By Dr. Nicole Dorholt, DPT
You’ve spent months training for a specific race (and beyond) and what happens the week before you race? Injury.
I was on my last big training brick before a race. I was riding down an easy section that I have ridden a million times. Down a hill, across some flat rocks next to a creek bed, over a knot of roots…and wait. I didn’t make it that far. My back tire slid out on those slick flat rocks, and my entire bike went out from under me to the left, and I took a sliding super man on those rocks on my right side, arm up over my head. I had some good scrapes and swelling on my elbow, jammed my last two fingers on my right hand, and my shoulder felt sore and a little funny. No big deal, I squirted off the blood and dirt with my water bottle and finished the last two hours of my ride and the hour trail run that came after.
Later that day, the shoulder started to really become a problem. The elbow and fingers were pretty easy, what you see is what you get, but my shoulder started to hurt and I started to quickly lose active range of motion, even though there was no obvious external damage. Every athlete should know the basics of injury: rest, ice, compression, elevation. So, on goes the PowerPlay Elbow and Shoulder sleeves, which I have been lucky enough not to need for quite some time. The relief, while not complete was almost immediate. I stayed on the PowerPlay the rest of the day, took my NSAID of choice, and had a fitful night of sleep.
It wasn’t until the next day when my shoulder was even more sore and weak that I truly began to worry about my race the following week. I couldn’t imagine being able to control a mountain bike, and swimming was even further off the table. I even had a weak emotional moment where I broke down sobbing, thinking about having to give up the race. Why was this race such a big to me? There were no big prizes, just a local Xterra with very little exposure. I had already qualified for nationals, so I didn’t need the points, but it was the first race since I started training with my coach. I knew the course was one of the more technical Xterra courses, and that was to my advantage with my technical skills. I was ready to make all new PRs and even maybe…just maybe get onto the podium for something bigger than age group.
I continued my taper week with a run, which went surprisingly well, and then a few days later a ride on a road bike, which also went well. Every night and between each workout, I was stretching, working on passive range of motion, and using the PowerPlay for ice and compression. I went to my friend, and orthopedic surgeon for a radiograph, which cleared me of any bone damage. He told me to keep up with the PowerPlay (he owns one too!) and keep up with everything I’m doing to recover as quickly as possible. He told me that he thought that any tears were unlikely and he told me he thought I’d heal up to 100% in 2-3 weeks and gave me an 80% chance of being able to race that weekend.
Thursday before the race, I got in the pool. Scared of what might happen, I pushed off the wall, tried my first stroke with my arm…and it just didn’t work: pain, snapping, and too weak to pull my right arm through the water. I felt so disappointed. I had worked so hard. All athletes want to do is spend that training “currency” they’ve been putting into savings for their target race. I’m an athlete. I was ready to spend my training like a crazy person at a black Friday electronics sale. I wanted my discount TV. I wanted my shot at that podium.
Friday before the race, I emailed my coach and told her that I was going. I told her that I would side stroke for half a mile if I had to, and do my best to make it up on the bike and run. She cheered me on. She inspired me of her story of Xterra Costa Rica when she had a broken shoulder and swam with one arm and came back on the bike and run for a First Place Overall Female finish. I was ready to go out there and give it my best, and at least put in a finish. I had no hopes of anything higher than making the time cutoff to get out on the run. If I could finish, I would be successful. It was a tough step-down from my hopes, but it was better than sitting on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. I packed up my gear and my PowerPlay bag, and headed for Eureka Springs.
Sunday morning. Race day. I decide to try freestyle one more time. I get in that water, and try it for about 20 yards. Popping and pain, but at least it’s a little stronger. I know I can’t swim the freestyle for the race though, or I’d never make it through the mountain bike. My hopes dashed one last time, I know I’m really going to have to swim with one arm if I’m going to do the race. Goodbye PRs, sayonara podium. Don’t get me wrong, I know it isn’t all about the win, but I was training to be an actual contender for this race.
I swam side stroke and one-arm freestyle for half a mile. It was the longest swim of my life. It seemed that those buoys never got closer, and all the other swimmers passed me by like I was standing still in the water. The second wave of half distance racers even caught up to me, and in that moment, I almost threw in the towel. But athletes don’t quit, and I am an athlete. I continued on, side stroking like my life depended on it, and made it out of the water a cool 22 minutes after I got in. I was actually surprised to see quite a few people left in transition when I got there, so I got my gear on and got ready to make up some serious time.
I passed quite a few men and a few women on the bike course, especially on the technical sections and downhills, which is what I was counting on. My shoulder was getting pretty fatigued, but not really painful. I rode my bike like I stole it and amazingly beat the cut off to start the run. The run was even more technical than the bike, and I knew I burned a whole lot more energy on the swim than I usually do, but I tucked in, got my groove and didn’t let a single soul pass me–first time in a race when no one has passed me on the run. My shoulder ached like my arm was going to fall off. I figured I was dead last.
After grueling heat, a million hills with craggy ups and downs, I finally made it to the final turn for the finish line. There sat half of my team (turns out they didn’t make the cut off time) my mom, and my friend, screaming my name like I’m some pro champion racer. Nothing will give you an extra pep in your step like people you love screaming your name. My friend ran with me all the way to the finish line. I finished. I made it. I may not have achieved my highest hopes, but at least I finished. I found out later that many did not, with the heat and technical course.
Milling around after the race, I’m looking for food, beer, and all I want to do is get my wet running shoes off. Hugging my teammates, friend, and family, eating the best hot dog I’ve ever had in my life (I don’t even like hot dogs) and drinking some cool Ozark craft beer. The awards ceremony starts, and with bittersweet emotion, I go dutifully to the group to cheer for those that did well. And there was a raffle. I just love free stuff. They call the men’s overall winners. The guy who got second place actually took the wrong turn on the run course and ended up running an extra mile and still places second! I cheered them on. Then came female overall winners. Whats-her-face So-and-So for third place. Clap, cheer, hooray! Second place goes to Nicole Dorholt. Clap, cheer…what? I’m flustered, confused, did they skip to the female age group wins? Did I miss something? I hand off my beer and dog to someone and go running (who am I kidding? I go shuffling) up to the podium and quietly ask the announcer, “What am I second place in?” And she confirms it: Second Place Female Overall. Shell shocked, I accept my medal and float over to the podium, near tears. How did I go from side stroke to second place in the course of three and a half hours? I’ll tell you: Solid training and good recovery tools.
Nicole Dorholt is a Doctor of Physical Therapy in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As a competitive mountain biker and Xterra athlete, she has experience treating fellow multi-sport athletes. Her clinical specialties include pediatric and adult sports and orthopedic rehabilitation, bike fitting and performance assessment, myofascial release techniques, and functional movement programs.