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In a three-part series, television personality and writer Mike Senese charts his transformative journey from car accident victim to first-time triathlete. From day one of training with renowned coach Ian Murray to crossing the finish line of his first race, Triathlete is along for the ride. In this first installment, Senese takes us through his dramatic recuperation and explains what ultimately motivated him to tackle a triathlon.
For the past few years I’ve been blowing stuff up as the host of TV shows like “Catch It Keep It” and “Punkin’ Chunkin’” on the Science Channel. But playing with fire never prepared me for my two hardest challenges yet: recovering from a life-threatening car accident, and using that to kick- start my goal of completing a triathlon.
I suppose you can trace the origins of my multisport aspiration to my roots. As a kid, I was lucky to have parents that empowered me to pursue whatever I set my sights on. Aware of my middle-of-the-road athletic ability, I tended toward engineering and science—my favorite activities were taking devices apart and putting them back together, and fixing my sister’s broken toys. I played with RC cars and robotics, computers and guitar amps, and even rebuilt an old truck, just to learn how cars work.
After college and grad school, my interests and pursuits helped land me jobs working at Wired and ReadyMade magazines—a dream come true for a DIY techno geek like myself. It was a dynamic, creative and exciting world that put me in touch with a wide range of prominent minds. A few years in, I was approached about co-hosting a music/science TV show that would feature crazy stunts and oversized builds. I wasn’t expecting to be a TV guy, but I found that I had a knack for translating science and physics into something easy for viewers to digest. I got the part and shot the series, and was asked to do another show, and then another. I decided to keep exploring the TV world while I had this attention, and while I still had a bit of hair left on my head.
In late September 2010, I was asked to appear in a small segment of the show a friend was producing. They were shooting the scene pretty far from my house in South Pasadena, Calif., about an hour into rural farmland. For a few hours I hooted, hollered, shot a cannon and caught up with pals. It was a great day—I even called my fiancée about some exciting developments with a new series I had been proposing. As the sun set, I packed my stuff, buckled up and settled onto the freeway for the drive home.
What came next feels like a foggy dream. I was being lifted onto a stretcher. There were flashing lights and slowly passing cars. I didn’t know who or where I was, or why people were around me. Then, as the paramedics loaded me into the ambulance, I caught a glimpse of my car and a big-rig truck, and a small voice in the back of my head whispered, “Mike, I think you’ve been in a crash.”
I’ll never know with certainty what caused my accident—if the truck’s lights were off, or if I had glanced away from the road for a moment—but the result flattened the front half of my car and violently bounced me around the interior as if I were inside a pinball machine.
Strapped to the hard plastic stretcher, I was wheeled to get CT scans and X-rays. Despite the drips of morphine in my IV, I was in tremendous pain, especially through my neck, chest and abdomen. I realized that even without the straps, I still couldn’t move. My torso felt like it had been torn apart, and the only breaths I could take were very short and shallow. The nasal bone and septum of my nose had been shattered (“like an eggshell,” according to one doctor), I’d suffered severe trauma in my chest, neck, shoulder and back musculature, my right ankle was sprained, and I had multiple lacerations on my face, hands and knees. And I’d suffered a concussion.
In the middle of the first night I started collecting my thoughts. I took assessment of everything: car, bank account, wondering if I had sent in the latest payment for my insurance. And then I noticed something good—no, something great: I could feel my toes. At that moment I realized I had two paths ahead of me. I could let this car accident dominate years of my life, fighting through court appearances with salivating lawyers scrutinizing and accentuating my injuries, and treating me like a helpless victim. Or I could take charge and make the accident be day one of a new goal to come back faster, stronger and better than ever. I could use the wreck as motivation to improve myself and do things I had never done before. That night, I made my choice: I was going to do a triathlon. All I had to do was learn how to be an athlete. But first, I’d need to learn how to use my body all over again.
After a few months of healing, I slowly started getting active. The chest, back and shoulder muscles needed to rebuild them- selves. It was a challenge to pull myself up from bed, to sit down, and especially to do pushups. The accident had so severely shattered my nose that it required surgery. I took my rehabilitation seriously, impressing the doctors who had very seriously told me the wreck nearly killed me. Finally, I was able to jog.
I chose triathlon because it represents a mastery of form, speed and endurance in three distinct sports, contrasting sharply with my mastery of none. I’ve always been decent at riding bikes and running, but I’ve never spent any time thinking about how to do them properly. Swimming, however, is hard to fake, and I can safely say I’ve never cared for it at all. I had a few weeks of swim lessons as a young kid, hardly adequate to teach me anything more than overcoming a fear of water. The swim is my biggest obstacle, the one I was most anxious about once I set my goal.
About nine months after my accident, mostly recovered from the injuries, Triathlete partnered me up with Ian Murray, a USAT Level III-certified triathlon coach with an impressive list of credentials. His first task was to put me in the pool and assess my abilities—and in half an hour he had improved my 25-yard swim by six strokes. It was a transformative experience. I not only discovered a whole new approach to moving in the water, but I also found a way to quantify and measure my progress as a swimmer—a very important element of motivation for some- one like myself, who thrives on numbers and statistics.
After the pool session, Ian helped fit me on my new tri bike. He measured and adjusted my knee angle, hip angle, aerobar length and every other component exactly to my body. Prior to triathlon, I had never ridden anything like these two-wheeled rocket ships. On my first ride, the speed and acceleration of the bike blew my mind. I was given an objective to keep my cadence high and consistent at 85 to 90 rpm, much faster than my regular pedal-then-coast style. He also told me to keep my hands on the outside grips for the first few rides. But on the first solo trip, I decided to test out the aerobars—and quickly went back to the grips. It’ll take some time to get used to balancing with my arms tucked in so tightly; for now I’ll stay focused on the drills and exercises that Ian stresses in training.
Having a serious accident could turn into the best thing that happened to me. I’m starting my triathlon preparations for the Olympic-distance Superseal triathlon in San Diego with a ground-up rebuilding, moving in smart, safe intervals, rather than sprinting into the process (and likely injuring myself). Hard work has brought me to some pretty cool places so far, but it’ll take a lot more to bike and run far and fast, and stretch those first 25 yards of swimming into 1500 meters.
Look for part 2 in the April 2012 issue of Triathlete magazine. And check out video of his training at Triathlete.com/mikesenese.
Mike’s First Three Steps from Coach Ian Murray
Set goals. Mike’s dream goal: Be stronger, faster and better than before. Mike’s long-term goal is an Olympic- distance triathlon in the spring of 2012; his short-term goal is to transform into an actual athlete.
Identify limiters. Mike has a background in surfing but little faith in his swim technique. A private swim session helped perfect his bal- ance in the water and the timing of his arms.
Get a bike fit. Taking measurements on a fit cycle determined the right size of bike for Mike. A final fit on his new tri bike allows the bike to become an ex- tension of his body. This also protects from injury and provides potential for speed.