The following is a guest post by Katie Dolan. We know several recently recovered cyclists with stories to tell. This is one of them.
During March, we celebrate the women who’ve gone before us, who’ve persevered, pushed on, and persisted in spite of a variety of obstacles. It seems fitting then that we also look at contemporary women who don’t let anything hold them back.
One such woman is 28-year-old Karla Hernandez. By day Karla manages construction projects for New Generation Construction. When not consumed with writing reports and overseeing projects and agendas, Karla competes in triathlons, gravel races, and marathons. She loves the trails in and around Lincoln and has trained on them many times.
She’s also used them to recover from two serious injuries in the last 2 years.
On June 12, 2018, on an unseasonably hot, humid day in the Loess Hills around Malvern, Iowa, Karla could feel she wasn’t 100%, but she’d come to ride gravel, and she wasn’t going to quit.
“The conditions played into it,” says Karla. “It was hill after hill in that heat and humidity, I was dehydrated, but I was determined to keep going. Suddenly, on a downhill, my front tire hit a big rock, and I flew over the handlebars. I was told what happened, but I pretty much blacked out.”
Friend and fellow gravel rider Carolyn Collier was behind Karla and saw her go over. Carolyn stopped, and the two waited a few minutes. Carolyn asked Karla if she was ready to go and reached her hand down to help her up.
“I was still on the ground, and when she tried to help me up, and I realized something was really wrong. I wasn’t going to be able to continue,” says Karla.
The truck came and got Karla and her bike, and she found herself at the finish line, waiting for her friends, but she had no idea how she got there.
After her friends had finished the race, they realized she needed to see a doctor, so they all drove back to Lincoln and took Karla to Bryan. She was told her collarbone was broken and she’d probably need surgery, but she was sent home and told someone would call Monday to schedule the surgery.
That call never came, so after 3 days of suffering through terrible discomfort and pain, Karla called cycling friend Matt Gersib, who told her to call local Orthopaedic Surgeon Dr. Scott Bigelow. Dr. Bigelow looked over Karla’s x-rays, and scheduled the surgery for the next day, Wednesday, four days after Karla’s crash.
He mended her broken collarbone with a metal plate and 8 screws.
“He told me they could be there forever, or, if they’re bothering me, he could surgically remove them,” says Karla. “I can feel them when I run my fingers along my collarbone, and they really bother me in the winter when it gets cold, but I don’t want to have surgery again.”
All Karla could think of through the recovery was running and riding again. She’d gone back to work on the Friday after surgery, and she was determined to get back to running and riding as soon as she could.
“If I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid, so I went back to work right away,” says Karla. “And I started running a month after the crash.”
First, Karla walked the trails, then she started running. She started spin classes, and then 6 weeks after her crash and surgery, she was on her bike again. Her goal was to ride the 150-mile course at Gravel Worlds in August, 2 months after her surgery, and she did. During the ride, she actually found Scott Bigelow on the course, and the two rode together for about 10 miles.
She told him, “I feel super good because if anything happens, you’re right here to fix me.”
Although she was in pain, she finished. She wasn’t about to give up, and she didn’t give up for the next 18 months as she ran, rode her bike, and swam. She felt strong and confident, and she wanted to get back to competing in all the events she had before her crash.
In June 2019, she rode the Loess Hills Enduro and finished what she’d started the year before.
Then the day before the SuperBowl in 2020, Karla was running in Ashland, Nebraska, and it was muddy and icy. She was again going down hill when her foot got stuck and she tried to catch herself and regain her balance. Instead, as she twisted, she heard the bone in her leg crack, and she went t down.
“I started screaming and crying; it was just a tiny bone at the bottom of my leg, the bottom of the fibula, but the pain was horrible,” says Karla. “A guy in front of me stopped and asked me if I was OK, and even though my brain was horrified and telling me not to, I grabbed his legs and bit him.”
Five or 10 minutes later, Karla was more in control, and she apologized profusely for biting the guy. He just waved it off.
They were in the middle of nowhere, though, so it was tough for the truck to come and get her. She bounced all the way back to the finish line in terrible pain. Her boyfriend Trevor was there, and he drove her straight to Bryan Hospital in Lincoln.
“I called Scott Bigelow again from the hospital and asked him if he could fix me again,” says Karla. “I had surgery on Monday, and I now have a plate, wire, and screws in my leg, too.”
This recovery was a little tougher. First, she was on crutches and it was winter—a cold, snowy Nebraska winter. Second, she was in a lot more pain than with her collarbone. She had to elevate her red, swollen, throbbing foot.
Two weeks later when Dr. Bigelow removed her staples, she asked when she could walk again, he said it might be a while. She had a boot, but she still needed the crutches, which she hated.
When more than a month had passed, and Karla put weight on her foot the first time, she gasped in shock. Not only did her leg and foot throb in pain, but she also, she could put no weight on her foot and she had zero mobility in her foot or ankle.
She was demoralized for the first time. She went to Pioneers Park and tried to walk the trails, but she felt like she was learning to walk all over again. Her foot just would not move.
Instead of walking, Karla jumped in the pool and started swimming laps. After she finished, she asked Trevor to massage her foot and move it for her, and she also asked him to ignore her screams and tears. She was determined to get back to running and riding despite the pain.
Because of Karla’s determination and Trevor’s careful massages and gentle movements, she was finally able to go to the gym without her crutches. By then, the pandemic was also shutting everything down and canceling competitive events. Karla continued pushing herself, and in September, 7 months after she broke her leg, she rode 50 miles of gravel in the socially distanced Solstice Gravel Grinder in Beatrice.
“It was a very nice day and a nice ride, but it was very hilly,” says Karla. “I couldn’t clip in and still can’t. I can’t do the unclip side-to-side motion. My foot just doesn’t bend that way anymore.”
Karla’s collarbone is healed, and her shoulder is good but sensitive. Her foot is painful.
“It’s just not the same, even after a year,” says Karla. “This injury and recovery has been a little overwhelming, but it’s been a learning experience, too.”
Karla has learned to listen to her body. Yes, she still has goals, she still pushes through, but she’s learned to be patient, and she’s also learned to say and accept no.
“I had to learn that just because I want to do something like run an icy, hilly, rocky course in February doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do. I have learned to pay attention to the red flags, to read the conditions, and to stop. Just stop,” says Karla.
Ultimately, that will allow her another day of running, swimming, and riding. The first time it happened, Karla says she didn’t learn. She just wanted to get back to running and riding as fast as she could. The second time, she learned. She learned she has limits.
“It took two broken bones, and my very disappointed and scared parents to help me see that I’m strong but I’m not unbreakable,” says Karla.
Even with her painful lessons, Karla is excited for this year and all of the competitions she has planned: The Lincoln Half Marathon and the Co2uT in May, the Solstice Gravel Grinder in June, Cornhusker State Games Gravel in July, the Omaha Triathlon and Gravel Worlds in August, and the Good Life Halfsy in October.
“What I would tell other people is that I felt like I was at rock bottom and I wasn’t sure how to get back up,” says Karla. “It took me a while to understand that I just needed to be patient with myself, but always keep going. Sure, it felt like a rollercoaster at times—there were very good moments and very bad moments—but I talked to the people close to me about what I was feeling, I kept going, and I believed I would get back to those things I was passionate about.”