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Forfeiting A Win To Save A Life

Posted by Jessi Stensland on Aug 20, 2010 11:34:39 PM

Last weekend I raced XTERRA Portland, an off-road triathlon.  It was a day I'll never forget.


It was a gorgeous morning at Hagg Lake.  Bright blue skies, beautiful scenery, great energy.  A glorious day for the race.


Already warm by 9am, it promised to get warmer. The lake was the perfect temperature for a swim sans wetsuit, so I went au natural.   Although I love my Xterra Wetsuit, there was no need for it that day.  This pic tells all:





The lake swim was pristine and the bike course was a blast!  Mostly lush tree-covered single track, you could tell a lot of work had been done to clear the way on the trail for us.  There were sections that felt like we were racing through the Amazon.  It  was perfect.  Well, the course was perfect, whereas I definitely  made a  few mental notes where my mountain bike skills were lacking,  specifically on a few of  the steep little climbs, a few of which I had  to jump off and walk up.  I've been slacking on my gym work, and my  power was down.  On a positive note however, I was stoked with how I  handled the ruts on the trail. I'd crashed more than once on similar  terrain last year and they haven't gotten the best of me since,  thankfully!  Side note:  I absolutely LOVE mountain biking!!  I think I  would live on my mountain bike these days if I could haha!


I wasn't quite sure what place I was in during the race.  These days I'm more focused on the fun and my own performance on the course than where anyone else is.  By the time we hit the run it was hot but I felt pretty good and was just loving being out there.  I hadn't seen another girl on the course since early in the bike when Heather passed me.  At this point I was just focused on getting myself to the finish as fast as I could.


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The run course was a lollipop with two loops.  As I finished the second loop, volunteers were there to direct me toward the finish.  They said, "You can catch her!" and added, "She wasn't looking too good running up the hill [ahead.]" I didn't think twice as I was feeling the wrath of 2.5+ hrs out there already and just wanted to make it up the hill in the heat myself.  From there the course ran up a short hill in a tall grass field, as I reached the top where it curved around to the left I could see someone in the distance just over the grass, that looked like they were stopped on the course and bent over at the waist, most likely with hands on their knees.  I thought, "Wow, maybe she really wasn't feeling too good," and kept an eye on her, fully expecting to see her pop up and move forward toward the finish.  However next thing I knew I couldn't see her at all.  I looped around on the trail, reaching her within 10 seconds or so, and found her lying on the ground very close to unconscious...




I grabbed her hand and/or chin and asked her her name and she faintly replied, "Heather."  Her eyes were not focused on anything, her body, including her hand, was dead weight. I continued to talk to her but got no clear responses.  I debated whether to run for help or yell for help.  I couldn't leave, so I yelled, "HELP!!" hoping the aid station down the hill would hear me.  They weren't far but they wouldn't have been able to see me. I yelled to the next athlete running up the hill hoping he could transfer the message to the aid station, he wasn't hearing me.  Then I saw the race director, Rob Jackson, pull up in his truck on the road above us. I started to yell to the same athlete to get his attention.  I could tell there was some discussion, but then Rob kept walking with a big Gatorade container on his shoulder, toward the aid station, not toward us. I yelled to the athlete (I'd never yelled that much, nor for help, in my life!) that it was an emergency and to get Rob and himself here NOW.  This was all a matter of seconds I'd like to think.  They both ran over.  Rob then immediately went for help while I stayed with Heather, talking to her, hoping to maintain some level of awareness even if it looked like she had none.  I kept asking her to squeeze my hand, but got no response.  If she was letting out any sound it was more like a constant moan.  Athletes continued to come by, check on the situation, then head toward the finish which was only about a half mile away.  Rob returned with two others and ice packs.  We placed them in all the key places: under arms, crotch, head.  The three guys then carried her up toward the truck.  Knowing there was nothing I could do at that moment, I ran toward the finish.


