It took being stalked by a mountain lion in the dark to make me realize what I'd really missed the most about endurance sports. While most of my brain was trying to process the precariousness of facing a lion, another part of me was realizing I was in the midst of something that would make for a great story—a story vastly different from the sad, tired one I'd been retelling for the last three years.
My sad story began with a bike lane, a wedding limo, and some terrible luck. That story is finally now in its last chapter following a full amputation of the middle finger of my right hand this summer. There's plenty I can say about the medical system, PTSD, disability, and even USAT’s rules, but that’s for another time.
My pre-amputation handicap bike setup: mountain bike handlebars with wide ergo grips and a modified bottle cage to hold my arm in the aero position.
Ultimately, I spent the last three years working through all of those things, while also trying to maintain my sense of self. It's amazing how much your right hand is a part of your identity. You use it to greet people, to eat, to wash your hair. You look at it every day without ever realizing what a marvel of engineering it is. As I worked through different medical treatments and surgeries to stop the chronic pain, I was reminded of the accident every time I saw my painful, crooked finger. And every time I ate in public, holding my fork like a toddler, or had to decline shaking someone's hand due to pain, I felt I had to tell my sad story again, but always without an ending. And that made it even more sad.
I was originally told my pain was due to damaged nerves and could take a year after the accident to go away. So I did what we athletes are programmed to —I toughed it out that first year. While I kept training and racing, my stories began to sound like a broken record of pain and failed workouts. Worse, toughing it out meant I was contorting my body to compensate for my hand, which only led to more injuries. It would take me two years and two surgeries to finally say enough is enough and stop swimming, biking, and running altogether.
I knew nerve pain wasn’t something that could be controlled well with medication and I thought my mental fortitude, forged in a lifetime of endurance sports, was enough to work through it. But chronic pain is a very different beast. It took a lot of mental energy to even get myself to start a workout knowing how it would end, and even more to try and fight through the pain when I did stop. I tried using mantras and positive thinking, but they all felt like saccharin platitudes from a different world. I wasn't being weak or making excuses; I was exhausted from being in pain. And on top of the pain, I felt ashamed. I could no longer live up to who I thought I was or do the things I loved to do. And instead of sharing inspiring stories of training and racing, I only spoke of my pain with my head bowed in shame. I needed to do something different, but my condition was so rare that even doctors debated its existence. That meant that the only expert I could turn to was myself.
When I finally gave myself permission to stop trying to train, I started to acknowledge my pain. This helped combat the power of the fear it held over me. It was no longer a fight I could never win.
I had to let go, literally and figuratively, of how I had defined myself before the accident. When I stopped fighting, I was finally able to find new ways to do things, like swimming with just my good arm while letting my gimpy hand drag along behind me. I limited my bike rides to just the amount of time I had before the pain would become too much. I even got approved as a paratriathlete, with the minimal use of my right hand. And the best part was, I was finally finishing workouts happy again! Suddenly I was finding success!
Podium in my first race as a five-fingered paratriathlete. Like Nemo, I too have a lucky fin.
Just as I was settling into my then state of disability, my surgeon finally agreed to amputate my middle finger and end my pain forever. It would mean the summer of para-racing I was planning would be canceled. It would also mean a very obvious reminder of my accident. But as it's turned out post-surgery, most people never notice I’m missing a finger, just like classic cartoon characters. Now I can shake hands without worry and hold my fork like an adult. And although I limp, I can swim with both arms again.
As fun as it is to race, I think triathlon is more about the training. Every workout is a chance for self-discovery and adventure. Whether it's that new route you discover or a PR in the pool, you have a story to share every day with family, friends, and fellow triathletes. The shared experiences and discoveries make us stronger as individuals and communities.
Fourth of July and I’m in a cast. No swimming, biking or running allowed, but I can hike!
While I'm still waiting for nerves to fully heal so I can start riding my bike more, the mountain lion incident was just one of many more adventurous stories I've been able to collect and retell this summer, no inspirational quotes required. And fortunately, that mountain lion story ended well too. As the lion slunk toward me, I stood up, a towering cyclops with a glowing eye and a threatening roll of toilet paper to defend myself. The lion went off in another direction with its own crazy story to tell. And like the lion, I too am ready to move on!
Celebrating climbing my fifth 14er this summer—a 14er is a peak over 14,000 feet high.
Nadia Sullivan is an accomplished age group triathlete and our SMASH-Dimond Team's resident bike expert!