A meteoric rise and very hard fall

Sjaan Gerth was the top amateur at 70.3 New Orleans in what turned out to be only his 4th triathlon, but a terrible hit and run accident likely made that one his last one and possibly ended all endurance sport aspirations of this fast Canadian. When we talked with Colin Laughery on March 23 he predicted a big future for Gerth, but all that changed in the blink of an eye a week later on a Thursday morning north of Toronto.

Slowtwitch: I am so sorry that we end up meeting under these circumstances.

Sjaan Gerth: Yeah, it is an unfortunate thing - that is for sure.

ST: How serious is the injury?

Sjaan: To put it in perspective, I have been here a week and the big thing today was that I could roll over to my side with assistance. I don’t really have any paralysis, but I am filled with metal. I have a big metal rod in my back from the T10 to the L2 vertebrae, and a metal rod in my right leg and plates and screws in my left knee. The left ankle is technically not broken, but it has no ligaments left, and my left knee also has no ligaments left. The reality is with all that hardware in my body, and my back alone will never let me get into an aero position again. Nor would I be able to handle the training volume with that much hardware and the associated pain issues.

ST: But I would imagine that for your family and yourself, triathlon is maybe not so much on your mind right now anyway.

Sjaan: Yes, but to give you a little bit of background. I have been led to slowtwitch over the years, but I am not a big web guy, and I don’t do any social media. A person at the recreational pool where I swim brought to my attention the article you wrote about Colin [Laughery] after the New Orleans race, and he kind of put 2 and 2 together and realized I was the guy who went 4:01. I read the article and so forth and it was funny that he thought that I was a Wisconsin runner. Darn close, I indeed ran for a Big 10 school from 2000 to 2004, but it was Ohio State. I didn’t really have a standout running career to be honest, and my body was always better suited for high mileage efforts. I then came back [to Canada] and did not pursue any running or athletics and came back directly to medical school in Toronto, followed by residency and then out to general practice. And only last year did I pick up sports again on a regular basis. The New Orleans race was actually only my 4th triathlon and my first half Ironman distance.

ST: Well, you certainly put on quite a show in NOLA.

Sjaan: I knew I was fit and don’t get me wrong, it certainly did not come out of the blue. December 2013, January 2014 that is when we had our first child and my wife was pregnant with our second child and I then decided to get active again, and got motivated to do something other than work. I started to run again, but always have been a bit of an injury prone runner and biking was a way for me to get around that. I found out that I was able to handle a good volume and intensity on the bike, without getting really backed up from it. I started swimming probably in February, March 2014, and did my first duathlon in May. Lionel Sanders was actually in that race and kicked my butt, but not by such an amount that I though was insurmountable. Plus I raced it on my cyclocross bike and those guys all had their Cervelo P5, or whatever else they were riding. I thus thought I might have a little potential in the sport. I also raced in the Canadian Mountain Running Championships that year and won that, and represented Canada at the World Championships in September of 2014. In between I did a Sprint triathlon and again Lionel Sanders kicked my butt, but it was again not by that much and I still competed on my cross bike without any aerobars but with road tires. I then did the Toronto Triathlon which was my first Olympic distance race and had bought a Shiv TT the week before and rode it on race day. That was also only my second open water swim and I ended up winning that race in 2 hours flat, despite a crash on the bike. But it was only the third time I actually rode in the aero position. Pretty humorous actually. The week after that I came second in my age group at the National Championships, and then that was it, that was my season. I then hung it up and my next race was the New Orleans half Ironman.

ST: How had you decided on New Orleans?

Sjaan: I applied with Triathlon Canada for what we call an International Competition card, which is essentially a professional triathlon license. That was in March and I wanted to make the jump to the professional level at the long distance races. I guess it was a bit presumptuous, as I had only done three of them, two of them Olympic and one of them a Sprint. But based on the guys I had beaten in those races, and many of them had pro cards, I thought it was a worthy application, but I was declined. They recommended that I do a race or two to see how it went and then reapply. A big race up here is Muskoka 70.3 and I really wanted to race that one, but to get to that race as a professional I needed a professional card, and I am not exactly sure, but I think it was 45 days before the race. So I needed a race that was reasonable close and easy to get to, basically slip away from work, do the race and come back home. But also [time wise] far enough away from Muskoka so I could get the pro membership and register for the race, and the New Orleans race fit the bill. It was a relatively easy flight, did the trip by myself, flew in and raced and flew out, and that was the story.

ST: I guess that did it?

Sjaan: I just went down there to get a mark and Triathlon Canada sets a relatively easy standard of 4 hours and 20 minutes for the half Ironman distance to get that International Competition Card. I knew that was well within my abilities and I went down there without much of a plan or taper, and just wanted to do the race in under 4:20 and then go home. I emailed Triathlon Canada that evening and told them, hey this is the race and it went well and I was the top amateur. The next day I got my International Competition Card and by Wednesday that week I was a registered Ironman Pro Member.

