Friday, March 4, 2016

Ironman New Zealand 2016 - Sh*t Happens

First of all, a disclaimer.  If you've found this post as the result of a Google or other internet search, in a quest for a race report on Ironman New Zealand, you've come to the wrong place.  But don't worry, your search has not been a complete waste.  If you're not fussy about years, I can give you plenty of reports on this wonderful event in a special part of the world.  If that's what you want, try my race reports from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 or 2015.

This post, although titled Ironman New Zealand 2016, is more about the lemons life sometimes throws you and a reminder that, above all else, what happens to you is not important.  What's important is how you react to it and being thankful for the silver linings.

Because there are always silver linings.

2016 was to have been my 6th time at Ironman New Zealand, starting the homeward journey to legend status at this event (10 IMNZ finishes required), and 11th ironman overall.  However on 31 January 2016 life decided to throw me a curveball and so, as the race unfolds tomorrow in beautiful Taupo, I will be at home in Sydney, streaming it live and cheering on all my friends, while nursing a busted up leg.

Yep, shit happens.

The story starts 5 weeks ago.  I was into my final big block of training and 5km into a 120km TT ride when fate intervened.  It was early morning and, with the sun in his eyes, a driver made a split second error of judgement and failed to give way to me, making a right hand turn across the road into a driveway.  I was in aero, doing about 28kmph, watching him approach from the other direction.   As I rode I kept watching, looking for indications that he had seen me as he slowed down and pulled into the right hand turn lane.  I was in a bike lane, he was turning into a driveway and simply needed to stop for 5 seconds while I passed.  However, just as I was virtually parallel to him, he accelerated to complete the turn, by which time I had nowhere to go and no time to stop.  The front of the vehicle hit me side on, Black Beauty sliding under the vehicle as he screeched to a stop.  Thankfully I somehow unclipped from the bike and went over the bonnet, landing on the road a couple of metres away.

The pain in both my knees hit me instantly and I was stopped dead on the ground, breathing hard through the intense pain and wishing like hell the adrenaline would kick in quicker.  Almost immediately there were people around me, stopping to help, including Alice, who would stay by my side, directing the others to find blankets for me, keeping me still, talking to me and not letting me close my eyes.  As I was perched on the ground I could see Black Beauty on her side, under the wheels of the SUV, and I was immediately thankful for the first silver lining of the day.

Much as I loved her, I was so glad it was Black Beauty under there rather than me.

A quick phone call to Pete was in order, giving him the news that no triathlete's or cyclist's partner wants to hear, that I had been hit by a car.  As I lay on the ground, looking at Black Beauty still under the car, I promised my saint that I was "OK", (well, OK enough to speak rationally to him and convince him that he didn't need to try and get out to the accident scene - made more difficult given I had taken the car), and this brought about the second and third silver linings of the day.

Yes, my face was fine (not smashed up) and not much in the way of gravel rash, including none on the hands for this non-glove wearer when TT riding. My knees definitely took the fall on this one!

The phone, that had been in the FuelCell on the bike, came through completely unscathed.  Big ups to its LifeProof case!

It was established early on that I had a significant laceration to my left knee but everyone was also concerned about any spinal injuries or concussion. And so when the ambulance arrived it was all about pain relief (which also helped the shaking I was doing now that the shock had set in) and putting me into a neck brace and onto a spinal board for the trip to hospital.
Drugs had kicked in - getting bored with the phone!

Once in hospital I had a full assessment - x-rays to check for broken bones and spinal damage and neurological tests to check for concussion.  By this stage Alice had gone and found the car and brought it and the wrecked bike to the hospital, and found Pete, who had also made his way to the hospital.  She had gone above and beyond that day and I will always be grateful to her and the others who stopped to help a fellow cyclist by the side of the road.

Alice is racing Ironman New Zealand tomorrow - her first ironman and hopefully the first of many!

After all the tests came back it looked like the main concern was the laceration to the knee.  So the ED Registrar stitched me up and sent me home with scripts for painkillers and instructions to see my GP on Tuesday for a follow up and to check they hadn't missed anything....hmmm...if only they knew what they missed!  But no matter, more silver linings were all we could think of at the time.

No broken bones, no concussion.
Before ...
...and after. The Registrar's handy work.

At that point and for the next 24 hours my spirits were pretty high.  Yes, the next morning I literally knew what it felt like "to be hit by a bus", as the bruising started making itself felt - everywhere.  But there was still 5 weeks to IMNZ and if the stitched knee was the only thing I needed to worry about then there was every chance I could still make the start line - even if it was minus the final solid set of training.  And even though it was unlikely Black Beauty would be travelling anywhere soon, I already had the alternative worked out.  My trusty Avanti, who had seen me through my first couple of years of ironman, could easily be set up again to make the trip.

IM #11 was not yet derailed.

By the time I went to my GP on Tuesday, though, a small red flag was waving.  My right knee, which had been virtually ignored by the hospital, was giving me grief big time.  While I could walk on it, any twisting caused intense pain and a feeling that it would give way.  Something wasn't right and my GP immediately sent me off for an MRI.  She knew what I was up against - she had already felt it necessary to tell me to stay out of the pool until the stitches were out!  And while I waited until the end of the week for the results to come through I was crossing my fingers that the results would simply show a bad wrenching of the knee that we could intensively rehab over the coming weeks.  That optimism was buoyed by the fact that walking did seem to improve slightly over the next few days - surely that meant it was getting better?

