Coach Maria's Monday Minute: "Ten Years Later..."
Updated: Aug 11, 2020
Welcome to Coach Maria’s Monday Minute. It’s more than a minute’s read this week but worth the time. It’s a flashback for me - an accounting of what happened and a reminder that I’m better off now than before.
On August 8, 2010, five things happened that I had not experienced before. Here they are:
I was knocked unconscious
I rode in an ambulance
I broke bones - four, to be precise
I took prescription pain medication
I DNF’d a race
I was 38 years old and racing IRONMAN 70.3 Boulder. The race started out beautifully, with a swim PR. Whoo-hoo! Out onto the bike course, I went. Fifteen miles later, everything went downhill. I was literally going downhill--at 27 miles per hour, to be exact. I didn’t know that there were two other athletes drafting off of me (yes, that’s illegal). They decided to pass me at the same time and we turned into an arcade game, ping-ponging off of each other... with me using less than lady-like language and my bike careening dangerously side to side.
I knew I was going to crash and it was going to hurt. I did crash but it didn’t hurt. I didn’t feel anything because I was unconscious. I woke up flat on my back on the road, with bikes whizzing past me and five volunteers circled around me, staring at me and keeping me safe.
I tried to sit up but was told to stay down. My helmet was gone, parts of my skin burned, and wow did my head hurt. I didn’t know my own name but I did know that there were two other athletes that were involved. The volunteers told me the others were fine and that they’d already gotten back on their bikes and ridden away. Yep, you read that right - those two ‘athletes’ left me unconscious on the road.
I sat up and asked for my helmet. I was ready to get back on my bike. The aid station captain told me that my day was over. I asked for my helmet. He, again, told me my day was over. I asked for my helmet. He took my timing chip and handed me my helmet. It was in four pieces. I sat on the ground trying to put it back together again so that I could finish the race. I still didn’t know my name.
The ambulance arrived and the paramedics assessed me, stood me up and loaded me into the ambulance. I sat down on the gurney and was very cold. I was covered by a sheet but that hurt because I had a few patches of raw flesh on my right shoulder, elbow, and leg. The paramedic rinsed them with water and offered morphine. I declined.
As the ambulance started to move, the driver was stung by a bee. I asked the paramedic with me to check with the driver to make sure that he wasn’t allergic to bee stings (because, you know, anaphylaxis). He said that he would, and asked my name and the President’s name. I knew both! The paramedic let me use his cell phone so I could call my husband who was ahead of me on the racecourse. I left him a voicemail. Once at the hospital, I was told my brother was on his way. I had a few x-rays because my back hurt. My brother and his family arrived and I felt bad that I’d ruined their Sunday and that my niece and nephew were seeing me like this.
The doctor announced that they were going to scrub out my road rash. Darin, my brother, sat with me through all of it. I was holding his hand when they painted on the lidocaine and I gripped his hand so tightly that I thought I might have broken bones. In case you haven’t had it done, lidocaine burns intensely when applied to raw skin. I also kept looking up and to the left. After a while, Darin wanted to know what I was looking at. I told him it was snowing. He laughed and told me that it definitely was not snowing. In short order, Darin called my Coach, who came to the hospital with a pro athlete in tow and had some folks chase down my husband who was patiently waiting for me at the race finish.
The doctor came in and told me that I’d broken ribs 3-6 on my back and was lucky I hadn’t broken my collarbone. They also said I had a concussion and plenty of road rash and asked about the last time I had a tetanus shot. I hate shots... so I told the doctor that I’d had one, “yes-ter-day?” He asked if that was really the case because if it wasn’t, I could die from tetanus. I told him that I hadn’t had a tetanus shot since 1996 and he said that I was getting one. I told him I’d pass. He told me it wasn’t an option. I asked for the shot to go into my raw right shoulder. I told him that there was no reason for both arms and shoulders to hurt when I’d already hurt one. He looked horrified and I got the shot in my good shoulder. Lost that one.
The nurse came in and bandaged me up and gave me a Vicodin. This is when things got interesting. About 10 minutes later, with my brother and Coach sitting with me, we watched as all of my bandages started to unstick and peel off. I felt awful and was sweating profusely. Apparently, you’re supposed to eat when you get pain medication and I hadn’t had food in a good four hours. My Coach started yelling for food - anything. A nurse brought me part of her lunch - Ritz crackers and orange juice. I still felt sick but I stopped sweating.
I was released from the hospital and my brother and family headed home (I’m so grateful they were there) and my Coach got me into the Timex Ford Flex she’d been driving. She told me that she’d get me home and Gary would be home shortly. I was pretty groggy but mostly just embarrassed that I didn’t finish the race.
I remember hearing the Jeep come around the corner near our house and I made it out the door as Gary slammed on the brakes and ran out of the car. I was happy to see him. He unloaded the bikes. Mine was trashed - bar tape was dangling off and it looked like a shark had tried to eat through one of my pedals. Seeing my helmet again was the worst. Gary said when he saw it, his stomach dropped. We went to the store later to pick up some medical supplies and had pancakes for dinner. I took a nap, groggy from Vicodin. I woke up suddenly and vomited. I can assure you that vomiting when you have broken ribs is awful.
