Dave Mackey, the boulder, the amputation and the future
Dave Mackey considers himself lucky.
It was nearly four and a half years ago when he was on top of the world, on a normal training run in his hometown of Boulder, Colo., when he stepped on a boulder. An act he had done countless times before. In a flash, everything changed for the elite ultra runner.
The boulder gave away, taking Mackey with it, and pinning his leg. After an excruciating rescue, Mackey endured 14 surgeries, including the amputation that he elected to have performed in November 2016.
“Yeah, I do consider myself lucky, in the fact that I'm still alive, not because of the rock, but more because of the fall,” he says. “Both of those could have killed me. It's really surprising, if you stand up where I fell from and you look down and you see where I landed, the chance of actually landing on that, it's a dice roll. You probably would die or be paralyzed, or have something that would be lights out, and I didn't have that happen. In that aspect, I'm lucky. Yeah, I'm alive. Better than pushing up daisies.”
After a pause, he continues, “But losing the leg, yeah it stinks. But whatever. I'm still here.”
The beginning of the journey
Mackey did some trail running in Maine and New Hampshire where he grew up. But his running journey truly began when he moved to Colorado and discovered trails.
“Trail racing wasn't really something I actually even knew about,” he admits. “Nor was it anything I was really had interest in at the time cause I didn't even know that people did it.”
In 1995, he entered his first trail race — the Mosquito Half Marathon in Leadville — and took third place. Six weeks later, he entered his first trail marathon, the inaugural Breckenridge Crest Mountain Marathon. As an avid outdoorsman, he balanced his running, skiing and climbing interests for the next couple of years.
Then things started to change for Mackey when he found success at ultras, winning his debut.
“My first 50K trail race was in 1997 at the Kokopelli Trail Race out near the Utah border, the western slope of Colorado,” he said. “It was just something that I kind of still did and got some product sponsorship over the next year or two. Just tried a 50-mile race, I finished four years later in 2001 at the San Juan Solstice and won that, set a course record. Things kind of took off from there, more or less.”
Mackey ran his first 100-miler in 2004 at Western States. “It was kind of a slow progression up the distances,” he says, noting that he also mixed in endurance activities like the Adventure Races. Back then getting into Western States was, of course, easier than it is today. For Mackey, the draw was a race series that included the 100-miler.
He entered the Montrail Cup series — “a big thing back then” — that included a 50K, 50 mile, 100K and Western States. “It was a logical progression as far as that series of doing my bread butter, 50K, 100K distances and then that built up perfectly to Western States. That's kind of why I did it. I wasn't this real ambitious 100-mile runner, but I knew it's something I wanted to do eventually.”
At the time of that race, now 15 years ago, Western was still among the top competitive 100-milers in the nation. But plenty has changed since then.
“This sport is so different now with social media and hype and buildup and communication,” he says, crediting iRunFar for its coverage. “It's a really different world as far as the attention different racers get and the accessibility, like real time. There's all this real-time video, pretty much you can watch the significant parts of races if you follow the right people who are carrying their video cameras and phones around them.”
May 23, 2015
Fast forward a decade and Mackey, then 45, had emerged as a well-known elite ultra runner. He was in training for Western States after getting a Golden Ticket and had just completed Marathon Des Sables.
“I was still racing. I was still competing, I was still doing well,” he explains. “I was out for probably the longest run I'd had since Marathon Des Sables. There's about a three-hour loop that I do around Boulder and in South Boulder, Bear Peak, Green Mountain, or vice versa, and then back to my house.”
At the top of Bear Peak, Mackey met up with his friend, Paul Gross, who was training for the Hardrock Endurance Run.
“He wasn't too far behind me, so I was going to keep going,” Mackey recalls. “I went to the top of Bear Peak and then climbed down the west side of it, which is steeper, it's like a 70-foot down climb. It's quite vertical, it's not like overhang, it's just scrambling, ledgy type of trail really. Nothing to phase you as long as you watch what you doing, and I've done it before. At the top of that I stepped on a rock as big as an ottoman, 250-300 pounds and wedged down in the soil.”
