Millimeters. If you move even a millimeter your life will be changed forever. The doctors words rang in our ears. Just moments earlier we were laying in the van cooking eggs in the cast iron. Now we were in the emergency room with an uncertain future. Let’s rewind and start from the beginning. This is in fact a race report about the Fat Dog 120 but it all plays a part in the story.
A few years ago the Fat Dog 120 race had sparked my interest. A point to point race in a beautiful part of Canada with an absurd amount of elevation gain and no repetition. I was sold! I texted Julia and asked her what she thought. Her response was that’s fucking ridiculous nobody can afford to pay that much for a race. It’s true for the amount of required gear and the lack of aid stations makes the steep cost of close to $400 not worth it… but I wanted to do it so I signed up anyways. The previous year the race had been canceled because of a forrest fire. But this year it was game on. Unfortunately about a month before the race they released that the race would be taking an alternate course to avoid the area that was burned. I pulled the race course up online and was immediately disappointed. A lollipop with a couple of out and backs…the worst.
Needless to say my motivation was dwindling. I’ve had a rough go at it the past year with all the young deaths in our community including my best friend Julia and my own misfortunes with a high speed interstate car accident that should have been life ending. I hadn’t raced in a long time. And I still don’t think I’m ready. Life just keeps throwing me curveballs and the dark places ultras take you become too dark. So dark that it overwhelms you and you can’t push through to the other side. Excuses excuses excuses I know…lets just say I didn’t train at all, I spent my time the months leading up to the race building a house, switching positions at my job, calling insurances about my car accident, and being fully wrapped up in some of my artistic hobbies. Occasionally Jenelle would drag me out for a 15 mile run but that was my max…. That was my max distance before a 120 mile race.
Race week was finally here and I had taken some time off of work so we could fully enjoy Canada and the drive up there. Unfortunately some rough travel to support my friend at the Ouray 100 left me super sick with a bad head and chest cold that laid me up for the two weeks prior. I went to the doctor looking for some answers the day before we left for Canada only to get a steroid to help my head drain. I took it once and felt great until the mucus drained into my lungs and I couldn’t breath and thought I was going to die. So as you can imagine the trip got delayed a few days until I felt I was ready to drive in a van for 18 hrs. Once on the road Corbin and I leisurely picked our way up through Oregon and Washington stopping at Smith Rocks, Leavenworth, and Index to climb along the way and lots of sleeping. I slept a lot.
We arrived in Canada about 2 days before the race to pick up my friend Jodie from the Vancouver airport. She would be living with us in the van and pacing me the big middle section of the race. We also met up with my best friend Nikki who lives in Washington and said she would pace me a few sections of the race as well. It was go time. We drove all the way out to the middle of BC and got a campsite for the two nights before the race. Pre-race was a big reunion with all my winter ultra Canada friends and my spirit and energy was high… even though the head cold was still kicking my butt. We had a plan.
The plan was… to take my steroids during the race so that I would feel better and my sinus pressure would drain. It seemed like a good idea in theory. But let’s remind ourselves that I’m severely under trained and pacing is going to be key for a successful race… and well steroids make you feel like a million bucks. The race starts at the ripe hour of 10am. It was my latest start to date… even winter ultras start earlier than that. It seemed like punishment to have us start so late. They required us to ride in a bus to the start and then at the start line they “checked” that we had our required gear. Which was a joke since we were all packed and ready to start.
The race started and I felt amazing. The first uphill went by quickly while I hung out with my friend Karen. It went by too quickly. I just felt so good and all I wanted to do was move and move faster! A couple people around me got stung by bees on the first uphill and had to drop. I’m allergic to bees and I didn’t bring an Epipen it made me insanely nervous knowing that it could happen to me at any moment. But I felt like a million bucks. I ran and I ran and I ran and I ran. I just kept running. I even did a dramatic shoulder roll when I tripped on a downhill scuffing up my hands and knees pretty bad. But nothing could stop me. I felt greater than great. The miles just flew by and so did the aid stations. Which had essentially no food. It was kind of a joke to call them an aid station. But I didn’t care cause I was riding cloud 9.
