Finding Strength from My Fall
by Lorenn Walker
I come blasting down a section of the mountain, round a minor looking curve in the lava rock covered trail, spin out of control, and fall off my bike for the sixth time. The fall seems like no big deal, a few more scrapes and bruises, but as Im pulling my bike up from the ground, my right hand has a strange sensation. I look down and see that my index and ring fingers are bent from the middle knuckles in 90-degree angles. My two fingers are pointing toward the ground. Im shocked to see my fingers in this hideous position. Just as I see my twisted fingers, another biker comes by, stops and asks, "Are you alright?" I exclaim, "Oh my God, look at my fingers! Then I ask "Should I try and pop them back into place?" He is serious, looks me straight in the eyes and says, "Dont f___ with them. Ill ride to the next aid station and send help back for you." He climbs on his bike and speeds off. I grab my bike as best I can and start running down the trail with it. I couldnt ride my bike without my right hand fingersthey controlled my back brake, which was essential for riding down the mountain.
I was just one hour and forty minutes into the mountain biking portion of the grueling XTERRA Championship triathlon held October 31, 1999 on Maui. This unique triathlon consists of a one-mile swim, an 18-mile mountain bike ride and a seven-mile run.
Before my fall, I swam a mile and had safely completed 12 miles of the most gnarly mountain biking Id ever done. The trail conditions were what mountain bikers call technical because of all the obstacles. Recent rains washed out the dirt and left all types and sizes of lava rocks on the trail. Whether the rocks were big or small, smooth or jagged, if you lost control of your bike when you hit them you could suffer terrible crashes. The trail is also surrounded by kiawe brush, which sheds thorns so sharp they are known to penetrate shoe soles. Kiawe thorns can easily puncture bike tires. The ride was so bumpy that my brand new Zephyl tire pump, that was Velcro-ed on to my bike, fell off. I hoped I wouldnt get a flat. I saw countless other bikers on the side of the trail changing flat tires.
When I wasnt totally focused on controlling my trusty seven year old Marin mountain bike or worrying about getting a flat tire, which was most of the time, I enjoyed fantastic views. The 18-mile trail is up 1600 feet and along the Southern side of the Haleakala volcano crater. The sun was shinning brightly over the glistening deep blue Pacific Ocean where the wind was stirring up fluffy white caps. You could clearly see the islands Kahoolawe and Molokini. The sites were breathtaking. When I had the chance to look at them, I felt gratitude for being in this special place. Thats one of the reasons to do XTERRA. This trail is not normally open to the public for mountain biking.
I couldnt believe the minor curve in the trail that took me out of the bike race. It was nothing nearly as radical as what I had already managed to get through. Like steep valleys full of lava rocks, branches and tree roots. In those situations, I held my handlebars tight, yet relaxed. I had to force myself to let go of the brakes. I needed all my strength to hold the bike steady when I hit the rocks and branches. Braking is dangerous in these conditions. A little too much pressure on the front brake can cause your whole body to eject over the handlebars. During the past 12 miles Id seen at least 15 bikers who crashed. I saw them as their crashes happened and I saw them after their crashes happened. I saw them when their bodies were laying smashed into the ground; when they were getting up, brushing the dirt off themselves and assessing the damage; and finally when they were hobbling along because either they or their bikes were incapacitated from the fall. I had personally experienced each phase of the falls myself in the last hour and forty minutes.
As I begin running with my bike after my fingers are bent, I am immediately overcome with major disappointment. I want to cry. I had seriously trained for this race for the last three months. I had put in between two and four hours a day of swimming, biking and running. For cross training and fun, I windsurfed when there were waves on the North Shore of Oahu where I live. Most of my training time was spent on bricks, which is doing two or all three of the triathlon sports together. I sweated so much doing hours of mountain biking that my bike helmet straps were stiff with white salt that had secreted from my body. Being in the XTERRA Championship, and on this Maui bike trail, was the culmination of a lot of hard work. I had set my expectations high for doing well in the race. Although I had just begun doing shorter triathlons in the last year, I am a long distance runner who has done many marathons. I did well in the shorter triathlons, especially for my age of 47. I placed in the top 10 of all women in three triathlons that I had done on Oahu. I knew XTERRA would be a lot more competitive. You have to be strong just to finish the race, but I believed I had the potential to do well, that was if no disasters happened.
