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Phoenix Calandrella: Don’t Mistake the Cracks for Breaks


Phoenix Calendrella reflects on an important lesson that applies during life and the inevitable ups and downs of tri-ing.”The cracks make us stronger and breaks happen. Just be careful not to confuse the two… ”

Crack your arm in one place, and it will grow back stronger than before. Break it into multiple pieces, and you’re probably looking at surgery and months of rehab. Yet immediately after the injury, you can’t always tell if you have a crack or a break. When I shattered my collarbone in a motorcycle accident, the ER doctor diagnosed a cracked collarbone “which will probably heal itself”, but suggested I have another doctor examine it a week later when I got back home to Atlanta. The following Friday I found myself at the second doctor’s office, waiting for him to review the fresh x-rays. His first comment was “This isn’t a cracked collarbone, this is shattered and you need surgery ASAP. Can you come back tomorrow morning at 7 am?” Ummm, sure, because what other plans did I have on a Saturday morning (what doctor schedules a surgery for Saturday morning?!?!?). 1 steel plate, 8 screws, and 3 months of healing later, and my collarbone was finally healed, but it will never be what it was before…


Our sport, unlike just about any other, is actually predicated on our ability to heal. Every hard workout you’re causing micro-tears in the muscles, they grow back bigger, stronger, and (hopefully for us) faster. But our sport is also not one of linear progression, sometimes a week of bad workouts leads to a breakthrough success. Other times, months of diligent training ends in a disappointing race, where you couldn’t produce the power or hold the pace you had many times in training in the previous week.


I recently experienced this at my first sprint tri (but it’s only a sprint, I’ve done an Olympic and a HIM, how hard could this be?!?!?!). Months and months of training culminated in what I thought was going to be my coronation, my successful sprint, where I’d nail my personal best possible time. Needless to say, it didn’t go down quite like that, and I left the race feeling broken. Not the micro-tear kind, but the shattered collarbone kind. Or, as one of my triathlete friends apparently told my coach “Phoenix is pouting”. It was probably a much more accurate description.


But I spent the next 24 hours trying to figure out if maybe “Tris just weren’t my thing”. And then analyzing, overanalyzing, determining what went wrong, examining whether anything went right, and I came away from that self-analysis, well, probably still thinking I was broken. I’d put so much time and energy into my training. I’d literally put the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears into this for months, and was rewarded with, in my mind, nothing. I literally thought to myself, “that race broke me and I’m not sure I want to continue with tris.” I finished the weekend off with a long email to my coach, and we agreed to chat on Monday.


After a long chat, I felt slightly better, but still wasn’t convinced this was for me. And then my coach recommended I join 4 others who’d be riding Three Gaps on Tuesday, a ride I’d never attempted. I half-heartedly agreed, and joined up Tuesday morning, still feeling broken, still unsure. And was confronted with my riding mates for the day- four super strong, competitive, ATC teammates, who literally could probably have done the ride twice in the amount of time it would take me to struggle to the end. And I knew, KNEW, at that moment, this was a bad idea. I can’t hang with these people on the flats, what in the world was I doing in the mountains with them??? More importantly, what was my coach thinking??? We’d had a 45 minute chat on Monday, where I made it pretty clear I thought I was broken. And here she was subjecting me to more abuse. It’s like having a window broken, and when the person comes to fix it, they show up with a hammer and start breaking the big pieces into tinier pieces. But I couldn’t go home now, so off we rode.


Within 15-20 minutes, I was having serious doubts, seriously not sure I’d be able to finish, but I kept quiet, and kept grinding. And the others were laughing and joking and having fun. FUN! Who in the hell thinks this is FUN!??!?! It was like a Trumpian definition of fun, a definition I’d never heard of before. After the first hour, where I pretty much spent all the energy I had for the day, I was reassured “don’t worry, that’s the worst of it…” Until someone else chimed in, “Not really, that other climb coming up is worse…” Ummm, you’re not helping. They couldn’t hear my inner monologue, my concerns about finishing the ride, the questioning as to why my coach had suggested this, and my general unease. I hid behind the humor of mock indignation (there was nothing mock about it, I was terrified, but it seemed wise to crack what sounded like jokes, when in reality they were absolutely spot on as to how I felt). After a couple of minutes and a quick picture, we were off.


And things didn’t get better. The second climb is shorter, but definitely the steepest, and as I watched their rear tires and water bottles disappear into the distance, I was left in the worse possible place. In my head. Alone. Broken. And I started to wallow in it. This is stupid. This isn’t for me. I shouldn’t be doing this 3 days after a race that broke me. I just want to quit. I’m done. And all I could do was continue to grind. You don’t realize how hard riding is, until you’re climbing a hill at 4 mph at a cadence in the low 40’s.. But I just told myself, do whatever it takes, but don’t quit. No matter how slow, no matter how ready you are to quit, you can quit later, just keep grinding until you meet them at the top. And then figure out if you have cell phone reception, and whether Uber has any drivers up here…



The others cheered me as I finished the ascent to the top, and I was sure I was done with this. After a couple of minutes of drinking and nutrition, and a brief discussion that my gearing probably wasn’t ideal for me, we headed off again for the last climb. And within about 300 yards, they were gone, and all I could see was a long, semi-steep climb into the clouds (I wonder if people climbing Everest ever realized how high up the North GA Mountains extend…). These four had graciously allowed me to join them, and waited for me at the top of each climb (for how long, I had no idea… 3 minutes? 5 minutes? 10? Good god I hope not longer than 10). But would they really know if I stopped halfway up the climb, stretched my legs for a couple of minutes, and then continued? If they didn’t know, they couldn’t care right? But on that climb, I started to realize, I’d taken the longest climb already. And I’d taken the steepest climb, apparently. Was I really willing to quit now? You can go as slow as you want, just don’t quit. Besides, if you quit, you won’t be able to restart going uphill, so you’ll have to go back downhill to get clipped back in, and then you’ll have to recover that lost ground, and how in the world could THAT sound like a good idea?!!? So I kept going.


Slowly, not quite surely, but at least doggedly. And I started to realize, Saturday wasn’t a break, it was a crack. 3 Gaps wasn’t breaking me, it was cracking me. I swear I could feel each one of those cracks throughout the day, mental cracks larger than the physical ones, but I could feel them all. But they were cracks, not breaks, I could now see that clearly. I’d ignorantly mistaken the cracks for breaks. But they weren’t, it wasn’t something I couldn’t recover from, it was something that was going to heal, and leave me stronger. Unlike a race, and I think we often forget this, training truly gives us control over the most important variable, the willingness to keep going. It’s not about how fast or how strong, it’s about the willingness to just not stop. And on that final climb, I flashed back to the sprint, and the performance of a fellow ATC’er. Less than a month after having a race performance that clearly (if not quite spoken) left her feeling disappointed, frustrated, and slightly discouraged, she pulled off 1st in her AG. That race the month before? That wasn’t a break either, it was a crack. It left her stronger, faster, and maybe just a tad more determined. So as hard as it is, don’t mistake the cracks for breaks… And feel free to remind me that along the way, there are many more cracks to come…