Dave Mackey: All Is Not Lost
© Chip Kalback
He had trusted this rock before, hundreds of times, and it always held his body weight. It was one of the many slabs of mini-fridge-sized sedimentary rocks that jut out from the jagged, steep rock pile that constitutes the summit of Bear Peak, the tallest mountain in Boulder, Colorado’s western skyline. But on Wednesday, May 23, 2015, this 300-pound rock, ostensibly entrenched in the mountain, gave way under Dave Mackey — and he took flight.
He’d set out from his front door to run up three of Boulder’s iconic green high-rises, South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak and Green Mountain, in a lollipop loop of 13 miles of some of the area’s best trail running. The 5,200 vertical feet of uphill over rugged terrain would be a fairly large endeavor for most runners but was routine training for Mackey, a professional ultrarunner and two-time USA Track & Field Ultrarunner of the Year award winner, who was training for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run the following month in California.
The recent rainy weather meant he had the trails mostly to himself on this cloudy and wet Monday morning. It had also saturated the ground, putting the mountains on the move, remodeling them ever so slowly with gravity’s assistance. After scrambling off trail to the summit cone, Mackey had been traversing across the mountain’s ridge at 8,459 feet when he trusted the wrong rock.
As his brain began to sense free fall, his amygdala sent his body into fight-or-flight mode, triggering his sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones, increase his heart rate, quicken his breathing, speed up his metabolism and pump more oxygen-rich blood directly to the larger muscles of his body. This ingrained evolutionary reaction is a completely involuntary response to acute stress, allowing a person to become instantly energized in the face of conflict and either fight for their life or run away at top speed.
Falling, Mackey torqued his upper body back toward the hillside and clawed at the mountain to stop his progress. He hit his head along the way but doesn’t remember how, exactly. He also can’t say if he broke his leg during the fall or in the aftermath. All he knows is that when he came to a hard stop, the boulder that had sent him tumbling wasn’t quite done with him. It landed on top of his left leg, pinning him in place. He had fallen about 25 feet and had somehow landed on an improbable flat patch of ground on the steep slopes below the summit. A few feet in any direction and he would have fallen much further, and likely to his death.
Working with a fresh cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine, Mackey tried to push the rock off his crushed leg. But the 2-by-3 rock slab, shaped like a miniature flatiron, wasn’t budging. He was just five miles from his home, from his wife, from his kids, but utterly alone.
“I screamed from the pain, but I didn’t pass out,” Mackey says. “Then I started yelling for Paul, who I hoped was close enough to hear me.”
Eventually, a trail runner Mackey had passed earlier in the day, a friend named Paul Gross, heard his cries. “It was kind of an odd sound and I couldn’t hear it that well,” Gross told reporters. “He was well above where I was going, but I heard something, so I went up that way.”
He found Mackey and managed to leverage the rock off his leg with a tree branch. Gasping at the mangle of bloody flesh and exposed crushed bone (most of his calf muscle was stripped of its skin), Gross called 911, setting in motion a massive extraction effort. Fortuitously, Rocky Mountain Rescue, a Boulder-based volunteer group trained in traumatic mountain accidents, was already in the area attempting to locate a woman who had jumped to her death from a nearby peak. Given his condition and peculiar location, it took the rescuers four hours to get Mackey off the mountainside and into an ambulance.
David James Mackey was born on November 22, 1969, in Baltimore, Maryland, the second boy of three children. Though he’s not entirely sure babies can remember things, Mackey swears his first memory is of his mother, Carol, pricking him with a pin while changing his diaper. “I remember her saying, ‘Well if you hadn’t been moving around I wouldn’t have pricked you,’” Mackey says.
His parents had met at the University of Toledo and married shortly after graduation. The growing family lived for a time in Baltimore and Portland, Maine, before moving to the coastal New England town of Cumberland in 1976, where his father, John, worked for the American Can Company. Dave was 6 when the family arrived in the small town of about 5,500 people that faces the Casco Bay on the Atlantic Ocean.