I flew down the next downhill and realized that the next aid station I was coming to was the first one I could see crew at. It was about mile 30. I kept getting excited thinking about seeing my friends and my dog. That I didn’t even bother to look at the time. As I rolled into the aid station I looked for my crew and they were no where to be found. Shit I thought. I hope they are okay and didn’t get in a car accident or something. I pulled out my sat phone and sent them a couple of text messages. I really needed them at the next aid station and it was only 3 miles away so I was nervous they might miss me. I mostly walked those 3 miles hoping it would give them some time to get there but the 3 miles flew by faster than I thought and as I arrived I saw the van!
My crew was hurrying to get shit together and surprised to see me. You know you are on a sub 36hr pace? Really I pondered. That’s not right…. I was planning to finish this race in 49hrs. O no. The steroid. I’m pretty sure I PRed my 50k. But I still felt great. I eat a bunch of a food and scurried out of there with Nikki as my pacer. The next uphill was ridiculous. It would be bold to call it a trail. It goes straight up the mountain with bad footing and cliff drop offs. Nikki and I silently trudged up the mountain still keeping a fast pace. I was not happy. I felt hot. I couldn’t eat. We crested over the top of the pass right at sunset. I couldn’t have been more relieved. Nikki and I sat for a bit on a rock and watched the sun fully disappear. I ate some food and we put on our jackets and head lamps. I looked at Nikki and said so nows the time when we get in our sleeping bags and get a full night sleep right? Fast packing sure is a sport to be romanticized when you’re about to spend a night out.
The first night is always the hardest for me. My spirits are always the lowest. I didn’t want to run anymore I just wanted to walk. It was dark. Nikki and I speed walked the rest of the way to the next aid station. We had company and chatted with a friendly guy from Arizona for most of the time. We finally arrived at the next aid station still well ahead of schedule. I sat down in a chair got myself cleaned up and Jodie and I headed out almost immediately. This is a little out and back section so naturally it sucked and I was not happy.
This section was the absolute pits. We got lost for a little bit. Had to forge two rivers which we took our shoes off and walked across barefoot. And I death zombie marched. I went from a great pace to no pace. Poor Jodie walked all night long with me and we barely went anywhere. The aid station would never come. This section is a 50 mile section with no crew access including two sections which I had already done yesterday. So you essentially are stuck and have to do it. It wore heavy on me. My head cold hurt. My legs felt like bricks. And I wanted to go to bed. We walked. We walked really slowly. We got to an aid station and I sat for a really long time.
A was not in a good mood. The sun had just risen and we were nearing the 24hr mark. A happy camper rolled into the aid station exclaiming how he just saw a grizzle mama bear and her cubs on the trail! I couldn’t take it. I shouted from across the aid station. Actually that would be a cinnamon brown black bear. Not a grizzle. Everyone eyed me suspiciously before the local Canadians backed me up. And the man said our black bears are black on the east coast… I don’t believe I’ve ever rolled my eyes louder in my life.
Jodie who is an infinite ball of positivity and energy bounced around the aid station making friends and eating food while I sat in the chair with an angry scowl on my face. I wasn’t even considering DNFing yet I was mostly just unhappy for no reason. Jodie gave me my steroid for my cold and life shot back in me. Alright let’s get out of here. Just 20 more miles till we see our crew. I stood up from the chair and my legs could barely move. They’ll warm up I thought... They did not warm up. There was no saving them at this point. They were done.
I spent the next section angry. I kept repeating, usually I can come around from a low but I’ve been stuck in this low since mile 50. I can’t come out. My legs aren’t coming around. I kept walking slowly. I couldn’t jog downhills. I couldn’t jog flats. I couldn’t even speed walk. Honestly I couldn’t even walk it was more of a shuffle limp. The mosquitos were bad and I wanted a nap. Jodie let me nap for a few minutes but the nap didn’t help nothing was going to save my legs. The sun never rose it was overcast. It was overcast the previous day too. I hadn’t seen the sun. My spirits were low. I wish a bee would sting me I relented to Jodie. Maybe I could get a helicopter out of here that might be nice. I kept walking.
