Ever wonder if you could do a triathlon? I did once or twice, but never thought I had what it takes. Then in January 2014, I broke my leg. Well, one of my father-in-law’s highland bulls broke my leg. And though he was only a third grown, he weighed at least as much as an NFL lineman.
The bull that broke me
This young bull rolled into my right leg, and I heard a pop and went down. My right tibial plateau was broken, and it changed my life.
A week and two titanium screws later, I began eight weeks of crutches, Percocet popping, boredom and the fear that my leg would never be the same. Tibial plateau breaks are bad ones because the plateau takes all the pressure and weight between the tibia and femur. It’s better to break the tibia or femur clean. My injury can take a full two years to “fully” heal.
A few days into recovery, I found myself numbly chewing my cereal and looking through the window toward the mountains. My forlorn gaze settled on a cud-munching bovine in the foreground. It was the bull that rolled me. We locked eyes. Through my Percocet haze, I sensed a sinister motive behind his vacant stare—he wanted to finish the job. Tears formed. I cried. It was the drugs, man.
I passed the time playing Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. I felt wistful and jealous watching Edward Kenway run and jump and climb buildings and walls and dive off cliffs into the Caribbean blue. Watching him sprint, I fantasized that I was he—whole and hale and able to do all the things I could before the “big break.”
There were times I was mighty low. My wife’s return from work was a daily highlight. But one night she came home to a dimly lit den of despair and despondency. She spoke to me, but I could only look listlessly at the floor and ponder my darkness.
Here came the sun
Fast forward to April. Snow melted, rains ceased, and the Sierra Nevada winter finally ended. The clouds receded in the sky and in my soul. I graduated from crutches to cane and began to get some of my mobility back.
I’d hobbled my way to the gym a few times a week and now wanted/needed to step up my rehab. I started cycling … on a stationary bike. Four weeks later, I was cleared to lose the cane. I rode a real road bike, and it felt like the first time.
My rehab took off. I rode fourteen miles to and from town and climbed hills in and out of the saddle, descending like a madman at forty miles per hour. I registered for two stages of RAGBRAI, a week-long mass bike ride across Iowa and began training for it three to five days a week.
Over the next year or so, I rode charity rides and Gran Fondos—you race against the clock and others in your age group. Iowa, Lake Tahoe, California wine country—I became a bike-riding fool. But I needed something more.
Learned to swim fast
I began swimming at the local lap pool, but didn’t know the first thing about freestyle. I learned to grab the water and pull it past me while rotating my hips by watching YouTube and learning from a friend who swam in high school.
When I started, I could barely swim the length of a 25-meter pool and back without gassing. Now I go 18 laps without a rest. It’s amazing how, with the right form and efficiency, I swim like a machine.
I saw a flyer for a sprint triathlon in nearby Graeagle, CA. I felt confident in the swim and bike segments, but wondered if my surgically repaired knee could handle the pounding of a three-mile run. Three miles is nothing to you joggers, but I hadn’t run that far since my Navy days and healthy knees.
Breathless, but not beaten
I began running. At first, I had a hitch in my step. It felt weird. I pushed through and began to feel more natural. Maybe I can do this! I worked myself up to two miles twice a week, but my time was horrible. Two-miles-in-25-minutes horrible. It was especially lame because I’d run a mile and half in 9:30 in my glory days.
I took the plunge anyway and signed up for the 2016 Donner Lake Triathlon, Sprint option—1/4 mile swim, 6-mile uphill/downhill bike course with nearly a thousand feet of climbing, and a 2-mile run. When the big day came, I felt ready.
At the start line after arriving at 6:30 a.m., I had butterflies. To help steady myself, I chatted up the guy next to me. He’d done dozens of events, but still looked amped. We clasped hands in a kind of high-five variation just before the gun and sprinted into the water.
I felt okay at first, and then realized I couldn’t breathe. It didn’t make sense. I’d swam this distance no problem for weeks. Then it hit me. It was the elevation. Quincy, where I’d trained, is 3,500 feet. Donner Lake is nearly 6,000. Big difference when you’re doing your first “Tri” swim and are already nervous.
I was in trouble before the first turn. At that point, I abandoned all freestyle form and concentrated on keeping my head above the water while maintaining forward propulsion. Along my slow, torturous way, I made sure to keep giving the thumbs-up to the concerned lifeguards.
Lapped, but not licked
Somehow I huffed and puffed—and bluffed my way past the final turn by employing some strange variation of dog paddle/breaststroke. When I reached the point where my feet touched, I staggered upright and began bumbling the final dozen meters or so toward the swim finish mat.
That’s when I noticed a pink swim cap blow past me and then another and then another. Three women from the group who’d started five minutes behind my group had lapped me.
When I stepped onto that blessed mat, I saw faces filled with pity and heard voices of encouragement. Along with one who said, “the girls are lapping you, man.” I didn’t care. I had no pride left. I was just relieved my first tri swim was over.
It was humbling. But it was also the elevation.
Swam like a seal
My next triathlon in Santa Cruz went quite differently. At sea level, I entered the water last in my group and emerged before most of them. I could breathe this time and used my lanky ape arms to pass what seemed like a couple dozen fellow triathletes. I may have lapped a few people.
Feeling good, I slowed a bit to watch a seal about fifty yards off my starboard side. I shouldn’t have though because a girl bumped into my fantail, for which I apologized and resumed course and speed.
I did the “Aquabike” option of the Santa Cruz Tri—swim, bike. No run. Boom—finished second out of seven. It was glorious. Not bad for an old guy who couldn’t even walk 30 months before.
Don’t know, if you don’t Tri
If you’re intrigued with the challenge of a triathlon, do it. Don’t give in to doubt. It’s a blast. I’ve done two now and can’t wait for my next one.
But don’t break your leg first. Yeah, it’s better when you don’t break your leg. Going through the ordeal of a fractured tibial plateau and rehab and losing my mobility was an uber bummer. But it was just what I needed.
But hey, you can do a triathlon without going through all that misery. Just get a decent road bike and a helmet and have fun. Ride some mass rides and maybe even a Gran Fondo. Hit the lap pool. Dust off your running shoes. Break a leg. Oops. I’m glad I did.