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My Unexpected Journey to Nationals

By Toria Sullivan | April 21, 2017, 7:45 a.m. (ET)

Toria Sullivan 

“Oh, you’re still racing Nationals?”

 “Well, yeah, of course.”

I was surprised people even had to ask, but I guess it makes sense. Flashback to early October at the women’s NCAA Eastern Qualifier race: during the swim, I realized I could no longer feel my left leg, I couldn’t kick it, it just kind of flopped there, useless. I finished, and I finished the Mid-Atlantic Conference race two weeks later, but when I stepped out of the car, home the night after the race, my leg gave out. I couldn’t even crawl without shooting pain.

I’ve been through three hip surgeries, I need both hands to count the number of femur stress fractures I’ve had, last summer I broke my elbow in a bike crash and didn’t even notice, but I have never collapsed like that. The following months were full of tests, misdiagnoses, physical therapy, and being told by doctors “I don’t know, come back in six weeks.” Frustrated, I accepted pain as a new reality, and after two months off, I started training again as 2017 began with Tuscaloosa in mind. In March I found a doctor who listened to me and diagnosed me with hip flexor and tendon tears and nerve damage in my spine, sourcing from a fall taken during a race in September. Oh, and a teeny hip stress reaction.

“I have Nationals next month,” was my first reaction. My doctor gave a wry smile, “Come back after that.” Ah, finally a doctor who understands me. I never thought I’d be happy to hear the “come back in six weeks” talk.

Training hasn’t been as fun as it usually is.  There are no runs along the National Mall in Washington, no ticking off half miles with every passing monument, it’s hard to move my leg fast enough to fly down the road on my bike. I’ve never been good at swimming, so there’s really no difference there.

I’m nowhere near where I was physically six months ago, but I couldn’t imagine not going to Tuscaloosa. Six months ago in the fall was the first time I can remember being able to ask my body to do something and having it respond: Faster feet, stronger legs. After years of surgeries and stress fractures and everything else you can think of, I thought I was in the clear, and I allowed myself to look ahead and think about goals.

It’s been tough in the recent months, to have had to accept that the body that made those goals is not the body that will toe the line on April 22. That is not to say I have not done everything in my power to ensure the best human possible suits up in a Georgetown kit at some ungodly hour that morning. These past few months I think I’ve worked the hardest in all aspects of my life: to come back physically stronger, but also to be a reliable student for my remarkable professors, and a caring friend to the phenomenal people I have in my life.

That’s kind of the thing about triathletes, I guess; we are a very organic type of human, addicted to hard work and perseverance. Triathlon is an endurance [multi] sport, in more way than one. We are hooked on enduring. That’s kind of always been my racing strategy, or mantra, or whatever you’d like to label it — endure more. Endure more than the other person, more than you could yesterday, more than others think you can.

My goal at the start of every race honestly is just to finish, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t secretly want to crush it, too. It’s an unfamiliar feeling leading up to Tuscaloosa to truly have my only aim to be finishing and then immediately plastering my lower body in a dozen ice bags. I normally rely heavily on my run, but having my only runs in the past month be on an alter G treadmill has zapped my confidence. I want more than anything this last week leading up to the race to keep pushing, to make up for lost time, to be stronger, but I know deep down that the best strategy now is to rest enough to let my inflammation and pain settle down enough before the race. I have done all I could.

In that way, Saturday in Tuscaloosa will be no different than any other day for me. I will wake up and do the best that I can with what that day gives me. All I can do is give everything.

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