The Long Road to Coming Back From a Fractured Vertebrae
Jack Huddleston broke his neck in 2019. With resolve, patience, and the support of his Coach, Scott Saifer, Jack was back in competition by 2020. Before we get into the story, let us tell you more about Jack’s background and his approach to life and sport.
Jack Huddleston grew up in Walnutport, Pennsylvania, a small town of 2,000 people about 20 miles outside of Allentown. He joined the military and, after serving 20 years, retired to Powder Springs, Georgia.
Jack loves being with his family. They often do training runs, obstacle course events, and hikes to primitive campsites together. Jack also enjoys hiking with his female Rottweiler, Ripley. He reports that Ripley consistently picks better lines than he does! In his professional life, Jack is the Executive Director of Administration for an intellectual property law firm based in Atlanta. In his spare time, he is a member of the Georgia State Defense Force (attached to the Army National Guard), where he assists in activities role-playing opposition forces, search and rescue, and other humanitarian missions including disaster recovery. In short, Jack is active and enjoys doing hard things.
In addition to his family life, public service, and career, Jack is a serious runner, triathlete, and cyclist. A bad crash like the one Jack experienced in 2019 would have discouraged almost any athlete. Here’s what happened.
Wenzel Coaching: Jack, can you tell us about what happened and your recovery journey?
Jack Huddleston: I was involved in a very bad crash on my time trial bike. I broke my neck, a C6/C7 fracture. I also had a severe concussion and nerve damage in my left arm. The accident happened on August 11th 2019, three days before my 62nd birthday. The accident was very traumatic. Thank God, I invest in good helmets. My helmet was completely compromised. I have raced for most of my life. This accident was a reminder it could happen to anyone.
The doctor said I could do some exercises six weeks after the accident, but nothing that caused stress on my neck, such as crunches or swimming. He also did not want me on a road bike, because the riding position put weight on my neck. He did let me get on an elliptical and a stationary bike, provided I kept my neck straight and did not allow it to drop. I spent hours on my trainer trying to recover. At times, I was so exhausted from a simple workout that I was shaking when I was done. My first ride outside was February 15,th 2020, after I received clearance to get on a road bike. It was 6 months, almost to the day after the accident.
WC: Would you be comfortable sharing some more details about your recuperative process?
JH: The process was slow and painful. Little by little, the neurosurgeon started to let me expand my activities. He let me start light weight lifting before I was cleared to ride outdoors. I used to be able to bench my weight, but I had to start with 15 pound dumbbells. During my initial bench press session, my left arm collapsed. From there, I worked my triceps as much as I could with light weights. My neck cracked so loudly at times people in the gym would stop to ask if I was okay. After the accident, I had to literally re-teach my body how to work out. It was a long, painful process.
When I rode my road bike at first, shortly after being given clearance to do so, there was tremendous pain in my left tricep, shoulder and neck after about 30 minutes because of leaning forward on the hoods. I had to ride on the top part of the bars as much as I could.
However, I never gave up. I went to the gym religiously, stretched, worked out with light weights, and did short rides outside or on my trainer, building back my endurance base. Once the neurosurgeon released me to compete in running and begin all normal activities, I went for it.
Last year, I competed seven times, I won my division three times and had four first place finishes in my age group. I still feel numbness in some of the fingers of my left hand, but for the most part I am back and competing hard.
I was hurt pretty badly, physically and mentally, but did not give up. I still get chills when I cycle past where I crashed. I am blessed and thankful that it was not worse than what it was.
A Supportive Coach Helps
WC: Thanks for sharing so openly with us about your experience. I’m sure your story will resonate with others who’ve been through injury-recovery journeys. Can you tell us about the collaborative role your Coach, Scott Saifer, played in your recuperation and training after the accident?
JH: I talked to Scott when I crashed and took him on as a Coach when I could run again. Scott is always there when I need to talk to him. He not only provides sound training programs but more importantly, he listens. Scott passes no judgment, but offers his insights and his knowledge to help me as an athlete and, hopefully, a future coach. Kendra was so supportive after my crash and she continues to be supportive of my goals, too.
