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How to race with a broken toe?

April 16, 2009

a47_p1Hawaii – Honu Half Ironman
(113 km long-distance triathlon)

Date: June 3, 2006
Distance: 1.9 km swim; 90 km bike; 21 km run
URL: http://www.honuhalfironman.com/

This trip could not have started worse! As soon as I arrived in Kona (Hawaii – Big Island), 5 days before attending the Half Ironman race for the second consecutive year, things just went from bad to worse.

Monday (five days before the race): Arriving in Kona

The airline lost my bike case and my camping gear; I found the screen of my brand new digital camera broken; and the service from Thrifty Car Rental was simply outrageous; I had to go to Hertz to finally get a proper clean car without squeaky brakes or worn tires. The first night of camping along the beach at Spencer Beach Park was just as bad due to the heavy winds from the shore. They were blowing so hard that I thought my tent was going to fly away. I could barely sleep 3 hours.

Tuesday (four days before the race):

Luckily nothing major happened on Tuesday; I was almost getting superstitious and thought all those problems were trying to tell me something…

Wednesday (three days before the race):

Just when I thought my bad luck had stopped, the worst nightmare any racer could have took place. Running from the black-sand beach toward the sea for a bit of morning snorkeling, I jammed my foot against a black rock hidden in the sand and heard the sound of my toe breaking during the impact. Immediately, I knew this was bad. The sound did not leave me any doubt and I automatically thought about the consequences this would have on my race participation. Quickly, my toe swelled, turned purple and I was soon unable to move it much. Wearing a sock and shoe was not even an option due to the increasing pain. Depressed and thinking about those past 4 months of preparation for this race, I was blaming myself for being so distracted. My fiancee was there all the time to support me in my depression but I knew deep inside I would most likely have to drop out. The only thing I could hope for was that time with lots of ice could make things better. The race was on Saturday so the clock was ticking.

Thursday (two days before the race): Registration day

My boss Richard who just arrived the day before was of course disappointed to see the shape I had gotten myself into; he did not seem too excited about the idea of racing by himself. I was not very optimistic but decided to register for the race anyhow. You never know, right? I still had two days to try to recover.

To my great surprise, the race organizers were the ones who seemed more optimistic. An amazing 63-year-old woman who participated in numerous full ironman races recommended that I strap my toes and do the race with the help of Advil, a simple over-the-counter painkiller available in Hawaii and the rest of the U.S (http://www.advil.com/). She explained to me that she used it during an ironman race to withstand the pain in her knee that she injured 2 weeks prior to the event. I was amazed and full of respect for this dynamic woman who was so full of energy. “It will be painful but you can do it, I am sure can do it and finish the race,” she told me. She even added, “You never know, you might even get a slot for the Hawaii World Championship.” I smiled at her and explained I was not at that level yet but she did not want to hear about it and kept encouraging me to just do the race and do my best. I was truly inspired by her and could not believe that this older woman was slowly awaking my hopes again; I thought, “if she could do a full ironman with a busted knee, I surely should be able to do complete a half ironman with a broken toe, right?” Soon enough, my target had changed completely. My racing time was no longer an issue; I was now there to complete the race and cross the finish line before the cut-off time. My motivation was back. I had not come all the way from Japan to give up that easily. I had to at least get my finisher’s medal.

Friday (one day before the race):

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Questioning racers and organizers around me, I gathered tips and ideas from everyone. I went to a pharmacy to get some Advil pills then sacrificed a pair of running shoes by cutting the top off the left shoe to keep the pressure off my injured toe and allow it to breath during the race. It did not look great but at least it allowed me to spray on some painkiller spray (“Panterin” http://www.kowa.co.jp/s/s228.htm) that Richard was nice enough to lend me. It was going to be rough but I had to do it. I had to finish the race whatever happened.

Saturday (race day): A great feeling of accomplishment!

The gun shot was fired at 7 a.m. and more than 900 people threw themselves in the water for a 1.9 km swim. I decided to give everything to the swim and the cycling with the certitude that my run would be disastrous. The swim went alright, aside from the pain caused by people in the starting pack hitting the top of my toes as they drafted behind me to reduce the water’s resistance to their own strokes. I came out of the water in 37minutes (not great but still 3 minutes faster than last year). I limped away from the beach 200 meters uphill to reach the bike transition area, put on my cycling gear, took my first Advil pill of the day and got going with my “Cannondale six 13” (http://www.cannondale.com/bikes/05/cusa/model-5RC2C.html) for a 90-km ride on the famous Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway where all the world-class racers will be competing for the Ironman World Championship in October 2006. Despite a strong wind, my bike remained perfectly stable and rode very well all the way up to the top of the hill to Hawi. Without any flats, I managed to average a decent (for me) 31-km/hour speed by the time I arrived at the transition point to start my 21-km run. Swallowing one last pill and spraying the topical painkiller over my broken toe, I clenched my teeth and started walking. To my surprise, the pain was bearable; I started to jog almost properly. Fifteen minutes later, my legs and feet had warmed up and hardly anyone could tell I was injured. I could not believe it myself. I was feeling good, had some energy left and realized that I could still make a decent time. I aimed at a few people in front of me, kept up with them for a while and passed some of them when they broke down. The closer I got to the finish line, the more I believed I could get a respectable time – and the harder I pushed. In one last effort, I crossed the finish line. I had completed the race in 5 hours and 38 minutes (exactly 28 minutes faster than the previous year without an injury). I was just amazed I could do it! It was an amazing sense of accomplishment.

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Looking in the crowd for the one who supported me at all times and never stopped believing in me, it took a few long seconds until I caught my fiancee’s eyes. Both emotionally relieved by the ending of this race, we jumped in each other’s arms and shared a tear.

The rest of the trip went great and, despite all the problems and complications that came our way earlier on the trip, it will remain one of my favorite holidays and most satisfying result in a sporting event. I understood once again how essential “mental” was  to overcome adversity. I suppose that whatever goal you set in life, the harder you work to reach it, the greater your satisfaction will be when you actually reach your objective. My advice is that if something similar happens to you, DON’T GIVE UP and always try to think positive to overcome difficulties. Of course, it’s best to consult a doctor for more serious injuries before competing in such events. It is always up to you to decide but I would not recommend people take the risk of pushing their bodies too hard. The recovery process will take longer afterwards if you decide to compete. If you cannot do it this time, it probably means it is not meant to be and you will have better luck next time.

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