ST: But your health matters much more now.

Sjaan: I got to be honest with you, I am thankful to be alive, and pretty thankful to not have severed severe brain damage or a paralysis. At this moment I have the prospect of walking and playing soccer with my kids when they are older.

ST: What do you actually remember from the accident?

Sjaan: I do my long training rides on Thursday mornings and have clinic on Thursday afternoon, and that frees up time with my family on the weekends. I was up early as usually and out on my bike, and still kind of recovering from that New Orleans race as it had taken a lot out of my legs. So this was kind of a 4-hour easy ride on rolling terrain north of Toronto, and I hit the 2-hour mark and turned around and was about half an hour homewards when I heard this huge crash, and I remember the sound of it more than anything. Just a really loud metallic type of sound and everything went black. According to bystanders I was pitched about 30 feet forward in the air and landed about that distance from my bicycle. Was actually riding that same old cyclocross one, which is my main training bike. I remember waking up on the pavement, surrounded by bystanders and cars that had stopped. Lying in sort of an unnaturally contorted position with my legs not completely being their own. But I knew that I must have been hit by a car, was able to give them my wife’s name and phone number, and told them all about myself. So at that moment I knew that I did not suffer from a traumatic brain injury, but likely lost the use of my legs entirely. But in hindsight the amount of pain in my legs was an indication that there was still some neural attachment. One of the bystanders was actually an emergency room doctor, and I was uncomfortable and wanted to be turned over, but thankfully this emergency did not let them. He stabilized my spine in the position it was until the ambulance arrived.

ST: What time of the morning was that and what were the conditions like?

Sjaan: The time of the accident was recorded as 10:30am and it was a beautiful sunny day. Still fairly cool, so I was wearing a jacket, and I had one of those lights that is attached to the Fizik saddle.

ST: How about that vehicle that hit you?

Sjaan: According to bystanders it was a pickup truck that had been turned into a tow truck, and the truck was seen erratically swerving on and off the road leading up to me and he then hit me directly from behind. There was not a significant shoulder but I was right on the white line of the right hand side of the road. It was a straight road, but I don’t remember if we were going uphill or downhill. It certainly wasn’t in a curve, and the roads were dry and the footing was great. He just hit me and then drove on. The rumor is, and this has not yet been confirmed, that the driver was intoxicated and well known to police there, and he was driving a stolen truck. They found him 2 hours later passed out in the same vehicle and brought him in for questioning. I think he is being held for outstanding other charges.

ST: How soon did your wife learn about the accident?

Sjaan: They called her immediately on my cell phone, which was in my back pocket, but she did not answer so they send her a text asking her to call them. She did that within seconds. The weekend before I had gotten that dreaded double flat tire, and was stuck without a tube and had to call her to get me, and it was an hour drive for her. She assumed it was about that again. [laughs]

ST: I am sure she much would have preferred that double flat call.

Sjaan: Very much so, and the hard part initially after the accident is to describe the amount of trauma. She was not sure what to expect, for example if I was going to be paralyzed, had brain damage or had half my face taken off. It was all a bit of an unknown until she got to the hospital and saw that I was alert and awake and able to converse with her. She breathed a big sigh of relief.

ST: How old are your kids?

Sjaan: I have a son named William who is 16 months this month, and I have a daughter named Ruby who is 3.5 years old. They have both been here visiting me and climbing all over me causing quite a severe amount of pain.

ST: At that age I guess it is hard to keep them away.

Sjaan: My daughter just learned to ride a bike without training wheels and she wants me to come out of bed and take her for a spin. So that is one of my goals to get out and run with her when she rides.

ST: Have you had many visitors and good support?

Sjaan: I have had a lot of good support here, everyone from the scene of the accident, to the ambulance drivers, and the surgeons have just been awesome and wonderful. The outpouring of support from my friends and family has been great, and although we don’t have immediate family near us, my mother-in-law came straight away to help with the kids. My group of friends, triathletes, runners and endurance athletes from around the country has just been awesome, and the amount of well wishes and people dropping by has been great.

ST: How much longer will you be at the Sunnybrook Trauma Center?

Sjaan: I will probably here until early next week and then I will be transferred to a rehabilitation facility for a month or so. I am going to be non-weight bearing on my left leg for a full 3 months, but if I could be home within the next 6 weeks that would be pretty cool.

ST: Well Sjaan, we wish that will happen and a speedy recovery if that is possible.

Sjaan: Thank you. A tough lesson in how unfair life can be at times, but certainly puts everything in perspective and makes me appreciate my family, friends and supports all that much more. In my brief time in triathlon I had an awesome time. A challenging sport filled with a really great group of people. Thanks again.