Haskins overcoming surgery
For all her recent success, including an ITU World Championship silver medal last June in Vancouver, a strong fifth place finish at Madrid in May and a fourth place finish at Washington DC last weekend in the Dextro Energy World Championship series rounds two and three, American Sarah Haskins has been operating at less than full throttle for two years.
Two years ago, Haskins stepped in crack in the pavement while running at the ITU World Cup in Lisbon with long term consequences. “I basically snapped my ankle,” said the 28-year-old who won a silver medal at the 2007 Pan American Games and the 2006 USA Triathlon Elite National Championships. “And my foot never felt quite right since then. It’s progressively gotten worse and worse.”
Still, Haskins, managed her slowly worsening injury extremely well, taking fourth overall and second American at the inaugural $700,000 Hy-Vee Triathlon World Cup in 2007, and nailing down the third and final US women’s slot for the Beijing Olympic Games by outdueling Sarah Groff at Hy-Vee last year.
Her plight underscores the Darwinian choices that many top level triathletes face in short, intense careers trying to prevail against an ever deeper, ever more talented, ever faster fields around the world. With the quadrennial Olympic Games looming, Haskins took a calculated risk and made it work, with the careful guidance of husband-coach Nate Kortuem. Looking back, Haskins says “I had a lot of pain and felt like my foot wasn’t really working.”
Slowtwitch: You managed well through ITU Worlds where you and Helen Jenkins executed a brilliant breakaway on the bike and you took home the silver. Afterwards, people said you simply didn’t have a sprint. But that wasn’t the whole story was it?
Sarah: It was getting progressively worse and last year after Worlds it deteriorated.
ST: You still finished top 10 and won an Olympic slot at Hy-Vee, but your performance in West Des Moines was not at the Vancouver level.
Sarah:My calf would get really sore after races. Essentially what was happening was this: Two years ago at the original injury, I stretched out the nerve connecting my ankle to the knee. When it healed, the scar tissue was trapped around the nerve when I ran. It pinched the nerve and I was losing foot function. Basically my big toe wasn’t working.
ST: After Vancouver, you seemed to have lost an edge at the Olympics?
Sarah: I can’t complain. I went to the Olympics and gave it all I had and finished 11th.
ST: So starting in 2009, it wasn’t getting better and you decided to do something about it.
Sarah: I found a wonderful nerve doctor in Marina Del Rey California, Dr. Robert Bray, and had an operation in February. He did a wonderful job. What I had was called a nerve entrapment and after the operation I felt a big difference right away. The day after, I could move my big toe again. It was like a light switch and my nerve was turned back on.
ST: Near the end, what was going on in your foot?
Sarah: I wasn’t able to push off that toe. Right after the operation I took four weeks off running. I started back running in early April and raced Madrid in late May. I’d only run seven weeks and didn’t have a ton of expectations. I just wanted to go out and have fun.
ST: You did a lot better than that. You were part of a five-women sprint at the finish.
Sarah: The first 3k of the run Andrea Hewitt and Lisa Norden broke away I was in 3rd and closed the gap, then Christiane Pilz (of Germany) and Jessica Harrison (of France) came back up and for a time the five of us were running together. Because I hadn’t been able to do any speed work, I didn’t want a sprint. So I tried to push the pace and separate before the end.
ST: At the end, they took the first four spots, but you were just six seconds back of Hewitt and Norden, five seconds back of Jessica Harrison, and two seconds back of Pilz.
Sarah: I was proud of myself. Most important, my foot is much better. It’s still not 100 percent. My doctor told me it would be eight months before all my nerve fibers grow back. But now I’m just a small percentage off.
ST: Just before the Washington DC race, there was a rumor that recent rains had produced higher than safe levels of bacteria in the Potomac. As a result, many triathletes thought the race would be a duathlon with 15 kilometers of running. What would you have done?
Sarah: Nate (Kortuem, her husband and coach) and I decided I would do the first run and bike then pull out. We just felt that 15 kilometers of hard running would put too much stress on my foot and set back my recovery.
ST: You were obviously happy the swim wasn’t canceled. How did the foot feel?
Sarah: It hurt afterward. But it continues to improve and I’m looking forward to see what I can do at the end of the year.
ST: Your swim and bike have not suffered?
Sarah: No. I’ve been able to do more volume and keep them at a higher level than my run. But I’ve just not yet been able to work up my running volume.
ST: Making that break with Mary Beth Ellis was an achievement on a flat course – unlike your break on the hill at Vancouver with Helen Jenkins.
Sarah: I have to thank Mary Beth Ellis for pushing us to break away. She did a lot of work. But after we finished that ride with a 40-seconds lead, I had nothing left to fight back when the Emmas went by.
ST: Maybe the story will be different in a few months.
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