The rock gave way, taking Mackey with it.
“I could have ended up ragdolling down the mountain, lights out,” he says. “But I somehow controlled my fall, landed on my back, on some scree. The fall alone really should've killed me, but it didn't. I survived that but I landed on my back.”
Mackey looked down at his leg and the boulder ended up on top of his left leg. He had an open tibial fracture and could not move so he screamed for assistance.
“Paul was right there and he was able to call 911 and a lengthy rescue from the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group was initiated,” he says. “About four hours later I was flighted out, brought to the local Boulder hospital and went under the first surgery for that leg.”
Looking back, Mackey remembers he was in a lot of pain during the rescue.
“The rescue itself was very technical and dangerous and in some ways,” he says. “It was kind of surreal, because my friend Bill Wright actually took video footage of it. It's a pretty dramatic rescue and very surreal to just to watch myself being rescued. I still can't believe in many ways that it happened to me, but I've accepted it. I don't break down in tears every time I see the footage, which isn't that often. I don't go to review it or anything.”
‘Amputation was the best choice’
At the time, Mackey was focused on getting the surgery, recovering and returning to running. There was no thought of losing the leg. ”But over the next couple of weeks there was evidence of infection, and so all the initial surgeries had to be revised with all the little pieces that had been fixed, basically, by the initial surgery having to be taken out because they weren't viable. There was a low grade infection residing in the tissues and in the bone.”
Over the next 18 months, the infections persisted and surgeries continued. Bone grafting. Muscle grafting. Skin grafting. Mackey was left with continuous pain in the leg and ample amounts of scar tissue.
“That came down to why I ended up having my leg amputated,” he says. “No one told me to have my leg amputated. Weighing all the options, including many more surgeries, the fact that I already had a lot of scar tissue and pain in the leg, and even if I could keep the leg it would be pretty dysfunctional and probably have a pretty painful existence, unless I gave up everything I love to do. I'd have to walk probably with a cane because of the pain in the leg, I'm guessing for most of my life. It was a quality of life decision. Live with this useless limb that hurts, or amputating. Amputation was the best choice for me.”
Learning to walk, then run
Before he could run again, Mackey had to relearn how to walk.
“It’s like anything that you love or you do that is taken away,” he explains. “When you don't have it, you realize how much that you miss that. Whether it be something you love to do, for some people it's running, for some people it's playing piano or even their jobs. Then they can't do it, and then it's like, ‘Wow, I actually really liked that. I appreciate it.’ By not walking again and having to relearn it, I definitely learned how valuable that is. That's mobility, that's independence.”
Mackey says the act of walking was not the hard part to relearn, instead if was learning how to adapt to a prosthetic socket. “That takes time,” he says. “You don't just get an amputation and then slap something on your leg and start walking again. There's a fitting process that takes probably a year total to get that right, but there's various steps along the way. Within six weeks you're usually walking, but that can be very painful, and it was. That aspect was difficult, and I was able to walk and hike a little bit and then ride my bike that spring.”
About four months after the amputation, Mackey tried running again. Pain forced him to back off until the end of 2017 when he was able to do more.
“I feel like even now I still appreciate even more getting out and about walking or running or being active. I feel like I have more appreciation for that than I did before.”
Mackey volunteered at a camp for Band of Brothers, which is affiliated with Team Red, White and Blue. He tried to run on the trails even though he didn’t have his running blade.
“I was shuffling around the trails back in Virginia during that camp, and then that was kind of a motivation. It was like, ‘I've got to get off my butt and really start pushing it.’ And I did, and things started to click. I set a goal then to run the Bandera 50K trail race in January 2018, which I did. For me that was the start of getting back to the old days where I could run those distances or finish those things.”
Bandera and finishing the Leadman Series that year were the defining moments for Mackey in his comeback. In 2014, he also had finished the Leadman Series, a combination of endurance running and mountain bike races in Leadville, Colo.