Running with my bike was hard in my new Sidi biking shoes. They are narrow leather shoes with hard plastic cleats and a metal peg in the soles that fit into special bike pedals. They are great for bike racing. I had gotten the shoes and special clip in pedals especially for XTERRA. It took me a month to learn how to get in and out of the pedals quickly before falling over on my bike stuck in the peddles. Now that I was running, I wished Id used my running shoes and pedals with plastic loops that fit over the shoes instead of the biking shoes. Running over the lava rocks would have been a lot easier in running shoes.
As I run, I assess my situation. I think about the rest of the day and not finishing XTERRA. I know that I will be deeply depressed if I dont finish. After a few minutes I realize that running with my bike in my Sidis isnt too horrible. I could do this for a while. After another 10 minutes of running, I pass a little aid station. I ask the volunteer "How much longer to the end?" She says "two miles." I think, "I can easily do this for two more miles." Then I start thinking "I could even place in my 45 49 year old age division." There were only two of us in that division. I could get second place if I can finish the race.
A truck came toward methe help the other biker sent back. I smile and keep running with my bike. Im afraid that they will demand I quit the race. I run faster with the bike. It takes the truck some time to turn around and come along side of me. I dont stop to talk, but keep running with my bike. The truck slows to keep pace with me. A man in the passenger seat has a stethoscope around his neck. He rolls down his window. I smile and say; "I want to finish the race." I hold up my hand and say, "it doesnt hurt. Its not bleeding. I can do this." He smiles back and says "OK, but be careful. Good luck!" The truck leaves and I keep going. I feel some satisfaction that at least I can try and finish the race.
Bikers are passing me. Some ask if Im OK and I hold up my hand and say, "I broke my fingers." I keep running. I get to another aid station and ask again "wheres the end?" Another volunteer says "Two more miles." I think, "I can do this for two more miles" and keep going. My fingers dont hurt unless I try to use them, which is not necessary to push my bike and run. I know that once I get to the bike transition station, where my running shoes are waiting for me, Ill be able to easily run the final seven miles of the race.
As I run I inspire myself. I think of Paul Martin a young man I met at the start of the XTERRA, before the swim. He lost a leg below his knee and hes doing this race with prosthesis. What are a few twisted fingers? I think of all the people who went to war and lost limbs in combat and had to run miles for safety. I know I can do this. There are more hills and I go down some steep gullies. I think "Id probably be too scared to ride down this anyway, its lucky Im pushing my bike down it now."
Time is passing quickly. Its noon now. I have to get to the bike transition station in 30 minutes, by 12:30 p.m. or I can be disqualified from the race. I think of my two young sons who are with my husband, my adult daughter and her husband. They are all waiting for me at the bike transition station. I know this will be a good lesson for my children. "You dont quit when things get hard. You keep going." I am a firm believer that persistence and determination are key to success. My favorite song for the last 25 years has been Jimmy Cliffs You Can Get it if You Really Want, but you must try, try and try, youll succeed at last . . .). I knew that my finishing this race in spite of my injury would be an image that my children will keep forever. It is something they can use to inspire themselves when things get tough and they want to quit tryingsomething more meaningful than the Little Blue Engine saying "I think I can, I think I can."
I get to the third aid station and ask, "How much longer?" Yet another volunteer replies "Two more miles." I keep running and assume everyone was instructed to say "two more miles." After the race, I learn that it was two miles between each aid station.
Its 12:10 p.m. now. I think I can push my bike two miles in 20 minutes and finish the bike portion of the race in time. Im tired and hot and I push with all my might up and down some more hills.
I think of Viktor Frankl, the concentration camp survivor who said in his book, Mans Search for Meaning, "Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks, which it constantly sets for each individual." My injured fingers, and inability to ride my bike, were now part of my life and it was my responsibility to deal with it. I felt better pushing my bike and trying to finish the race, than I would have felt if I quit. I was glad I was trying.
Finally, I hear the bike transition area and see people, but Im too late. Its a few minutes after 12:30 p.m. My family is all lined up at the bottom of the hill that I descend from. I want to cry and tell them "Look what happened, I didnt do good in XTERRA. I didnt make it here by 12:30." But I hold back my tears and they yell at me "Go Mom, go!" They are clapping and cheering for me. I run into the transition station and strip off my biking gear. An ESPN cameraman runs up to me as Im putting my running shoes on and shoots the camera on me. I hold up hand and think I said, " I just want to finish the race. And I want to tell my orthopedic surgeon Kent Davenport, Ill see you tomorrow!"