I have confidence in Scott, and in the training plans he has me work on. This gives me confidence in my ability to compete and complete the event. Before the event, I download any course data I can find and send it to Scott so we can discuss race strategy. When I am done, I send a detailed report, including graphs (pace charts, etc.) to him for dissection. We talk about what went well, but more importantly discuss what went wrong. It is through this process that I improve and I am able to increase my knowledge base.
On The Motivation to Return to Competition After a Traumatic Injury
WC: Sometimes an experience like your crash can cause our will to falter. You seem as passionate as ever. Tell me about your motivation and philosophy. Why do you train and compete?
JH: I like to keep in shape, always have. I enjoy the sports that I do, and when I do them, I give them my best. I like the camaraderie that I find among competitors regardless of their level of experience. I enjoy talking and swapping stories. There is kinship there that emulates the esprit de corp that I experienced in the military.
WC: What about the mental and emotional aspects of returning to training after this happened? Was it challenging at all to get your confidence back?
I am very tough. I have laid down my bike before, and always bounced back quickly. I have had knee surgery, hernia surgery, stitched up from various injuries, cortisone shots in my feet, my shoulder and my butt, have had gravel scraped my skin from injuries sustained from training and racing, and always jumped back in, but this was something different. The first time I rode past where I crashed, I thought I was going to be sick. The flashback was awful when the realization set in how lucky I am to even be able to do what I am doing now. There is a physical healing that takes place, but the hard part is the mental healing. To say I was nervous when I started riding again is an understatement. I was afraid and I do not scare easily.
WC: Thanks for your honesty. Folks who have been through something like this can absolutely relate. The flashbacks to a moment like that are absolutely scary. I commend your courage in getting back on the bike. Your story has the potential to inspire others who’ve been through a similar experience. It takes some serious resolve to jump back into training and racing after an experience like this. More generally speaking, what keeps you coming back to the process?
JH: I want to continue to improve and challenge myself. I am striving to become a coach with Wenzel. Every time I train, every time I race, I learn something about myself, something that I can hopefully pass on to other athletes.
WC: Indeed, each time you compete, there is a new lesson. In this vein: how do you define success in your athletic endeavors?
JH: This is a tough question. I would simply say this: it is not about the trinkets, nor about stepping on the podium, as both are fun but fleeting. Success, in my humble view, is having the guts to step out to do an event, finish an event, and then want to do another. I do not get paid to compete. I compete for me, as a model for my children that age is just a number, and to enjoy the quality of life that living an active and healthy lifestyle can bring.
WC: Has the experience of a bad crash and working through the recovery process endowed you with any new wisdom?
The accident gave me a different perspective as an athlete. What we do is inherently dangerous, so be thankful each time you complete a training ride or an event without injury. Life is short, it is precious, and we are not as indestructible as we like to think we are. Enjoy every moment, but do not forget the things that really matter, which is your family and loved ones. Medals are fleeting, but in the end, we should love those who love us back with a greater passion than we have for our sports.
WC: Jack, this means a lot. Thank you for sharing these details and reflections. I think they will resonate with many. Before we conclude, I want to hold some space for you to give any shout-outs or statements of gratitude you’d like to.
JH: I am grateful to the trauma center staff and my neurologist surgeon. I am particularly grateful for my wife because she had to nurse me back to health and put up with my mood swings caused by concussion. I am grateful to you for allowing me to share my story. Just telling you about it, including my fears, is part of the healing process.
WC: Jack, thank you for your time and for sharing your story with us. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
JH: Self coaching bad, Wenzel Coaching good.
WC: I love it! Thanks again, Jack.
Recovering from a major injury with the goal to return to previous fitness and events can be a formidable challenge. Your Wenzel Coach is there for you every step of the way. Find out more about our Coaches.