Have you ever had one of those days when you woke up feeling like you’d been hit by a 2.5-ton pick-up truck and then realized, “Oh wait, I was!”
There I was, sprawled out on my belly on the side of Highway 6 with my face planted in the dirt and my arms stretched out in front of me. Coming back to consciousness I struggled to make sense of the man’s voice behind me, “Baby, don’t move, you’ve been hit.”
It was Saturday, July 3rd and, like most Saturdays for the past 10 months, I was on my bike. This was the third hundred-mile ride I would complete in preparation for my first full IRONMAN — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. After five years of endurance training and racing, I was 49 days out from my biggest dream: IRONMAN Louisville 2010.
Safety is a high priority for me — helmet mirror, flashing front and rear lights, whistle, etc. Unfavorable and unpredictable circumstances were frequent encounters during my training rides. But it never occurred to me, while cycling on a wide shoulder, on a flat section of road with great visibility in both directions, in the middle of a hot sunny day, that I’d be taken out by an addict on the way to her small town pharmacy for refills.
Blackout. She hit me from behind. The 65-mph impact destroyed my once perfect spine and sent my bike and me airborne. The bike landed 60 feet in front of where I landed on the side of the road with my face down in the hot summer dirt. It was tortuously painful to lie still. It was excruciating to breathe.
My spinal cord was twisted and bent. Almost every thoracic and several of my lumbar vertebrae were cracked, broken or shattered. I had a punctured lung, left hip fractured in two places, multiple breaks in my left ulna and my left eye socket was smashed with a blow-out fracture. My dream was crushed.
The surgeon said it was miraculous I was not paralyzed and more so, alive. She removed one shattered vertebrae and replaced it with a titanium cage, drove two rods up either side of my spine from mid-hip to shoulder blades and braced them in place with 14 screws.
Learning to walk again was followed by nine months of physical therapy and self-rehab. Then, I climbed back on my bike. My first day back on the road again was nothing less than exhilarating! It was a sunny April morning, and I could feel the life of spring delight my body with renewal. I rode 40 miles back and forth on the safe, low traveled roads of Benbrook Park. By the one-year anniversary of my accident, I was walking 20 miles from Weatherford to Mineral Wells and back.
In October 2011, upon completing a half IRONMAN in Austin, I came home, registered for IRONMAN Texas in 2012 and hired my first cycling coach, Mad Dog Coaching. Six months later in May 2012, at IRONMAN TX in The Woodlands, I crossed the first of two IM TX finish lines on my own two feet into the arms of my family, sister and best friend.
It was only in looking back on all of my rebuilding that I could see what I had done. Without deliberate intention, I lived these lessons during my recovery:
Naysayers questioned my choices during my self-imposed rehab. You'd think, after a near-death experience on a bike, you'd never get back on, they said. But the reality was, riding my bike overwhelmed me with the feeling of gratitude, freedom and joy. Our bodies are built to move.
As my walks became longer, it came back. Curiously, in spite of the pain, I began to chase my dream again. Rather, the dream was bigger than me. It pulled me toward completion. At home in my office under the glass of my desk, five words face me every day. I cut them out of some magazine back in 2008 when I first began to consider a full IRONMAN. I look at them every time I sit down at my desk. “Did you ever wish for the impossible?” Committing to a goal ten times beyond what I believed was currently possible for me was a key catalyst to my recovery and race finish.
Get in The Game
On my desk rests a Disney movie quote that reads, "Do not be afraid of death… Be afraid of an unlived life." I knew I would be in pain whether I was sitting, standing or lying. One of my biggest lessons was learning to take baby steps. Action informs the vision.
Appreciate Everything and Trust
Only in looking back was I able to see that being hit by a truck was the most challenging and most traumatic growth experience that has ever happened to me. I am grateful. Synchronicity: The crossing of the lines between choice and chance one hot Saturday in July showed me what I never knew I was capable of. We are all so much more capable than we give ourselves credit for.
The past six years have been filled with amazingly abundant growth of opportunities for me. How many times in my life had I just stopped to savor a glorious October sunset as she unabashedly tears off her flaming orange and yellow circle skirt in exchange for a magnificently glowing magenta which in her fickleness and the blink of an eye is replaced with the calm and peaceful cerulean blue skirt of surrender to the dusk? I don’t think I ever really noticed and certainly never savored an October sunset until I was forced to stop.
Nor had I thought about the numerous other mini-life traumas and unmet expectations I had set for myself and never achieved. But I couldn’t see the gifts in any of these experiences until day five in the hospital when I had to helplessly lie motionless in tears waiting for nurses to come painfully roll me over on my side every hour because I could not move on my own. Ironically, the trauma had gifted me the time that always appeared to be lacking before. And in the space of stillness, I found the gifts.
I have now come to believe that the massive challenges in our lives are the gift. They are a critical component of our calling, our message, our deepest longings and our legacy. They become our opportunities to experience joy, abundance and happiness, and through the process of overcoming, we become what we always admired so much in others.
It was the life altering, spine wrenching, screeching stop that allowed me the opportunity to unwrap the unseen cache of beautifully wrapped treasures lying at my feet patiently waiting to be opened. Busyness and distraction are the flagships of avoidance. My stop has evolved into a daily practice of choosing stillness.
Lastly, the biggest lesson I learned is that I am not unique, and there is nothing unique about this story. We’ve all heard fabulous comeback stories. Stories that inspire us and make us question ourselves with a resounding, “Could I do that?” Actually, I would lovingly bet my tin man backbone that everyone reading this has overcome some incredible obstacle and felt mind-numbing pain in their lives. This story is about you.
I share this story for the women out there who are thinking anything other than, “Where do I sign up?” I was not an athlete, and I didn’t even know what a triathlon was in 2005. The people I have met and the things I have learned along my USA Triathlon journey make this story pale in comparison. Untethered: Yes, you can!
Hover over the skeleton below to see the locations of all of Woods' injuries.
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