By Ben Hoffman

After a disappointing and debilitating injury to my sacral ala last September, I endured a long autumn and winter of endless questing and waiting for my body to heal enough to be ready for rehab. Beginning a very slow build back in late December, I was still unsure of my ability to return to top form. Thankfully, along with an excellent team of advisors who helped guide the plan, I was able to stay positive and begin taking the baby steps back to full health.

The first weeks were an absolute grind, but carrying the hunger from my time away and a deep appreciation for being able to move again, signs of life emerged and the intensity of my self-belief grew louder than a faint whisper. I finally felt able to dream once more… and the first dream I had? To return to the beginning of my troubles last season in South Africa and seek redemption.

Photo Credit: @raineduponmedia for @cervelocycles

With the plan firmly in place and the target placed on Port Elizabeth April 7th, 2019, I steadily chipped away and looked for the joy in the process, rather than focusing on the outcomes. In the unplanned and unwelcome loss of something, my passion was reignited, and I embraced both the good and bad moments with equal excitement. I reclaimed the underlying "why" for my training and embraced an outlook of patience and gratitude. Add to it the wonderful surprise of a baby on the way, and I left the house each day with a certain lightness that I hope I can tap into for the remainder of my career.

I also felt more keenly focused on the minutiae that truly sets apart great athletes from the rest. Considering a theory that my injury could have been brought on by overuse and/or overtraining, I vigilantly checked in with my Cercacor Ember device to track how my body was responding to the reintroduced load and how recovery was going after each session. My morning readings have always been the easiest and most interesting data point for me to capture. With the PRV (Pulse Rate Variability) parameter, described by Cercacor as the measurement of the variability in time between successive pulse rates, I could easily see my gradual improvement and readiness each morning. At the end of the week, I would review trend graphs to make sure to review my PRV and morning oxygen content values continued to rise. The upward trend told me that fitness was building, more oxygen was available for my muscles and I wasn’t pushing the return too hard. Under training has never been an issue for me, but I did need to make sure that my return wasn’t too much, too soon. The grind of returning to fitness always seems like it takes forever, but these graphs helped me to stay focused on the slow and steady build.

Amazingly enough, time did indeed pass, and I was back to feeling 100% myself again as we boarded flights for the long haul across to South Africa. Our fourth year in a row, we were well-versed in the weeklong lead-up to the race, and we settled into a comfortable routine of training, eating, and other pre-race obligations. We just truly enjoy being in South Africa, connecting with a community that embraced me as their own after two previous wins and a long walk last year. To be perfectly honest, the biggest nerves I had were that my incredibly great sensations, slow and strong training lead up and positively trending Ember readings would somehow not align with my race day performance. Some people call it a "flow state," and I certainly felt ready for the challenge ahead.

Photo Credit: @raineduponmedia for @cervelocycles

Race day arrived and I promised myself I would be accountable for my destiny; to be aggressive, fair, and ambitious in my racing. Despite a last-minute shortening of the swim leg due to rough seas, I was not even slightly fazed. Take the race as it comes, and do your best performance with what you have I reminded myself. Off into the water and we were underway for an exciting day of racing, and it felt so good to be back competing after many months away.

I exited the water in a good spot in the main front pack a minute adrift of Josh Amberger and clear of some other contenders. By the early stages of the bike, I could tell it was going to be a full-gas kind of affair, and I relished in the opportunity to push hard, especially on the new climbs at the far end of the course. We quickly whittled the group down and kept the pace high. A failed attempt or two to break away meant I settled into the group for a period on the second lap, but then broke away again near the end and built a buffer of almost 1:30 on the group of chasers.

Onto the run, I channeled the magic feelings of my wins in 2016 and 2017 when my body did whatever I asked on the marathon. The first steps are always a little bit uncertain when transitioning, but I found my rhythm quickly and knew I had the legs to push. I did not get aggressive immediately, instead waiting to see what the others might do behind, and they pulled a few seconds per kilometer back, but nothing that showed me I was in trouble. After two laps of four, I pushed a little to open a larger gap and put the race out of reach, and it seemed to work as I opened the split to over 4 minutes. The last lap was for me to savor, soaking in the energy of the crowd as I turned the corner for the chute and let the emotions out. Seeing Kelsey at the finish line sent me into a state of total joy, as we have endured a lot this last year, and it was very sweet validation and redemption for us both. To know I had delivered for my family was extra special.

Of course, I never consider any race a solo effort, and I want to say a big thanks to everyone who continued to believe and support me through a difficult season. Refreshed and refocused, I'm looking forward to my best year yet.

Photo Credit: @raineduponmedia for @cervelocycles