Ultra runner's journey fueled by 36 blood donors
Brian Boyle was “hanging by a thread,” one of his surgeons recounts of a traffic accident that shifted his heart across his body, collapsed both lungs and damaged nearly every organ in his body.
Boyle also lost 60 percent of his blood.
Just a month after graduating high school in 2004, Boyle was returning home from swim practice when a dump truck blindsided him. He was quickly transferred to a nearby shock trauma unit.
“For the next two months I was in a coma, on kidney dialysis and life support, and a number of other machines that filled my entire hospital room,” he remembers. “I underwent 14 major operations, received 36 blood transfusions and 13 plasma treatments and ended up losing 100 pounds.”
Boyle had to be resuscitated eight times.
Recovery, of course, was slow. About six weeks after the accident, physical therapy sessions focused on blinking and moving his fingers, indicating “yes” or “no.”
“After several months of intense physical therapy where I had to learn how to talk, eat, tie my shoes, take a shower and eventually walk with a cane, I was out of the hospital and out of the rehabilitation center,” he says.
Then came three years of outpatient therapy at home.
“Every day there was a new challenge or obstacle that I had to face, but I did my best to stay positive,” Boyle remembers. “I was grateful to be alive and out of the hospital so I did my best to make the most of each day, and having such a strong support system from my parents, family, and friends helped so much. I kept thinking that tomorrow would be a better day and I would break down the long-term goals into shorter, more manageable goals.”
If Boyle walked 10 steps one day, he would try 11 steps the next day.
Three years — and many steps, strokes and pedals later — after leaving the ICU, Boyle crossed the finish line of the Hawaii Ironman in Kona. Learn more about his journey in this video.
Building blocks of an endurance athlete
Boyle, the only child of Garth and JoAnne Boyle, began his running career in sixth grade. On the track team, he did the shorter races — 50-yard-dash, 100-yard-dash and relays. In high school, he participated in swimming year round and did track and field in the spring semester. He switched from running events to field events like discus and shot put.
That was the foundation for his interest and training for triathlons and ultimately ultra marathons.
“It wasn’t until my college years (2007) when I started getting more involved in endurance sports like triathlons and marathon events, which I’ve been participating in for over a decade,” Boyle says. “My background in sports was not in long distance so it took some time to build up the endurance that was needed, but the more races I entered, the more I enjoyed the longer events like the marathon. I was really intrigued by the challenge of it, but also the great running community as well, and as I learned more about the various events, the more I raced with the hope of getting faster.”
In 2009, Boyle set a goal to break the four-hour marathon barrier. He ran five marathons — Baltimore, Marine Corps, New York City, Richmond (Va.) and Philadelphia — in quick succession to achieve that goal. He got closer each time until he eclipsed the mark with a 3:52 in Philly.
“I loved that distance and was curious about going even further, participating in the JFK50 a year later, and then a 100-miler in 2015,” he says. “Throughout the training and racing over the years, I’ve met a lot of amazing people and have been able to witness how strong the mind, body, and human spirit really are.”
When Boyle set out to run the C&O 100-miler near Knoxville, Md., his goal was simple: finish under the 30-hour cutoff. “The longest distance I ran before that was the JFK 50 miler in 2010, so going beyond 10 hours of running was going to be an interesting process, physically and psychologically,” he says.
He remembers thinking after passing Mile 50, he still had another 50 miles to go.
“It was certainly challenging, but I stayed positive and focused on running 10 mile increments at a time,” Boyle says. “Running Miles 60-100 throughout the overnight portion was also an experience in itself because it was near the end of April and there was a steady amount of freezing rain and frozen mix, which we were not prepared for. These conditions definitely added more of a challenge to the race.”
Not all runners were as prepared or mentally tough. The race had a dropout rate exceeding 50 percent.
“I had a great support team with me and I was able to finish before the cutoff,” Boyle says, noting his 29 hour, 15 minute finishing time. “I learned so much from this experience, especially when it came to proper nutrition at this distance, and the importance of back to back long runs in training.”
In December 2017, he completed his second 100-miler and dropped three hours off his time on a challenging course. He placed ninth overall in the Devil Dog Ultra in Triangle, Va. “This was a special race because I ran 100 miles for more than 100 people who pledged to donate blood to my virtual Red Cross blood drive,” he says.
Now, he is targeting another 100-miler in 2019 and hopes to get into Badwater one day. He also would like to qualify for the Boston Marathon (his current PR is 3:27).
“I’m always looking for the next running adventure.”
Inspiration begets inspiration
Boyle does not take any day or race for granted. While he is an inspiration, he draws his own motivation from those closest to him.
“I always reflect on how training and racing may be done alone but in no way is it ever an individual effort,” he says. “I gain so much inspiration and support from my wife, Pam, my 8-month-old daughter, Clara, my parents, and family.”
It should come as no surprise that the Boyles named their daughter after the founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, “as a way of honoring the 36 blood donors that played such an integral role in my recovery.”
When Boyle dons his race kit, the 36 blood donors who saved his life are not far from his mind.
“It’s also very meaningful to go into my races with the Red Cross logo and 36 red crosses on my race suit because I run in these events to show my appreciation and raise awareness on the importance of blood donation,” he says.
While Boyle had not donated blood before his accident, he remembers his mother donating hers. After the accident, he has been fully converted.
“It was about a month after getting home from the 2007 Hawaii Ironman triathlon in October of that year when I became a Red Cross volunteer as a way to show my gratitude to my 36 blood donors and to the American Red Cross for playing such an important role in my recovery,” he remembers. “I started volunteering on a frequent basis from that point on and hosted my first blood drive at my hospital in 2009, which was very special because my dad also donated at the drive as well as one of my cardiac surgeons.”
In the decade after Kona, Boyle volunteered more than 4,000 hours across the country, hosting blood drives, speaking about the importance of blood donation, visiting with schools and colleges, and racing in endurance events — with those 36 small red crosses representing his blood donors.
Now Boyle works for the American Red Cross as its officer of National Partnerships in Biomedical Services.
The ‘Why’ of his running
Thoughts of his accident, subsequent coma and dramatic recovery are always with him.
“I run for many reasons, and I often reflect back to when I was in the coma, feeling as if I was trapped in my own body, where I could see and hear but was completely paralyzed for two months,” Boyle says. “As the recovery continued, I remember how walking was not guaranteed due to my extensive injuries. I just kept working hard at it and pursuing my physical therapy sessions on a daily basis.
“Every time I lace up my shoes for a run, I reflect on these memories for my motivation, and it inspires me to get outdoors, breathe in the fresh air, feel my heart racing, and to be grateful to everyone who has been a part of my journey. I find it to almost be an active state of meditation when I’m out on the trails, and it gives me time to reflect on how great life is and lucky I am.”
Speed drill Name: Brian Boyle Hometown: Welcome, Md. Number of years running: 11 Point of pride: Running each race for the Red Cross and my 36 blood donors that helped save my life in 2004 Favorite race distance: I’ve always enjoyed the marathon distance, but over the years I’ve also started to get involved at the 100 mile distance which has been incredible too Favorite piece of running gear: Nathan SpeedShot Plus Handheld Flask Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “On a Roll” by 311 Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have. Non-athletic accomplishment: I just finished working on a children’s picture book about running/triathlon called Swim Bark Run. It’s a light hearted story about dogs putting together a race of their own - a dogathlon. It is currently online for pre-sale now and will be available in the bookstores in June.
Where can other runners contact/follow you: • Twitter: @brianjboyle • Instagram: ironheartbb • Facebook: Brian Boyle or Iron Heart Brian Boyle