Being immobilized with five pelvic fractures leaves you with little to do but think. After 24 hours in my hospital bed at St. Luke’s Roosevelt in July 2014, I had convinced myself that I had a plan: I would stop bike racing, I would just be a normal medical student, become a great doctor, run the occasional 5k, and maybe a weekend bike ride. However these plans were short lived, especially after a visit from my dearest cycling friends; I knew I wasn’t capable of giving up competitive athletics. There had to be some sort of compromise. By the time I rolled out of St. Luke’s, in my wheelchair, I had a new plan: I would be a triathlete. I would still get to ride my bike, but the racing would be much safer, as it is individual rather than pack riding. Triathlon would also allow me to take up running again, a sport that had previously rejected me, but now my body now seemed ready to tackle it– I jumped in a half marathon the prior winter and won it, after running only 2 days per week. Learning to swim would be the only real hurdle…
But first things first, I had to learn to walk again. My wheelchair carried me to the curbside of 114th Street and Amsterdam Ave, where my mother pulled up to whisk me down I-95 home to Philadelphia, where two weeks of R&R awaited me. I was soon ready to tackle the big city, armed with crutches and a heavy-duty sling for my broken clavicle (a bonus injury). Without racing and training, I put all my newfound time and energy into resting and physical therapy, and found myself able to swim, bike and run by October. After my crash I approached cycling differently: I now had a zero tolerance policy for riding after dark, a preference for neon vests and blinking lights, and reluctance to ride on wet roads. “Control the variables you can control” my dad always tells me.
As a self-coached, busy, medical student my “triathlon training” was less than ideal. I squeezed in workouts when and where I could—running laps under the lights of the George Washington Bridge when it was well after sunset and studying lecture slides while sweating my tail off on the bike trainer. My medical rotation at the Indian Health Service in Arizona during the months of February and March served, to an extent, as a warm weather winter training camp. I continued to train primarily like a cyclist, targeting the collegiate nationals individual time trial, with a few runs and swims thrown in for good measure. For some reason, I was not troubled at all by the fact that I have never had any formal swim training, apart from basic lessons as a kid. I swam maximum twice per week over the winter, not realizing that I was reinforcing my bad habits by practicing them over and over.
When I toed the line for my first triathlon in May, I had never done an open water swim. I showed up without a wetsuit and the water was 58 degrees in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey after a stubborn winter transitioned into a very late spring. Luckily, a family friend who also happened to be racing had the foresight to bring an extra wetsuit (a shorti!) for me, so I narrowly escaped hypothermia. That was not the only hurdle of the day. I was slow out of the water, though not last, and after whizzing past countless cyclists on the bike leg, I heard the dreaded “psssss” of a flat tire around mile 18.
Unfortunately, I was running tubulars (borrowed from a friend… woops), so the offers for a patch kit from other racers were kind but useless. I cursed and frantically looked around for some sort of follow car–they are never far in cycling races!—but I quickly learned that this sport is a different game. 18 minutes later a sedan with a bike on top pulls up and miraculously supplies me with an 11 speed rear wheel. Now I had some serious catch up work to do. I hopped on the bike and flew past the same riders that I’d already passed and then been passed by as I raced towards T2. At the first dog ear on the 6mile run course, I saw that there were only three gals in front of me, the first not more than a few minutes up. I told myself I should be fresh from my “road-side rest,” so I gunned it and by the next turn around I only had one carrot left. I caught her with a mile to go, and broke the tape as the first woman. Off to a rocky start, but I was confident that my learning curve would be steep, and I was glad to now call myself a triathlete.