1992 was starting out to be a year like no other. The past three had been like I was in a bubble and nothing could go wrong. The last day of winter this particular year was when the balance in the universe shifted and the wrinkle in all my perfectly thought out plans started to get ripped apart.
The last day of winter that year I was on a solo long ride, one that was part of laying the foundation for Kona over six months away. It would be close to 112 miles total. Less than an hour into it the fulcrum tipped. A truck accelerating through an intersection broadsided me. I saw it coming and slammed on my brakes, yelling as time started to slow. He was going to turn directly into me. In that expansion of time I figured he’d hear me or at least see me, slam on his brakes, we would just miss each other, and then both go on our way, me pissed and him shaken.
That was not to happen. The driver was turned completely to his right talking to his friend sitting in the cab with him, accelerating through his left turn that would in the next instant plow right into me. Impact was inevitable. I jumped my bike and my body up as best as I could so I wouldn’t go underneath the truck and get run over. I hit the grill dead on then from the force of his acceleration was thrown up on the hood and down onto the ground. That got his attention! Now he put on his brakes!
I popped up off the ground with that instantaneous hope that everything was okay. But it wasn’t. My collarbone was completely broken. I replayed the scene in my mind a thousand times during the ride in the ambulance to the emergency room. I could see it like I was watching from above. Every time I replayed the tape it was like a part of my life had been knocked out of me and was no longer in reach.
My dad was a doctor so I knew the drill about broken bones from him. I was looking at six weeks of recovery before any kind of training could resume. Six critical weeks! This was when I put in place a foundation of fitness that was the pillar of a great Ironman in October in Kona. Without it, there was no way to make up for it in May or June or July. I wasn’t exactly hopeless, but I knew the road to victory just got rocky.
That night I had been laying on the couch in my living room, my arm in a sling to stabilize my broken collarbone. I was just trying to regroup and assess how I really was. I got up to walk to the bathroom at one point. The next thing I remember was a sensation like I was traveling back from somewhere distance through a tunnel. I had no idea what was going on. I got my eyes to open just a bit and could see the ceiling. I could see the underside of the toilet. I could feel this wet stuff all over my face.
It was more than confusing. I put a fingertip onto the wet stuff then looked. It was red. It was blood. I’d passed out and split my head open on the never forgiving hardness of porcelain. I’d been hit by a truck that morning. I had just earned my second trip to the emergency room in one day with blood running down my face. The morning broke a bone. This broke my spirit.
Crumpled on the floor I had no reason to do anything. Racing sounded completely pointless. All that I had focused my life on for the past ten years had no meaning that held enough reason to draw me into the future. I was alone. I was done.
Life has a way of realigning us though, doesn’t it? From 1982 through 1988 I raced to win. In 1989 I made a fundamental shift in purpose and made my focus preparing myself to come up with my best regardless of where that pitched me at the end of the day. That was also the first year I won Ironman. This was another defining pivot. Just trying to be a great racer was a pointless reason to get up off the floor, crumpled and bleeding. So what was it? Why stand up? Why go forward? What would “forward” look like?
There’s a bigger picture to racing that I aligned with in the moment before I rolled over to my other side and used my good shoulder on my right to get up off the floor of my bathroom. Racing was measure of fitness, but it was also a place where I could see how I was evolving as a person. Was I more stable? Was I more capable of handling fear or self-doubt? Was I less worried about the outcome and more focused on the effort I gave? Racing, especially at the Ironman, was life encapsulated in an eight-hour package.
The thing that got me to move, roll over, to stand up, was the thought that I wanted to keep racing as a way to perfect myself. Use it as a tool to learn something I never knew before. Use it as a reflection of who I have developed into. If I was a more whole person, it would show on the race course. It wasn’t about winning. It wasn’t about even necessarily going faster. I got up off that floor to discover more about life through that process we call training and to get a marker of reality about where I was in that journey at the places we call races.
A short three days later I was at a retreat with Brant Secunda who had become my spiritual teacher in 1990. He is a shaman in the Huichol Indian tradition and a great healer. He was the one person on the planet that I knew had a chance to shorten that six-week bone healing process that is accepted as standard. Brant did two traditional Huichol Indian healings on me over the next few days. Within two weeks of the accident I was back training. By the beginning of April, six weeks after the truck hit me, I was at a level of fitness that I should not been able to get to until maybe the middle of August.