His quintessential Maine upbringing included the Cumberland County Fair, fishing in Sebago Lake and hunting camps near Ellsworth in the winter. Though the two brothers were rambunctious, Dave had a quiet and thoughtful side. “Even then he was sort of within himself and reticent,” Carol says. “He didn’t ask for much. He was extremely self-sufficient.”
He was also good at almost every sport he took on. “They came pretty naturally to me,” Mackey says. “Soccer, baseball and ice hockey were my sports growing up.” He had Red Sox posters on his bedroom walls. John coached the boys’ Little League teams.
When I ask Carol where Dave’s athleticism comes from, she says, “His father was a very good athlete. John went to college on a football scholarship and played all four years. I also see it in the genes with my father. Dave’s grandfather was an incredible athlete, too.”
Mackey chose the University of Southern Maine for college and played Division III soccer for two fall seasons. He then transferred to the University of New Hampshire, where he walked on to the soccer team his junior year and began running to stay in shape. Drawn to the skiing and climbing out West, Mackey moved to Colorado to finish his degree in outdoor education by interning at a hospital in a Denver suburb. He would eventually get a job leading groups into the backcountry for Outward Bound.
Mackey has always been a 1-percenter with his ability to do so much physically
By the time Mackey arrived in Boulder, the tidal wave of athletes relocating to the Front Range had already crested. As running became a popular recreational trend in the late 1970s, athletic hopefuls began migrating to the laid-back mountain town, which now teems with runners of all stripes and nationalities.
Ultrarunning as it’s known today has its origins in California. In 1974, an athlete named Gordy Ainsleigh --- whose horse had pulled up lame the year before — finished the 100-mile Tevis Cup horse race through the Sierra Nevada range on foot. In doing so, he proved that a human could travel the 100-mile course through the mountains in a single day — which spurred the creation of the world’s first 100-mile trail race, the Western States Endurance Run. There are a handful of races that now occupy exalted positions in the minds of the ultrarunning community. The high-altitude Leadville 100 is one of them. Eight years after the first running of the Western States, Ken Chlouber fired the shotgun into the air for the inaugural Leadville 100, for 45 intrepid starters.
Propelled by the 2009 publication of journalist Christopher McDougall’s book "Born to Run" and increasing media attention, ultrarunning has picked up even more momentum in recent years, with the number of ultramarathon races growing by more than 1,000 percent in the last decade. There are now four standard race distances: 50 kilometers (31 miles), 50 miles, 100 kilometers (62 miles) and the 100-miler.
Mackey ran his first trail race, fittingly enough in Leadville, finishing third in the Mosquito half marathon in 1995. He then won his first ultradistance race, the now-defunct Kokopelli Trail 50 km event in western Colorado, and was encouraged to try even longer distances. In 2002, Mackey tried his hand at a 50-mile event, choosing the San Juan Solstice, in Lake City, Colorado, a race that is widely considered one of the hardest 50-mile races in existence. He won the high-altitude event and set a course record. Now, people were paying attention, and sponsors began clambering to get Mackey in their gear.
By 2004 Mackey was dominating race distances under 100 miles all over the country. For his first attempt at a century run, he would go after the best in the sport, Scott Jurek, at the most competitive race on the calendar, the Western States 100, in a race for ultrarunning supremacy.
Jurek was the reigning champion, and quite possibly the best 100-mile runner of all time, having won the de facto world championship five times in a row. “I had been doing Western a lot and getting closer and closer to [Mike] Morton’s record, but Dave, amongst all the new guys and gals coming in that year, was definitely someone to be feared,” Jurek, now 45, told me over coffee in Boulder. “Back then he was kind of this wild card, a badass mountain runner who was also an adventure racer. We just didn’t know how strong he could be at the 100-mile distance.”
Mackey and Jurek took the early lead at Western States, running together through the first 30 miles of the race. By mile 43 they had shed any other possible contenders — barring catastrophe one of these two would be crowned champion in Auburn. Mackey, who was an exceptional downhill runner, took off on a steep descent and pushed the pace on the climb up to the Devil’s Thumb aid station, near the halfway point. By mile 55 he had a 90-second lead, and it looked to all in attendance like Mackey was going to dethrone Jurek.