My world came crashing down, though, that next visit when my GP's first words were "it's not good unfortunately".  While I hadn't broken any bones I had instead managed to tear or partially tear three of the four ligaments in my knee.  The ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) was gone, the PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) was partially torn and the MCL (medial collateral ligament, the ligament that runs down the inside of the knee) was torn.

There was no way around it - Ironman New Zealand was out.

An immediate referral to a surgeon was the next step and while the tissue box took a hammering the next couple of days I immediately looked to take something positive out of the situation.  I didn't know much about ligament injuries but knew that ACL tears tend to require surgery and a pretty significant rehab time.  The ligament can't just be sutured together, rather it needs to be reconstructed, commonly via a transplant from the hamstring.  However more than just the ACL was involved here and I really didn't know what to think, but needed to take some positive action in the meantime. And that first focus was sorting out my ironman entry.

Thanks to a new initiative being piloted by Ironman Asia Pacific, I was able to transfer my New Zealand entry fee to Ironman Western Australia  in December and so this became my new focus.  My surgeon didn't yet know it but he would have a deadline and I would do everything I could to be able to get to the start line.

15 days after the accident I was sitting in Dr Robert Molnar's rooms while he and his intern pored over the MRI scans and examined the state of both my knees.  The verdict was a bitter pill to swallow.  I had definitely made a mess of my right knee and he was able to confirm the original report of full tears to the ACL and MCL and a partial tear to the PCL.  In fact he wasn't sure how I was managing to walk on the leg at all.  I guess my fitness and strength were carrying me through.  Even worse, was his caution about Ironman Western Australia.

"I don't know if 10 months is going to be long enough to get you ready to run the marathon" is not something this irongirl was interested in hearing.  "What if I walk it?" was my response.  "I don't care if I get to the start of the marathon and have to walk most of it - I just need this goal to be able to focus on."  Hmm, determined, much?!

Not only this, though, there was his view about the MCL repair.  Apparently there is a window of about 2 weeks in order to successfully repair it.  And here we were, 2 weeks and 1 day post-accident.  With no time on our side, he disappeared out the room to see what could be done.  5 minutes (and a couple of tissues) later his nurse comes in, exclaiming that "this must be important, he normally wouldn't do this".  Schedules had been pushed aside and I was booked into surgery 48 hours later for a multi-ligament knee reconstruction.

Whoa - wasn't expecting that.

The next couple of days were chaotic.  It would be fair to say that no one was accustomed to planning for surgery this quickly outside an emergency department, including the driver's insurance company who were supposedly paying for this.  While they complained about not having enough time to approve the claim, and refused to do so in time, we resigned ourselves to having the surgery delayed a week. However Dr Molnar wasn't keen on delaying and after much mucking around I was finally wheeled into surgery, as planned, on Wednesday evening, 17 February - 17 days post-accident.
Day 1 post-surgery - the only way now is up.

So here I now am, just over 2 weeks after surgery - an operation that required 3 hours under the knife to fix what was apparently quite a mess in there.  I have a leg brace I call Boris that is my constant companion until the end of this month and several months of rehab in front of me in order to regain mobility and strength in my right leg and then the fitness and endurance that I am currently losing slowly but surely.

I haven't been able to take part in Ironman New Zealand this year and that was the most upsetting news to deal with (even more than the accident itself).  But once I came through the surgery all of that disappointment left me and my mindset switched.  My whole focus is, and can only be, on recovery and rehabilitation and successfully getting myself back to the ironman start line, whether it be Western Australia in December or New Zealand next March (Dr Molnar's preference for me).

And while there are plenty of lemons in this story and plenty of reasons for tears, the silver linings far outweigh them all.  Besides those I've already listed above:
  • It didn't happen just before Kona.  My once in a lifetime Kona dream didn't get derailed and so even if the worst case scenario happens, and I end up not completing another ironman, my Kona finish will always be with me, as will all 10 ironman finishes.  That is far from being a likely scenario at the moment though.
  • The driver admitted liability straight away.  Yes he made a mistake, but he stayed around after the accident and admitted liability to the cops at the outset.  We've been in touch since and he's apologised profusely, which is never easy to do, and so I feel no bitterness towards him.
  • The driver was fully insured.  His motor vehicle insurance should replace the bike and his compulsory third party insurance is covering my medical costs.  Imagine if he had been driving an unregistered, uninsured car.
  • I'm still here to tell the story.   It could have been much, much worse and this, by far, is the most important silver lining.
Ultimately this should simply be a small hiccup along my ironman journey.  A journey that is far from dull and never predictable.  And for that I am truly grateful.

Yes, shit happens to all of us.  But part of the trick to getting through this life happy is rolling with the punches and getting back up again.  Whether it's looking for the positives, or learning from the experience, it's all about how you choose to react to the shit that gets thrown at you.

And whether it be in December this year or March next year, I plan to deal with this shit by doing everything I can to race again.


  1. Stunning attitude Toni. I applaud you more than words can say! There are always silver linings but it takes someone pretty special to recognise them when donkey deep!!

  2. Thanks for the honest post- we are so pleased that you are OK and that there are a host of silver linings for you as well as the "bugger" moments too. It is a good lesson for all us drivers to be more aware on the roads. Unfortunately the week after your accident another friend was not so lucky and got collected by a car on a training run. He is still fighting for his life in Dunedin Hospital and our thoughts and prayers are with him, as well as with you for a speedy recovery.