The sky finally did what it was threatening to do all day. It rained. It poured. And the ponchos got pulled out of the pack. I was miserable. I couldn’t move fast to save my life. And we were out there. Like really out there. I felt vulnerable. For once in my life I was actually a bit nervous. I usually say you can always walk out so it’s not scary but we were miles from any road… and I could barely walk. When we got to the next remote aid station we sat down. The next aid station was 18 miles away. Mostly uphill on a section that I had done the previous day. I had seen it already. It was raining. Threatening lightning and I didn’t want to go up on that ridge line again. I sat there. I sat there. I knew the right decision was to take the 11 mile trail down to the road and get out of there. My legs would never come around. I ran. I ran way too much way too early for being way too undertrained. I stood up at the aid station and said 128 out as in DNF out. The friendly volunteers tried to get me to reconsider with things like don’t you want that belt buckle and it’s easier to walk uphill. I literally looked at them and said I don’t need another belt buckle and you know damn straight gravity is great and it is always easier to walk downhill. And with that I walked out of there with Jodie.
It was such a great relief to know that we wouldn’t be up on the ridge line in a potentially dangerous storm. It was such a relief to know that I wouldn’t have to spend another night out there and make my already bad head cold worse. It was such a great relief to know that I could sleep soon. However we were still over 11 miles from the car and my legs were trashed and just cause I decided to DNF didn’t mean they got any less trashed. Jodie didn’t influence my decision at all she supported me in whatever I wanted to do but as we walked out the aid station she said I’m proud of you for not letting your ego make you make a bad decision. I didn’t even think about it like that but it was true if I was just out on my own not racing I would not have continued so if you take the race out of the decision it’s an easy one. That downhill went for days. I limp, hobble, sat, repeat… over and over. 11 miles of downhill has never taken me longer before in my life. The rain was still coming down and Jodie and I were on a mission. A very slow mission.
As we neared the trail head the sun peaked out a little bit and for the first time in 2 days I felt the sun. It was so rejuvenating. We sat there. We laid there. We napped. The sun is the greatest thing. And then it disappeared and we kept moving again. Within ear shot of the trailhead I could hear Lopi playing in the river. My journey of 90 miles was finally over. I’m positive if it was a 100 mile race I could have limp hobbled my way to the finish. But I can confidently say I did not have another 30 miles in me. But I can also say I raced a really stupid race and paid heavily in the end. With pacing would I have finished? I don’t know maybe. Or the head cold and under training would have caught up to me earlier and I wouldn’t have made it as far. Who knows. It was a fun time and I would not recommend the race with the modified course to anyone. Save your clams for a different race or two.
After the race I ate a lot of food. Slept a lot. And got to hangout with my friends. Nothing is more special than the ultra community… especially the crazy ones who also like winter ultras. We said our goodbyes and made our way back to Vancouver. Jodie missed her plane flight so her Corbin and I got to spend one very cramped night in the back of my van in downtown Vancouver. Little did I know it wouldn’t be my last night in downtown. In the morning we dropped Jodie off at the airport and Corbin and I decided to continue our vacation north.
It’s beautiful north of Vancouver. Our first stop was Squamish. At Squamish we unloaded the van and deep cleaned the nastiness of ultra running and housing lots of different people in a small space. Then we took a short hike but I could barely walk and I ended up just going back to the van and sleeping while Corbin solo adventured around the Chief. That night we ended up traveling up to Whistler which was both of our first times there. We checked out the village and realized it was crankworks weekend so everything was super crazy busy. Corbin rented a really nice downhill mountain bike for the next few days and then we bivied up high in the mountains. We had gotten into a really nice rhythm almost 2 weeks on the road of cooking and sleeping.
The next morning we got up and headed down to the village. I decided to go back to work since I was basically out of commission with my current leg and foot situation. I said goodbye to Corbin in the morning and headed to the coffee shop to work. Corbin and I met up around 1pm that day to make food in the van and Corbin took a quick nap before heading out again. I walked back to the coffee shop and worked a bit more before the tiredness, hunger, and rain hurried me back to the van. I made a quick stop at the convenience store on my walk back to pick up snacks that Corbin would be mad at me for eating. I hid them in the van so he wouldn’t find them.
About an hour of sitting in the van went by before I got the call. It was approximately 4:30pm when Corbin called me and left me a message that said “I’m in the hospital I guess can you come here”. I called back immediately his voice was calm. I’m at the clinic in Whistler will you come here. I looked it up quickly and frantically tried to make my way to the clinic. It took longer than expected when I wasn’t able to get parking and ended up having to walk anyways. Scenarios played through my head. His voice is calm. He must have broken something. Maybe a collar bone? That’s a thing bikers break.