The two men were running record pace as they approached the finish line. But in their endurance game of chicken, it was Mackey who cracked first in the California heat. Jurek caught him before the Foresthill aid station, then left him for good on the descent to the major river crossing on the course, Rucky Chucky, at mile 78. He’d go on to win, but he had to run from Squaw to Auburn faster than anyone ever had, clocking a new record of 15 hours, 36 minutes, to beat Mackey (who also ran faster than the previous record time).
“He used to joke that he didn’t like 100-milers, and he didn’t come back to Western the next year,” Jurek says. “Instead he was obliterating course records through 2005 and 2006 — I mean, just making some of them look like jokes. He sort of put things on a new level.”
Mackey would win the U.S. trail-running championships at the 50 km, 50-mile and 100 km distances, and in doing so won the USA Track & Field Ultrarunner of the Year in both 2004 and 2005. After winning his second Montrail Cup trail-running series, Mackey was awarded "UltraRunning" magazine’s North American Ultrarunner of the Year award in 2011.
“He’s always been a 1-percenter with his ability to do so much physically. He’s out there just grinding,” says ultrarunner and journalist Brian Metzler, who has covered endurance sports for more than two decades and was the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine. “I’ve seen Dave in adventure races and ultra races for years. It doesn’t matter what age he is, he’s just a monster athlete.”
As far as his best performance thus far, Mackey first mentions his record-breaking run at the Miwok 100 km in 2008, but then rethinks this. “Well, being able to set the course record at the Quad Dipsea, at 44, was pretty special.”
The modern history of ultrarunning is strewn like a battlefield with the past careers of all the former fast guys who overtrained and either burned out or injured themselves beyond repair. This is a sport that most human bodies simply can’t do at the elite level for very long. Yet Mackey has largely avoided the supernova syndrome by adopting a more tempered approach to training. Though he’s often pushing extremely hard, he hasn’t fallen into the volume trap, where an athlete believes that if some training is good, then more must be better. Beyond 100 miles per week, most athletes begin to experience diminishing returns. Though some ultrarunners run as many as 200 miles in a seven-day training period, Mackey has always stuck to less. “I’m out hiking and running the local peaks six to seven times each week, but I stick to around 50 to 70 miles in that time,” says Mackey. “And I’ll be cross-training on the bike as well.”
In your 40s your body has long since passed its physical prime. By age 26, the research shows that your testosterone begins its long decline and you can start to subtract 1 percent each year from your V02max (which is a measure of your oxygen transport capacity).
In the months preceding the accident, a 45-year-old Mackey had placed second at the Black Canyon 100 km race in Arizona and 12th place at a multi-day 251 km (156 mile) race across the Sahara Desert, known as the Marathon des Sables. Needless to say, he was hardly slowing down when disaster struck.
I remember exactly where I was standing when I heard,” says Ellen, Mackey’s wife of 16 years. “I was in the kitchen looking out the window at the pouring rain. We didn’t have all the details, but I got the sense it was bad. I was so sick to my stomach.”
After the dramatic rescue, which involved belaying Mackey off the mountain down steep slopes of loose rock, Ellen met him at the ambulance. “When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe it was his real leg,” she says. He was rushed to a Boulder hospital, where doctors stabilized him and then attempted to put the pieces of his shattered tibia and fibula bones back together. They inserted an intramedullary nail and attached plates, but they were unable to close the gaping wound.
Mackey was then moved to the Denver Health Medical Center. “We ended up having to take the nail out and remove a large piece of his tibia that had become infected,” says Mackey’s surgeon, Dr. Cyril Mauffrey. “In short succession we did about five or six surgeries on him.”
On June 14, 2015, he finally returned home from his run, 22 days later. His leg was intact but required a cumbersome bracing system, called an external fixator, that he had to keep elevated for 23 hours of each day.
