff, but I didn’t want to complain too much. The way I saw it, that type of training clearly worked for “everyone else” so I must just be being pathetic.

My running during this time was also on hilly concrete, since there were no sensible flat options where we were staying. Hilly concrete is, as one might expect, harder on the body than the flat tarmac that I’m used to. In particular running downhill, where my not inconsiderable weight thunders through my legs with every step.

It will probably come as no surprise, then, that I woke up one day feeling extra stiff. Stretched and mobilised a bit more than usual before heading out as planned for my scheduled run session. Developed worsening pain through the run such that I could hardly even walk by the time I finished. And somehow still thought it was just some muscles tightening up.

I relayed this to coach, who opined that I probably wasn’t really injured and would be better in a few days. And that I hadn’t been doing enough training for it to be a stress fracture.

There followed three fairly hellish months of tears, confounded physios, MRI scans of various parts of my body (I spent about 6 weeks asking various medical people if perhaps we could take a picture of the bit that actually hurt), failed attempts to return to running, and some awful interactions with obscenely rude medical admin staff. Who I joked at the time weren’t interested in helping you unless you had a broken leg… oh the irony.

Yesterday I finally sat down with a surgeon and saw a CT scan taken the day before, clearly showing a stress fracture line through my femur. Although it also shows some signs of healing, I’m on full rest and only allowed to walk with crutches for at least the next 2 weeks, pending further scans…

A glooming peace this knowledge with it brings.

Though racing this year I’ll not show my head,

I do not want to dwell on these sad things,

But rather look at what to learn, instead.

It’s time to turn this story filled with woe

To lessons to take with us as we go.

So, in between crutching around, selecting the most nutrient-dense Bake Off recipes to try out, and sleeping as much as possible, I have been TRYING to see, if not positives, at least some learnings for when I (cliché alert) come back, better than ever. Hopefully these can also be of some use to anyone reading this…

  • Don’t trust the process… trust yourself

A bit of an odd one, this, in the triathlon world, with its oft-repeated mantra of “trust the process”. But personally I’ve found that whenever I’ve done exactly what a coach tells me, it’s a recipe for injury, illness or simply not getting any faster for the duration. For many if not most athletes, this won’t be the case, of course – but if you feel that training is too much, too hard, too long, and you feel like that all the time, then something is clearly amiss.

I’ve always looked at other athletes’ training hours (or at least, what they claim on Instagram are their training hours…) and felt that I must be completely failing and not suited to professional sport. Talk of “low volume athletes who only train 25 hours per week,” and of 30 hours being standard, have given me a stick to beat myself with, and stopped me from having the confidence to be less British with my “I’m quite tired” and “I’m used to having more rest than this, I’m not sure my body’s adjusted yet”.

Instead I should have flat out stated that the training was breaking my body down and I needed more rest. I even failed to take confidence from the training data that unarguably shows that I averaged well under 20 hours a week in the lead up to WINNING a 70.3. Which is, after all, the point.

One way in which I managed not to contravene the “trust yourself” principle too flagrantly is once I actually had the injury. I maintained that contrary to what all the medical professionals said, I didn’t just have tight muscles and that there was something wrong that they hadn’t found. Albeit that this largely took the form of lying on the floor, crying, and howling “why can’t they fucking figure it out and why won’t they at least CHECK it’s not a stress fracture”.

By the time I was finally diagnosed, I’d been convinced that I was a massive hypochondriac for thinking it was a stress fracture, but was at the point where I no longer cared and was going to persist in making people scan bits of me until they’d either found something or showed me two perfectly intact femurs on an MRI.

  • Seriously consider the risk vs reward of box jumps

A rather specific one, this, but since the collarbone injury I’ve described the mode of failure to various people, and been slightly appalled by the number of “oh yeah, I knew someone who was doing box jumps, fell and broke their collarbone / ribs / wrist / elbow” responses.

Obviously anecdote =/= data, but also, box jumps =/= speed in long distance triathlon. (Especially not in my case!) I’d argue that if rate of force production for bike and run is really an issue – which I honestly find debatable for long-distance triathlon, we’re not exactly training for steeplechase here – a similar effect could be achieved with significantly less injury risk using alternative exercises.

  • Remember that pain does not always correlate well with injury

Until I saw the surgeon recently, I’d been building up my running again with a run / walk programme, and was up to about 30-40 minutes of total running per session. The leg kind of felt stiff, and not great, but nothing like the sort of pain I’d imagined “running on a broken bone” to feel like. Even last week when the surgeon told me, on the basis of a rather blurry MRI, to use crutches for walking while we waited for the more detailed CT scan, I figured I didn’t really need them, it didn’t hurt that much and it felt a bit pathetic to be using them. (Now remedied, for the avoidance of doubt…)

Similarly with the collarbone break, I thought I’d probably just bruised myself a bit and that I’d be in way more pain if it was actually broken. I felt slightly ridiculous asking Ed to go fetch me some ice, and insisting on dragging us both to the doctor to get an X-ray “just in case”… until I saw the scan.

  • Learn from mistakes, but then move on

I’m still struggling with this one, to be honest. “If only” we’d stayed here, if I hadn’t done box jumps [because maybe without a broken collarbone I would have been doing more swimming and less running], if I hadn’t changed coach. And currently the hardest to process, possibly because it’s the most recent but possibly also because of the number of battles we’ve had along the way, if I’d been diagnosed without a 13 week fucking delay…

Accepting that I made the best decisions I could with the available information; that instead of accelerating my progress, it’s led to losing a year towards what is likely the tail end of my professional racing career; and that there’s nothing I can do about it, is hard.

But there’s nothing I can do about it now other than do better next time. Bottle the frustration and bring it out when I’m finally allowed to take it out on the pedals again. And, apparently, process everything via the medium of slightly convoluted tragicomic iambic pentameter. Your reward for making it to the end is not to have any further rhyming verse inflicted upon you… for now.

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