Sam Sunderland: "Nothing is given to you. I earned Dakar 2017 the hard way"
I was on top of the world. Then a crash and a horror operation left me with one leg shorter than the other. This is how I overcame it all to win the Dakar rally.
I lay there for what must have been about 30-40 minutes waiting for the helicopter to come. It was hot and dusty in the Moroccan desert. The other riders in the Merzouga Rally were flying past. Then the pain started setting in hard. I started just feeling miserable. It wasn’t just the physical pain I felt from the crash, but the pain of picturing all the things that I was going to miss out on, and the rehab I’d need to do.
"I was just lying there, in a riverbed in the middle of the desert in Morocco, in a mountain of pain"
I’d just won the Rallye OiLibya du Maroc in early October 2015, which was my biggest victory so far. I felt like I had the perfect set up going into Dakar to go for the win in January 2016. I’d been feeling on top of the world. It had felt like my time. The next moment I was just lying there, in a riverbed in the middle of the desert in Morocco, in a mountain of pain. In a moment, everything had changed; it was all gone. Everything that I'd built up. It was like someone had pulled the plug. I just wanted to hit rewind…
When I got to the hospital, in a place called Errachidia, I was on my own. Most of the team had gone home after the Morocco Rally, and just a few of us had stayed on to do the Merzouga. The hospital was extremely basic. There were blood stains everywhere. It was dirty and there were flies all over the place. I can't speak French or Arabic, so I couldn't communicate with the doctors. Still, I started trying to explain to them that I wanted to get flown back to Spain immediately.
"I thought that if they didn’t do something soon, I could lose my leg"
The reports that the doctor produced on my broken femur got mistranslated, and the message that the insurance company got was that it was a compound fracture, which it wasn’t. That didn’t matter though, because now they wouldn’t fly me anywhere. I was told I’d have to have the surgery right there in the hospital.
I was so emotional that I just cried at one stage because I felt so helpless. I couldn’t communicate clearly with the hospital staff and they couldn't understand me, and it was all being done through third-party translation. I was parked up on the side of the hallway in this dark hospital, alone... I remember cats were even walking in and out!
I was in so much pain. I looked down at my leg and it was so, so swollen. You've got a big artery in there and I thought that if they didn’t do something soon, I could lose my leg. When I’d arrived at the hospital the thought of surgery there was my worst nightmare. By now, 12 hours or so had passed since the crash and I had to admit defeat and accept that it was going to have to be done there.
"I realised they wanted to do the surgery while I was awake"
They started trying to roll me onto my side. I couldn’t understand why. I was still in my motorcycle clothes – I hadn’t even been washed or put in a gown. Then I realised they were trying to give me a local anaesthetic and wanted to do the surgery, which involves drilling down the centre of the whole bone and then hammering a rod down it, while I was awake.
I kicked off enough for them to understand that there was no way I was having this operation while I was still conscious. Another hour later the anaesthetist arrived. She missed the vein in my hand and it started swelling up and I was in loads of pain. I didn’t know what else could possibly go wrong next. Then they just stuck a mask on me and I was out.
I woke up post-surgery and the doctor told me he was very happy with how it had gone. I remember feeling so relieved. I texted my mum to tell her that everything was going to be fine.
When they finally showed me the x-ray, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. My leg was completely bent. You can see in the x-ray images, there’s a 15 percent angle. The doctor said something along the lines of, ‘it’s within tolerance’. I went back into full panic mode again and knew I had to get out of there.
"Today, I have one leg that’s 2cm shorter than the other one because it’s so bent, and I have to wear insoles in my shoes"
I left the next day. I shouldn’t have, but I just wanted to get home, whatever it took. I had a four-hour drive from Errachidia to Ouarzazate, bouncing around in the back of the car on ropey roads, in massive amounts of pain and discomfort, but just happy to be out of there. That night I flew back to the UK.
Red Bull UK have got a great network for injured athletes. I was picked up from Manchester airport and the next day I went to the hospital. When they x-rayed me and saw the result of the surgery, they couldn’t believe it. Apart from the fact it was so bent, there was even an extra hole that had been drilled into the bottom of the bone where they’d missed with the first attempt at getting a screw into the rod.
There was nothing they could do to correct it, as it would’ve been too risky to try anything. They just had to leave it and hope that it would heal. Today, I have one leg that’s 2cm shorter than the other, because it’s so bent. I have to wear insoles in my shoes.
"It was very rough for my head, but I channelled that energy into doing everything I could to get better"
As soon as I realised I wasn't going to have another surgery in the UK I wanted to get home – which at the time was Dubai – and start my recovery as soon as possible. So, after five days or so, I flew out. I bought an Exogen ultrasound bone healing machine and I had that on all the time. I wanted to do anything and everything I could to try and make it better in time for the Dakar, which was now a little over two months away.
Mentally the whole thing was so tough because I'd gone from winning and having it all, to it all being gone. It was very rough for my head, but I channelled that energy into doing everything I could to get better. Instead of just being sat there dwelling on it at home, I was trying to get better every day, in whatever way I could.
