What Overcoming Your Injuries Looks Like: Inspiration from a Cyclocross National Champion

The weather forecast in Austin for January 8, 2015, was grim by anyone’s standards, especially for a bike race. At the start time for the wisest women’s age categories (60-64, 65-69, 70-74, and 75+) at US Masters Cyclocross Nationals the predicted temperature was a frigid 28 degrees–with drizzle.

The course had already been badly rutted and torn up by two days of pre-riding and racing. Anyone willing to suit up and try to stay upright on the gooey mess was a bad ass.

As soon as I learned that US Masters Cyclocross Nationals was happening in my hometown, my anticipation rose to almost obsessive levels. During course set-up week, I demanded that my husband ride down to the course every afternoon with me so I could see what diabolical twists and turns the promoters had dreamed up.

Unlike the majority of cyclocross spectators (including the best hecklers I’ve seen), I had no desire to watch the young, brash guys do their thing. I only cared about the 60+ races.

I wanted to find out the secrets to athletic longevity…because these racers didn’t get to US Masters Cyclocross Nationals without having faced and overcome injuries. They got to nationals by employing wisdom about how to respect and honor their evolving capacity as they aged and accept injury as part of their career. Each of these racers had secrets about acknowledging they weren’t as fast as they once were, yet training and racing to their current capacity. Simply put, these men and women don’t give up.

Every one of them has a story and my goal was to capture a few.

Shamefully, my motivation to spectate on January 8th waned when I realized the forecast was accurate, only instead of drizzle we’d be expecting rain. Maybe I could just sleep in? Maybe I could wait at home warm in my jammies until the temperatures rose above freezing?

I pulled it together. A bunch of 60+ men and women were about to brave the foul weather and race; certainly I could bundle up and spectate! Besides, I was hungry to talk to them and hear their stories. So off I rode to the races dressed like the Michelin Man.

As expected, there were hardly any spectators–mostly friends and family. I camped out at the bottom of a steep, slippery downhill with a technical off camber u-turn inhumanely situated at the bottom. Almost everyone sailed through with more grace than riders half their age. Perhaps they were experienced enough to realize bombing down the hill would earn them a face full of mud.

Two racers in particular captivated me with their perpetual smiles–despite the freezing rain–and proficient bike handling. On a course where it would have been easy to do so, they never looked like they were fighting their bikes. They rode with balance and confidence.

cyclocross racing

Julie crossing the finish line

The women’s 70-74 winner, Julie Lockhart (74), drove all the way to Austin from Massachusetts in a van with her husband, cat, and several bikes. I wanted to interview her post-race, but after a short conversation I discovered her husband had been hospitalized in Austin. Her biggest fan didn’t get to watch her race and win. Needless to say, we didn’t have time for an interview and I wished her the best as she left to see her husband.

cyclocross racing

Julie post race

I found Tove Shere, winner of the women’s 60-64 race, catching her breath on the sidewalk, because, as I learned, she had just gotten over bronchitis. After a hearty congratulations and a big hug, I told her about what I do with Injured Athlete’s Toolbox and asked if I could interview her. Graciously, she agreed.

Tove is a lifelong runner and cyclist (road–time trial, track, and cyclocross), and a Santa Fe-based running coach. She has vast injury experience, both from a personal and coaching perspective.

snowshoeing

Tove relishing in beautiful snow

I asked her what advice she’d give to another athlete coping with injury. Her answers will inspire an attitude change and add years to your athletic endeavors, so take notes!

Tove’s wisdom #1–Train the body parts that are still working

Tove’s very first words were, “An athlete with an injury starts to train. They train the body parts that are still working. They train around the injury, and they train until the injury resolves. The minute you warehouse an athlete, you take away that part of their self and their life. Then you injure them further; you injure their psyche.”

Tove provided a perfect example of this wisdom while talking about her cycling friend who had been badly injured after being hit by a car. Among other injuries, she had a broken femur and tibia. Her doctors sentenced her to a wheelchair and told her, “Three months from now you’ll be able to walk. Maybe.” Tove and her husband took her to their house and began rehabilitating her.

Tove engineered a water tight dressing for her leg and figured out how to get her in the pool because she could swim. The water allowed her friend to focus more on “can” than “can’t.”

Three weeks after the accident, Tove and her friend did a short triathlon relay. Her friend swam, and Tove biked and ran.

Tove said, “Through swimming, she got to move her body again. She got to be involved and included.”

I’m happy to report Tove’s friend is now racing bikes again, thanks in large part to Tove and her husband.

Why it matters
During my research with injured athletes, I uncovered common recipes for success. One mentioned over and over was, “Find some movement you can do and go do it!”

• Despite your injury, you still have a strong desire to move. Movement helps diminish stress and decrease pain. Read: it keeps you sane.
• Finding new ways to move will use your brain in ways you’re not accustomed.
• Note: Maybe your new-found activity won’t be your forever-love, but it’ll become a good friend you can always rely on. Then again, maybe it will be – you’d be surprised how many (very happy) cyclists used to be runners until they picked up an injury, fell in love with cycling, and never looked back.

Training around your injury enables you to strengthen parts of your body you’ve neglected in order to stay fit for your sport. For example, cyclists are notoriously weak from the waist up. Don’t overlook the opportunity injury provides to train other parts of your body. Capture the opportunity and you’ll be much more physically resilient than you were pre-injury.