When I showed up at the front desk I asked for him. The lady behind the counter was over joyed to see me. She whispered in a hush tone he can’t remember anything so hopefully you can help answer some questions. My stomach sank. It wasn’t a broken arm. When I first saw him he looked great. He just sat there. I was so happy to see him sitting there tears welled in my eyes. He looked at me not turning his head and said why am I here. In the hospital I asked? Why am I in the hospital he repeated. I don’t know I said. I just got here. Who told you I was here he asked. You called me. The seriousness of the situation started to set in. Why are we in Canada he quipped. Well we came here so I could run a race. O right he said thinking hard you haven’t run it yet. No I did it was a few days ago. O really he said confused. The Tuscobia right? The Tuscobia is a winter ultra that happens in December…. No the Fatdog 120 I said. O right okay. Silence for a few seconds followed. Who told you I was here? You called me I repeated. Okay he said quietly looking to be deep in thought. Why am I here he repeated. The questions looped over and over. Intermixed with revelations that he was fine see look I’m fine I’ve got my arms and legs I’m fine but my neck hurts. I knew he wasn’t fine. He wouldn’t turn his head and look at me. He kept moving his arms and legs and then telling me his neck hurts and then asking me why he was there and how long he had been there. A nurse would come around asking him to sign papers again. He would refuse. He would ask if he could just walk out of there explaining to the nurse that he was fine.
I think I knew at that point that his neck was broken. He obviously knew or at least his body knew. I went to the nurse and got the papers. I looked Corbin dead in the face and said you will be a quad if you don’t sign these papers. He looked at me scared and signed the papers. At the time we knew nothing. I don’t know what compelled me to say that but I did. Once the papers were signed the doctor finally came around to see him. He sat Corbin up. Made Corbin take his shirt off and did an examination. He seemed cavalier about the situation. Maybe because Corbin was cavalier about the situation. I’m just going to order you a CT scan of your head to see if there is any swelling. It’ll be several hours before we can get you into the scanner so just relax and you should leave and get food he said looking at me. The doctors visit was brief and unsatisfying. He probably sees a million concussions a day and he treated us like that. I turned to Corbin who was regaining a small amount of memory and told him I would be back. I was just going to move the van and return his rental bike. I knew at this point he would not be riding the bike again tomorrow.
I walked out the front door and grabbed his rental bike, helmet, and knee pads. I biked back to the shop he had rented them from. His helmet was substantially damaged but the nice bike shop gave him a full refund for the unused day anyways. Saying well at least the helmet did it’s job! It sure did. I felt tired my body was weak. I could barely walk and struggled immensely to ride the bike to the shop. Life wasn’t going to let me live like I just ran an ultra I needed to be strong. I drove the van back to the clinic since more parking had opened up and walked in to find Corbin being wheeled back from his CT scan. I had maybe been gone for 45 minutes so I was surprised they were able to get him so fast. He was back boarded strapped to the board and in a neck brace. As he got wheeled into the room a nurse followed and started unstrapping him from the board. She reached to take off his neck brace when the doctor rushed shouting stop. He needs to stay in that. Nurse looked up surprised. O did you see something she said… yes a lot of things.
They left for a few moments before returning to tell us what they had seen. He had broken almost every bone in his cervical spine including a burst fracture C7 with 60% loss of vertebrae and a spinous process which was dangerously close to his spine. The breaks started at C1 and went the entire way to T3. Nobody could believe he was still alive. Nobody could believe he still had his arms and legs. That’s when it began. Don’t move. If any of those bones in your neck move even a millimeter your life will be very different. The gravity of the statement laid on us like a blanket. I’m going to call you a helicopter you will need surgery. I think an ambulance is too much risk with the seriousness of your injury. Corbin moved uncomfortably on the board. Can I just ride in the back of Naomi’s van to the hospital. There is a bed. I’m fine. I can’t afford a helicopter. I looked at Corbin he looked at me and we both knew he was getting in that helicopter. No money in the world is worth your arms and legs.
A few moments later the helicopter arrived. They wheeled Corbin on to it and I returned to the van. They had given me instructions on how to get to the hospital they would be taking him too. Now I just had to do the drive alone at night without him. I got in the van. I kept repeating get there safe. I had written my phone number on the back of Corbins hand just in case I never showed up to the hospital. I had been in a car accident before. I know how these things go. We can never be certain how safe we really are doing anything. It was a full moon. It was beautiful. I did not enjoy it.
