Peggy Kohlmeyer has never thrown away a racing T-shirt. She sewed 34 into a quilt; the other 190 are neatly folded in boxes, stored in the attic.
“I don’t wear them,” said the 51-year-old Huntersville, N.C., teacher. “To me, you know how you take a picture to remind yourself of something? There’s a story behind each (T-shirt).”
Some 30,000 runners and walkers will hit the streets in the 5K, half marathon and marathon at St. Jude Rock ‘n’ Roll Nashville on Saturday. Each can tell a story. Kohlmeyer’s tale is one of a miraculous comeback. Thirty-one years ago she was struck head on by a drunk driver going more than 70 miles per hour.
The emergency room doctor’s words to Kohlmeyer’s father: “I don’t expect her to live.”
It was the first day of the summer quarter at the University of Georgia, June 17, 1985.
Kohlmeyer was a 20-year-old senior at the University of Georgia, determined to graduate before turning 21. Two electives, three P.E. classes, plus an internship and Kohlmeyer would earn her degree in fashion merchandising.
She worked at a women’s clothing store and shortly after close that night eased her Mazda GLC out of the mall and turned onto Atlanta Highway.
The road climbed a hill. At the crest of the hill, in front of a funeral parlor, Pike was met head on by a man driving in the wrong direction. His blood-alcohol level measured .27, more than three times the legal limit. He had been released from jail earlier that day for DUI.
The litany of injuries Kohlmeyer suffered are almost impossible to comprehend: 24 fractured bones, including her pelvis; fractures to her right tibia and fibula, leaving her right leg 1 1/2 inches shorter than her left; her upper lip nearly ripped off her face; all but five teeth damaged; a fractured upper jaw bone, the bone lodging into her brain.
She was on a ventilator for five days and rested in a coma for 14 days.
“I was really afraid she was going to die,” said Kohlmeyer’s father, Ben Pike.
Kohlmeyer would be hospitalized for three months, a span that has been wiped from her memory. She can’t recall the accident. Doesn’t recall the 16 days spent in an Athens hospital. Doesn’t recall the next 2 1/2 months she spent recovering in a Columbus, Ga., hospital.
Her next recollection was of the day she was released from the hospital, her father lifting her up in a wheelchair, loading her in a van, taking her to his home where she spent months recovering.
“I knew something happened if I was at the hospital,” she said.
Kohlmeyer’s physical, mental and emotional health was so fragile that family members didn’t want to shock her with details of the grizzly crash.
She didn’t learn about the accident until about a week after being released from the hospital when a newspaper reporter reached her by phone. The man who had hit her head on had committed suicide.
Kohlmeyer’s recovery was long and arduous. She left the hospital with both legs in casts, one up to her groin, the other above her knee. She weighed 135 pounds before the accident. With her jaw wired shut for months she shriveled to 87 pounds. Her brain had been in a fog and it took time for the clouds to lift.
“If somebody pointed to a light switch on a wall, I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “‘It turns the lights on and off.’ ‘Oh yeah.’ I didn’t know what a fork was. I was clueless.”
Before the accident, Kohlmeyer had planned on jogging the July 4th Peachtree Road Race, now the world’s largest 10K. At the time, she was far from athletic.
“When I was in school, perspiration wasn’t glory,” she said. “You didn’t want to sweat. (But) it was the ‘in’ thing to do, to graduate from college and do the Peachtree.”
Kohlmeyer remembers telling a doctor upon her hospital release that she planned to run the Peachtree Road Race one day.
“Let’s see if you can walk,” the doctor replied.
Three years, 18 days later, Kohlmeyer finally ran the Peachtree 10K, her first-ever road race, finishing a little under an hour. She thought she was going to be one-and-done, moving on to other challenges. But she was meticulously logging her miles in notebooks by then. The count is now at 17,000 and climbing.
A second race followed three years later in 1991, then her first half marathon in 1996, her lone marathon in 2004 and now she’s a pound-the-pavement junkie with those 190 T-shirts stuffed in her attic.
“It’s the endorphins,” said Kohlmeyer. “I call it my MC Hammer time because you can’t touch this. You go out running, you don’t have a cell phone. You’re just out there, running.”
“She’s amazing, an inspiration,” said running partner Melissa Caldwell. “She’s got one leg shorter than the other, but you’d never know. She never complains about anything.”
Kohlmeyer’s resolve is exemplified outside of running. Shifting her career focus after the accident, she earned her teaching credential and a master’s in middle school education and has taught for 25 years.
“Running, teaching and reading,” said Kohlmeyer, “those are my passions.”
“I admire her commitment, her self-discipline and her accomplishments,” said Kohlmeyer’s father. “I’m tremendously proud of her.”
The St. Jude Rock ‘n’ Roll Nashville Half Marathon will be a repeat for Kohlmeyer. She finished last year’s 13.1-miler in 2 hours, 33 minutes, 30 seconds.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll races are phenomenal,” said Kohlmeyer, who has also knocked off the Virginia Beach half. “So incredibly well organized.”
Near the end of a phone interview that lasted longer than an hour, Kohlmeyer was asked why she runs.
“Because I can,” she said. “Because I can. There might be other things I can’t do. We’re all human. I’m not going to be a Picasso. I’m not going to be a Rembrandt. But I know what I can do. And I can run.”