“I can’t be mad, because if you add up the number of hours I’ve spent in the mountains, inevitably something is going to happen that’s random, like stepping on that rock or a lightning strike or a fall or slip,” Mackey told reporters. “I accept that’s just the nature of the mountains.” He also said that he “hoped to get back to 95 percent of what I was before.” He was the only one who believed this would be possible.
All told, Mackey’s doctors performed 13 surgeries in the first 16 months in an attempt to make him whole again. He endured bone, muscle and skin grafting. He was in constant pain as the leg cycled through multiple infections. Eventually he was able to ride a bike somewhat normally, but walking required assistance, and running was out of the question. For the first time in his life his body had betrayed him, and the prognosis for his future as a functioning athlete was grim.
Mackey could no longer go to work and Ellen was forced to pick up the domestic roles Dave left vacant. The conscientious father and overachiever slipped into an unavoidable funk. “It was extremely tough, and sad,” says Ellen. “It just felt so unfair to someone who used to run so much.
The dream of being able to run ultramarathons again sustained Mackey over those long days of recovery, when he was forced to lay still for days, weeks, months, years on end. “The Leadman competition was something I had been thinking about a lot — even the day of the accident I was thinking about it,” Mackey says. “After the accident I thought, ‘OK, I’ll do it next summer.’ Then another year rolled over and I still can’t even walk.”
Mackey has done the Leadman Series before. In 2014 he came in second place overall in the multi-sport competition, which consists of six off-road endurance events spread out over two months — a trail marathon, your choice of a 50-mile mountain-bike race or a 50-mile run, 100-mile mountain-bike race, 10 km trail run and a 100-mile trail run. If that sounds like a lot, consider that the final three events happen in a one-week span, bookended by the two 100-mile races. Athletes who finish the entire series can proudly call themselves a Leadman or Leadwoman.
“We weren’t considering amputation so he could run. I mean, he was in a lot of pain. He didn’t talk about it, but I could tell,” says Ellen. “At a certain point it was by far the better choice. It was just a hard thing to face.” The family worked through every possible scenario with his doctors before making the decision, one that now seemed overdue: He had to cut his damaged appendage off.
On Halloween, the night before his amputation, a local running store hosted a “Leg Party” for Mackey. It was a festive yet macabre event, uniquely suited for this particular holiday, with the occasional costumed friend showing up drenched in fake blood. The Boulder running community came out to wish him luck and to sign his leg.
Mackey, who does not enjoy being in the spotlight, appeared to take it all in stride. “I thought I was out of the woods, but I never really blocked out the possibility of amputation,” Mackey told reporters. “Emotionally, it’s tough. It’s going to be tough tomorrow when I wake up without my leg and probably the days after, but that’s only short term.” He told friends he was looking forward to walking his kids to school again.
“I was the last one to sign his leg before it was cut off. It looked pretty angry and painful,” says Metzler. “I know he was resolute with his decision but there were still plenty of unknown days ahead.”
On a clear midsummer morning in Boulder I meet Mackey at the trailhead to Bear Peak, the mountain that took his left leg. It’s just two days before the Leadville Trail Marathon, the race that kicks off the entire Leadman Series.
We get out of our respective Subarus and shake hands. Mackey is traditionally handsome, with a cartoonishly square jaw and a toothy smile. He’s professional-runner-skinny but not shockingly so — he actually has some muscle mass. At 6’1”, 159 pounds, he has 4 percent body fat (with his shirt off he looks like an anatomy chart).
Sitting down in the passenger side of his Outback, he removes his walking prosthetic with a few turns of a hexagonal bike wrench. He then pulls the trail-running blade from a backpack. It’s made of a carbon-fiber composite and looks like a large, misshapen, upside-down question mark. The hardware attaches to the bottom of his socket, which is cupped to accept the 8 inches of leg he still has below the knee. When installed correctly it creates a suction that is then aided by a tacky sleeve that slides up his thigh. This marvel of our technological age, the socket and blade, weighs 5 pounds and costs about $12,000. And it allows Mackey to run up mountains again.
