The Recovery Diaries

by Mike Coughlin

Last season I had the richest and most rewarding experience in my 10 years in endurance sports. That in itself is no surprise since I took a sabbatical to “live the dream” for four months, lived and trained at altitude near the training hotspots of Boulder and Tucson, got in the best shape of my life, and used my fitness to contend for the win at the Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii. What was a surprise, however, was that this all paled in comparison to the 13-day period that preceded the Ultraman swim start. I have written the following account to both share what I learned during that time and record the details of a true personal triumph for posterity.

Day 0: The Crash
Everything has gone almost perfectly to plan, but I’m still on edge for some reason. Ultraman is two weeks out and now that I’m in Hawaii I want to get some quality training in on the course. My final simulation has not had a perfect start with some logistical challenges in the swim, but I’ve made do and it feels great to be on the bike course even if there is a lot of traffic and not much shoulder. At least I have the right of way on this road and cars need to wait before pulling out… NO, NOT RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME!

Hood… windshield… pavement… pain… adrenaline… pain… crowd gathering… don’t move Mike… man this hurts… hope I don’t have a spinal injury… oh good I can wiggle my fingers and toes… ambulance coming… teeth are intact that’s good… holy cow my legs hurt… my head seems ok which is wonderful… I’m really lucky this isn’t worse… I’m so mad right now… why did this have to happen… all the investment… all the training… all the dreaming… it’s all over now… the race is only 13 days away… why, why, WHY?

Days 1-4: Inflammation, Depression, and Resolve
It is amazing I have no fractures, head or spinal injury. I am very grateful for that, but my legs are a mess. The contusions in both my quads are full depth — I thought I was training them for Ultraman, but I guess I was really training them to hit a car! Leaving the hospital six hours after the crash, I tried to stand but lasted mere seconds before excruciating pain relegated me to the wheelchair. Navigating the 38 steps to the condo was a comic affair involving the assistance of my aging parents and a chair to take breaks in when I reached the landings. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

Coach AC is just as flabbergasted as I am — he is the only one who really knows what I have put into this. Good advice from him though: be patient as the inflammation runs its course over the next 72 hours and don’t panic if things get progressively uglier. I know I can take action to reduce the inflammation and email an expert on the subject — Scott Molina has not only won more triathlons than anyone else out there, but he has probably crashed more than anyone else too. As expected, his knowledge is immense and encouraging, and the kitchen counter starts becoming cluttered with extra fish oil, vitamin C, vitamin E, Ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve), the latter two of which I am making sure never to have in my system at the same time, and all of which I am taking with plenty of water to mitigate any stress to my organs during this short period of use. Ice packs are on a constant freeze/use/refreeze cycle, with an alarm clock to help it continue through the night. Icing trumps sleep, at least for now.

It took a little while, but I decided to share my situation with friends and loved ones, and the support is overwhelming. Messages of encouragement, visits from fellow Ultraman athletes and organizers, and

offers of assistance leave me at a loss for words (no small task). The inflammation is diminishing and things are trending positive — I might just start this thing after all. I have a long way to go though, and success requires a plan of action.

Days 4-7: Action Plan
I’ve been busy getting blood away from the injury — now I need to get blood back in. Icing continues, but now I’m including contrast baths. The inflatable ice bath purchased for the race is getting some early testing next to the resort hot tub! I also need to remind my legs how to work, so unloaded leg extensions are my friend, as are trainer rides. Yes, I have miraculously found an indoor trainer on the Big Island of Hawaii, and am doing short rides in the condo in front of a mirror to make sure my muscles fire properly. The irony is not lost on me.

I am in awe of the support I’m receiving through my extended Ultraman family and now have a professional team around me, including a sports physician, physiotherapist, chiropractor and massage therapist, and even mental coach, all of whom have made room in their busy schedules to help me recover. Thank goodness I can’t actually train very much… between appointments and rehab exercises, there is no time! That said, I need to make time to prepare for the race so both my body and my brain can make it to the start line.

Days 8-9: Race Course Recon
With my parents on the island with me, it is still possible to scout the course. Plus it is now possible to do some short rides and moderate swims. After a great swim, my first outdoor ride is primarily a mental test… 15 minutes straight through the site of my accident. Success! No flashbacks, although with numerous blind pullouts I now see just how dangerous this section of highway really is.

Three more 15-30 minute rides are all the exercise I decided to do over this two-day course recon, but months of study have paid off and I picked the right sections to test my nerve and successfully get back in that saddle without pushing my recovering legs over the edge. I’m also more motivated than ever to make that start line. This is an epic course!

Days 10-12: Reality, Fear and Panic
It is now race week and I’m juggling continued rehab appointments with race preparation logistics as my crew arrives (or doesn’t arrive… I need to find a new bike mechanic because mine is stuck in Canada with an expired passport!). Physically things have continued to trend positive, but I am mentally and emotionally exhausted. I have coined the phrase “Positivity Fatigue” for the sensation that I get after spending all day with my chin up projecting a sunny disposition onto less than sunny circumstances. Combined with the reality of an uncertain physical state, a very complex event, and a team of crew members who I don’t want to disappoint, I feel like a basket case.

Day 13: Ready to Go
I have experienced a complete 180-degree turn in my mental state over the past 24 hours. The proximity of the event has released me from the ability to obsess over things now beyond my control, as well as to trust my support team, which now includes a new bike mechanic who I have complete confidence in. I am at peace with my recovery, which is by no means complete, but which I have declared to be “good enough.”

I am also incredibly grateful for the journey the last two weeks has taken me on, and the many wonderful people I would not have met under more normal circumstances. I never would have said this

last week, but no matter how this race turns out, I wouldn’t change this for anything. This has been more challenging than any training or racing experience I have had, and I have learned to formulate a plan, stay dedicated to the goal, and accept help from others which was the hardest part. Now I get to celebrate with an incredible three-day adventure with friends and family old and new… let’s get this party started!

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