In the middle of December 2006, Danelle “Nellie” Ballengee packed up her fanny pack and her car to go for a trail run in Moab, Utah. A seasoned, professional athlete it was to be a routine outing and she looked forward to it. Nellie and her family spent about a third of the year in Moab and she had found her own loops in the wilderness and only a small part of it was on the Amasa Back Trail. Nellie, a a three-time Primal Quest winner and four-time Pikes Peak Marathon champ was used to gnarly, technical running, but what was supposed to be a sub two hour run through the mountain woods with her 3 year-old pup, Taz, turned suddenly into a horrific two day fight for her life.
After about an hour of running on familiar terrain, she slipped, fell, and continued to tumble down the mountain, falling a total of roughly 40 feet. She landed standing, but the force of the fall shattered her pelvis and she collapsed to the ground in agony. Calling on the mental and physical strength she routinely utilized in her long distance events, Nellie tried to drag herself out of the canyon to help. Inching her way along the ground she managed only a quarter of a mile before she realized she could go no farther. Two more times she would try, unsuccessfully, to get out of the canyon.
Nellie did what she could to survive. Drinking snow, screaming for help in the darkness, wiggling her toes and fingers to prevent frostbite, and as the Summit Daily News recounts she mostly, “Just lay there and prayed, eventually becoming overwhelmed by her greatest fear: that she would never get to say goodbye to her family. ‘Why didn’t I tell them how much I love them? Why didn’t I tell my friends how special they are and how much I learn from them? Why didn’t I?’”
A rescue crew was dispatched to find her, thanks to a neighbor who noticed her missing car. At one point, John Marshall, the officer leading the 12 Grand County Search and Rescue members at Amasa Back trailhead accepted an offer from a fellow rescuer to leave a body bag. The outlook for finding Nellie alive seemed bleak. Initially, they found Taz who they estimated hadn’t eaten in about two days and the crew took this to be a bad sign. Loyal dogs won’t generally leave their masters. But it was Taz who ultimately led the crew to Ballengee, who calmly said to her rescuers, “I’m glad to see you,” when they found her. The timing could not have been better. Snow was moving in and fell the next day.
Nellie was airlifted to the hospital where she underwent a six-hour surgery to reconstruct her pelvis and spent two months in a wheel chair. She’s a true survivor. Most people, she was later told, would have lasted 24 hours with the severity of injuries she suffered. She lasted 52 hours and on a freezing rock with only two energy gels and half a bottle of water. At various points during treatment she was told she may not even walk again, let alone compete. Nellie was grateful to be alive and through her ordeal but the endurance athlete would find a way to compete again. She’s getting her chance and part of that comeback includes the Spartan Racing series.
For the 39 year old mother of two and endurance athlete Danelle Ballengee, running the Tuxedo, NY Spartan Sprint this weekend is an “opportunity to be a kid again,” because she “can get a sitter for an hour and go out and have fun.” Danelle shared that she “got a boot camp video and [did] that to train with [her] kids.” What’s remarkable about her training program, is not the regimen itself, but rather the obstacle in life she had to overcome to get to where she could train to compete again.
Since her accident and surgery four years ago, she’s started a family. Her two sons Will, 8 months, and and Noah who will be 3 in August keep her busy. As we talk , I hear them making noise in the background. Between raising her boys and running a local diner, Milt’s Stop ‘n’ Eat with her husband she’s been slowly getting back into racing. This past year, she’s been doing half-marathons, trail runs and some shorter distance adventure racing. She anticipates doing the Salt Lake Soldier Hollow and potentially doing the Spartan Race in Vermont as an opportunity to get away with her family for a vacation and a race at the same time.
While speaking about Spartan Race, Ballengee shares, “It’s been four years since my accident and I still think about it every day.” She pauses, “It’s so cool for me that I almost died and to be able to run again and be able to do something like this, well, I feel pretty lucky.” You can almost hear her smile when she says, “I’m bringing my kids out – I think it’s neat for the kids to see their mom in action.”
In addition to being an extraordinary athlete and inspiration, Ballengee also takes pride in being a mother and woman. Spartan Race for her is an opportunity to showcase for herself and others true strength and determination. She wants to encourage women to push themselves in sports.
She says, “I just want them to know that they can do it and coming to this race, finishing it and doing it… it’s rewarding,” she says. “Doing these races, they feel better about themselves and how strong they are. Women need that. The whole Spartan thing, doing this race, it makes them feel good about themselves.”
We look forward to welcoming Nellie to our Spartan family of racers in New York. Her incredible story of a comeback from a horrific accident four years ago to her life today as a mother, wife, business owner and a returning athlete should serve as a reminder of what’s possible when the will to go on outweighs giving in and giving up. Reflecting on her ordeal all Nellie can say is, “I wasn’t ready to die.”
To learn more about Danelle Ballengee and her amazing career, her training programs and her accident, visit http://www.trainingrx.com/index.html.