A Triathlete’s Journey to the Well and Back

By Wendy Burns-Ardolino | Aug. 15, 2017, 11:30 a.m. (ET)

Real Women Tri

On April 5, 2017, I suffered a complex lateral tibial plateau fracture, a broken knee, while skiing with my family in Banff, Alberta, Canada. This is what I remember …

Without pain meds, I half crawl and am half dragged into the sled on the mountain. The ski patrol trusses me like a stuffed bird. Then, I am sluicing down the mountain in a sled behind a snow mobile, and I can feel every bump, every ice chunk, dip and hollow. I am to wave my left hand if I need to stop. Mostly, I use my left hand to manage the pain by clenching the outside rim of the sled with a death grip. In spite of two layers of ski gloves, my hand begins to freeze. I focus my attention on the freezer burn feeling in my fingers and feel it wend its way up my hand and wrist like wild fire. In the ambulance, the paramedics tell me the leg is broken and looks like I have a second knee. They give me morphine and drive to the emergency room where the X-ray shows a chunk of bone has broken away. An emergency doctor and nurse splint the leg rolling it like an eggroll. I shout for them to stop, but they keep rolling, and I am not physically able to resist. I make it through the night on a PCA — patient controlled analgesia. Awaiting surgery the next day I sleep in a half conscious fugue state. After surgery, I am in recovery and the pain comes again in violent waves. The nurse calls the doctor for additional pain medication and finally returns with Dilaudid (hydromorphone). The pain finally backs down 10, 9, 8, 7. We are stuck on 7, but a 7 seems manageable after being at a plus-10 for several hours.  

The next morning the physical therapist comes, and I tell her I am a triathlete. I hear my voice crack and see my racing season pass right in front of me. There will be no personal record at the Gazelle Girl Half Marathon. I will not run my 5th consecutive 25k on the 40th anniversary of the famous Grand Rapids, 5/3 River Bank Run. I will not have a personal best at my favorite half-iron distance event, the Grand Rapids Tri, and I will not toe the line at my first full IRONMAN in Louisville. It hurts, and I feel as though I’ve mortgaged my future on an adventure in the Canadian Rockies. The physical therapist snaps me back to reality when she says, “Rehab will be tough, but you can use your mental toughness from triathlon to move through this.”

Once back in the U.S. I am mostly managing the pain. Managing the pain is such a strange phrase, but I’m reminded of how it’s like pacing and managing your heart rate in a triathlon. The goal in any endurance race is to finish, win, and/or achieve a personal best without burning all your matches — Siri Lindley calls it “going to the well.” In my short six years in triathlon, I have often felt like racing comes down to managing the pain: the pain in my muscles, the pain in my side, the pain in my chest, but in racing I can honestly say I’ve never been to the well. One of my favorite IRONMAN champions, Mirinda Carfrae, has said that “To win the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, you have to be prepared to go into the hurt locker and hurt more than the other person.” IRONMAN champion Sebastian Kienle said once of his own ability to push the pace on the bike, “I know that if it’s hurting me, it’s killing them” (IRONMAN Interview 2015). A big part of endurance racing is the ability to hurt, to take a beating, to persist, and to continue to persevere. Hanging on through the pain and battling mental demons by deploying what IRONMAN champion Chris McCormack describes as folders of positive self-talk are at the heart of triathlon and endurance racing.

Triathlon has certainly taught me how to hang in there, and I’ve channeled that into my rehab. I know how it feels to burn all my matches, to suffer in the hurt locker, and after my skiing accident I can honestly say I’ve been to the well. I am still recovering from my injury, but I am not alone. I am a member of an all-women’s team called Real Women Tri. I am also part of and thriving multisport community, and my triathlete friends both on the team and within the community are the best! They have visited me, brought me flowers, sent me notes and messages of encouragement, and most importantly have cheered me through my recovery including all my firsts: on the recumbent bike, in the pool, on the elliptical trainer, lateral trainer, and on my hybrid bike. One of my teammates works at the YMCA and came down to the training floor when she saw my Facebook post of my first recumbent bike ride at 9 weeks. Later that same week when I showed up for my first team OWS, my teammates celebrated my swim on social media and on the team list serve! With the help of my triathlon community I was even able to volunteer at the Grand Rapids Triathlon on crutches! The sport has given me the tools I need to reach my rehab and recovery goals. Instead of training for my first IM I’m training to get back to my multisport lifestyle — what I learned is that triathlon was with me all the time. Every day I feel a little stronger and can do a little more. I keep repeating a mantra I learned from my tri coach before my first Olympic distance race: “You are stronger than you think.” I have no doubt that triathlon has saved me and has brought me back from the well.

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