On Sept. 9 while training for the Hawaii Ironman, TeamTBB star Mary Beth Ellis of Boulder, Colo. rolled her front wheel across a water-filled pothole during her team’s training camp in Cozumel, Mexico. The wheel dove into the hole and pitched her off the bike, and she sustained a broken collarbone. It looked like her attempt to better her fifth-place result from a year ago would be dashed.
Fast forward to today; just over one month later, Ellis has a collarbone that was artfully cobbled back together with a metal plate fixed surgically with seven screws. Most would still call it a day and try again next year. Not so for Ellis; amazingly, after an aggressive recovery program, she’ll be on the start for Saturday’s GoPro Hawaii Ironman World Championships.
LAVA: When you went down, got up and realized this could be a break, did you think at all, in your wildest dreams, that you’d still be here, about to start the Hawaii Ironman this year?
Ellis: Right after the crash, I didn’t know what I had done. I knew it was bad, because I couldn’t move my arm at all. We went to ER in Cozumel and at first she said nothing was wrong, but as soon as it began to swell more and more, it because obvious there was something going on. At first, we thought it was dislocated, and that was the hope, so we had a shot at Kona.
Once we saw the specialist and the break of the clavicle, it looked pretty substantial; I thought Kona was done. I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to wait until 2014.
Then going to the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo. I said that of course the main goal was being healthy for 2014, but then I mentioned this little race in Kona. And he was supportive of trying to go for it. Dr. Millett along with Mark Ryan and the rest of the physiotherapy team at Howard Head PT clinic have been so supportive and let me be really aggressive with my recovery.
LAVA: Considering most collarbone breaks result in a splint, what constitutes “aggressive?”
Ellis: Within a week, I went from passive mobility to doing some of my own movements. Then, some strengthening and slowly, day by day increasing the strength and mobility of the joint.
LAVA: Most doctors are ultra conservative with athletes. Were you surprised to get a team that understood your goals and felt they could get you to the start, instead of immobilizing the joint, doing surgery and immobilizing the joint to let it heal?
Ellis: Well, really, the big thing was physical therapy. I can’t imagine going to get surgery where they didn’t have the physical therapy component integrated. I think the real benefit is a surgeon works so closely with the PT team. There’s such a synergy; the surgeon knows what PT is doing, and the physical therapists know what went on in the surgery, so they can get you started right away, but not do anything that’s going to be detrimental to your recovery.
LAVA: What kind of limitations do you feel you may have tomorrow, both in the swim in bike, based on range of motion or just general time out of the pool or off the bike?
Ellis: I think the limitations are more the fact that I lost quite a bit of time swim training. My stroke is a bit different than it would have been, and lost a bit of strength and fitness in the water, and that’s gonna have an impact. But just being able to swim, I don’t think pain is an issue; with the adrenaline I have, the swim will be fine.
The bike, being in the aerobars is a little bit uncomfortable for five hours. But being in the aerobars for five hours is gonna be uncomfortable anyway. And the run has been fine. From the first time I could run, I haven’t had pain there. I think the only question is how much fitness I lost. We’ll find that out tomorrow.
LAVA: Are you able to pull with full power?
Ellis: (laughs) No paddles in the pool, that’s for sure! No, I’ve lost strength in the arm, but it’s not too bad. I haven’t been timing but I’ve lost speed and strength through it. I can swim pretty normally but I can only to the non-injured side, while I’m a bilateral breather. So that moves my stroke around a bit. But I’ll make the best of it.
LAVA: How does this change your approach to the race? Coming in you were a favorite, and I’m sure that as a racer at heart, you’re not here to just make up the numbers.
Ellis: The athlete I was Sept. 9 I could have contended for the win. Of course, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could do well. I still think I have a lot of fitness from the year. I think if I have my best race, I can still be in the mix. That’s why I’m here. But you have to realize that things are different than they would have been.
LAVA: Does this alleviate any perceived pressures you might have felt coming in, considering your strong performance last year?
Ellis: Yeah, that is a benefit, I guess; all the pressure is gone. If I had come in without the crash, I’d feel like (TeamTBB teammate) Caroline (Steffen); I’d feel like I had to win. Now, I’d love to win, but getting to the starting line was such an accomplishment. That’s also a prize for me; just getting here.
LAVA: And that must just be so rewarding to be in among this atmosphere, after a full year of work for this race.
Ellis: I do think for the professionals, Kona is the most important race of the year. If I was at home watching, I know I would have regretted it. Considering the amount I’ve trained in the last week, I would have definitely regretted not giving it a shot. This is the most important race of the year for Ironman athletes; everyone’s here.
And really, I’d love to do my best considering all the sacrifices my family has made for me. And of course for my sponsors who have supported me, I’d love to do my best.