Brad Saens is a born competitor.
Friends and family describe Saens, 42, as passionate and proud about everything he does, whether it’s competing in duathlons or working as an IV therapist at Via Christi.
“Everything he puts his mind to, he excels at,” his wife, Julie Saens, said.
On Sept. 22, Brad Saens will compete in the Duathlon World Championship in Nancy, France. He qualified after outsprinting a competitor by two-tenths of a second to place 18th last April at the national championships in Tucson.
He completed the five-kilometer, 35K bike ride and 5K run in 1 hour, 37 minutes and 50 seconds. Saens considers it one of his worst times.
“It was horrible,” he said. “(I was) 8, 9 minutes slower than what I usually do.”
What makes Saens’ story unique isn’t his drive, his newness to the sport — he has only competed for four years — or even his age. It’s the fact that he’s competing in a world championship just two years after a serious accident that left him afraid to ride a bike and unable to work.
The starting line
Saens said he got involved in duathlons after Thomas Beck, a co-worker at Via Christi, convinced him in 2008.
“It’s a lonely sport, and it’s helpful to have training partners,” Beck said. “I thought maybe a sport like duathlons would be good for him.”
So, Beck loaned him a bike, and Saens would drive from Kingman to northeast Wichita a few times a week to work out.
“I taught him everything I knew, and he took it from there and ran with it,” Beck said. “He got to my level, and then he exceeded that.”
The Topeka Tinman was Saens’ first race. He took second place.
He competed in four more duathlons in 2008, taking second or third in all of them. In 2009, he competed in six duathlons, winning every race.
On Feb. 18, 2010, Saens was gearing up for another year of competitions. He had just finished a five-mile run and was four miles into a 50-mile bike ride when a man hit him with a vehicle going 65 mph.
Saens said he doesn’t remember the accident, and witnesses told him later how he flew over the SUV.
Julie, Brad’s wife, said his conditioning helped him withstand the accident. Still, he suffered a broken thumb, wrist and knee; torn Achilles tendon; mild concussion; and herniated discs in his lower back.
Saens also experienced panic attacks and sleepless nights. He often had nightmares about a car running him over again, his wife said.
Often, he would repeat himself and not remember what he said.
“The concussion was the hardest part,” Julie Saens said. “He was just so scattered-minded afterwards.”
Brad Saens also lost use of his dominant right hand and was unable to insert IVs at the hospital.
But he was determined to get back to work as soon as possible. Saens called his boss 10 days straight until she finally allowed him back to work in a manager position in March 2010.
“I told her from the beginning (my goal) was to get back out on the floor,” Saens said. “That’s where I serve patients the best. Working on a desk — that’s just not my thing.”
By June 2010, he was working again as an IV therapist.
Back on the road
With the encouragement of friends and family, Saens began thinking about riding again.
His wife was leery and initially told him no when he asked for another bike. It was Brad’s daughter, Kayla, who finally convinced him to start riding again.
“If it wasn’t for my daughter, I wouldn’t have bought another bike,” he said.
Saens began practicing inside on a cycling trainer in May 2010 and started riding outside with the encouragement of Shawn Stafford, a friend who “knew how to push my buttons,” Saens said.
Stafford was impressed with Saens’ first ride after the accident.
“The guy rides like 20 miles per hour, and I’m thinking, ‘You sure you got hit by that car?’ ” Stafford said.
Still, those first few rides were tough for Saens.
“It was hard to hear the cars go by me,” he said. “Before, it never crossed my mind.”
Throughout 2010, he didn’t know whether he was ever going to race again, but friends and family encouraged him to compete.
In March 2011, Saens competed in his first race after the accident. He took seventh place, and that “didn’t settle well with me,” Saens said.
He competed in five more races and won them all, even setting some course records.
Saens initially planned to compete for just one more year — and then he qualified for nationals.
Headed to France
In September, Saens will compete with athletes from around the world, as well as 117 others from the U.S. He is also bringing his own bike to France, for which the Bicycle Pedaler is providing a special suitcase free of charge.
Saens is busy training this summer and, though he still experiences pain from the accident, he isn’t afraid to suffer in preparation for the competition.
“It doesn’t matter how much you train, it all hurts,” Saens said. “I don’t think it gets any easier, you just get stronger and faster.”
This won’t be the last race for Saens, but he plans to reduce his commitment to the sport after the championship.
He said he is considering becoming a personal trainer to help other athletes.
“I won’t ever stop riding and running,” Saens said.