On a cool winters morning in 2015, Leeds City athlete Claire Duck began her morning commute to work in very high spirits, with the magic of pancake day in the air.
Cruising along on her bike and in better shape than ever, the thought of tucking in to a plate of soft, sweet pancakes on Shrove Tuesday was filling her mind with delight, providing some much needed reprieve from her build up to some big upcoming races.
All seemed to be well, until suddenly, everything changed.
With no time to react at all, Duck collided with a van and was knocked unconscious, going from hope to despair all in one small second.
“I have no memory of the actual accident,” says Claire, “all I remember is that I crashed into a van while I was cycling to work and knocked myself out, then I woke up in the ambulance and spent two days in hospital. It was probably one of the worst days of my life.
“I was in really good shape as well and I remember I was supposed to be going to a friend’s house that evening for some pancakes but obviously couldn’t after all that.”
As Claire started to come round while she was lying in her hospital bed, the severity of her accident truly began to hit home.
“It turned out that I had broken the transverse process in part of my spine,” says Claire, “I’d also broken my shoulder blade, broke my hand in three places, had lung contusion, a tiny collapse of my right lung, banged my knee in pretty badly and had a major concussion.”
Pancake day and her cross country season were therefore over in a flash and running seeming a long way off for someone who could barely even sit up in her bed without feeling a great deal of pain.
Despite the horrible injuries however, it would only be a few months before Claire was back up and running again, as she entered her recovery period with a slightly fortunate edge.
“It was a strange thing because these were all sort of upper body things,” says Claire, “my knee was quite sore but apart from that the lower body wasn’t too bad. So it was probably a couple of weeks before I started running and walking again.
“So we just gradually increased it from there, just running walking and doing pool sessions and then I started doing some easy grass and track sessions at the end of March. So it wasn’t too bad in terms of the length of time it took to get back.
However, by the time she did get back to running in May, things still weren’t the same, with Claire having a largely inconsistent return.
“That summer was sort of hit and miss really,” says Claire, “it was great to get back to running and I did have some good races, but there were also others that weren’t so good. So there was sort of a feeling of frustration really because I was so fit before and coming back I’d had to start from scratch.
“But it was nice to come back to race and run again because after such a big accident you worry that you’ll never run as well again and I didn’t know if I’d have any lasting problems from the injury.”
It didn’t take long though for things to drastically improve. In fact, the very next season saw Claire running better than she ever had before, taking silver at the national cross country, fourth at the inter counties and clinching her first ever Northern Cross Country title.
Gold medals also came on the track, as Claire won the inter counties 5000m with a sensational sprint finish to pip rival and good friend Louise Small to gold.
All of a sudden, the injury that had plagued most of her previous season was well and truly buried and the Northern champion was reaching levels she never would have thought were possible.
But the big highlight came the season after in 2017, with the chance to represent Great Britain at the world cross country championships, as she made the trip to Loughborough for that season’s inter counties.
Against the likes of European gold medallists Gemma Steel and Jess Judd, the Yorkshire runner dug in deep to finish runner up and officially seal a spot in her first ever global championships, with her later position as the British team captain proving the icing on the cake for a remarkable injury comeback.
“I wasn’t even sure I’d ever get an England vest, let alone captain GB,” says Claire, “I remember I decided to really focus on cross country after my injury and since then I’ve just had a consistent injury free run and things have gone better than I ever thought they could.”
And despite her initial accident coming while she was riding her bike, regular cycles are still a crucial part of Claire’s regular training.
“I think cross-training is underestimated really,” says Claire, “I have quite a busy day at work so I always cycle there and back which probably makes up about 40 miles every week, so it does me really good and I think it’s actually a major part of my fitness.
“So hopefully the way things are going everything still continues to improve, I’ve already achieved more than I thought I would so you never know.”
More importantly though, as she prepares for this weekend’s inter counties, Claire can finally relax and enjoy a nice well earned helping of pancakes that she was so cruelly robbed of four years ago.