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How Ultrarunner Dave Mackey Returned to Running After Losing a Leg

Ultrarunner Dave Mackey poses for a photo during a run

At his lowest point, Dave Mackey figured he’d never run again. And you couldn’t have blamed him for thinking that way.

For a super-motivated, always-optimistic, tough-as-nails guy who relished tackling the hardest trails, the steepest mountains and the most grueling ultra-distance races with aplomb, it was hard to be very hopeful after 13 surgeries to repair his badly injured left leg hobbled him with a debilitating limp and no sign of full recovery in sight.

So the two-time U.S. ultrarunner of the year from Boulder, Colorado, was only being realistic when he decided, 17 months after a horrific trail running accident in May 2015, to voluntarily have part of the leg amputated on Nov. 1, 2016. He was stoked just to be alive and blessed to have a happy, healthy family—wife, Ellen; daughter, Ava, then 8; and son, Connor, then 6—so no matter what changes lay ahead for him, he knew everything would be OK.

“Do I continue with more surgeries with very high likelihood of failure and more pain?” Mackey said at the time. “Or is there a better route? By choosing amputation as another solution, I believe life can return to where it was before the accident and be almost completely pain-free. This would mean the freedom, if I choose it, to walk the kids to school without a thought and eventually ski and ride and run and compete in races again.”

Ultrarunner Dave Mackey poses for a photo

For years, Mackey had humbly and quietly established himself as one the top adventure athletes in the U.S., excelling in trail running, rock climbing and multi-sport adventure racing. His body of work over the past 20 years or so includes winning the Montrail Ultra Cup (in 2004 and 2011), trail running national championships for 50K, 50-mile and 100K distances, numerous podium finishes in international adventures and setting the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim record for running 42 miles across the Grand Canyon and back. Just six weeks before his accident, he placed 12th in the harrowing six-day Marathon des Sables across the Sahara Desert in Morocco.

He accomplished it all with a relentless work ethic and a deep toolbox of athletic skills, most notably a huge aerobic engine, amazing physical strength, uncanny body control on off-camber terrain and, perhaps his biggest athletic gift, a calm but tenacious demeanor in the face of adversity.

“Dave is by far one of the grittiest competitors I have ever meet,” says Bob Africa, a longtime friend and training partner. “But also one of the most humble, too.”

All of that seemed to be taken away on May 23, 2015, after a devastating fall while trail running in Boulder. Running one of his favorite trails to the top of 8,459-foot Bear Peak, Mackey decided to scramble hand-over-hand down the rocks on the back side—something he had done dozens of times before as an experienced rock climber. But this time, something went wrong. A rock gave way, and he went tumbling some 50 feet backwards over rocky terrain, crashing to the ground and having a 400-pound stone crush his left leg.

Despite the horrific accident that shattered his leg in numerous places, luck was on Mackey’s side that morning. Miraculously, the main arteries in his leg didn’t burst, so blood loss was minimal as he laid on the ground calling for help. Plus, several trail runners on the mountain that morning immediately came to his aid, called 911, pried the rock off his leg and helped stabilize him while waiting for the Rocky Mountain Rescue Team to arrive.

“I came across Dave about 15 to 20 minutes after the accident occurred (and) my first thought was that he was going to die,” recalls Wright, a friend who often runs and rock climbs with Mackey. “His leg was so grotesquely damaged. I couldn’t believe all of the blood vessels in his leg weren’t cut because his leg seemed to be dangling in pieces and barely hanging on. When the rock was pulled off his leg, the full extent of his injury was exposed, and it was shocking.”

Mackey was also fortunate that Rocky Mountain Rescue was able to get him down the mountain—in a technical rescue operation that took more than five hours—and that a talented team of surgeons was able to piece his leg back together. After numerous surgeries in Boulder and Denver to clean out the wound, reset bones and harvest muscle from his quads and transplant it to lower legs, he finally returned home a full three weeks later.

It was good to be home, to be with his family and eventually return to work as a physician assistant, but the recovery was long and painful and never quite complete. For the next year, he tried to find normalcy in life again as he hobbled around and suffered from a lack of fitness.

By the summer of 2016, he was able to ride his mountain bike and walk with a cane, but he was still in discomfort, and there were signs his leg wasn’t healing.

It was only mildly surprising when Mackey told friends he had decided to amputate his leg. It was either that or endure more surgeries to try to fix it, albeit with a lesser likelihood of success. So on Halloween night 2016, he threw a going away party, of sorts, for his leg, at a Boulder running store, and he embraced the collective support of his running friends. This will be a big challenge, but Dave will be back,” champion ultrarunner Scott Jurek said that night. “Dave is as tough as they come, and I would never question his resolve about what he can accomplish. It might take a while, but Dave will definitely be back.”