If you aren’t convinced to find another means of movement yet, perhaps it will help to know that the best physical therapists on planet earth offer the same advice to their patients.

cyclocross racing

Tove crossing the finish line–before she realized she had won the national championship (another female racer who was actually in a different age group–and Tove didn’t realize this–crossed the finish line just in front of her).

Tove’s wisdom #2–You’re allowed to have a pity party

I wanted to dig deeper into the topic of injured athlete psyche Tove mentioned.

Curious about her insight into the what-to-do-about-impatience-when-you-want-to-get-back-to-your-sport conundrum, I asked Tove, “Can you please offer one piece of advice about the psyche-part of being injured?”

She hit a home run with, “You’re allowed to be depressed. You’re allowed to have pity moments, but it has to be short. You can’t spend all the time there.”

She continued, “I had an athlete–a runner who raced the mile–who fell of a cliff. I told him, ‘Every day pick a time, and that’s your pity party time. Throw things. Scream. Tear paper bags up. Whatever it is you need to do. Then be done with it and put the negative feelings aside and get on with your recovery.’”

Why it matters
Your mind is like a garbage can–take the trash out regularly, and you get to avoid stenches, but forget about your trash and you’ll get swamped in putrid thoughts.

If you don’t take out the emotional trash often (in whatever way suits you), it’ll build and build until your mind explodes from the pressure of fermenting emotions.

There are several good studies about the benefit of therapeutic writing, which is one effective way to take out the emotional trash.

My clients keep three journals to facilitate the process of emotional housekeeping:
1) a journal of frustration and other negative thoughts…after each entry, rip the page out and shred it, burn it, fricassee it–you get the picture
2) a progress journal…so each athlete can look back and see they’re making progress in their recovery, however slowly
3) a gratitude journal

cyclocross racing

Tove and her husband, Jerry, post race…after she realized she had won the national championship

Tove’s wisdom #3–Gratitude is a verb

Most of us believe gratitude is a state of mind–a noun.

According to Tove–and I agree–gratitude is a verb.

Tove said, “You have to have action. In order to feel gratitude, you have to look behind you. Find someone who is having a worse day and help them out. Try volunteering or go to a race and find someone who is having a shitty day and fix it for them. Walk them through it. Take them through it.

I’ve run marathons where I’m feeling bad and I look behind me and there’s a person feeling worse, so I stopped and talked to them and walked with them for a while. I told them, ‘we can do this,’ because together we can.

It’s not a solo event out there. Find someone to help. We’re all in it together. If you find somebody to help, it will help you. If you give it away, you get to keep it.”

Why it matters
Tove hit a home run eloquently expressing why we need action to feel gratitude. Did you take notes?

Challenged Athletes Foundation

Gratitude: Tove with her husband, Jerry (left), and her son Tobin (middle) after a Challenged Athletes Foundation race

Tove’s wisdom #4–Injury is an opportunity

Any athlete racing Masters Cyclocross Nationals has faced her or his share of injuries. How do these athletes overcome and persevere? Answering these two questions drove me to head to the races, foul as the weather was.

I asked Tove how many injuries she’s had. She chuckled and said, “Oh my, too many to count. I think I’ve broken and twisted every body part I have.”

She’s been an athlete off and on for a lifetime, but, as she said, “off for a long time.” Tove said, “I partied hard in my teens and got clean and sober at 33. I came back to sports at 37, and I’ve been fighting back ever since. It has been a rocky road.”

I absolutely believe if you go through life without an injury or other challenge, then you will never be tested enough to reach your potential as an athlete–mentally or physically. I also believe that the depth of wisdom you acquire is directly proportional to the magnitude of challenge you’ve overcome. Accordingly, we can all refer to Tove as Yoda!

cyclocross racing

Tove running up stairs in a cyclocross race. This type of racing isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s all-out for the duration of the race and includes repetitive dismounts and running over obstacles.

Given the breadth of Tove’s life experiences, I thought narrowing down the answer to “what’s the most important thing you’ve learned that you’d like to share with someone who thinks their world is absolutely falling apart because they’re injured” would be impossible. Instead, her answer was instant and definitive.

Every injury is an opportunity,” she said. “And if you don’t understand that, then you’re missing the point of the injury. It’s not God punishing you; it’s an opportunity.”

Curious, I asked her about some of the opportunities she’s captured.

She said, “They’re huge. There are times when I haven’t been able to run, so I’ll ride my bike in the front of a race and I can listen to the Kenyan runners breathe and I get to watch how they go about their race. Otherwise, I would have been at the back of the pack and missed it all.

I’ve had opportunities to take a look at my body and understand my own stupidities and limitations. I know how my body works now because I’ve been injured.”

One doesn’t arrive at a goldmine of wisdom (and the privilege of passing it on) without capturing the opportunity in injury. Without injury teaching her how to perform–mentally and physically–Tove likely would not have learned the tools she needed to be lifelong athlete.

You all have the same opportunity to learn from your injuries. Don’t let your chance slip away.

Tove Shere won US Masters Cyclocross Nationals at 62 because of her injuries. I’m very grateful to have met and talked with her. May your injuries bring you the same strength and wisdom they’ve brought Tove.

Forward>>>Heidi

2 Comments
  1. This was great- I’ll be passing it on and re using your insight with one of my currently injured athletes.

    • Thank you for reading, and for your kind comment, Melinda. Thank you also for passing this blog onto your client. I appreciate you.

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