Updated: Apr 21, 2022
by Kelly Ryan Today, I finished the IRONMAN Virtual Racing 140.6 "Kona" challenge (commemorating the IRONMAN World Championships that were supposed to be this weekend... but 2020 had other ideas). It took me seven days—far from the 12hr IRONMAN World Championship time I threw down four years ago. Yet, it was a massive accomplishment, one that I will cherish as a significant milestone in my journey on the "comeback train."
I could, quite honestly, write a book about "the comeback train" at this point. Not because I'm somehow professionally educated on the subject of recovery from major injuries, but because I've spent the past 2.5 years riding that sometimes-terrifying train.
The comeback train has taken me to places I never could have imagined…. Many of which I would have preferred to never see. But the journey also took me to many others that I am endlessly grateful for.
In January 2018, I was at the top of my game… I'd just come through a fusion on my cervical spine. My recovery from that was relatively short, in the scheme of things, and my power numbers on the bike were the highest they'd ever been. I was healthier and leaner than ever, and that meant I was really feeling close to untouchable on the bike. On January 27, 2018, that all changed.
While out on a training ride, I misjudged how fast I was going, and I hit something in the road while going nearly 30mph. After my initial thought of "Oh ****! That was a good hit…" (referring to how hard my head seemed to have hit the pavement), I realized my hand was basically sideways. At that point, my brain went straight to "KONA!!!!"
I had qualified for a second shot at the IRONMAN World Championships. I was really hoping to "redeem" myself after a performance I wasn't super proud of the previous year.
Never mind the fact that my hand was on crooked or that I'd just slammed my head—which was attached to the neck with brand new screws in it—into the ground with enough force to crack my helmet.
Never mind the fact that I was lucky to be alive or that I was fortunate that I'd get to see my little girl again… My brain went straight to a flipping race…. Not my proudest moment!
That sad reality, honestly, characterized much of the next two-plus years of my life. For close to a year, I continued to throw everything I had into making it back to the start line at "Digme Beach." Through multiple physical and occupational therapy appointments each day, in and out of surgery, and consulting with countless doctors and therapists. All I wanted was to get back to the start line.
My balance continue to deteriorate. It was getting increasingly difficult to walk—the result of a traumatic brain injury and subsequent chronic vestibular migraines. Still, I HAD to get back to Kona.
By August of 2018, I came to the painful realization that Kona was out.
I was too far behind in training due to being in and out of surgeries for months. I was likely inhibiting my body from recovering fully from all the injuries and inflammation, setting me even further back from safely getting on a bike again. Because I kept getting right back to training, crushing hundreds of miles on the trainer while in various casts and bandages, I never actually gave my body and brain time to RECOVER.
When we discuss recovery in endurance sports, we think of "space boots," goofy-looking compression tights and socks, yoga, and all the other "rules of thumb" we swear by.
But when we're talking recovery from a catastrophic accident, we're talking something very different. Something endurance athletes (and other, similar "type A" personalities) don't really comprehend… Or at least they don't want to.
In the months following the crash, frustration levels were high. I have, admittedly, always been one who hates to show weakness… tears being the absolute "worst" indication of such. Yet, I found myself in occupational therapy, trying desperately to hold on to a 2lb weight while hiding the tears as they welled up and poured down my cheeks. And that was not the only time I tried to hide the sobs.
Besides my identity as a triathlete, my career as a Naval officer was in jeopardy… If I couldn't get back to being a "full-up round" within 12 months, a medical board would be initiated, and my fitness for duty would be put on trial. I felt like my life was falling apart at the seams… The mother of all identity crises.
Still, looking back, although the "comeback train" made a lot of detours en route to wherever it's taking me, I am incredibly thankful for each one of those detours. Hear me out…
Detour 1 – Migraines.
Vestibular (and non-vestibular) migraines can be described in one word: crippling. The brain injury, and resulting migraines, changed my life entirely. It took almost two years to find a course of treatment that helped, and there was a lot of pain and suffering en route to that treatment.
Ultimately, the medication cocktail that helped resulted in significant weight gain. It has been an uphill battle to start to get on the right side of both the migraines and the weight gain, but it's made me a much more thankful athlete, as well as a better coach.
I now fully understand how challenging it really is to build fitness from scratch… Something that I'd never really experienced before. I can now understand just HOW hard it is to keep putting one foot in front of the other when your body is doing something that you just can't seem to figure out.
There is not a single workout that goes by now where I am not exceedingly thankful for just being able to do it in the first place. I no longer beat myself up for approaching a run with a run/walk strategy, or for seeing numbers that aren't all that impressive. The fact is, I can DO the workout, and that is not something to take for granted!!
Detour 2 – Wounded Warrior Sports.
Did I get to race Kona a second time? No. Does that still bother me? Immensely. However, had I not spent two years recovering at the military's premier medical facility, I would never have had the opportunity to become a part of "Team Navy" and meet so many other wounded warriors and warrior athletes. I could not imagine my life without this amazing community. These are men and women who have been by my side as I made the sometimes-terrifying transition to civilian life, and who I can trust to have my back in the most difficult of circumstances.
Detour 3 – New Professional Opportunities
Not only did my undesired medical retirement from the Navy result in being on the civilian job hunt, but it also allowed me to explore more seriously the prospect of coaching triathletes…. A profession in which I've found immense joy and a sense of purpose.
Helping people put in "smart" miles and watching them grow, change, and achieve things they thought impossible has been far more rewarding than any finish line I, personally, have ever crossed. Further, I now have an incredible team of fellow coaches with Team MPI, whom I am continually learning from and becoming a smarter and stronger athlete and coach myself.
In addition to joining the Team MPI family, I have an entirely new set of colleagues at my "day job," working with a team that has a massive impact on making the world a safer place. While I did get to feel that way about much of my Navy work, part of me didn't realize how impactful one can also be out of uniform.
Detour 4 – Growing "Roots"
Spending so much time moving, deploying, and doing exercises didn't really lend itself to laying down "roots. I'd made lots of connections with people all over the world, but never really felt “home” anywhere.
I've now been in the same place for almost three years. I have ties to the community and am starting to know all the "go-to" routes, restaurants, and places unlike anywhere I've lived since joining the military.
I didn't even realize that this feeling of community is something that I missed when I was on active duty. Of course, there is always community amongst military families, the vast majority of whom are moving every 2-3 years. Still, there is really something to be said for feeling like a part of a community for a more extended period. Dare I say it starts to feel like "home"?
While writing this blog was definitely cathartic, that's not why I wrote it. I did so, hoping that it might speak to someone out there who is riding their own "comeback train." If that is you, I hope you can look to this story and see that there really is light ahead of you in the tunnel.
It might be the longest, darkest, most terrifying tunnel you've ever been "trapped" in, but you will get through it… And you will, someday, be able to look back and realize the detours your comeback train took made you the person you are… flaws, strengths, passions, fears and all.
I'll leave you with my favorite quote of all time… One that's sometimes gotten me through some really dark moments: "There is no telling how many miles you will have to run while chasing a dream." -- Author unknown