A running trail winds through the woods

Dave Mackey, v2.0

After the surgery to amputate his leg below the knee, life didn’t necessarily get better right away. Sure, the anguish of cane-assisted walking with a painful limp was behind him, but that only led to awkwardness and sometimes painful limping in his new prosthetic leg. As it is with most amputees, it took months to get used to walking, moving, sleeping and living with his new appendage. It was a frustrating time to say the least. But as winter turned to spring, and spring turned to summer, Mackey kept at it with the same low-key perseverance that always drove him forward.

By late 2017, though, he was starting to put it all together. He’d spent most of the second half of the year hiking the rugged trails up Boulder’s highest mountains—including a return to the site of his devastating fall on Bear Peak—mountain biking and trying to run despite a very gimpy and awkward gait.

Outwardly, he was happy to be making progress and have some semblance of normalcy back in his life, even though it was a decidedly new normal. Inside, though, he was aching to enter to race again. He didn’t have any delusional idea that he’d suddenly rediscover his ability to run with the best trail runners in the country and challenge for a podium finish, but instead wanted —and very much needed—to push himself to that painful edge of oblivion that he had done so successfully for so many years.

To Mackey, pushing himself to the brink of his physical, mental and emotional limits was what racing and the nature of competition was all about. That’s where he felt most alive, most comfortable and most in tune with the essence of his soul.

And so with hope in his heart and a renewed fire in his gut, he registered for the daunting Leadman competition, a summer-long series of ultra-distance endurance events in the high-altitude environs of Leadville, Colorado. With six grueling races in the span of eight weeks between 10,200 and 12,600 feet above sea level, Leadman is no small task. But having finished runner-up in 2014—just nine months before his accident—Mackey knew precisely what he was getting into.

“Why not?” Mackey said. “I know I’ll never be as fast as I was before, but that’s not why I want to keep doing these kinds of events. You can’t just quit when life throws you a curveball and something changes.”

First, Mackey had to find out if he could finish any race, let alone six of the hardest events in Colorado. In January, he headed to Bandera, Texas, where he once won a 100K U.S. national title. This time his outlook—merely to complete it—was understandably more humble. But true to his character, he persevered with a hobbling gait and reached the finish line in just under six hours, taking a respectable 43rd place out of 220 finishers. In June, he ran the Jemez Mountain 50K in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and placed 33rd out of 243 finishers.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but it was good to be out there and run again, even if I was slow and my running wasn’t all that,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it racing, relative to running fast, but those were both a step in the right direction and a sign that I wasn’t crazy to sign up for Leadman.”

Crazy like a fox, but not crazy. He was one of only 100 courageous souls entered in the competition, but the only below-the-knee amputee ever to enter it. He didn’t know how tough it would be to run and ride 50 to 100 miles on a prosthetic leg, but he knew deep inside could rely on his relentless work ethic, huge aerobic engine and his vast amount of experience.

His first task was completing the Leadville Trail Marathon, a 26-mile grind up and down 13,185-foot Mosquito Pass. Runners consider it the hardest marathon in the state, even harder than the Pikes Peak Marathon that soars above 14,000 feet. To the surprise of no one, Mackey stormed up and down the rocky trails seemingly with ease, finishing in 4:52:42, good enough for 53rd place out of 679 runners.

“I definitely built confidence running about 4:50, given that I ran 4:10 four years ago before the accident,” Mackey said. “To run 4:50 on a prosthetic leg was a pretty big boost for me. The sections are pretty steep and technical coming off Mosquito Pass, so to finish that fast without any face-planting or falls or stumbles was a pretty good day.”

From there, he crushed the Leadville Silver Rush 50-mile mountain bike race in 5:29 (placing 127th out of 564), followed by the Silver Rush 50-mile trail run the very next day in 9:45:03 (62nd place out of 478 finishers).

As a Leadman competitor, he had the choice of doing either the 50 bike or the 50 run, but he opted for both because, well, that’s who he is.

“I was going to be out on the East Coast with family for a while so I wanted to take advantage of the time I had at high altitude and use it as a training day,” Mackey says. “I was pretty toasted during the last half of the 50 run. But the bigger problem was that the outsole tread on my running blade fell apart on the rough, rocky terrain. It got all scuffed up and came apart. We duct taped it together but that came off over the final 20 miles, so that was a bit of an added variable, but I got through it.”

