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Boulder Trail Runner Dave Mackey Survives Gruesome Mountain Accident

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(Update: Dave Mackey returned home on June 13 after undergoing seven surgeries and spending three weeks in the hospital.)

Elite ultra-distance trail runner Dave Mackey is recovering in stable condition after sustaining severe leg injuries that resulted from a fall off of a rocky ridge near the top of Bear Peak in Boulder, Colo., on the morning of May 23.

After a dramatic rescue that took several hours to get him off the mountain safely, Mackey underwent surgery to repair his shattered tibia and fibula bones in his left leg. Doctors inserted a metal rod, numerous plates and multiples screws to help reassemble the leg bones, but more surgical procedures will be needed to repair soft tissue damage and to clean out the wound to eliminate the possibility of infection.

Mackey, 45, long one of the top mountain runners in the U.S., is known as one of the toughest, strongest and most humble athletes in Boulder. He also suffered cuts and bruises on his head, chest, arms and right leg. As of Tuesday afternoon, he was resting in his hospital bed and had a positive outlook, although he admits he’s lucky to have survived the accident and said he’s very grateful to everyone who played a part is rescuing him.

“If there is a tougher, more bad-ass dude than Dave Mackey…well, I don’t believe that,” said Boulder trail runner and climber Bill Wright, who was on the scene shortly after the accident and helped stabilize him before Rocky Mountain Rescue Group volunteers arrived. “His ability to stay calm, endure intense pain, and handle a horrific injury was inspiring, astounding, and had everyone involved shaking their heads.

“If anyone can come back from this, it’s Dave, and I’m sure he will, but I suspect it is going to be awhile before he’ll be once again beating us all at everything.”

RELATED: Trail Runner Dave Mackey Enduring Long Road to Recovery

Mackey, a Hoka-sponsored pro runner who works as a physician assistant, has won U.S. trail running championships for 50K, 50 miles and 100K distance and won the Montrail Cup trail running series in 2004 and 2011. He has set numerous speed records on the trails and mountains of Boulder and previously held the Rim to Rim to Rim record for the 42-mile double-crossing of the Grand Canyon (6:59:57 in 2007). He is an accomplished rock climber and formerly competed on the international adventure racing circuit.

The three-time U.S. ultrarunner of the year said he had planned on doing a fairly typical mountain run up and over several of the big peaks that make up Boulder’s western skyline on Saturday morning. Amid temperatures in the mid-40s and rain in the forecast, he ran up the rolling trails to the base of the mountains and then ran up Shadow Canyon to the top of 8,549-foot South Boulder Peak, the highest peak in Boulder. From there, he ran down a ridgeline and up another trail to Bear Peak (8,461 feet), passing friend and occasional running partner Paul Gross along the way. Mackey continued to the summit of Bear Peak and was considering running up and down Green Mountain (8,144 feet) just to the north, but said he was going to run down Green-Bear Trail and see how he felt before deciding whether to make the third ascent before heading home.

However, as he was making his way down a common scrambling route off the west side of Bear Peak just after 8:30 a.m., Mackey stepped on a rock and it gave way. As he began to fall, he grabbed onto another rock that gave way and he started a violent crash of about 20 to  30 feet over a mix of rocks and the branches of small mountain shrubbery. A massive rock estimated at between 150 and 300 pounds came to rest on Mackey’s leg, although it is believed the compound fracture to his lower left leg occurred earlier in the fall based on the nature of the injury.

Unable to move the rock off his leg and aware that he was badly injured, Mackey started yelling for help and within a few minutes two people arrived to help. Among the first responders were Gross, who helped move the rock with a branch and then held Mackey’s splintered and badly bleeding left leg in place, and John Christie, who held Mackey’s upper body in place on the rugged, sloping ridge where he landed for more than an hour and a half without moving until rescue personnel arrived. Several other first-responders helped keep Mackey stabilized and warm, but witnesses said he was remarkably calm and coherent for being in such severe pain.

Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Rescue Group mobilized numerous volunteers trained to evacuate injured victims from mountain accidents. Several rescue personnel had been nearby lower on the mountain to recover the body of a deceased 17-year-old girl, who authorities believe committed suicide 24 hours earlier. That evacuation had to be delayed because of bad weather conditions, but when the call came through about Mackey’s accident, rescuers began heading up the steep trails that lead to Bear Peak.

Because of the severe nature of Mackey’s injuries, the precarious location of the incident and the wet and rainy conditions, it took several hours to evacuate him off the mountain. Ultimately a team of more than two dozen Rocky Mountain Rescue personnel—including two emergency room doctors—helped stabilize him and safely belay him down a scree field from a fixed rope before using a wheeled litter to get him down a trail on the back side of the mountain, where Mackey’s wife, Ellen, was waiting, along with an ambulance and other fire-rescue personnel.

Mackey said Sunday that he has taken that scrambling route off the west side of Bear Peak hundreds of times and stepped on the exact rock that gave way almost every single time. Boulder has had an unusually wet spring that has included considerable rain as well as snow and sub-freezing temperatures on top of its tallest peaks. He admits he was lucky that the accident happened early in the day when other people were out on the trails as opposed to during a late-afternoon ascent when his call for help might not have been answered.

Mackey was planning to run in the Western States 100 on June 27 in California and had hoped make an attempt at the Colorado 14ers speed record in early August.

Most recently, Mackey placed 12th at the Marathon des Sables in Morocco in April, took second at the Black Canyon 100K on Feb. 14 in Mayer, Ariz., and finished second in the Leadman multisport competition last summer in Colorado. (Leadman includes five off-road events in the Leadville endurance series, including a trail marathon, 50-mile mountain bike race, 10K trail run, 100-mile mountain bike race and 100-mile trail run.)

“Aside from all of the athletics and his victories and records, he’s just an amazing person, husband and father,” said longtime friend and Boulder resident Bob Africa, a frequent training and racing partner. “To see someone like that hurting and in pain is hard. But to see someone that tough handling it the way he is inspiring too.”