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A running accident, an amputation, and the will to keep moving

The remarkable story of Dave Mackey

On a gloomy morning in May of 2015, elite ultra-distance trail runner and three-time U.S. ultrarunner of the year, Dave Mackey of Boulder, Colorado, set out on a fairly typical mountain run up and over several of the big peaks that make up Boulder’s western skyline. Amid temperatures in the mid-40s and rain in the forecast, he ran up the rolling trails to the base of the mountains and then up Shadow Canyon to the top of 8,549-foot South Boulder Peak, the highest peak in Boulder. From there, he ran down a ridgeline and up another trail to Bear Peak (8,461 feet). Mackey continued on to the summit of Bear Peak and was considering running up and down Green Mountain (8,144 feet) just to the north, but figured he’d run down Green-Bear Trail and see how he felt before deciding whether to make the third ascent before returning home.

However, as he was making his way down a common scrambling route off the west side of Bear Peak just after 8:30 a.m., Mackey stepped on a rock and it gave way. As he began to fall, he grabbed onto another rock that gave way and he started a violent crash of about 20 to 30 feet over a mix of rocks and the branches of small mountain shrubbery. A massive rock estimated at between 150 and 300 pounds came to rest on Mackey’s leg.

Unable to move the rock off his leg and aware that he was badly injured, Mackey started yelling for help. Within a few minutes two people had arrived at his side. They helped to move the rock with a branch and then held Mackey’s splintered and badly bleeding left leg in place. As well, they held Mackey’s upper body in place on the rugged, sloping ridge where he landed for more than an hour and a half without moving until rescue personnel arrived. Several other first-responders helped keep Mackey stabilized and warm. Witnesses said he was remarkably calm and coherent given he was in such severe pain. Fellow Boulder trail runner and climber Bill Wright, who was on the scene shortly after the accident, said “His ability to stay calm, endure intense pain, and handle a horrific injury was inspiring, astounding, and had everyone involved shaking their heads.”



Mackey, aged 45 at the time, had long been one of the top mountain runners in the U.S., and is widely regarded as one of the toughest, strongest and most humble athletes in the sporting mecca that is Boulder. He is a Hoka-sponsored pro runner who works as a physician assistant, has won U.S. trail running championships for 50K, 50 miles and 100K distance and he won the Montrail Cup trail running series in 2004 and 2011. He has set numerous speed records on the trails and mountains of Boulder and previously held the Rim to Rim to Rim record for the 42-mile double-crossing of the Grand Canyon in a time of 6:59:57 in 2007.



Because of the severe nature of Mackey’s injuries, the precarious location of the incident and the wet and rainy conditions, it took several hours to evacuate him off the mountain. Ultimately a team of more than two dozen Rocky Mountain Rescue personnel—including two emergency room doctors—helped stabilize him and safely belay him down a scree field from a fixed rope before using a wheeled litter to get him down a trail on the back side of the mountain, where Mackey’s wife was waiting, along with an ambulance and other fire-rescue personnel.




Mackey said that he had taken that scrambling route off the west side of Bear Peak hundreds of times and stepped on the exact rock that gave way almost every single time. Boulder had been hit by an unusually wet spring in 2015 that included considerable rain as well as snow and sub-freezing temperatures on top of its tallest peaks. Looking back, he admits he was lucky that the accident happened early in the day when other people were out on the trails as opposed to during a late-afternoon ascent when his call for help might not have been answered.



Mackey was rushed to Boulder Community Foothills Hospital where orthopedic surgeons inserted a metal rod, several plates and numerous screws into his leg. After seven surgeries during a three-week hospital stay, he returned home with his injured leg intact, albeit with an external bracing system and crutches to help him get around.
 


Several more surgeries helped him walk without a cane, but continued complications with the repaired leg put him in the tough place. He considered more surgeries, a prospect that held little appeal. It was then that the idea of a permanent amputation of his left leg came into clear focus.

