Alex Harvey just completed one of his most successful seasons to date, finishing 10th overall in the World Cup rankings and placing second in the classic sprint and third in the skiathlon at the 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden. While it appeared the Canadian was at the top of his game, something was holding him back.
Due to friction on his iliac arteries Harvey had difficulty skiing to his full capacity in both training and racing. In training, the problem was was made worse when he ran. “In training and running, when my heart rate goes above 150/155 I can’t go any further and they completely shut down,” Harvey said in a phone interview, referring to his legs.
While classic skiing was easier due to the increased use of upper body, the injury was especially painful for the 26-year-old when he was skating on steep, long hills. Due to the injury, Harvey has not competed in the Tour de Ski’s final climb since 2013.
“In skating, already you’re using your legs a little more on the flats than in classic, and then on the climbs you can’t use your upper body as much,” Harvey explained. “When it was an effort that was longer than three to four minutes on a steady climb, in skating that’s when the problem started to appear.”
Immediately after the end of the 2015 World Cup season Harvey returned to his home in Quebec to undergo surgery on both his iliac arteries. The procedures, which took place on March 20 and April 1, give Harvey the chance to ski without the painful symptoms for the rest of his career.
The iliac arteries are major blood vessels that supply blood to the lower half of the body. Oxygen-rich blood flows from the heart and travels downward, behind the lower abdomen where it splits into what is called the common iliac arteries. The two arteries carry blood to the right and left side of the lower body.
According to Harvey, the source of his injury was the friction between the arteries and the psoas muscles, which prevented blood flow to both his legs. In addition, scar tissue from a similar operation in 2008 surrounded his left iliac artery. Surgeons entered through Harvey’s lower abdomen and hip, and removed the scar tissue and placed a patch over an 11-centimeter section over the left artery. The patch was made from veins extracted in Harvey’s leg and prevented the restriction of blood flow. The operation lasted over five hours.
The second surgery took place 10 days later and was shorter and less complicated given the lack of scar tissue on the right side.
According to the Canadian, both surgeries carried substantial risks due to their length, complexity, and possibility of infection.
“There was a big risk. If it goes from a small infection to big infection they have to cut the leg, or even death,” Harvey said. “I knew the risks but I was confident with the surgeon. My mom is a doctor and she made sure I knew all the risks and prepared everything you could do to prepare yourself well.”
Harvey said that both surgeries went smoothly and that he was optimistic about the outcome. Although the problem returned to his left leg after the 2008 surgery, Harvey explained that the recent operations covered a larger section of artery. The length encompasses more than just the affected area, increasing the chance he will avoid iliac artery related problems for the rest of his career.
Recovery and Training
It has been almost six weeks since Harvey’s first surgery and the Quebec skier is ready to get back to training. While his recovery has been fairly easy, Harvey isn’t allowed to do any activity that will significantly increase his blood pressure until May 1. To fill his time the multiple 2015 World Championships medalist has participated in sponsor events, speaking engagements, and visited Montreal to see his girlfriend who is currently in dentistry school. He’s also completed many projects at his home, including the installation of gutters and wallpaper.
The most challenging part of the process has been his inability to be active. Harvey normally spends April playing hockey with friends or surfing in Hawaii, but this year he says it has been a mental struggle to abstain from the activities he loves most.
“Physically I’m good, it’s just mentally hard not be allowed to do any kind of activity,” he explained. “It’s all good when you do it for the first 10 days, the first two weeks, the first three weeks, but now I’m antsy to get going again.”
Harvey will start his training for the 2015/2016 season on May 1. According to the 26-year-old the surgery won’t change much of his activities in the month of May. He will keep his workouts at level 1 and the only trainings he will miss are several long threshold workouts. “It’s going to be pretty normal,” he said. “I’m going to do a lot of volume and the first month you’re just sore everywhere. May is always the hardest month of the year because you’re sore everywhere.”
Harvey said that this May will be more painful than others due to his inactivity in April, but that he is confident that his training will not be affected by the surgery.
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.