Hanlen, a working mother of two from Whakatane, burst onto the cross-country scene in 2011 on a second-hand bike, won the NZ and Oceania Championships a year later and went on to represent NZ at the London 2012 Olympics.
She retained her domestic title in 2013 but had started to experience tunnel vision and severe leg pain at the start of her races, leading to disappointing lap times and a frustrating period off the track as Hanlen, her family and coaches tried to figure out the cause.
“Despite being fitter than ever and starting from the front, I was consistently falling behind to last place by the end of the first lap, and finding it harder and harder to make up the time once the pain disappeared,” says Hanlen.
“By the 2014 NZ National Mountain Bike Cup races this had become extremely frustrating and demoralizing, not to mention excruciatingly painful. I knew I could not have trained any harder or smarter, but after the first two National Cup races of 2014, in which I was lucky to finish third, I felt I was letting everybody down - my family, coaches, sponsors and supporters - and had all but made up my mind to retire from the sport.
“Luckily my coach Paul Laursen, husband Mark and parents decided otherwise!”
Hanlen was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma in March and subsequently won the Oceania Cross County Mountain Bike Championships, finishing a minute faster than Australian rider Rebecca Henderson.
In a frustrating twist, a post-race medical review suggested the problem had not been fully resolved and the pain came back at the South African leg of the World Championships later that month.
Doctors at High Performance Sport New Zealand now suspected blockages in the arteries in Hanlen’s legs, having seen the same symptoms in other elite endurance athletes.
By this stage Hanlen had even started to notice the problem when she was walking or running, and after an MRI confirmed the suspicions, decided to proceed with specialist surgery to treat the diseased blood vessels.
“It’s a major operation but other athletes have returned stronger and faster, and described it as a new lease of life. I decided I hadn’t come this far and worked this hard to give up if there was still something I could do.“
After surgery on May 15th and a 10 day bed-rest, Hanlen is recovering fast and she and her team are already amazed by the difference in performance. She faces a final fitness test tomorrow (Tuesday) to find out whether she will be going to Glasgow as NZ’s second woman mountain bike rider, joining Queenstown’s Katie Fluker, and appears to be on track for a remarkable conclusion to the latest chapter of her story.
"I can't wait to get out there and deliver the performances I've always known I have in me. I've had such incredible support from so many people and I hope it will repay them in some way if I can do my best for Whakatane, New Zealand and our mountain biking community at the Commonwealth Games".
Karen Hanlen would like to thank Specialized Bikes, Whakatane Cycle Centre, her Iwi, Icebreaker and Mackie Dental Specialists for their support, along with her family, her coach, her doctors and local community for their fundraising efforts.