I saw my doctor the next day and got a prescription for Percoset. I was sore and generally miserable and he told me to take it easy for a few days. I sat around on the couch for the day and when I was ready for bed, I took a Percoset. And promptly vomited again.
I told Gary that I was done with this prescription-grade medication stuff and that I would just take Tylenol. He was quite insistent that I wouldn’t be able to heal broken ribs on Tylenol, but that’s exactly what I ended up doing. No more vomiting with broken ribs for me! Later that day, Gary unwrapped my bandages and cleaned my wounds. I was sitting on the toilet seat and looked at my arm and shoulder emerging from the bandages. I was immediately queasy (so much for my dream of becoming a surgeon - Dr. Slaughter to surgery!).
Then I heard, “Maria. Maria. Maria.” I was napping so peacefully! Why was he waking me up? I’d passed out on the bathroom floor.
My days, weeks, and months following the accident consisted of the following:
Walk to the school with the family next door (I was not allowed to go anywhere alone for fear that I wouldn’t find my way back)
Sit on the back deck, staring at the mountains
Come in after lunch and take a long nap
Watch Food Network (thank you, Claire Robinson, for teaching me to cook) and hang out with Molly Dog who didn’t leave my side
External wounds heal. My road rash cleared up in a month or so. However, the concussion lingered. I had a wicked case of vertigo, so I couldn’t drive for seven weeks. I couldn’t go back to work because I couldn’t deal with scrolling computer screens (I worked for a telecom company where I did audits and looked at scrolling screens all day long). I was on short-term, then long-term disability.
At one point, my insurance company decided that I could go back to work and it took me five days to write an appeal letter. I could only be on the computer for about 15 minutes a day and so it took me all week to write the letter. I finally ended up dictating a letter while Gary typed.
Internal wounds take longer to heal. The vertigo resolved after seven weeks and an ear canallith repositioning. I was sensitive to bright lights and loud noises. My brain was jumbled. I wasn’t allowed to read books for a while - only magazines so that my brain could heal and not get engrossed in one story. I was short-tempered and irritable. I couldn’t remember things and I couldn’t express myself clearly. I continued to have massive headaches and nausea. I finally saw a neurologist. Dr. Justin Moon helped me get better, with medication. Thanks to his efforts, I was able to continue to train and race. I’ve often said that, without him, I would never have become an IRONMAN.
I was downsized from my job after six months - this wasn’t a surprise. My then-boss didn’t like me before all this, and my injuries gave him a reason to get rid of me. In the months since I’d been out, he’d only called twice--and only after I called him. Not once did he ever ask how I was doing.
The week after I was let go, I was medically released to go back to work - but not office work. I’d called a fitness manager I’d met the year before and asked if she would hire me as a Personal Trainer. My doctor said that he would release me if I could:
Attend a high school basketball game and follow the ball
Sit near the band and handle the music
Handle the bright lights in the gym
It wasn’t easy, but I did it and he agreed to let me go to work in a gym. My boss gave me a bunch of time to do all of the in-processing that new trainers do when hired. Fifteen minutes a day for what seemed like a hundred years to get all of my new hire training finished.
My new life was born. Thanks to Andrea Eaton and John Campbell, my first fitness and club managers, I became a Personal Trainer, then an Aqua Aerobics instructor, then a Cycle instructor. All the while, I trained for my first IRONMAN. So many people in the gym asked me about triathlons that I signed up for a USA Triathlon Level 1 Coaching certification course and got certified.
I started my own Personal Training and Triathlon coaching business. I joined an independent, boutique gym where Trish Byerley and Val Boltinghouse were my co-workers for six years. It was the first time I’d really worked with women and I’m so glad that I had the privilege of working with them - they made our jobs fun.
Along the way, I’ve coached dozens of triathletes, runners, ultrarunners, swimmers, and cyclists. One of those athletes, John Atwell, was the first IRONMAN athlete I worked for. I’d been coaching him for five years when he raced IRONMAN Boulder. I cried when he started the swim and I cried when he finished the race.
I met the Coach that owns Team MPI - a collaborative team with the best group of coaches and I was fortunate enough to become part of that coaching team.
After moving to Florida last year, I interviewed for a position with YellowWebMonkey, a web design company based out of Texas. Alexis Priddy took a chance on hiring me and I get to use my brain in a way that I haven’t in years. The team is made up of veterans and/or their families. I work with several other West Point Women - something I didn’t think that I would ever have the opportunity to do.
Someone recently asked how long it took me to get over my traumatic brain injury - that’s what I call it because that’s what it is. The answer is that it’s a work in progress. There are still things I don’t handle well - flashing lights and cowbells are the worst and scrolling screens aren’t my favorite either. My brain still gets overwhelmed and I’ve been known to slip out of a crowd and into a quiet place. I’m lucky to have family and friends that are willing to answer the same question eight times since I sometimes can’t remember the answer they gave me the first seven times. Sometimes my brain works just fine.
What I do know is that I’m lucky to have what I have - family and friends that I love and careers that I love. My accident changed my life, but definitely for the better (except for asking the same question repeatedly, sometimes).
Amazing what changes in ten years, isn’t it?