May 21 2018
How running after losing my leg has helped me find my identity and purpose.
On a beautiful fall day in 2011, lifelong competitive triathlete Colleen Kelly Alexander was biking home from work, as she did most days. What she couldn’t possibly know was that she would not reach her destination for months.
A freight truck driver failed to stop at a stop sign and instead hit her full force, ran over her lower body with both the front and back tires and pulled her across the pavement. A former EMT, Alexander immediately began screaming to keep forcing blood and oxygen to her heart and brain. Strangers started surrounding her, called 911 and prayed.
“I told them I just reconnected with my soulmate, I have my dream job and want to have a baby,” Alexander said. “I can’t die now,” she pleaded. “Please don’t let me die.”
Despite her determination, Alexander died twice. She was revived by medical teams, placed in a coma for five weeks, endured 29 surgeries, countless excruciating bandage changes, PTSD, trauma and atrocities most of us cannot fathom.
“I had no idea if I would ever run again, let alone be on my bike,” Alexander told us during a recent phone interview from her home in Connecticut. “I would fall asleep and dream that I was walking through a parking lot without a walker or running through a grocery store where my body was able to move without being attached to something or being held up–and then I would cry, thinking that would never happen.”
Ever so slowly, Alexander began to walk again. She started with short laps around her coffee table and then, after months of walking indoors, finally went outside and walked to the end of her street, with a little help from her husband and friends.
“I asked my doctor if I could go out and walk my street,” recalled Alexander after weeks of walking indoors. “I had a team of sorts who would follow me with a wheelchair to use when I got tired, and I would just walk to the end of the street. We did that every day.”
Eventually, a local race made its way on Alexander’s radar, and she had an incredible idea.
Immediately after the accident, Alexander needed more than 78 units of blood, including platelets and plasma, from local donors. “I realized the magnitude of the blood donations I received and all the CPR,” she said. There were close to 20 people circling her body to perform the CPR necessary to revive her in the operating room. She gathered strength and courage from those thoughts and decided to walk the race with her walker and raise blood donations for her former employer, The American Red Cross.
“It takes five people for one unit of platelets, and I started understanding it was hundreds of people in my little state [of Connecticut] that donated blood within a couple of weeks,” she said in awe. “I realized I could be running next to someone whose blood I now have in my body.”
That event sparked something in Alexander who, at the time, still had nine to 10 more surgeries to endure. “After that race, I knew I was part of a bigger picture and purpose. Being surrounded by these runners who were my heroes gave me a sense of peace.”
Once Alexander was able to run again, she started giving all of her medals to the multitude of medical staff that aided in her survival. To date, she has run 50 road races and completed 40 triathlons, with many more planned.
Training and competing is difficult in a whole host of new ways for Alexander. Even so, she perseveres. “The swim is the toughest to manage,” she said. “It freaks me out because it’s dark in the water and it reminds me of being in a coma and [can] trigger a panic attack.” Although the run and bike legs of the race are physically tough, they take far less of a psychological toll.
“I very rarely bike by myself,” Alexander said. “We have a 14-mile loop from my house, and I have done it alone only about four times. When I race is actually when I feel safest.”
And race she does! Alexander’s calendar is filled with races, book signings and motivational speaking engagements. In fact, the idea for her book Gratitude In Motion was egged on by none other than Bart Yasso, the “Mayor of Running” who wrote the book’s foreword.
“I was at the Gasparilla Distance Classic in 2014 on a [speaking] panel with [Boston Marathon Race Director] Dave McGillivray and Bart Yasso. After I spoke, Bart immediately said, ‘You need to write a book,’” Alexander recalled. Every time Yasso saw Alexander after that, he would ask if she’d started writing. Eventually, she was able to respond with a resounding “Yes!”
Gratitude In Motion is an amazing compilation–not just of the horrific accident and resulting trauma, but of perseverance and the courage Alexander showed to take back her life and return to doing what she loves most. It’s actually hard to tell what she loves more: running and racing triathlon or giving back tenfold what she feels she was given.
In the book’s foreword, Yasso reflects on seeing Alexander run her one and only 26.2 in his Bethlehem, Penn. hometown. “When a race starts, we all follow the same path to the finish line, but we take very different paths to make it to the starting line,” he wrote. “Colleen’s path is a journey of survival, gratitude, love and a boatload of courage to overcome so many obstacles. Colleen has taught me so many life lessons. She is literally gratitude in motion.”
For a full list of Colleen Alexander’s upcoming races, book signings and speaking engagements, visit her website colleenkellyalexander.com