I arrived at the Vancouver General late that night and went looking for him in the emergency room. It was full. Sick people lining the walls. And then me with swollen toes unable to fit them into close toed shoes. And Corbin visibly healthy stuck in C-spine with an uncertain future. The nurses mostly ignored him. He was stable. We stayed there in that ER room for 2 days. I sat and people watched. Listened to his neighbors scream ask for more morphin and then vomit all over the floor. Then I’d hear house keeping get called and the sloshing of a mop bucket moments later. It was entertaining. But I was inpatient they were starving him because they couldn’t figure out when his surgery day would be and he needed to be fasted. On the second day they finally got him into an MRI and then into a hospital room on the spinal floor. It was a game changer finally being out of the ER.
Meanwhile Lopi spent his days in the van parked on some side street in downtown. I’d move it occasionally but at that point I couldn’t be bothered to care about parking tickets. My van didn’t fit in the parking garages. And so I parked my van in 2hr parking for 3 days straight. I’d get Lopi out to walk in the mornings and the evenings and he even came in the hospital to visit Corbin twice.
While Corbin was in C-spine I would spoon feed him food and get him water. Once they set a date for the surgery it was just ice chips. I’d slip him ice chips as he laid flat. The surgeons would come in daily to talk to us and give us updates. They always started the conversation reminding Corbin how lucky he was. And then detail what they would be doing during surgery.
On the 3rd morning they wheeled him down for surgery. They would be removing his C7 and replacing it with a titanium cage and putting a bolt through his odontoid peg. It was no small surgery and they told me it would take about 5 hours. And it would be just a tiny little cut on the front of his neck. They had to keep him awake for his breathing tube since his injuries were so severe in his neck. And then lights out. I waited. And waited. I paced. I asked the nurses. I waited some more. 7 hours went by before I demanded an update. He was out of surgery but they had failed to contact me. It had only been a few minutes but I was relieved and yet also livid. HOW DOES SOMEONE JUST FAIL TO CONTACT ME. I was in the waiting room. I lost it. I cried. I sobbed. It was the first time I fully released since the accident. I walked into the out patient. He laid there so perfect. He looked at me and said “My dick hurts”.
It wasn’t long before they released him back to his hospital room. I stayed for a long time with him that night. He wasn’t hungry but I was able to get the nurse to remove his catheter so his dick wouldn’t hurt anymore and he ate some ice cream. The next day he was doing worlds better. I stayed with him all day. And he checked all his boxes for release. I ran around the hospital signing papers, calling insurances, and dealing with money. Corbin spent the day walking around for the first time in 4 days. They showed me how to take care of his wound and his neck brace. We got the ins and outs on what he can and cannot do. And ultimately for financial reasons we got released that night. It was amazing to have him free from the confines of the depressing nature of the hospital but also terrifying to know that I had a very fragile human in my care.
We said goodbye to our hospital roommates who were a lovely Canadian couple who had suffered a similar mountain biking accident a few months earlier. She however was less lucky. We knew how lucky we were. And I don’t ever want to forget it. All of our money will go to SCI research. I know there is a cure. It is heart breaking to see so many young, healthy people suffering from such a debilitating yet I truly believe curable thing.
That night we stayed at a friends house in Vancouver. It was Corbins first real good night sleep and my first shower in almost a week. We felt rejuvenated and ready to go home. I kept asking if he wanted to fly. I honestly had wished he choose to fly so that I didn’t drive so in fear for so many hours knowing that any mistake could be life threatening. And not just my mistake but any mistake from any other human. I gripped the steering wheel hard. We broke the drive up over several days to make it safer and easier on Corbin. It was mandatory he got up and walked around every few hours to make sure he didn’t get any blood clots. By the time we entered Nevada in the final home stretch I could barely feel my hands. I had been gripping the steering wheel so hard.
After over two weeks we were finally back home. Corbin went into full on recovery mode. He had his community and his friends who came out and helped lift his spirits. I at-home nursed him until he was good on his own. And as for my ultra recovery… I’m honestly not sure when in this all I recovered but I did. I’m so thankful to have Corbin. To have his arms and legs. And to be able to live an almost normal life again. As for me… well the cards are still down but I’m optimistic things will turn around for me. I don’t plan on running another race for awhile maybe at most a 50k…. Or I’ll just do the fast packing thing I like more anyways. On to the next adventure hopefully with less hospital time. Honestly I’d be happy if I never stepped foot in a hospital again!