If you’ve been following Mary Beth Ellis’s blog on Triathlete.com, you’re privy to the speedy timeline she’s been operating under in order to get to the Kona starting line. Quick recap:
September 9: Crashes in Cozumel, Mexico, breaks collarbone
September 11: Flies back to Colorado on first flight available
September 12: Sees doctor that day, has surgery that night
September 13: Starts physical therapy, twice a day for 90 minutes at a time.
Week after surgery: Stays in a sling, unable to move her arm. First starts on the bike trainer, putting all her weight on one arm. Starts water jogging by the end of the week.
Following week: Starts more movement and rotator cuff strengthening. Begins running outside and one-arm swimming.
Week after that: Starts swimming with both arms. Remains riding only on the trainer.
Pre-Kona week: Puts in her final prep workouts in for Saturday’s race, including a swim session Monday.
Ellis was one of the top contenders heading into the 2013 Ironman World Championship, but she acknowledges that now she’ll be a different athlete than she would’ve been four weeks ago. That doesn’t keep her from persevering and staying positive about her chances though. “The focus will be to get the most out of myself,” she says. “I have a lot of fitness from the training and races this year, and if I thought I could win before, it’s not like everything’s disappeared in the last four weeks.”
She decided early on to be open about her crash and recovery process, recording videos and writing blogs for both her teamTBB site and Triathlete.com. “I wasn’t sure it I’d be able to race, so my hope was that some good could come from it … I thought at least other athletes could learn and get something out of it.”
After the crash, Ellis thought doing Kona would be impossible this year, and decided she should focus on the long-term goal of recovering for 2014. But she credits her doctor at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., for being the one to push her to keep striving for her original goal. Even her coach, Brett Sutton, wasn’t too keen on her pushing through. “We were both quite upset right after,” Ellis says. “We both assumed it was the end of the dream of trying to win Kona. I think he still would prefer I don’t race. He’d rather race and win or not race at all. But for me, I think I can still be in the mix. Obviously a different athlete is showing up now as it would’ve been a month ago, but I’m not coming here just to make up the numbers—I want to do well.”
Her doctor and physical therapy team got aggressive with mobility and recovery, determined to get her to her race. “I was incredibly surprised by the amount of support I’ve received,” Ellis says. “I mean, getting physical therapy twice a day for 90-minute sessions, it’s been like the fourth sport. The progress you see is incredible.”
Even with fast progress, there are still plenty of concerns and unknowns for Ellis, but she seems to have accepted that she’s done all she can to be healthy under the circumstances. “With swimming, there’s still discomfort,” she admits. “My swimming is different—I can only breathe to one side and I’m used to bilateral breathing—so I’ve had to make some adjustments. After this race I’ll go back and get some time and quality in the pool to get it back for 2014. I don’t think I’ll be in too much pain because of the race adrenaline, but I’ve lost some fitness and strength in that arm so it will be a question of where I can come out and how well I go. I’m taking it day by day and not trying to rush any decisions.”
Also adding to the unknowns is that she’s been living and training at 9,000 feet and going strictly by feel as a result. “I’m not 100 percent sure what to expect so I’ll be as surprised as everyone else,” she says. “But I’m sure they’ll be plenty of oxygen for me!”
One thing that’s kept her positive is focusing on a couple of her toughest workouts that preceded the crash. Two days before, she rode a hard five hours; the next day she did a grueling two-hour track session. “That was a really tough session both physically and mentally—it was one of those where the wheels came off from the start, but it’s great because it forces you to get more out of yourself,” Ellis says. “I was in the best shape I could’ve been in during those two sessions, so I’ll try to think about that.”
It’s hard not to draw a loose comparison to Chrissie Wellington’s 2011 pre-race scenario: She was still recovering from a bike crash weeks prior and wound up pulling off a gutsy and memorable win from behind. Although Ellis’s injuries were more severe, can she muster the strength Wellington had on that day? “You were able to see it on her face, she was able to push herself so hard—she didn’t leave an ounce of herself out on the course. She really left nothing.” Ellis says. “If I can race as well as that and get the most out of myself I’ll be happy.”