“It was a big stepping stone. It was such a long, hard series of races. Those two, the first 50K at Bandera and then the Leadman Series, brought me back.”
Even though he is back to training and racing, the aftermath of the accident lingers. When we spoke recently Mackey had just returned home from yet another hospital stay and two minor surgeries. This one was brief, and all things considered, minor compared to others.
He explains that when he had his leg amputated, surgeons placed two screws inside to hold things together.
“They needed to come out just because the screw heads were pushing against my skin,” he says. “After the summer is a good time to do it. I had that done on Sept. 10 and then I got on my feet too quick. I was supposed to not be really walking at all, but I was. And so I messed up the incision. I had an infection, so they had to clean it out. No big deal, minor setback.”
Serving as an inspiration
Mackey’s accident, recovery, amputation and return to racing drew a lot of attention. He has a unique platform from which to inspire endurance athletes who may be dealing with a variety of issues.
“I hope that people know that they can have adversity,” he says. “Mine's pretty dramatic, you know, falling off a mountain and losing your leg. Despite all that, you can still do what you did before, but it's different. Physically it's different for everybody. If somebody has arthritis, that's tough, you can't go run ultras with that. Some people have chronic injuries and they can still push through pain, but I guess for anybody who doesn't have those extremely limiting things, it's possible to push through whatever difficult part of a race or training or certain parts of life.”
Mackey hopes his story will continue to serve as inspiration.
“There's always something harder out there,” he says. “My story is one of those harder things in life that somebody can hold up and say, ‘Hey, if Dave did that, then I can probably get through this.’ I hope that happens, and I really hope it happens to people who have amputations even, or severe impairments to their body and their mind, that they can still complete things like this. It doesn’t have to be 100 miles, 5Ks are good enough, or one mile.”
More mountains to climb
Billy Yang and Matt Trappecaptured Mackey’s inspiring story in a video that documented his Leadman finish in 2018 (he also did it this summer, finishing 11th overall). Toward the end of the video, Mackey said, "There are more hills to climb. Why not do more?"
So that begs the question, what is next for Dave Mackey?
“As far as other hills to climb, I don't know,” he says, noting he isn’t sure if he’ll do Leadman in 2020. “I don't have any plans right now yet. I'm just going to let fall go by and really enjoy skiing with the family, I'll do a bunch of that with them and just kind of let things settle in.”
Mackey’s work commitments don’t allow him to go off for weeks at a time. Still, he is captivated by multiple-day adventures.
“I’m still figuring it out, maybe something that takes multiple days versus one day or 24 hours,” he says. “There's the Colorado Trail, there's all these other trails. There are other multiple day projects that I need to think about, so honestly I'm not sure yet.”
As Mackey figures out his next path, he will certainly continue to inspire. For him, he also draws inspiration from those dealing with both visible injuries and invisible wound like post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There are other people out there, like veterans with traumatic brain injuries, with PTSD, who are doing this stuff too,” he says. “That's the stuff you don't see in people, and everybody has their story. If you talked to everybody who completed one of these events, you would probably find a surprising number of people who have incredible tales that you just don't see. Mine's more visible, but there are incredible stories of competitors who are facing even more difficult obstacles than what I have.”
Hometown: Cumberland Maine, now Boulder, Colo.
Number of years running: 25 trail running. I ran one year of track in high school though.
How many miles a week do you typically run: This month ... none! Usually 50 to 60 but more in the summer with events.
Point of pride: Until my accident I never was really injured, other than that I competed for a long time and kept showing up and was very competitive into my 40s.
Favorite race distance: 50 mile
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: coffee with milk
Favorite piece of gear: My Altra King MT 2 shoes
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I listen to audiobooks a lot, sometimes music and it's very varied, from Cat Stevens, Bruce Cockburn, Metallica to REM.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: There's always something harder ... or worse.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Twitter: @mackeydave
• Instagram: @davemackey1
• Facebook: dave.mackey.54