Erin Huck: The Comeback Woman
When we fall, we can choose how we get up. Erin Huck sets an example.
Professional athletes are supposed to be inspiring. Most of the time they inspire with feats on the field, trail or road, but more often than not their most inspiring efforts come on more personal terms and in places we rarely have the chance to see. US National Team and Construction Zone Racing-Scott racer, Erin Huck, has just been through an ordeal—blowing up her hand pre-riding at the Albstadt World Cup in Germany—giving herself a chance to be genuinely inspiring.
Thankfully she chose to share it with us.
Listen to the whole interview below, or enjoy the transcript.
Stages Cycling: Let’s start with a brief synopsis of how your season started until the point when it went off the rails.
Erin Huck: I had an early start to the season this year. I decided to head over to Europe in February for an HC stages race, which is one of the highest ranked UCI races that there are; that was in Cypress. I just wanted to try something new. I used it as a training race, but ended up doing better than I was expecting, finishing third overall. I got the chance to race with Anna van der Breggen, the road gold medalist from Rio, so that was pretty cool! The two of us were head-to-head most days, which was a lot of fun. And then I came back and kicked things off with the Pro XTC series. I won the first two races, Fontana and Bonelli, so that was pretty awesome—for sure! Then I headed over to Europe in May for the World Cups. I missed the first World Cup, so I was going to do the second and third. I did the first short track in Germany, which was really, really awesome. Just a fun experience to race short track in Europe. Then the next day I was pre-riding for the cross-country—that race was on Sunday—and I just had a stupid little, whoops, and ended up going down and punching a stump with my hand still attached to the handlebar. It just snapped three of the hand bones in my left hand. That was not planned.
Describe some of your thoughts on this. As an athlete on an amazing season it must be really hard to deal with?
I knew as soon as it happened that I broke my hand. I could tell. I had to take my hand off the handlebar, and I was like: oh, yep, no; that’s broken. So, I think from that moment on it was, ‘just focus on what’s the plan.’ What’s the next step? Let’s get x-rays. Ok, when am I going home. I knew as soon as I saw the x-rays that I would need surgery, so, let’s get my surgery scheduled. Then once I had surgery and I had done everything I could up until that point to get on the right track, I was like, ‘oh, now what.’ Fortunately, I’ve never had a serious injury before, and I didn’t know—do you train through these things, do you take time off? What do you do? So, I had to reach out to a lot of different people and get some advice and figure out where and what I wanted to do next.
Do you want to talk about who helped make those decisions? They’re very interesting. How do you make those choices to keep the focus on the professional career versus straight healing?
The first person that I went to, obviously, was my surgeon. I was able to take advantage of the network that is offered to the OTC (Olympic Training Center) down in Colorado Springs. That was a huge, huge deal for me. So, my surgeon was aware that I’m an athlete and that my first priority was to get back on my bike as soon as possible. That is why he opted to put wires down the bones of my hands, as opposed to using plates and screws. So, this enabled me to minimize how much tendon damage and stiffness I experienced. I was able to get working on mobility a lot quicker. He was the first person and then my coach, Ben Ollett, I contacted him. I also speak with a sports psychologist regularly and have been since 2015, that’s Kristin Keim, and she was probably the most—I probably should have followed her advice earlier—but she was the one to give the, ‘ok, you just need to take a straight up week off. Don’t do anything, don’t get on the trainer, just let your central nervous system recover,’ advice, which I promptly ignored, because I was on the trainer the next day. In hindsight, I think that sports phycologists give more weight to the mental aspects and the central nervous system fatigue that injuries can cause. You know your TSB will increase every day and on paper, you’re as rested as you possibly could be, but it turns out that surgery actually affects more than just your legs ability to pedal. The PT that I went to also gave good advice about really trying to straddle the line of recovery but push it as much as we can and as much as I was comfortable with so that we could minimize fitness losses.
So how did it go? What was the timeline like from injury, to surgery, to getting back to training?
I crashed on a Saturday and was on a flight home on Sunday. Then I had surgery that Tuesday. I had all kinds of people helping me out. The USA Cycling folks were calling everybody that they knew, any hand surgeons out there, just trying to utilize any resource that I had available and that was pretty key to my mental stability, just knowing that I was doing everything that I could to make steps in the right direction. After surgery on that Tuesday, I went for a hike the next day, and I think the day after that I tried to get on the trainer and it was awful. It ended with me, um, I think sobbing and saying that this is stupid and pointless. Sometimes power numbers are our friends, and sometimes they’re not. It was really difficult for me to hit the power numbers that I thought I should be able to, so that was the point where I thought, oh, ‘the sports phycologist knows what she’s talking about.’ Yeah, my body needed a break. I think I hit the pause button after that and took things a little bit easier—I didn’t try and push it as hard as I started off trying to push.
