Paralyzed skier sees marathon as opportunity to return a favor

Published: June 3, 2006  |  Source: aspentimes.com
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Dave Farrell’s goal of completing his first marathon this fall isn’t a personal quest, but rather a gift.

Farrell, who severed his spinal cord in a telemarking accident on Aspen Mountain in late January 2005, wants to give back to the organization that helped him regain his athletic outdoor lifestyle. Less than a year after his accident, which left him paralyzed from his chest down, local nonprofit Challenge Aspen had Farrell back on the mountain in a sit-ski.

Before this season ended, Farrell had skied 21 days. When he heard about the marathon that locals run every fall to raise money for the nonprofit, Farrell knew immediately he wanted to participate.

“I knew I wanted to do something for them,” Farrell said of Challenge Aspen, which provides recreational experiences for those with mental or physical disabilities. “They’ve spoiled me, because they know I’m a local. This past season, I didn’t hardly pay anything for a lot of the lessons and stuff like that. Even the rentals, they were just like, ‘You’re a local guy, we’ll take care of you.’

“I owe them.”

Farrell will be the first Challenge Aspen athlete with a spinal cord injury to attempt the annual marathon. The Challenge Aspen team has settled on running a marathon in Switzerland this fall, after competing in Maui last year. In previous years, hearing- and sight-impaired athletes have raised money and completed the race, but Farrell’s endeavor is different.

First, he needs a lightweight wheelchair bike he can propel for long distances, then he needs to train his arms to push himself for 26.2 miles. Like the other participants on the team, he has to raise $4,500 dollars in donations. The money covers the cost of the trip and the marathon, with the rest going back to Challenge Aspen.

Farrell and his wife, Alissa, are holding a fundraising dinner at the Cantina on June 21. While the expensive chair has yet to arrive, Farrell has already begun prepping for his training.

“I’ve already been pushing around and lifting weights, stuff like that,” said Farrell, a lab director with the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District. “My way of exercise has been to push my wheelchair all around town and wherever I can go. At some point, I realized, Geez, I’ve done 6 miles today, and you know, I’m in a normal wheelchair where I can’t even go over two miles an hour. At that point, I kind of said to myself, ‘I can do this.'”

Farrell had never entered a race before his accident but was constantly active. Before moving to Aspen from the Fort Collins area in 2004, he said he commuted as many as 200 miles a week on his road bike. The love for skiing, and being outdoors in the mountains, led Farrell and his wife to Aspen.

Farrell said he was “living the dream” before his fall on Gene Reardon’s Run, a moderate blue on Ajax. He had it all – the beautiful young wife, the comfy employee housing unit in town, the golden retriever, and access to his beloved mountains right out of his front door.

“It was just entirely what we wanted,” he said. “All we needed next was to have a kid, and we’d have had everything. Everything just gets turned upside down.”

Literally. Farrell, an accomplished telemarker, fell awkwardly on his head, then slid down the mountain into a cluster of trees. The middle of his back slammed into a tree, shattering his C6 and C7 Vertebrae, and snapping his spinal cord. When he finally came to a stop, Farrell 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 with fear when he punched one of his legs and felt no sensation. When his wife arrived, Farrell said his first words to her were: “I’m never going to walk again.”

Later that day, Aspen Valley Hospital confirmed Farrell’s worst fears. He received steroids to relieve the swelling in his back, but the doctors told him that his spinal cord had been severed completely. He would have surgery to fuse the shattered vertebrae, but 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.

“It was hard to convince Dave’s parents that he really wasn’t going to walk again,” Alissa said. “Everyone would say, ‘Oh, he’ll be fine.’ … It was tough to face the truth.”

Farrell was transferred to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, where he had the surgery to fuse his vertebrae before being 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.

Farrell’s eyes welled up when he spoke of the support he and Alissa received from the community while he was in the hospital. His co-workers offered up all of their available vacation time to make sure he continued to get paid while he recovered, as did Alissa’s at the city of Aspen.

“We were just dumbfounded the way it happened,” Dave said. “I thought, after only eight months here, we’re screwed. I get my insurance, of course, but we’re going to be scraping and doing whatever is possible to survive. … 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.”

With the outpouring of support, the two realized that they didn’t have to let go of their dream life in the mountains just because Dave had lost the use of his legs.

Dave’s employees helped modify his second-story apartment and installed a lift to get him to his door. The company has also allowed him to work half-days and gradually return to a 40-hour week. Challenge Aspen provided Farrell with the support to get back outdoors.

“I thought that we might have to move back to Pennsylvania, where Dave’s family lives,” Alissa said. “I didn’t see us being able to stay here in Aspen.”

Other forms of support, including financial help from locals and family and friends around the country, have helped cover Dave’s medical costs.

The injury has led to discovery after discovery – namely about what is possible, and how a small town can rally around one of its own, Dave said.

One of the best discoveries has been scuba diving, which Dave took up in January, just one year after his injury. The couple took part in a trip to the Cayman Islands with a group of disabled divers from Colorado to get certified. CBS 4 chronicled the trip in a series of stories. Farrell said he loves diving because the water allows him to move freely without his wheelchair – just as if he had legs.

Last week, the Farrells took a six-day trip to Maui to dive again – this time, without a guide.

“It’s as much as the people around you as it is you,” Farrell said. “For me, all I’ve got to do is try hard to do as much as I can do. From that point, it’s my work coming and telling me they want me back and all the things they’re going to do for me. … My wife and my family and all my friends – all the stuff they’ve done to motivate me to continue on and do bigger things than I was even doing before. They’ve all let me know that I can do so many things.”

By Nate Peterson