Triathlete returns to racing nearly two years after paralyzing fall

Laurie Allen uses a handcycle to complete Run With the Heroes 5K

Laurie Allen rolls toward the start line of the Run With the Heroes 5K, a protective circle of friends surrounding her low-slung handcycle.

“First race, baby!” Judy Melchor yells as they slow roll forward, waiting for the blast of the starting horn.

This 5K marks one tiny return to normalcy for a triathlete who once scheduled her life around training sessions and endurance races. Allen, 46, completed nine Ironman triathlons, nine half Ironmans and about 75 shorter triathlons, plus an assortment of ultra-distance runs, cyclocross bike races and adventure races before an accident paralyzed her from the shoulders down.

Allen was soaking in a hot tub in February 2015 when she got out to cool off. The side was icy, and with no railing to stop her, she fell 10 feet, fracturing a vertebrae and tearing ligaments in her neck. She underwent surgery the following morning, but the damage was severe. Initially she couldn’t move anything below her shoulders, although she now has some function in her arms and hands.

An athlete who once pounded out 20-mile runs and 100-mile bike rides suddenly couldn’t sit up on her own.

Within a few weeks of the accident, though, Allen already was broadcasting plans to return to the racing world. For the next 19 months, she worked hard to strengthen the muscles that still worked. She has learned to drive a specially adapted van and transfer herself in and out of a wheelchair. She has tried a variety of adapted sports, from tennis to rowing to buzzing around the track at Anderson High School on a race wheelchair. With the help of friends and coaches, she’s also relearning to swim and lift weights.

Her biggest hope is to return to triathlon, but first steps first.

“Marla and I were trying to find a flat 5K. As it turns out, this one’s not that flat,” Allen says before the start of the Run With the Heroes 5K. Friend and BMX cyclist Kent Snead works Allen’s fingers into special wraps that allow her to hold the handlebars of her handcycle. “Kent might have to give me a boost up the hills, but that’s OK.”

She’s riding a handcycle purchased with money raised from community fundraisers organized by Jack and Adam’s Bicycles. She’s put in hours training on a loop near her home in Northwest Hills, practicing with Snead jogging behind her, a dog leash attached to the handcycle to keep it from rolling out of control. After a few runs, she went on her own, enjoying a breezy feeling she hadn’t felt since the fall.

“This isn’t a chair, this is a bike. There’s a significant difference,” Snead says.

That first untethered ride marked the first time she rode alone in almost two years. “It was freedom,” Allen says. “I love it. It’s a little bit of normal back in my life.”

But training miles come tough when you have to rely on others for help.

“I have amazing friends,” she says. “Everything is hard. Not being able to use my arms like I used to — it’s a hard reality. But I’m grateful for what I have. I’m so thankful to be healthy, and to have the opportunity to do crazy things like this.”

Friend Marla Briley buckles a helmet under Allen’s chin. “You’ve got to look pro,” Briley says.

Snead tightens a yellow band around Allen’s chest to make sure she doesn’t slide off the bike. “I don’t think we’ve ever strapped you in this tight,” Snead says. “It’s like we’re going on a rocket ship.”

Friends drop by to say hi, fist bumping Allen and wishing her the best in her return to sport. The race announcer calls runners to the starting line, and a singer breaks into the first notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“Ready to race!” Allen says from her position at the back of the pack.

“We’re going to go out easy, right?” Snead asks.

Like that, Allen is racing again, moving smoothly down the pavement with her entourage at her side, ready to use her shoulders to turn her bike. Snead trots behind her, poised to tether himself to the handcycle on the downhill stretches.

“It even smells like race morning,” Allen says as they slowly roll toward the start line.

“One big giant leap forward,” Melchor says as Allen rolls away.

Almost 45 minutes later, Allen glides beneath the finish banner, a smile spread across her face. She doesn’t care about her time, which is significantly slower than her pre-accident time. She only cares that she finished.

“Down was awesome. Up, whew,” she says. “My arms were Jell-O.”

She recounts her race, reveling in the details.

“You start picking people off on the downhill,” she says. “You get toward the end of the race and your arms are on fire. … Amazing. It’s like I’m coming back. I knew I’d get back to racing, but when it actually happens, it’s awesome. I’ve got a ways to go, but I’m going to get back to triathlon.”

With that, her friends lift her out of her handcycle and into her wheelchair. They roll back to the parking lot, where they pile into two cars for the trip to a restaurant for brunch and a celebratory mimosa — and to talk about her next goal, that triathlon next August.

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