After another month of training and a new outsole for his blade, Mackey was ready for “Hell Week,” the eight-day period in mid-August when Leadman competitors tackle a 100-mile mountain bike race, a 10K trail run and the daunting 100-mile Leadville Trail 100. That’s 206.2 miles of racing.

After jamming through the 100-mile bike ride (9:40:53, 392nd place out of 1,538) on Aug. 11 in weather that ranged from 30 degrees early in the morning to 85 degrees by mid-afternoon, Mackey completed the deceptively hard downhill-uphill 10K the next day in 55:45 with a second-half surge that saw him pass more than 75 runners.

A photo of a sunset over a running trail

100 Miles to the Finish

The thing about the Leadman competition is that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. Grinding all summer at high altitude takes a toll on the body, as well as a competitor’s mind and spirit, too. But so too is Mackey greater than the sum of his parts, the ones he was born with and the artificial ones who have become part of his daily life.

Still, the morning of the 100-mile run, he could feel the fatigue in his quads, hamstrings and hip flexors and knew it was going to be a long day.

He had 30 hours to finish the race—something well within the range of what was possible based on his previous races—but his real goal was to finish in 24 hours, and he knew that was going to be a tall order.

He started the race conservatively, taking his time on the dicey single-track sections over the first 16 miles of the course. By the time he reached the 20-mile mark atop Sugarloaf Pass, though, he had to stop and make adjustments to his prosthetic leg to reduce irritation from chafing. He continued on, amid overcast skies and two hours of drizzling rain, all the while feeling far from his best.

When he left the Twin Lakes aid station at mile 40, he knew the trek over 12,600-foot Hope Pass was going to take every ounce of energy he had, and it really did. By the time he had gone up and over the pass to the historic mining settlement of Winfield just shy of the 12-hour mark, he was in 235th place in the race and still within range of his 24-hour finishing goal. But his legs were trashed, he was ready to drop out.

“That was probably the low point of the whole event, coming over Hope Pass and the four miles into Winfield,” he said. “My quads were shot. I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t rebound, but I also knew I would have tried to do anything I could not to drop.”

He got an energy boost by consuming a bunch of calories and rehydrating at the 50-mile aid station. He also got an inspirational lift by seeing several friends, including Africa, who would pace him back over Hope Pass to the 60-mile mark and motivate him for the rest of his long journey back to Leadville.

And that’s when Mackey dug deep, just as he always had. Reflecting back on his accident, the surgeries and the decision to amputate his leg, he thought of his wife and kids and reminded himself how blessed he was to have lived through the experience. He remembered the many dark days when he thought he’d never run again. And yet, here he was, 40 miles from finishing the Leadville Trail 100 and earning his second Leadman pick axe finisher’s trophy in four years.

Over the final 40 miles, Mackey was inspired anew, running strong and barely stopping at aid stations, passing dozens of runners who had succumbed to walking most of the way back. Through the dark of night and into the wee hours of the morning, he looked like his old self, charging hard in the face of fatigue and adversity. But this was his new self, charging ahead proudly with his same old tenacious ways.

Almost symbolically, Mackey trudged the final miles into Leadville as the first light of the new day started to appear in the sky. He crossed the finish line in 24:54:49, just fast enough to earn him the big gold commemorative belt buckle sub-25-hour runners receive. Furthermore, he finished 12th among the 100 Leadman participants, proving he was still capable of competing with elite-level athletes in some of the world’s most grueling ultra-distance races.

“It’s crazy to run 100 miles with a prosthetic leg,” Mackey admitted after the race. “There’s so much more potential for problems beyond the regular ultrarunning problems: cramping, blown quads and sour stomach. Yet, surprisingly, I was able to finish without any epic problems or mishaps. You can turn on a dime and all of a sudden you’re face down with a broken collarbone.”

After finishing Leadman, Mackey has plans to run the New York City Marathon, the JFK 50-miler and the 2019 Western States 100. In some ways, as much as things have changed, plenty has remained the same.

“Was it worth the risk? Oh, it was 100 percent worth the risk. Absolutely,” Mackey says of the accident. “If you ask anybody who does what they love to do with risks that are weighed against the benefits, it’s well worth it.”

By Brian Metzler. Metzler has raced just about every distance from 50 meters to 100 miles, is a three-time Ironman finisher and has been involved in the quirky sport of pack burro racing for more than a decade. He is the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine, the former editor of Competitor and the co-author of "Run Like a Champion: An Olympian's Approach for Every Runner."