The long road back |

The long road back

Devon O'NeilSummit County correspondentAspen, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Mark Fox

SUMMIT COUNTY – Saturday felt funny for Danelle Ballengee. It was the day of the Mt. Taylor Winter Quadrathlon in New Mexico, a prestigious bike-run-ski-snowshoe race which she has won nine times in the 12 years she’s entered. When she woke up it felt funny. When her friends called her from the race site it felt funny. All day, it just felt funny.Funny, because she wasn’t there.Instead, Ballengee spent Saturday in a wheelchair at her Summit Cove home, talking, grinning, wishing, reminiscing. After 40 minutes the wheelchair became too uncomfortable, so she retreated to her bed and lay down. Her dog Taz soon hopped up and lay down next to her, falling asleep within minutes, his body nestled next to hers.About two months ago he did the same thing in a desolate redrock canyon near Moab, Utah. With Ballengee dying on a cold rock, her pelvis shattered and twisted from a 60-foot fall, and her body on its way to losing a third of its blood, Taz nuzzled next to his owner for a night of pain laced with fear.Back here in the Cove, however, the nestle does not last as long as it did that night in December. Ballengee has somewhere to go, something to do. She must soon head over to the Silverthorne Recreation Center to continue recovering from an injury only a fraction survive.When reached last week by phone, the 35-year-old professional multisport athlete, whose 52 hours of hell after a trail running fall made national headlines, was asked how life has treated her lately.

“I’m ready to throw this dang wheelchair off a cliff,” the adventure racing world champion replied.She is itching to walk again. Itching to wear shoes again (she hasn’t put one on in two months). Itching to cook and clean her kitchen, to take a shower in the same time it takes the rest of her species.Ballengee is not bored, which many believed she would be. She stays busy by, among other things, keeping in touch with all who reached out to her after the accident – hundreds of folks, some of them strangers, others long-lost friends from as far back as elementary school. She went nordic sit skiing last Tuesday and works out at the rec center three or four times per week, although riding a sitdown bike for 10 minutes with no resistance is not exactly trudging through the mountains or the jungle or the desert during a 7-day, 450-mile adventure race, like she’s used to.”My heart rate’s a whopping 93,” she said with a sarcastic grin while pedaling Saturday. “Not much of a workout, but at least it’s something.”Ballengee’s right knee is still covered with purple scars from dragging herself for five hours immediately after she fell. Her legs have lost almost all of their muscle – the muscle in her hamstring “has turned into just a tendon” – and her body weight has dropped from 120 pounds to 104.

But even she admits she has made incredible progress since the days that followed the accident. At the time, it took 10 minutes just to roll over in her hospital bed and sit up – “and I couldn’t even sit up for 30 seconds without blacking out,” she said. The accident still lingers with her, however, as much mentally as physically. She has nightmares of the spot where she slipped on the rock, that ill-fated step which began her fall and changed her life. When she wakes up and attempts to flush the vision from her mind, she ends up replaying the other chapter, when all she could do was hope and pray that someone would find her there on that canyon bed.She has begun renting comedies instead of other movie genres to help prevent the nightmares, she said. Sometimes she takes an anxiety pill to help her sleep.Ballengee’s toes still get cold very easily, a result of the frostbite that turned them purple in the canyon. The back of her pelvis remains numb, as well, where the doctors inserted the titanium plate during a six-hour procedure that required four surgeons. The most overwhelming reminder of it all, however, remains the medical bills. As a self-employed athlete, Ballengee thought she had bought a decent health insurance policy with the $140-a-month premium she paid. She never took the time to research how low the limits of her policy actually were, she said, and it’s costing her now.In less than a 24-hour span immediately following her rescue, she incurred $40,000 in medical expenses. Only a small portion of that is covered by her insurance. She said she has not yet seen a bill from the surgeons who reconstructed her pelvis, but expects those costs to be steep.

“You can either laugh or cry, and I just start laughing,” she said.The smiles come easier thanks to an endurance sports community that has rallied behind one of its brightest stars. Fundraisers for Ballengee have been, or will be, held in the form of snowshoe races, raffles, running clinics, treadmill races, silent auctions, dinners and, of course, the medical fund established in her name at FirstBank (it’s raised about $10,000 thus far). One guy she knew even offered to carry her on his back during a stair-climbing race, in an effort to raise funds; she declined due to safety concerns.Sponsors have stuck by Ballengee despite her inability to represent them in races. Even former sponsors have volunteered their help, offering gear for raffles or silent auctions.Often the financial assistance comes with testimonials from donors on the role Ballengee has played in their lives.”I had no idea I had been an inspiration to people,” she said. “No idea at all.”Eventually, Ballengee will graduate from her wheelchair to a walker, then to crutches, then to a cane. The doctors told her she’d have to re-learn how to walk, but she’s optimistic the process won’t be as difficult as she originally imagined.

According to her friend, Pam Minard, Ballengee has adjusted to the stigma, as ironic as it is in this case, that comes with living in a wheelchair.”She gets stared at a lot and she just kind of looks down,” Minard said. “She’s used to the staring because of her athletic career, but it’s a different stare. It’s a more sympathetic, ‘You poor thing.'”As for whether she’ll ever be able to return to the multisport, multiday sufferfests that so steeled her to survive the 52-hour ordeal, that remains a question mark.”The doctors seem pretty optimistic that ‘Yeah, you’ll have a full recovery,’ but none of them have said, ‘You’ll be able to race again, you’ll be able to compete at that high of a level,'” said Ballengee, who was planning a return to the elite mountain running circuit before her injury.”I’m sure I’ll be able to jog down the hill, but will I be able to just bomb down it fast enough for what it takes to compete at that level? We won’t know for several months.”For now Ballengee is more concerned with not having to stare out her Summit Cove window to experience what the outdoors holds. After all, times are growing desperate: “Taz is getting fat and I’m losing all my muscle.”

“I get frustrated just wanting to be out on the trails, running or whatever,” she said. “Just be out there with the dog, by myself, out in the woods. That’s what I love to do.”It won’t be long now.”Ballengee fundraiserThe Silverthorne Pavilion will play host to a fundraiser for Danelle Ballengee on March 15 from 5:30-10 p.m. The evening will include a presentation on Ballengee’s career, a question-and-answer session with Ballengee, a spaghetti dinner, a silent auction with some incredible outdoors gear and local retail donations, as well as a cash bar. Tickets ($20 in advance, $25 at the door) can be purchased at the Silverthorne Rec Center. For information on how to get involved, call Pam Minard at (970) 262-7983.

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