This insight is huge for people that may not have any support network, so to hear what you had and what you’ve done with it, and even the mistakes that you made even at your level is really helpful. Let’s fast forward into when you felt like you could do it and where you started making decisions to get back to racing.
All along, in talking with my surgeon, he had given me an eight-week timeframe. Saying that I could be back in one form or another in eight weeks, so I knew that I would be able to get some races at the end of the season. So that was the light at the end of the tunnel. World Champs is in September, that’s been my focus in all of this. Let’s do what I can to be ready for that. And there was enough time that I knew that it was ok to slow things down for a bit and not push through on the trainer. Somebody was asking me how much time I spent on the trainer, and I never did more than 5 hours per week, just knowing how difficult it is mentally to try and push yourself on the trainer, especially when it’s 90-degrees outside, and you can’t be riding outside. The goal was to minimize losses, for a while—while maintaining mental sanity. I did a lot of running and hiking, and then some trainer time just to keep the legs familiar with pedaling. This was the plan for about four weeks. After the four weeks, I got the ok to try riding on the road, but this was not great because I didn’t have any grip strength. I couldn’t brake. That was another time when I had to slow it down a little bit and say, I’m not quite ready to go on the road because I can’t brake quite yet. So, I waited another week and was able to start training on the road. Then at six weeks, I was able to start doing some mountain biking.
Where in this period did you start thinking about your next race? You stated that World Champs was a goal, but at some point, it became more plausible that you were going to come back sooner than that.
I think it was right around the five-week mark when I was able to ride outside. I knew I could brake well enough. I could pedal. I knew there weren’t that many races left—there’s a World Cup in Mont Ste Anne, Canada, the World Cup finals and World Champs. I knew that I did not want Mount Ste Anne to be my first race back because it is one of the scariest and most technical race courses out there, so meant it was National Champs would be my first race back.
How many weeks out were you before it was on the calendar and you were training?
I’d say I really made the mental decision that I wanted to go for it, about four weeks out. Or that I was committed to doing it mentally, four weeks out.
What did your training turn into at that point?
I was kind of back to normal training, but mostly on the road. I think I got two or three mountain bike rides in before National Champs. Most of it was on the road. I tried to do a little bit of interval work, a lot of tempo work and introduced some intensity back in. I think I did a VO2 workout the weekend before. (Get Erin’s VO2 workout in Stages Link, here) And it was like, ‘ok, that was crappy, but we’re just going to go for it anyways.’
So, how did the race go? What was the winning move and what can you attribute to making that move?
My one goal was to try and get the holeshot. As I was sidelined and reflecting back on my skills and areas of weakness, I identified that I needed to work on starts—so no time like the present, ‘I’m going to try and get the holeshot’. I was able to do that, and then Kate Courtney came around me and between Kate, myself, Ellen Nobel and Chloe we all took turns at the front, kinda feeling each other out, with people making some moves and keeping the pace high. It was awesome. Two laps to go, I put a move in and just totally gassed myself, then Kate came around me and got a fairly large gap. I figured it was a race for second and was sitting behind Ellen going up the last climb and put in a dig to try to get around her and was actually able to bridge up to Kate; then I just kept going. I went around Kate and absolutely buried myself going up and over the last climb and was able to hang onto a few second lead going into the finish. I definitely was not planning on winning. It was something that ended up being kind of like a dream. When you want something pretty badly you can dig pretty deep, so I think that was a big factor.
Let’s end with what advice you would give—having just been through this in the middle of the season—to an athlete when they get hurt and have to deal with something similar? How can they learn from your experience? What’s your biggest take away?
Everyone told me to be nice to myself, and I didn’t really understand what they were saying, but that’s definitely true. When I would compare where I thought where I should be: well, I should be healed by now, or my power numbers should be where they were before I got injured. That ended up making things worse for me. But when I focus on: I can’t believe that last week I couldn’t grip my handlebars and now I can; or three days ago I couldn’t lift my front wheel up, and now I can. If you focus on the improvement that you’re making it’s easier to stay positive and see progress, as opposed to thinking about where you aren’t. Once I was able to reframe things that made a big difference.
I once asked myself a hypothetical question: If I hadn’t had surgery (or the experience of the whole injury and recovery process), and I woke up exactly as I was before, would I want that? The answer is no. There’s something to be gained from working through this. I’ve definitely gained a whole bunch of appreciation for how much I love riding bikes, and I am proud of myself for getting through this. There’s good to take out of it.