At the finish I grabbed something to drink and chatted for a minute with Karen Oppenheimer who ended up crossing the finish line first.  I saw Rob and went over to make sure he knew he could put me to work as needed.  He directed me up toward where Heather was, getting ready to transport her to the hospital.  A small group of us continued to do what we could to care for her.  While others were checking her vitals I just kept talking to her, in the outside chance that would help her brain to latch onto something, and keep working.  Everyone stayed amazingly calm, knowing we were doing all we could do at that moment.  We stayed focused on her only signs of life:  checking to make sure she still had a pulse and whether she was breathing or not.  It was a far cry from how much life was in her just minutes before racing along the course.  Hard to recall now that I know Heather and how great she's doing, but I definitely remember moments where the thought of losing her seemed very real.  She was out.  I had never experienced anything like it in my 13 years in triathlon and it was hard to imagine her springing back to life from the state she was at that moment.


The ambulance arrived and Rob directed me to go with Heather to the hospital, knowing Heather was at the race alone and from out of town.  Still with race kit and race number on, I jumped in.  Over the course of a few hours at the hospital, as her body temp dropped to normal and she was rehydrated, it was amazing to see her come back to life.  When I could I kept talking to her.  Her eyes were open but unable to focus at first.  She could not talk for a long time.  Then, if you can imagine, slowly but surely she continued to increase her function.  Little nod, a little smile.  I had her husband Dave on the cell phone, giving him the play by play and getting info from him to the hospital staff about Heather.  When we knew Heather could hear what we were saying, but still couldn't move or speak, I put the phone up to her ear so Dave could talk to her and she had tears streaming down her face.  All great signs!!  My favorite moment was when I asked her to look at me.  I was standing to the side of the hospital bed.  "Heather look at me."  I repeated it again. She had yet to connect brain to motor function. She very slowly, millimeter by millimeter turned her eyes, and her head just a bit, and finally locked into my eyes, probably followed by a slight smile.  Yeah!!!  She continued to make small improvements over the next hour or two.  The next best moment for me was when she all of a sudden was Heather again.  Still lying on the bed, on her side, hands under her head cozy, she looked at me and said, "Who are you?" and I finally got to meet her!  Needless to say we had lots to talk about, including our mutual great friend, XTERRA Pro/Ambassador Brandyn Roark Gray, who we soon realized was the reason each of us were inspired to get into XTERRA racing in the first place.


Here's the one photo I have of the two of us as we were leaving the hospital later that day:






It was very apparent to me that my reaction and response on that day was due to a few key things.  One, I like to race, hard.  I'm super competitive with myself.  I like to take risks.  I like to experience new things, learn and improve.  But at the root of it all, is an appreciation and sheer joy of every minute I'm blessed to be able to live.  Not only live, but doing so healthy, happy and fit enough to do anything I want to do.   I was eating up every minute of that race, the sights, sounds, how I felt, where I knew I wanted to improve my bike skills, the fresh air, the volunteers' smiles and cheers.  Getting to the finish line is no more or less important than any one of those moments, and I couldn't have asked for more than I'd already gotten on that day.  At that point in the race, it was a whole new moment.  Nothing that came before or might come after it meant anything at that point.  Who's to say I was even going to get to the finish line?  Heather sure thought she was.  It was all about that moment.  By the grace of God I was still able to finish the race.  Bonus!


Two, after meeting with Rob Jackson, the race director, the day before the race and learning about his inspiration for putting the race on, I saw a bigger picture.  That he wasn't a full-time race director but simply wanted to bring this event to Portland to give back to the community.  That he had marketed and managed logistics for the race, including clearing trails for us to ride and run on and for the community to enjoy post-race.  That he didn't have a huge crew and was struggling to find volunteers for the event the next day (which ended up coming in droves after all.  Thank you!!!)  All of this lent itself to me knowing, in that instant that I came upon Heather, that I had to react, to help, without hesitation.  It was impossible not to.  I knew there was not going to be someone else coming along to the rescue immediately.  I saw the big picture, or the birds-eye view, versus the worms-eye view as my Aussie roommate likes to say.  It's a beautiful thing.


I'm stoked Heather is doing great, recovering well.  I spoke to her yesterday and we're already talking about where we might race together next for a rematch!  I look forward to getting back to Portland for another race and seeing what other adventures are in store.


A big thanks to XTERRA for inspiring life, nature, adventures, and the best of the mind, body and spirit.



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