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Ballengee: ‘How’s This For Rehab?’

DEVON O'NEIL
summit daily news
Special to the Daily/Winston Chapman
ALL |

BUENA VISTA ” The poor guy had no idea. Jogging wearily alongside a 30-something woman during Saturday’s Adventure Xstream 12-hour adventure race in Buena Vista, he tried to make conversation.

“Is this your first adventure race?” he asked.

One can only imagine what went through Danelle Ballengee’s mind when she heard that question, but she did not flinch. Instead, the two-time world champion replied, “No, I’ve done a couple others. How about you?”

The man explained that he, too, had done a few races in his time, swearing that he is normally in better shape and closer to the front of the pack. Ballengee acknowledged his reply and kept her eyes on the trail. Shortly thereafter the man stopped running and began to walk. Ballengee kept running.

By the time she completed the 60-mile course (roughly the distance from Golden to Silverthorne), 11 1/2 hours after she started, Ballengee had done what others believed it would take a year to do. Only she had done it in about 40 percent of that time, just five months after her now-famous and near-fatal 60-foot fall in the Moab backcountry last December. The trail-running accident left her unsheltered and stranded for more than two days and two nights before a search party located her, dying on a frozen rock, crippled with a shattered pelvis.

Her doctors said it would be 3-6 months before Ballengee might walk again. Many people who break their pelvis this severely ” in essence, the left side was no longer attached to the right ” don’t last longer than 12 hours before they perish due to internal bleeding, the doctors told her.

That didn’t stop her from signing up two days before the race, last Thursday, just a couple months after getting out of a wheelchair. She had intended to do the sprint course with a friend, but a pair of potential partners fell through and you’re not allowed to race the sprint course as a solo. What the hell, she figured, and she signed up for the 12-hour course instead.

Before the race, Ballengee said the longest workout she had done since December lasted about three hours ” and that included plenty of rest tossed in with hiking, running and mountain biking stints. She did not tell her doctors that she intended to race. Nor did she tell her physical therapist until after she’d signed up.

Balancing nerves, doubt and a growing hunger to test herself like she’d done so many times before, Ballengee went into the race with few expectations. “I was just going to see how far I could get,” she said. “I really didn’t think I could finish.”

Will and Jenny Newcomer, who run the Xstream series, were admittedly uneasy when Ballengee signed up. They talked at length with the three-time Primal Quest champion about what the course entailed, making sure she knew exactly what she would be entering into. “The last thing we wanted,” Jenny Newcomer said, “was for her to get re-injured during our event.”

As a precaution, Ballengee packed her cell phone along with the rest of her gear. Then she set off into the proving-ground dust, an anonymous face among 135 others. It wasn’t until nine hours later, once the tortured racers began trickling in to the finish chute, that the rest of the field began to comprehend the day’s significance.

“I could’ve sworn I saw Danelle Ballengee out on course,” the racers would say to Newcomer, shaking their heads as if they’d seen a long-deceased relative, “but it couldn’t have been her … could it have?”

Ballengee admits it was “ambitious” of her to enter the race (which she did under the team name “How’s This For Rehab?”).

“I wasn’t really prepared for it,” she said Tuesday, still aching and fatigued from the daylong thrashing she endured 72 hours prior. “I had a lot of weaknesses and a lot of problems during that race.”

For example, she said, “My right calf doesn’t work. I still can’t lift my heel.” Because of that, she was unable to ride the toughest singletrack mountain bike sections, electing instead to ditch her bike under a tree and complete the out-and-back course on foot.

In addition, whereas other competitors ran the entire orienteering course, Ballengee could not. Her pelvis began to get irritated toward the end of the second bike leg, too, just before she finished the race. However, none of the physical hurdles compared to the suddenly gripping fear that greeted her at the tyrolean traverse ropes section, where racers were required to shimmy through the air while suspended some 50 feet off the ground.

Although her near-fatal fall is never buried very deep in her mind, at that moment it consumed her. A mouse-sized fear of heights grew uncontrollably as she sat and waited her turn at the bottlenecked ropes site, pondering what might happen if something went wrong. “I was thinking if I did fall, I’d probably just break my pelvis,” she said, “not die.”

Without looking down even for a second, Ballengee completed the ropes section. Soon after that she arrived at the finish line, pale, hungry, beaten, fulfilled.

Her time was adjusted to 13 hours and 28 seconds once the orienteering penalties were calculated, and although she was the only solo female competitor, had she been in the 14-racer solo men’s division she would’ve placed fifth ” “which is crazy,” said Jenny Newcomer.

When asked how the satisfaction of reaching Saturday’s finish line compared to the feeling of winning a world-class expedition race, Ballengee said, “It was pretty similar.” She later said the same about the pain left behind by her feat, equating it to a weeklong competition.

In an interview a few months after the December accident, Dr. David Hak, one of Ballengee’s Denver surgeons and a pelvic specialist of 11 years, called her “certainly the most remarkable survival story I’ve heard of.”

Hak followed up those comments Wednesday afternoon by saying it is “absolutely unprecedented” for her to have completed a grueling adventure race only five months after her accident.

“Generally we would anticipate it would take people at least a year to get back close to their pre-injury level of function,” he said. “She has recovered faster than anyone I’m aware of.”

“We obviously don’t know her as well as we thought we knew her,” concluded Anne Chapman, a Breckenridge resident and friend of Ballengee’s who served as a course marshall during Saturday’s race.

Ballengee promises the Buena Vista competition is not the beginning of a plotted return to endurance racing’s elite level. In fact, she still doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to withstand the physical beating such a level delivers.

For the time being, Ballengee has resumed the quest to strengthen her fragile frame, through hour-a-day workouts and daily doses of physical therapy.

“I just have to be patient,” she said.


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