From the Brink and Back: Stronger Than Ever

How one rider trained her body and mind to recover from a life-threatening mountain bike accident.

To ride with Esther Schaftel on the trails around her Ellicott City, Maryland home is to be impressed with how strong and fearless she is. At 52, Schaftel brazenly takes on the winding descents, roots, and rocks that are prevalent in the native forests around her. Fear rarely enters the equation and Schaftel can leave many riders years younger than her struggling to keep up. There was a time in 2012, however, when it looked like Schaftel was in danger of losing not just her beloved time on her bike, but her long-term health as well. It all happened on a routine ride with friends.

Schaftel enjoying one of her home trails | Photo courtest of Esther Schaftel

“I was in great shape that year, training for a 100-mile race,” she says. “I went for a ride with friends on a new-to-me trail. It was rocky, but not any more technical than what I was used to riding.” After coming out of the woods and crossing a road, Schaftel dropped back into the trail. “I was going slow, but somehow my tire hit a rock at the wrong angle,” she explains. “My handlebars turned and drove into my abdomen, essentially impaling me.”

Schaftel, an intermediate level rider at the time, was using straight handlebars, which she says played a role in her accident. “Today I use ergonomic bars and I don’t think I would have had the same experience if they had been in place then,” she speculates.

But that day, Schaftel’s handlebars perforated her bowel, leaving her in grave danger. “I dropped immediately and lost all my wind,” she says. “A girl riding behind me—someone I didn’t even know—stopped to help.” The girl couldn’t know the extent of Schaftel’s injuries, but she could see the pain her fellow rider was experiencing. “I was literally blind from the pain,” says Schaftel. “She called 911 and after that, things were a blur.”

When emergencies happen in the woods, medical help isn’t always nearby. Thankfully, however, an ambulance made it to Schaftel that day and quickly transported her to a waiting medivac helicopter. She landed at Baltimore’s Shock Trauma unit where emergency physicians immediately rushed her into surgery, performing a six-inch resection of her small intestines. Her injuries also included a tear of the left vertebral artery and pancreatitis, a condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed, causing extreme discomfort and nausea.

She was going to make it, but the road back wasn’t going to be easy. She’d need to dig deeper–and train harder–than she ever had before.

The Road Back

By profession, Schaftel is a nurse practitioner and she admits this made her a bad patient. “I’d be in horrible pain, but I was reluctant to press the pain button for medication,” she says. “The nurses were wonderful and attentive, but they also wanted me to progress and leave the hospital.”

In addition to not controlling her pain through medication, Schaftel dreaded and delayed her return to eating, and subsequently lost weight to the tune of 10 pounds. “Eventually I forced myself to eat so that I could leave the hospital,” she says. “I was miserable there, feeling like everything was out of my control.”

Once home, Schaftel again struggled with eating and drinking. Before long, she found herself dehydrated and back in the ER. “At that point, I began carrying a hydration pack with me at all times, filling it with orange Gatorade,” she says. “It’s something I still do today.”

Repeating the mantra “ride ride” to herself, Schaftel continued to pull herself out of the role of patient and into the role of athlete.

Setbacks behind her, Schaftel began setting her sights on a return to the life of an athlete. After two weeks at home, she asked her boyfriend to bring her bike and trainer into the bedroom. “I started with five minutes,” she says. “The next day, I rode a few more, and then each day I pushed it a little longer.”

Repeating the mantra “ride ride” to herself, Schaftel continued to pull herself out of the role of patient and into the role of athlete. After about three months, Schaftel returned to the trails and tired her first ride of about 15 miles. “I don’t do anything small,” she laughs. “I have some loops in the local park that I’m very comfortable riding, so that was my starting point.”

Schaftel says she didn’t experience any fear when getting back out there, and hasn’t suffered any real lingering emotional trauma. “My PTSD is centered on having to return to the hospital,” she says. “I will do anything to stay out of it.”

A year after her accident, Schaftel rode in her first race back, a 33-mile race in her nearby Patapsco State Park.

Schaftel navigates a water crossing during her first race back. Photo courtesy of Esther Schaftel

Newfound Strength

Today, Schaftel says that she is stronger, faster, and more confident than even before her accident. “I feel like I get stronger every year,” she says. “I’m more competitive than ever.” She credits her long athletic history with helping her reach her current state of fitness and fearlessness. “I figure you might as well do what you love,” she says, “and this is what I love.”

Schaftel has been an endurance athlete since she was 16 when she ran her first 10k. That quickly turned into a marathon at 17, and then several years dedicated to long-distance running. One thing led to another, and in her 30s, Schaftel began a 15-year stint in triathlons that included eight Ironman races. “During that period, I did countless marathons and half marathons, qualifying for Boston three times,” she says. “I was aiming to qualify for Kona, but eventually got in through the lottery in 2007.”

“I feel like a kid out there now,” she says. “It’s all mental—I still believe in myself.”

After that experience, Schaftel was ready for new challenges and began racing cyclocross. “Someone suggested that I try mountain biking to make me a better ‘cross rider,” she says. “I loved it and began focusing on longer and longer races.” This year, Schaftel is eyeing a five-day stage race and believes her new-found ability to ride with abandon will serve her well. “I feel like a kid out there now,” she says. “It’s all mental—I still believe in myself.”

Using that belief and the ability to set herself on autopilot, Schaftel can thankfully recount a story of victory, rather than tragedy. “This lifestyle is all I’ve ever known,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing it any other way.” Perhaps the most valuable lesson Schaftel and her experience can teach us is that no matter the challenge–be it stress at work or a serious injury–simply getting in the saddle and spinning it out can be the panacea we’ve all been searching for.