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Back to Racing After a SportsCenter-Worthy Crash

New XTERRA pro and full-time nurse Liz Gruber is back to racing after a SportsCenter-worthy bike crash.

New XTERRA pro and full-time nurse Liz Gruber is back to racing after a SportsCenter-worthy bike crash.

At the XTERRA USA/Pan Am Championship last September, first-year XTERRA pro Liz Gruber went down on the mountain bike—hard. The crash was so rough, it made it into ESPN’s SportsCenter highlights (and drew a “whoa!” from anchor Stan Verrett). “To tell you the truth, I still don’t know exactly what happened even though it’s on camera,” Gruber says. “It looks like I went over a landmine.”

She had flown over her handlebars and lay there after the crash, conscious and trying to assess the situation before moving. She felt her clavicle—yep, broken. Gruber was able to stay calm, though, thanks to her medical training—in addition to being an XTERRA pro, she works full time as a pediatric ICU nurse at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Colorado Springs. “It’s pretty common for mountain bikers to join the broken collarbone club,” she says.

After the crash, Gruber was bummed that her first season as a pro was cut short. The Redding, Calif., native raced her first triathlon at age 14, and going pro in the sport had always been one of her goals. She had grown up a runner, competed on summer swim team and was introduced to mountain biking through her youth pastor. “So I kind of had all the different pieces,” she says, to become an off-road pro, though that wasn’t necessarily her original goal.

Her first (road) tri was in Shasta County in Northern California, but because the area she grew up in had more programs for track and cross country, she ended up sticking with running when she left for college. She ran both sports at Oregon State for two years before switching to the school’s tri team. “I just missed multisport,” she says. “And that was a better fit. I actually ran faster after college than I did on the track team just because I think my body does best with the balance of the sports.”

In Oregon, Gruber got her first taste of off-road triathlon. There was a thriving female mountain bike community in the area, and a friend introduced her to her first XTERRA at Vashon Island, Wash. From there, she went on to become a three-time age group world champion in XTERRA (she won her third women’s 25–29 title in Maui in 2015), and then went pro. “XTERRAs are just more fun,” she says. “The bike in a road triathlon, there are so many marginal gains, like this aero helmet and these super aerodynamic wheels, and I just do better and have more talent in the technical abilities that are in mountain biking versus just pure power on the road bike.”

XTERRA’s laid-back vibe and later start times also make it a nice break from 12- to 13-hour shifts on the nursing floor. “I feel like it helps me focus with work, but it’s also kind of like a release, an outlet,” she says.

While the long shifts make it difficult to get a workout in (she’ll sneak in a trainer ride or laps around the short dirt track near her house to get her heart rate up), they also make Gruber’s schedule more flexible for race weekends. For example, she’ll work five out of six days, then be able to take a full week off to rest, travel, race and recover before she has to get back to work.

The broken collarbone may have set Gruber back a bit, but as of late spring, she’s almost back to 100 percent. Thankfully, it was a clean break—a plate and seven screws were installed a few days after the crash, and other than the occasional tweak, she doesn’t have any more pain. Gruber finished fifth elite woman at XTERRA Costa Rica in April and fifth again at XTERRA Oak Mountain in May. Looking ahead, she’s hoping for a top-five finish at XTERRA USA, which is the PanAm Championship, and a top-10 finish at worlds in Maui in October.

“I would say I don’t quite have my mojo back, but I actually crashed two days ago on the bike,” she says. “I took it as a good sign—the fear is wearing off.”