Off and running
August 23, 2006
Dave Farrell is stumped. So is Buddy. That’s Farrell’s excitable 6-year-old golden retriever, who is with his owner in the parking lot of Farrell’s Aspen apartment complex. Both are staring in silence at Farrell’s brand-new $2,400 racing wheelchair. The dog tilts his head, perplexed, while Farrell leans ever closer to examine the shiny black three-wheeled contraption.The thing looks like it was left by aliens in the night.”How the hell do you get in this thing?” says Farrell to no one in particular, still confused.There’s only one way to find out.With the help of two casual observers – both completely stumped themselves – Farrell lifts himself off his everyday wheelchair, then slides into the cockpit of his new toy. His butt rests on a tiny shelf on the back, while his knees are pulled tightly to his chest and restrained by a Velcro strap. Farrell’s dangling feet are then shoved into a single binding that slides along the chair’s main frame.There’s some wiggling, followed by more strap-tightening and other adjustments, until everything looks to be in the right place.Farrell pauses for one final inspection, marveling at the chair’s lightweight design.
Then, with powerful arms, he shoves off.Buddy doesn’t even realize what has happened before his master is 10 yards in front of him, gliding along in a tuck, picking up speed with every push.The dog takes off down the road in hot pursuit. Once he catches up, a familiar scene comes into focus – that of two best friends out for a run together.Yes, a run. It’s the reason why Farrell bought this specialized chair. He already owns a handcycle, a hand-cranked bicycle complete with gears. But if he is going to complete a marathon in late October to raise money for Challenge Aspen, the local nonprofit that helped him rediscover his active lifestyle after a skiing accident disabled his legs, then Farrell is going to do it right.He is going to run the marathon, not bike it. “For us crippled people, this is the closest thing to running,” Farrell says of racing his new chair, which has no gears and is thus completely powered by him. “There are some marathons that have classes for handcycles. But everyone on the [Challenge Aspen] team is running, so that’s what I wanted to do. It’s not a bike race.”Farrell decided last winter to join Challenge Aspen in their annual fall marathon – the group will race in the Lausanne Marathon in Switzerland on Oct. 22, a scenic race that circles around Lake Geneva; last year, a team of locals ran the Maui marathon. For someone who has been active all of his life, Farrell saw the race as a huge challenge. But it was more than that. It was also a means to give something back to the people who have given him so much.Less than one year after his life-altering fall on Aspen Mountain, Challenge Aspen had Farrell back on the slopes carving turns in a sit-ski. By the end of this past winter, he had skied 21 times. “That’s still the driving force for me,” says Farrell, of raising funds for Challenge Aspen, which provides recreational experiences for those with mental or physical disabilities. “I’m gratified that I’m able to do something, you know, that’s fun for me and good for getting me in shape and gives back to them.”To run on the Challenge Aspen team, participants must raise $4,500. This covers travel expenses and race fees, with the remaining funds going back to the nonprofit.
Farrell never ran a marathon before his December 2004 accident, but that’s not to say it would have been difficult.When he lived in Fort Collins, Farrell commuted as many as 200 miles a week on his road bike. He worked out constantly, and had a trim waistline with washboard abs. The love for skiing, cycling and hiking led Farrell and his wife, Alissa, to Aspen eight months before his fall on Gene Reardon’s, a moderate blue run on Ajax.The couple was “living the dream” before the fall, Farrell says. They had a comfy employee-housing unit in town, a golden retriever, and access to their cherished mountains right out the front door.Then, Farrell says, everything got turned upside down. The day started off just like any other, just Farrell and his wife out on the mountain enjoying a few runs together. But Farrell, an accomplished telemarker, took an awkward fall and slid down the slope into a cluster of trees. The middle of his back hit squarely a tree trunk, and he shattered his C6 and C7 vertebrae, snapping his spinal cord. When he finally came to a stop, he was upside-down, with his face stuffed into his legs. A punctured lung made it hard to breathe, even harder to call for help.Using his arms, Farrell rolled himself over onto his back, then shuddered in fear when he punched one of his legs and felt nothing. When Alissa found him, Farrell says his first words to his wife were: “I’m never going to walk again.”Later that day at Aspen Valley Hospital, Farrell’s worst fears were confirmed. Doctors told him he needed surgery to fuse the shattered vertebrae, but that because his spinal cord had been completely severed, he would never walk again.Alissa said the most challenging part was the phone calls that first week to notify friends and family that Dave’s life – and hers, too – would never be the same again.Farrell was transferred to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, where he had the surgery. He was then transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver.There, he spent close to four months with some of the best spinal-cord specialists in the nation, learning how to live without his legs.
While in the hospital, he pondered if a return to Aspen – and the life he and Alissa had created for themselves – was even possible.He assumed the worst.”I thought, after only eight months here, we’re screwed,” says Farrell, a lab director with the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District . “I get my insurance, of course, but we’re going to be scraping and doing whatever is possible to survive.”His assumptions were completely wrong. Farrell’s fellow employees gave up all their vacation time so he wouldn’t lose pay, as did Alissa’s. His co-workers also helped modify his second-story apartment and install a lift to get him to his door. “We were just dumbfounded the way it happened,” Farrell says. “Some of the guys who gave vacation time, I didn’t even know. We come to Aspen, and you have this preconception of Aspen and what type of people are here, and immediately I got turned around.”
As for Challenge Aspen, its dedicated staff is what got Farrell back outdoors.They helped pay for his sit-ski lessons, his equipment rental and his lift tickets.The organization also supported him when he said he wanted to run the marathon, and helped him find a $1,000 grant to chip in for the racing wheelchair. Farrell will be the first Challenge Aspen athlete with a spinal-cord injury to attempt the race. “They’re the ones who got me right back to what I like to be doing, helping me get some kind of exercise out of what I’ve got left in my body here ” Farrell says. “With helping me with the wheelchair, I figure that one’s a wash because it’s a tool I’m using to help them.”The only problem with the specialized wheelchair is that is took three months to arrive – about six weeks longer than promised by the manufacturer. Farrell says he was “chomping at the bit” every day, waiting for his chair to arrive.It finally came last week. In the meantime, Farrell says he “abused” his everyday chair while he trained for the race. He took it on 10-mile jaunts on local paved trails, up hills, wherever he could find a peaceful place to push himself. He also has continued to lift weights in his home, something he hasn’t stopped doing since his accident. “I had to replace all the bearings in it because I’d been trucking around so much,” says Farrell of his regular chair, which is designed for pushing around in hallways, not pushing up the sides of mountains.”I push as hard as I can, and I like to do a lot of hills. The more resistance I can get, the better. If I’m training, I want to get the most out of it. I’ve gone 10 miles with this thing, so once I get in the racing chair, that should be the equivalent of being done right there, I think. It’s gotta be at least twice as hard to push [my regular chair] around as it is for that.”He’s not joking. Once he’s off in his new chair, it’s as if he’s upgraded from a go-cart to a Ferrari. As Buddy follows along, Farrell learns to turn and brake, and, most important, to hit the gas.He plans to rejoin the Challenge Aspen team for group training as early as this weekend. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep up now,” he says. “I really think I’ll be able to do it pretty easily. Actually, I’m ready to go right now.”And then he’s off again, chewing up the open road with his friend in tow.There are still plenty of miles to run before Switzerland in October. And now that Dave Farrell knows how to get into his racing chair, don’t expect to see him out of it much until he crosses the finish line.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com