A triathlete’s ultimate test of endurance and the animal-human bond that saved her life.
What do you do now, Danelle? That had to be the question rampaging through her mind. Forget about the seven Ironman finishes, her three age-group wins in Kona, her sixth (1997) and eleventh (1998) place finishes at the ITU Long Distance Duathlon World Championships, her 1997 U.S. Pro Duathlete of the Year Award, her eighth place at the ITU Winter Triathlon World Championship in 2006, her Eco Challenge and Primal Quest Adventure Racing titles or the fact that she had climbed all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks in 14 days. This was a totally new sport: survival.
Danelle Ballengee’s workout on December 13, 2006 had started out like so many others. She parked her truck a few miles from her home in Moab, Utah, put on her running shoes, grabbed Taz, her 3-year-old running buddy that she had adopted when he was only seven weeks old, and headed out for a two-hour trail run. A romp up a Jeep road was followed by a short scramble up some rocks. It was on the short scramble where her life was turned upside down. Danielle hit some black ice, her feet went out from under her and she started sliding down the face of the rock. It was the worst possible scenario. She was sliding to oblivion and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.
Danelle flew past an overhang and plunged 60 feet to a rock shelf. “I thought I was dead,” she admits. “I reached down to touch my legs to see if I was paralyzed or not.”
She wasn’t, but her pelvis was rotated and fractured on both sides. There were fractures in three of her verterbrae, her sacrum was split down the middle and she was bleeding internally.
With the adrenaline flowing, Danelle was she trying to get out of the canyon before sunset. The forecast was for temperatures to dip into the low 20’s overnight. It took her five hours to crawl a quarter mile.
Danelle was wearing running tights, a thin base layer, a polypro top and a thin fleece over the top. She also had on a fleece hat and gloves, plus a shower cap that she happened to have with her. “We use them all the time in adventure racing,” she says. “You put it over your hat to keep the heat in.”
She had dragged her body to a puddle and broke a hole in the ice with her fist to fill up her bottle. “By this time, it was 5pm and I realized I was stuck there,” she says. “I stayed up all night rubbing my hands, tapping my feet and doing crunches. Taz curled up with me to try and keep me warm.”
Not having anyone to talk with, her conversations were with Taz. “I told him that I was hurt, that maybe he could get some help,” she recalls. “I think that dogs are a lot smarter than we realize.”
Before going out for her run, Danelle didn’t leave a note or call anyone. She realized that there was a good chance that no one even knew she was in danger. As the second night approached, Danelle’s neighbor realized that something was wrong. The lights and computer were on at Danelle’s house and the blinds were wide open. After a call to Danelle’s parents, search and rescue went into action and by the dawn of day three they had started to hunt for Danelle.
If she tried to move, the pain was excruciating. So she stayed as still as possible and thought about simply staying alive. “I wanted so badly to live,” she says. “I wasn’t ready to die. I thought about my life, my family and my friends, and how much they meant to me. I wanted to tell them all how much I loved them. Those thoughts were so strong I didn’t really feel pain when I was lying there. All I wanted to do was survive.”
By day three, Taz must have realized that something was seriously wrong. His owner had never stayed in one spot for so long. “Taz would take off, and I realized he was running to the trailhead and back hoping to find help,” Danelle recalls. “It was four miles each way. Taz would run to the trailhead, look for help, run back and lick me in the face before heading off on another run. He did this even though he hadn’t eaten in three days.”
During one run, he arrived at the trailhead at noon, just as the search and rescue team found Danelle’s truck. At first they didn’t know that this crazy dog running around barking and biting was Taz. When they did, they got on their ATV’s and followed Taz, who took them right to Danelle. By this time she had lost a third of her blood. Most people can live eight to 12 hours after sustaining similar injuries with that much blood loss. The doctors told Danelle that she was lucky to be alive, that she was able to withstand 56 hours of torture only because of her amazing level of fitness.
That evening the temperatures dropped into the teens and it snowed. “I don’t think I would have made it through another night,” Danelle says softly. “I am just so lucky.”
Danelle was interviewed on the “Today” show while in her hospital bed. At the end of the interview, she was reunited with Taz and it was an emotional scene.
This being close to Christmas, Danelle was asked if she was going to put an extra bone in Taz’s Christmas stocking. “A bone?” she said, laughing, as she petted Taz. “He’ll be getting steak!”
A few days later, a large package arrived from someone from Michigan who had watched the interview. When Danelle opened the box, she found a Christmas stocking with Taz’s name embroidered on it. Underneath the stocking? A six-pack of steaks for the hero of the day.
Sometimes it’s all about payback. When Taz was a puppy, Danelle adopted him from a rescue center in Boulder, Colo. Three years later, Taz repaid the favor.
Danelle Ballengee is back participating in endurance events—she was the first woman at the 2013 Moab Triathlon—and is now married and a mother of two small boys: Noah, who recently did his first triathlon, and William. She and her husband own Milt’s Stop & Eat in Moab, a ’50s-style diner. About a year after the accident, Danelle hiked back to the spot where she nearly died with family and friends. She now puts on an event there called the Moab Trail Marathon and Half Marathon (this year it takes place November 8). The route goes right through that same canyon. “People wanted to call that part of the race Nellie’s Canyon,” Danelle says. “I felt it was more appropriate to name it after someone else.” It’s now called Taz’s Canyon.
To listen to Bob Babbitt and Paul Huddle’s interview with Danelle Ballengee, go to Competitorradio.com.