It was not smooth sailing though. I did not win one race that year prior to Kona. A weakness was surfacing when I rode my bike. If I felt a car get close I kind of froze. And a lot of cars get close! I didn’t want another crash, but I was more concerned with avoiding an accident than getting in good miles in the saddle. By early August I knew I needed to shock my system and do something to get my cycling back on track.
There was a half Ironman distance race in Texas at that time. My swim and run were good. But the main focus going into that race was to just ride as hard as I could to reset the gauge on my cycling, a gauge that had gotten lowered significantly over the months since the crash. Unfortunately, the wrinkle got deeper!
The week before the race at a track workout my hamstring locked up to the point where another step would have ripped it. Not good! Ten days to go before my final race leading into Kona and I was reduced to a walk to keep from severely injuring myself. I went to the race, but I had no idea if the hamstring would cooperate.
Greg Welch of Australia was at that same race. He’s tough as nails when he’s having a good day. He could smell the proverbial blood. He knew something was up even without me saying me spilling a word about the hamstring. The swim went as I had imagined. Welch and I were in contact. The bike was where I wanted to hammer. And keep in mind, if this was successful it would mean that I would come off the bike with the top guys and not behind them as I had been doing that year.
It worked. Welch and I came into T2 together. We headed out. But right away, the speed of the run went right to my hamstring and it locked again just over a mile into it. I had to drop out. It was my first DNF due to an injury. On one level though I was happy. My bike had pulled me through. Now I just had to get the hamstring to cooperate by Kona.
I spent the next two months swimming and cycling at top levels. Unfortunately all runs were relatively slow. I could go forever if I ran at a pace that was far below what Kona would require. The second I tried to pick it up though I got this twitching and quivering in my hamstring that said not yet!
Race day in Kona came. Welch was there along with a huge conglomerate of other contenders. I played it as best as I could. I swam strong. I biked as well as I could ever ask. The marathon was ahead. I had no idea if I was even going to be able to run a step of it!
I headed out, albeit slowly at first. I took a few steps. The hamstring started to quiver. I took a few more. I could feel the part in the exact middle of it that had seized up start to lock. I breathed down into it and took another step. It all just loosened up! The twitch was gone. The trembling feeling before it locks completely vanished.
I took is conservatively though. It was a miracle. I was actually running fast, the first time since that track workout where I had to stop. Welch was just ahead. We joined forces. He was going to be the guy to win or the guy to beat. Welch has speed, and I knew that speed was not the favorite serum my hamstring would like. I hadn’t dipped below an 8:30 mile in two months. On this day I was going to have to run 26.2 miles all under 6:15 pace! I had to break him early with a steady surge.
I put in what was probably the one and only 20-mile surge ever at the Ironman. I could have waited until the end and really tried to turn on the afterburners. I could punch and rest, punch and rest once I got out on the lava outside of town. But I had to do it slow and steady with a timeline that was more like a diamond forming from coal than a racer dramatically pulling away from all the competition.
It was like a dull ache increase in pace, the kind that no one else noticed, not even Welch. That was the strategy I was putting in play with laser clarity. It was the kind of surge that if matched just feels like maybe the pavement got a few degrees hotter and you are struggling just slightly to hold pace if you are the one who has to respond. It was the increase in speed that didn’t feel like anything changed at all but it was making the aid stations feel farther apart for Welch. It was a surge that just looked like I had moved two steps ahead out of happenstance, but he wasn’t able to close it.
Two turned into four, then six, but ever so slowly. I didn’t want to alert the lion that would wake up if he really knew what was going on. The hamstring was good with this strategy. Drop it down another five seconds a mile and it could have been all over.
I was able to drop Welch by the time we exited town at the top of Palani Road hill. The next 20-miles were my home, the place I loved most on the course because it was ultimately me with the Island. The race was just the invitation to be out there.
I won my fourth IRONMAN World Championship that day. It was done in spite of circumstances that were far from ideal. It was only possible because I got up off that floor with a reason that was different than any I had ever had to continue to race. It came through a healing by Brant that gave me a fighting chance to come back and train in time. My focus was different. Perfecting myself and learning something about life was a very potent goal to have because I could gain it regardless of how the day turned out. The pressure was different.
That day I learned things didn’t have to be perfect. I learned that subtle pressure when applied over time could move mountains. I learned that the most down moments in my life could also be where I gained the most insights and can make the most significant fundamental shifts that can carry me forward to even greater places.