Injury. One of the greatest fears for an athlete. The driven mind may be willing, but the body has to cooperate.
Until recently, injury from overuse was never on my mind. I had a great record: in four years of varsity cross country and track in high school, I was the only one on the team to never have an injury; I competed in Ironman Boulder and Ironman Kona within three months of each other in 2014, and I had trained through a total of seven marathons. I had no reason to be worried about injury while training for an Olympic-distance triathlon.
Yet, no one is invincible. It hit me out of the blue this January as I was preparing for the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championship. I started a normal, 10-mile run feeling stiff and tight in my hip flexor. It was a great run—I was moving light and fast. I pushed the tightness out of my mind, but it didn’t subside after the first mile as usual. Once I got home, I remember thinking to myself, “Nice work, Alli, your legs are wrecked—that was a good one.” The next day, I did a track workout with the team. The next day, I could barely walk.
Still thinking I had a tight hip flexor, I went to see my Airrosti doctor. After two weeks of work, he thought I had iliopsoas bursitis. I stopped biking and swimming then. We did another two weeks of rehab for that. When it still wasn’t getting better, he sent me to get an MRI. That’s when we found out I had a stress fracture at the top of my femur. I cried.
Did I do something wrong?
I recently read an article in Runner’s World about Amelia Boone—dubbed the “Queen of Pain” who amassed four world championship wins in obstacle racing and a perfect, six-year podium streak in ultras and obstacle distance runs. Running was and is part of her identity. As she was training for Western States, Boone was hit with a stress fracture in the femur, seemingly out of the blue like I was. Boone expressed how mentally difficult it was. She thought had done everything right. She felt guilty, like she should have had some inclination it was coming. She felt like she should have known better.
I confronted these same haunting feelings with my fracture. Although I am not an elite runner, and I was not training for any long-distance running event, I couldn’t help feeling like I had done something wrong. Maybe I had gone too hard on that 10-mile run. Maybe it was from striking the pavement and I should have been running on softer terrain. Maybe I hadn’t strengthened my hip and glute muscles quite enough. I hated the jump lunges and squats that Coach Mark was having me do throughout the fall—I was terrible at them and THE EXCERCISES HURT. I wanted to blame those. I was told by multiple people that I must not have been doing my squats with proper form. And I probably wasn’t. But I kept searching for some reason to explain the fracture, without really believing deep down that I had settled on any explanation. I had been through Ironman training and a total of seven marathons. Why had I gotten a stress fracture now?
How I coped (and didn’t cope)
Regardless of the why or the how, I had a stress fracture to deal with. Collegiate Nationals was a big goal for me. I wanted to be Top 10. Coming into the race, I was ranked 9th out of all returners. That was quite an honor, and I didn’t want to let down myself or others. Last year, I had crashed on the bike course at the Regional Championship and tweaked my shoulder. I swam with one arm for three weeks, I was sick with a fever going into the race, and I still came out in 18th place. I was really excited to see what I could do this year. I trained all year with my goals for Nationals in mind.
The stress fracture was a huge emotional blow. On one level, I felt like a failure—like I had done it to myself, like I had done something wrong. Second, I love running and biking and I had to put that on hold. The injury came at a time when I really needed the stress relief that intense exercise provides. I was preparing for my PhD exams, the most important tests in my graduate career. Third, I knew I (probably) wasn’t going to achieve my goal to be in the top 10 at Nationals.
We can recognize emotional difficulty and disappointment without dwelling on it or giving up. I was still going to do everything I could to have a great race at Nationals. In a way, the stress fracture re-invigorated my training. I knew I needed the most work on my swim. And all I could do for three months was swim! I told myself I was going to “get good” in the water. I swam every day. For two weeks in a row, I swam twice a day.
When I was almost cleared from the crutches (I admit to getting antsy), Coach Mark had me start incorporating easy bike rides and some weight room work. I also started running backwards on the treadmill. That was weird. And it took a few sloppy runs to feel coordinated. We also found an anti-gravity treadmill, the AlterG, where I could do runs at 60-70% of body weight. Our goal was to work on turnover at 6:30 pace. I didn’t have running endurance, but I could move my legs quick. With only 3.5 weeks of this kind of running, there was no time or reason to taper for Nationals. The competition would be the test.
Toeing the line (and not diving from a dock)
In draft-legal racing, the swim is perhaps the most important part. I was ready. I had dropped 14 seconds off my 800m swim and I felt strong in the water.
Then came the final blow. The day before we left for Nationals in Tuscaloosa, AL, USAT announced that all the races at Collegiate Nationals would be changed to duathlons due to flooding in the area.
I laughed. Sometimes it can seem like everything is going against you. I was signed up for three triathlons in two days—already a lot—and now I would be doing three run-bike-run races. Another re-evaluation of goals. I started thinking, “let’s see how much this can hurt.” I felt vastly unprepared, and it was an exciting new place to be.
This year at the USAT Collegiate Nationals turned out to be the most fun. That was my seventh and my last. Although I will never reach my goal of being in the top 10, it is okay. I gave it what I had, and I am proud of myself for sticking through the emotional challenges. The pressure was off to perform. And I walked away with a 54th place finish and feeling like I had performed really really well. It was better than I could have hoped considering the circumstances.
I still struggle with the aggravating feeling that I had done something wrong, without knowing what that something was. I’m afraid it will happen again. But I love doing triathlons, and I’m now signed up for Ironman Florida in November. I’ve learned that my body is not invincible. Most pain you can push through. Some pain you can’t. First, have a willing mind. Then, do your best to get the body to cooperate.
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San Antonio Triathlon Team - San Antonio Triathlon Coach