What happens when a triathlete suddenly can’t be a triathlete?
Fifteen months ago, I tore up my left knee after a fall while hiking: meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament. Since last August I’ve been waiting for reconstructive surgery. I haven’t run a step since January 2014 when the injury happened, and it took several weeks to gingerly get in the pool, and several months to be able to get on my bike.
It’s been tough, especially since I was a runner first, and running is my main stress-reliever. It’s been my go-to for blowing off steam for as long as I can remember, because it’s so easy. No bike tires to pump up, no open pool lanes to find. Just lace up shoes and exit the front door.
“With people coming to sports as a way of moderating depression or stress, warding off illnesses like heart disease or cancer, or to lose weight, the stakes are higher. When injured, they not only have to deal with the pain and stress of being injured, but they have lost a primary coping strategy,” said one article I read (Tarkan 2000), and that has been very much my experience.
Last season I did a couple of relays, but it wasn’t the same. Triathlon is a sport in itself, because when you’re doing one leg, you’re always thinking of transition, and how the next phase of the race is going to be affected by what you’re doing now. That’s what I loved about both rock climbing and triathlon: the problem-solving.
And I haven’t been able to do it for more than a year. Once surgery comes, I will be in recovery for months more.
“It’s often said that being a triathlete is a life-style rather than a reflection of having raced in a triathlon. It is a cornerstone of a person’s identity and self-esteem … The unspeakable fear is, “What happens if full recovery never comes?” Serious injury can rattle the very foundation of one’s identity,” says a guy named, I kid you not, Dr. Charlie Brown in a blog post from 2000. As a result, many athletes can get clinically depressed after injury: “Research has shown that some of the more common psychological responses to injury (ie, depression, anger, anxiety) are amplified in cases of more severe injury, such as a traumatic ACL injury,” (McCardle 2010).
I have many friends who had major injuries requiring surgery, so I turned to some of them for this post, asking how they coped. Not surprisingly, the friends least prone to depression were the ones who immediately responded to my request.
My triathlete friend Connie has had two major surgeries in the last several years: to repair a hamstring avulsion (it was torn right off her sit-bone), and then a broken wrist.
My climbing friend Dave has had several surgeries: one resulting from a dislocated shoulder as a result of a fall, another a ripped biceps from a particularly strenuous move at a gym, and more recently some foot surgeries to deal with arthritis.
“There was a 7-day delay for the hamstring surgery because the first surgeon who was on call didn’t know how to do it,” said Connie in a text message. “This was June 2010, two weeks before the first Half Iron I was supposed to do …. I was in a specially constructed brace … I sat on the front porch for 8 weeks. Peter [her husband] would make me a pot of coffee, put cream and sugar in it and leave it in a thermos for me …. I was already signed up for the October Half Marathon. I shed exactly three tears, then started wondering from whom I could borrow a racing wheelchair. LOL. I didn’t get depressed but I did worry it’d never be normal again. I don’t think I realized how worried I was until my first “run,” which was about 8 minutes per K. I kind of lurched along.”
Let me just add here that Connie is one of the sunniest, friendliest, most fun-loving people I know, and I wasn’t surprised at all to hear that she coped well with this injury, which happened before I knew her. However, I did know her when she broke her wrist a couple of years later, and that was a little harder to deal with.
“The wrist was more debilitating than that. I had never been in so much pain and I completely underestimated the recovery that would be necessary. I knew I’d be in a cast for at least 6 weeks after surgery. And I was; that was all fine. I couldn’t cycle, even on the trainer, because I couldn’t hold myself up. I couldn’t run/walk because it swelled. I couldn’t do anything for myself,” she said.
It was when the second surgery to remove the pins happened that finally threw Connie into a funk. “I TOTALLY underestimated how that was ‘like another break’ because of the space left by the pin. Was in the cast 8 weeks and then 6 more weeks of recovery.
I lost 40% of my range of motion. For example, I can’t pull myself out of the pool by putting my hands on the side and hoisting myself up. I have only just gone down on the drops [while cycling]; it hurt for a long time and I think I was a bit depressed because I couldn’t even cycle. …. [But now] I am back to training … and it feels good!!!”
As for Dave (a retired teacher who lives in the Kootenays), after the second injury in 2001-2002, he never did technical rock climbing again, “I figured maybe it was time to quit. I started that stuff late in life, so it wasn’t a big deal. I realized I couldn’t climb the way I could before – but I never could climb very well. I was always uneasy about technical rock climbing. I learned a lot about movement of body and rope management though. For me it was almost a minor relief that I didn’t have to do that anymore. I got more into mountaineering.”
What has been more difficult for Dave is recovering from foot surgeries to correct the effects of osteoarthritis: “My feet have caused me big problems. They would be so painful after spending a day in the mountaineering boots.” Dave has had joints fused in three toes on one foot, and big toe surgery in the other one. “I’m just finished the recovery process and I’m still hiking and bushwhacking – but long days on rough terrain is becoming too hard. Although we trekked for three weeks in Nepal last year … as long as I can still hike it’s OK.”
Dave has never been the type of guy to let little things like injuries get in the way of doing what he loves – being out in the mountains. Both he and Connie are inspirations to me as I wait for my ACL reconstruction surgery. I can still walk a bit, and I can still cycle and swim. It’s an adjustment, but humans are adaptable.
Or, as Dave says: “If you get out and do anything, stuff happens. And then you get older, and different stuff happens. You just deal with it.”
- Athletes’ Injuries Go Beyond the Physical, by Laurie Tarkan, Published: September 26, 2000
- Recovering from Injury, by Dr. Charlie Brown, Get Your Head in the Game blog, published 2000.
- Psychological Rehabilitation From Anterior Cruciate Ligament–Medial Collateral Ligament Reconstructive Surgery: A Case Study, by Siobhan McCardle, Sports Health journal, Jan. 2010.