"I was extremely determined about my recovery because I felt like something had been taken away"
I was extremely determined about my recovery because I felt like something had been taken away. I was all set for an assault on the Dakar, and it had been ripped out of my hands. I wanted to get it back. I wanted to race the Dakar. It was my driving force.
I think the desire you have to win a race is the same force that propels you forward during a recovery from a serious injury. During that time a lot of my thinking was about how much I wanted it. I kept telling myself, “I’m going to get better. I’m going to go back and I’m going to win.” You're definitely scraping the barrel of your reserves to get through it. Most of my motivation, I think, comes from deep inside. It’s something that’s hard to put into words.
Of course, you have good days and bad days. Three months of recovery is too long to just be able to power through without that.
Even if everything's going good, some days you wake up and you don't feel quite as good as you did yesterday, for whatever reason. You start questioning everything, wondering: “What did I do to deserve this?” You could call them the self-pity moments. I certainly had a few of them.
"You need to have your friends and your family around you, and speak to people"
You need to get comfortable relying on your support network. You need to have your friends and your family around you, and speak to people. You can't avoid those moments where you're on your own, and you've only got your own thoughts to deal with, and you kind of have to embrace that too. That’s part and parcel of the recovery journey, so to help keep the balance it's always good to have someone who’s following your progress in some ways, and with whom you can discuss all these feelings you’re going through. I could call the guys from Red Bull and say: “Hey, this has happened, this is how I feel.” It’s important to have people who can understand some of what you’re going through.
Another thing that really helped me bring some structure to the recovery was setting small goals. By this date I need to be walking, by this x-ray the bone should be ‘x’ percent healed. Milestones and targets that help keep things moving along.
At home in Dubai, the Sheikh let me use his facility where there were underwater treadmills, cryotherapy, sports massage staff, the full works. I was in there every day working, trying to make that goal of the Dakar. I said to myself: “I’m going to do every single thing I can to race the Dakar." I truly believed I could make it, but I also knew that if I didn’t I would have done absolutely everything within my power to try. I also fixed my mindset on the fact that regardless of whether I did make it or not, I would be in a much, much better place than if I’d just sat on the couch for almost three months.
Close to the date, I got some checks from the doctors in Dubai and they said yes, that I was at a level where I could potentially race Dakar. I was so pumped. I had a big call with Pit Beirer the director of my team, KTM, and we chatted it all through. I told him I thought I could race. KTM even sent my bike to the Dakar. I went to Austria to see one of the KTM doctors and I passed all the fitness tests without any problems, because I’d been smashing it every day back in Dubai. The final thing to do was to look at an x-ray together and see how the bone was, and when the doctor looked at it he just said no, he didn’t think it would hold out. And that was that. I couldn’t race the Dakar 2016.
It was a setback after all that work, but I had to remain focused on all the progress I had made in such a short space of time.
It is difficult to push to the limit again on a bike after a crash, because you don’t want to get trapped into thinking about what could happen… If you start thinking about that when you’re in a race, you’re in big trouble. Luckily, we kind of ‘get in the zone’ when we’re racing on the bike. There are so many things to concentrate on and your focus has to be so sharp that you don’t have time to think about this crash, that crash, or whatever else may or may not happen. You’re so focused on the moment, everything is real-time, and I think that was a big help in not getting hung up on thinking about it when I finally did race again.
"I remember feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders towards the last few days"
I was back at the Dakar 2017 and took over the lead on day five. I remember feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders towards the last few days. I think I had a 24-minute lead going into Stage 10, but in Dakar that is nothing. It can be gone in one mistake up a riverbed. There was a lot of stress just trying to keep my thoughts calm. It was hard to keep a cool head. I managed to, but it was difficult.
Everything is ramped up a thousand times in those final days. I felt like I needed to watch out. I was on high alert, but I made it through. I was a bit numb in my head by the time I rode Stage 12, the last stage. Crossing the finish line kind of caught me by surprise. I was just riding along concentrating on what was in front of me…
At that moment I realised it was done, that I’d won it. I just broke down into tears. The feeling was indescribable, but if I could put it in a bottle and have a little sip of it every morning I'd be a complete man!
"Nothing is given to you. You have to earn it"
It was so emotional. Everything I’d been through with the accident and the recovery added so much value to that win. That Dakar trophy now means so much to me. When I look at it, it reminds me of the whole journey. All of the rough moments, the operation, the shit leg which is short now and everything else that went with it... I look at that trophy and it says to me: “I got through it all and I did it.”
The Dakar is the hardest race in the world. It's a huge goal for me that I work towards every year, and I put so much effort into it that so many people don’t see. I’ve gone through all these things.
That 2017 win proved to me that if you focus on something and work hard enough, you can do it. After you experience something like I did, you feel like you can achieve many things, as long as you put in the work. Nothing is given to you. You have to earn it. I earned that one!