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After a fifth-place finish in her second attempt at the Ironman World Championship in Kona last year, American Mary Beth Ellis was considered a top contender to take the Kona crown this October. Despite a season full of adversity—she had a plantar fascia injury early in the season, was bitten by a rabid dog while training and then crashed while racing at Ironman France (she went on to win)—Ellis had still managed to add several wins to her résumé, including two Ironman titles. She felt like things were finally coming together when she headed to Cozumel for a final block of Kona training with her teamTBB teammates, but one week after her arrival all hopes of winning the Ironman World Championship title were dashed.
“I went down there around Sept. 1 and was training and it happened on Sept. 9,” Ellis says of the accident. “We had a hard track workout in the morning and I was doing a really easy bike ride in the afternoon. I got out there and it started raining—the kind of rain where you might as well be taking a shower—and I was finishing up my two-hour ride and just pulling up into my street. I was probably about 100 meters from where I was staying and I turned to look behind me to see if any cars were coming because I had to make a left turn and I just missed seeing a puddle that was in the middle of the road, and unfortunately I went into that puddle and under the puddle was a huge pothole, big enough that my entire front wheel went into it and I flipped right over the handlebars.”
After visiting a local hospital and confirming that her collarbone was indeed broken, Ellis booked the next flight home to Boulder, Colo. and started looking into doctors who could help her reach a full recovery in time to race the 2014 triathlon season without any lingering effects from the injury. At that point, Ellis felt there was no chance of reaching the 2013 Kona start line, but that belief changed when she met with her physician.
“I have to credit Dr. [Peter] Millett of The Steadman Clinic with that,” she says of the realization that racing in Kona may still be a possibility. “I was meeting with him and I had mentioned to him that the original goal was the Ironman World Championship on Oct. 12. The primary goal was, of course, to get a full recovery, but he supported the idea of me trying to go for it… I’ve sacrificed a lot of time away from my family and my husband to really focus on Kona. I really want to, if it’s possible, have the opportunity to get there. I’m at least not going to give up before I try. Even now, there’s no guarantee that I’m going to make it.”
With Kona back on the 2013 schedule, things moved quickly. The evening of Sept. 12, the same day Ellis met with Dr. Millett for the first time, she was taken into surgery to repair her comminuted distal clavicle fracture (the collarbone break). The end of the bone was actually stuck in her trapezius muscle and resulted in a disruption of coracoclavicular ligaments with a severe deformity in her shoulder. The repair was done using a cutting-edge approach with a specially-designed plate that would allow her to return to activity quickly.
“We did the repair of the fracture using the plate and screws,” Dr. Millett says of the surgery. “Based on research we had done, we also repaired the coracoclavicular ligaments, which hold the collarbone in place, using a special fixation method. We did a minimally invasive approach, using a combination of arthroscopic surgery to go into the joint and repair the ligaments, and a small open approach to slip the plate in and fix the collarbone. We used X-ray guidance to help us reduce all of the fracture pieces—like putting a jigsaw puzzle back together inside a bottle. She stayed one night in the hospital, starting her rehabilitation that evening. Her recovery has been remarkable; she’s healing very fast… her progress has been quite dramatic.”
Dr. Millett and his team at The Steadman Clinic have put Ellis on a rigorous physical therapy plan that will hopefully get her to the start line on Oct. 12. In addition to her twice-a-day therapy sessions, Ellis has been back in the pool doing some one-arm swimming and water jogging, has spent time on her bike trainer and is hiking to try to retain the fitness she had built up leading into the accident. Though her progress is promising, Ellis, Dr. Millett and her team of physical therapists recognize that competing in any athletic event—let alone the Ironman World Championship—will be a difficult task just four weeks after surgery.
“Typically with an injury like this it would be probably be four to six months to recover and she is trying to condense that into one month,” says Dr. Millett. “We’re going to make sure that she is safe and that she doesn’t do any further damage, but if she is able to and it’s medically safe we’re going to do our best to accelerate her recovery so she can compete… The swimming is the major concern, given that it’s a shoulder injury and it’s [almost] a 2.5-mile swim.”
While the first leg of the race will be by far the toughest challenge for the usually stellar swimmer, the bike will also come with its own set of challenges. Ellis will stay on the trainer until she leaves for Kona on Oct. 5 and it won’t be until then that she’ll begin addressing the logistical questions presented by the 112-mile ride. Putting weight on her shoulder in the aero position is the most obvious hurdle, but she is equally concerned about how she will be able to grab bottles from aid stations.
Although her injuries are different, Ellis says she has reflected on Chrissie Wellington’s 2011 Ironman World Championship win—where she competed with several injuries as the result of a bike crash two weeks prior—as part of her journey to the start line.
“What Chrissie accomplished in 2011 was amazing,” Ellis tells us. “Anybody who raced her that day and anybody who knew what she went through can understand. She’s obviously an inspiration… She always raced with pure guts and courage. When I hit the starting line I hope I can have half of what she had out there. Her winning is huge—it would be a dream to still do well after this accident. I’ll definitely be trying to channel some of her positive energy out there.”
Though Wellington went on to win that day—and Ellis does admit that was the goal before the accident—the American says that her hopes for a top performance on the Big Island have already been drastically reduced.
“When an accident of this magnitude happens your expectations are shifted for you,” Ellis explains. “There wasn’t a choice of having surgery. If it was a minor accident it could be worse because your expectations might not shift. For the first few days I had written off Kona and was trying to come to grips with the fact that that I wasn’t going to be there. It takes all of the pressure off of me. I’m going to do the best with what I have.”
As part of her journey to the start line, Ellis will be sharing updates on her recovery and training with Triathlete.com. With the race still in question this may seem like a difficult thing to share with the world, but she says it was an easy decision.
“It was kind of a no-brainer for me,” she says. “I’ve sacrificed so much over the past year trying to dedicate my life to doing well in Kona… so for me, I wanted to try to at least get something meaningful out of the race. I think a lot of triathletes go through injuries from a crash or injuries from chronic overuse. I’m also going to try to raise some funds for the Steadman Philippon Research Institute, which helps all athletes get the best treatment possible and get us back out there doing what we love. I’m trying to get something of meaning out of this accident.”
Look for Ellis’ first update later this week and follow her journey at Triathlete.com/MBEKona. Learn more about her progress and her goal of raising money for the Steadman Philippon Research Institute here.