I feel better. I made it to the bike transition station. My running shoes feel soft and comfortable after six miles in my hard Sidis. I dash off from the transition station in one minute. As I start running, I realize my right hand biking glove is still on. I try and pull if off, but quickly see that because my fingers are bent down the glove wont come off, so I run with my bike glove on.
I feel great running. I think, "its only a seven mile run now and then Im done." The run starts through beautiful trails in a kiawe forest along the beach. Im passing other runners on the trail. I feel strong. My fingers dont hurt. I dont even think about them much until I see their shadow, which is so scary looking that I avoid looking at it again. I know there is a medical tent at the end of the race where my fingers will be treated.
The run takes us back on the asphalt road, up and down more hills. Its very hot at 1:00 in the afternoon. I run as fast as I can, but I begin to feel slow. I manage to pass more runners.
The last two miles of the run hurt. I realize that I have been in this triathlon for well over four hours, longer than it ever took me to complete a marathon. But I know that I can finish. We run along the beach and on some coral reef. I have to be careful not to fall on the slippery ocean rocks and hurt my fingers more. I have to climb along a cliff where there is a rope attached for balance. I make it up the side of the cliff, slowly, but without falling.
The end is finally in sight. Green grass surrounds the finish at the Wailea Outrigger Hotel. It looks so plush and beautiful, an oasis at last. My son in law Brett has come down the beach, cheering me on by my nickname, "Go Lorrie go. Youre almost there." I run with what strength I have left to the finish line. My three children and husband are all standing there. They are smiling at me. I see them and want to cry again. I feel relieved that I am finished, yet disappointed that my time is so slow at four hours and thirty-eight minutes (4:38).
A race volunteer takes me to the medical tent where they see my fingers and say, "Whoa, get this lady a bed!" Im given a cot to sit on and as I do I say, "Im so lucky it wasnt my clavicle." The medics are amazed at how bent my fingers are. I tell them "I did it biking and had to run with my bike for six miles." Their big smiles touch my heart. They are happy that I finished the race in spite of adversity. We all share the joy that I kept going and didnt quit the race.
Im introduced to Dr. John Mills "the best surgeon on Maui." Dr. Mills is smiling holding my hand up and yelling to his doctor friend in the tent to "get a look at this." Hes excited to have this bizarre injury to repair. He cuts off my biking glove to look at my fingers. He says, "I dont think there are any fractures. Theyre just dislocated it. Ill put them back in place." I tell him "thats what I thought I should do when I first did it, but I didnt know how." I tell him "its my karma for going to law school instead of medical school." He shouts "oh no, not a lawyer" and laughingly lets go of my hand. I tell him "Im a recovering lawyer and went back to school for a public health degree. Im good now." He resumes caring for me. I close my eyes and he gives me a couple of shots in my fingers. A few moments later he puts my fingers back in their proper positions. I open my eyes and my fingers are straight again. They are a little swollen, but they look normal.
After my fingers are treated, my family and I examine the results of the race posted on a board on the hotel lawn. My name is listed as the second to last person to finish the biking portion of the race, but I am not listed as an "overall finisher." I assume that because I reached the bike transition station after 12:30, I am disqualified from the race. Im disappointed, but still feel happy that I finished the race at all.
Later that evening my husband and I go to the conclusion of the XTERRA awards dinner to see if I was given an official finishing time. I learn that I placed first in my age group. I am astonished, especially when I hear that I was the only amateur woman over 40 years old to finish the race (there were only eight of us besides one professional 41 year old woman who finished 43 minutes before me). Of the 379 who entered the race, 291 finished. I was the 267 person to finish. I passed 23 people running the final seven miles of the race.
I received a nice gold medal, a great pair of Bolle biking glasses and a cute shirt. Winning the prizes was extra. What was learned from my first XTERRA experience is invaluable. Although I am sorry that I hurt my fingers, I am grateful for the opportunity to remind myself, and to show my children, the value of persistence in spite of adversity. Jimmy Cliff is right "you can get it if you really want." And it was worth the effort. Finishing the XTERRA has left me feeling strong and confident. I was not defeated by my fall, but found strength in it.
Lorenn Walker, J.D., M.P.H. is a writer and health educator working in resiliency and violence prevention. Two weeks after the 1999 XTERRA Championship, she tapped her swollen fingers together, and was the 12th woman to finish the Kuuloa Ranch Mountainman Triathlon on Oahu. Her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org