At the time, Mackey wrote this of his decision: “It’s been a long 16 months since I fell off Bear Peak above my house, sustaining an open tibial/fibula fracture to my left leg. The long rescue followed, 13 surgeries…I have achieved a degree of success in mobility and some improvement. Running has not been an option in the least just yet. Riding a mountain bike most every day now is almost real freedom. But there is still pain whenever I walk and throbbing at night. So I am at a crossroads. Do I continue with more surgeries with very high likelihood of failure and constant pain?

“But there is another solution,” he added. “The definite, non-reversible one, to be 100 percent to where I was before the accident and almost completely pain-free. There is a way to get here and I’ve decided to go this route…So the big news is that next week I will have my left leg amputated below the left knee here in Boulder.”

Surprisingly, Mackey says that in the end the decision was not as difficult as it might sound. “The complications of persistent infection would not allow for bone grafting to heal properly, which meant the fracture site would likely never be fixed. The infection was deep and resistant to treatment. The hardware, namely the intra-medullary nail in the tibia, was failing… I could lead other parts of a healthy, active life, but I'd have always been limited by pain. I knew several below the knee amputees who live normal lives. I took the definite option of amputation, instead of trying other surgeries and repairs that had a low chance of success but a high chance of pain afterwards. I work in medicine and understood exactly what I was deciding after speaking with several other medical professionals and surgeons and amputees.” Via a recent personal email, Mackey further explains, “Once I decided to amputate, I was 100% certain I'd be running again, relatively pain free, which was a tremendous relief.”

Mackey gathered with family and friends for a pre-amputation party. “That party was fun. I am not big on celebrating myself and choose not to host my own birthday parties, but you only cut your own leg off once in life by choice - or twice at most - but we won't go there, so a party seemed the best way to see it off right.”

Surgery day loomed and Mackey was surprisingly composed about the operation. “The surgery itself turned out to be more bloody than my surgeon would have liked. I lost a lot of blood, but otherwise it went well and I was only in the hospital for one night. By amputating, the problems were all removed; infection, fracture, pain…all gone just like that.”
 
He had some close friends and family around him as a support network. “It all went as well as possible actually. The only tough part was when the anesthesiologist put me under, I broke down in tears as he put the gas mask on me. I didn't see that coming as I had been so resolute about the process, but finally being put under was goodbye to the leg, and that was tough.”
 
Mackey’s recovery has so far gone extremely well. The hardest part, he concedes, was that he wasn't able to work for two months. He now has two prosthetic sockets and foot attachments. “Adapting to them has been a challenge as post-surgical swelling still has to come down and I need to get used to the prosthetics and build up strength and mobility. I am able to walk, snowshoe, and almost jog. I am looking forward to low impact sports like biking and some skiing, but I will take it easy for months to come and not overdo it.”
 
What does the physical act of running mean to a man who has dedicated a great chunk of his life to running and exploring trails, often pushing his body to the limits, through some of the most beautiful terrain on the planet? “I think it's more complicated than one thinks, about why they run or why they like running. Being in the outdoors exercising and creating a mini adventure is a large part of why I do it. Running itself is nice, but running on trails in the hills is most important to me. Overall, running gives me more energy for life than it takes away. I feel like it helps me have a more positive attitude, a longer life. It is also nice to share running with others, but what I get from it truly comes from within.”
 
Reflecting on his race success, Mackey says, “Running and racing are two different things; running is as described, but racing is competing with myself and others. I loved competition, and I don't plan on competing again now that I am on a different playing field. I am fine with this. I had a solid racing career. Now,” he says, “I can just focus on the other parts of life and share more with my family and others, running or not.”
 
 Dave Mackey can be followed on twitter @mackeydave, Instagram and Facebook.
 
Thanks to Brian Metzler from competitor.com for sharing details of Dave’s accident for this article.

Thanks to Bill Wright for the photos.

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