Eleven weeks ago I was on the ground in tears waiting for an ambulance. A car blitzed through a stop sign, knocked me off my bike, and just like that life was very different. To an outsider, it was a forgettable accident: I didn’t break any bones, there was nonpermanent damage, and so life goes on. For me, it was life changing and it completely consumed me. I couldn’t walk, sit down, or stand up by myself. I couldn’t turn my head and, with torn intercostal muscles, every single breath caused pain. They suspected I had broken part of my lumbar back and living with that fear was another kind of pain on its own. Thankfully, my MRI was clear but the future wasn’t.
On some level I thought I would heal and return to racing but, being in constant pain for over two weeks, I wasn’t even thinking about triathlon. Scared I could do more damage, we were all being very cautious. I was sleeping most of the day anyways. When my physiotherapist told me it was time to start moving I stared up at him, half teary from the painful treatment. His English is very good but it’s his third or fourth language so I asked him to repeat himself.
Very gently, I started shuffling around our apartment building courtyard. Then I could just make it the 200m to the lake and back. Grandmas were literally passing me (even one that had a walker—that was a reality check). When the neck brace came off, I began walking in a shallow pool, then jogging in a deep pool, and spinning on a gym bike. Finally, I could sit up and stand without significant pain so I started riding outside and building up my swim 50m at a time.
Two races I had planned to attend had come and gone but Triathlon Vitoria was still on my calendar. Realistically, we had decided September was a good target to start raining again but during my first outside jog, delirious on endorphins, I thought maybe, just maybe, it could be a possibility. I had to sit on ice after for 30 minutes after that run so the idea of Vitoria withered but I never erased it from my calendar.
Two weeks before race day the organization asked me to confirm attendance. I let the email marinate for a day or two and then, almost on a whim, replied with a definite yes. I had been training properly for fours weeks so I decided it would be a great training race. No pressure, see where I was, I could stop if I needed to.
After the majority of race morning was spent fixing a sticky brake, I had a bad start and felt terrible in the water. It was my first non-ocean swim in a long time so I was excited not to have to deal with waves; but, me on my best day is barely making the pack so me on a bad day put out out of the water in five minutes behind the leader.
I felt great on the bike, passing three women in the first thirty kilometres, but it wasn’t until lap two when the steeper rollers started that I saw another three women riding together in front of me. It felt like serendipitous timing as I caught them at the bottom of the hill. I went full gas, cresting just in front. I pushed the downhill, rounded the corner and smashed the next hill as hard as I could. I turned back, I had a small gap but they were all still there. I tucked back down and pushed the pace, sprinting in the big ring up the next rise. It started to string out behind me so one hill after another I kept on the power. I split them up and by the time we were headed back into the city I had a few hundred meters of space.
I shot out of T2 into the incredible noise of the massive crowd and to my shock I had a bike accompaniment. His flag read “2nd Mujer Half”. What. The. Heck. I thought I was in 5th, maaaybe 4th, but I went straight to work. With 7 u-turns, cobbles, street car tracks, sidewalks, bike path, parks, and street crossings, it was a difficult course to keep a rhythm. The u-turns allowed me to keep track of people though and, while I never even caught a glimpse of the winner, I had a 45 second gap to third, and 60 seconds on fourth.
I knew pretty quickly I was getting too hot. The day had started in the rain but now it was 30+C and the aid stations were handing out half filled Dixie cups of water. I knew hadn’t drank enough on the bike so I grabbed as many as I could but by lap two I couldn’t mitigate the damage anymore. I started to loose time and I was cramping from trying to take on more fluids. My paced yo-yoed as I fought against every cell in my body to keep going but I was starting to get dizzy. I kept my eye on the leading bike and then, at 5km to go, I saw two bikes. The pass was coming. I gave everything to minimize the gap but everything was nothing. She blitzed pass and I blew my doors off, creeping to the end, thanking my lucky starts I had a big enough gap to 4th, and opening a gel with 800m to go because otherwise I wasn’t going to make it.
I crossed the line, elated, smiling, and a bit wobbly. I clutched a kind, smiling race official so I didn’t fall over and all I could think of was that third place hurt just as much as last place. I hugged Judith and Helene, we took a million pictures, I hugged fourth place and in broken Spanish-Basque I think I met her mom, and proceeded to make best friends with the man cutting watermelon. I stayed in the athlete area a little longer than normal, knowing I would remember this race forever, not just because it was my first pro top three (what what!!!) but because it was a line in the sand. The accident was behind me. I could start to plan and dream again and third place was one heck of a way to celebrate that.