Which is exactly what we do, running up a double-track dirt road before turning onto the rocky single-track trails toward the summit. Since prosthetics can’t yet exactly mimic the biomechanics of the human running form, there is a new hitch in Mackey’s stride. Instead of dorsiflexion and push-off, the blade springs him forward. Since it doesn’t articulate like a real foot, he has to accommodate its size and lack of mobility by swinging it around ever so slightly. Mackey, who’s been exceptionally coordinated his whole life, now stubs his prosthetic “toe” with noticeable frequency. We alternate running with fast-hiking the steeper, more technical sections.
From the car the trail climbs 2,600 feet in just under 3 miles. He’s fast, and I struggle to keep up. His training has gone well. He had his lower leg amputated on November 1, 2016, and returned to ultrarunning one year, two months and six days later, running the Bandera 50 km trail race in Texas.
His return to such extreme distances was faster than any of his doctors thought possible, but they were learning not to underestimate Mackey’s quiet confidence. Regardless of his toughness between the ears, his biological, corporeal body is still 48 years old. There is no getting around that. The soft tissue and bone need time to heal and remodel into something that approximates the sole of a foot. Until that process is complete he’ll have to deal with the thin skin tearing and wearing through as the socket, over time, toughens the tissue.
We stop short of climbing the last 30 feet of jumbled rock that he fell off in May. The prosthetic makes the scramble extremely difficult, though not impossible. He’s been up there since the accident but now chooses not to bother most days.
We follow the trail around to the west so he can show me where he landed and the rock that crushed his leg. His demeanor changes. “I definitely shudder looking up there. I mean, the fall should have killed me, the rock should have killed me. I dodged a bullet,” he says. “I’m now a lot more appreciative of the things I can do. I could have been a paraplegic or a quadriplegic. I could have had a brain injury. Like, holy shit, I’m still around.”
Before we head down the back side of the mountain to make a giant loop, Mackey tells me how, during his recovery, the Leadman Series solidified in his mind, from dream, to possibility, to goal, to necessity. He knows he might fail, but it’s the trying that matters, and he is determined not to let the accident take anything more than flesh and bone from him.
Two days later in Leadville I meet the entire Mackey clan. Dave, covered in sunblock he definitely put on without a mirror, introduces me to his kids, Connor, 8, and Ava, 10. We walk to the start of the Leadville Trail Marathon. Dave kisses Ellen goodbye and hugs the rest of us, then the 679 athletes run out of town toward Mosquito Pass, at 13,185 feet.
Today, the course is mostly dirt road, but what’s intriguing about racing around Leadville is its elevation above sea level. Human beings were not designed to thrive at high altitudes, and Leadville is the highest incorporated town in America, at 10,152 feet.
The higher you rise from sea level, the less oxygen there is in the air. Each breath you draw, therefore, gives you less of what your muscles need to function. So you breathe faster, and your heart rate increases in an effort to make up this difference, but this causes you to burn more calories and you reach exhaustion much sooner.
Mackey finishes 53rd in a time of 4:52:42, exactly 37 minutes and 4 seconds slower than when he ran it in 2014, or, 87 percent of his former self. But this is just the warm-up.
Three weeks later, on consecutive days, Mackey races in both the 50-mile mountain-bike race and 50-mile trail run, even though the series only requires he complete one of the two. “I did it just to see what would happen,” Mackey says. “And it almost killed me.” Rain on race day had caused “pistoning,” when the residual limb moves up and down inside the socket. “I got beat up, but I also found where the problem spots will be before the 100.”
The week before the final race, Mackey rides the 100-mile mountain-bike race faster than he did in 2014 by 17 minutes and 45 seconds. “Certainly he would have had more days with podiums and competing with the best had he not had the accident,” says Metzler, who is also racing in the Leadman Series. “But it’s not surprising to me that he’s still so good. I mean, the injury didn’t cut out his heart.”
Maybe the best thing about a 100-mile race is the starting line. The collective hope assembled on August 18, 2018, at 6th and Harrison could power a city — though about half of the 713 runners lined up at the start will drop out or be timed out of the race. Runners swarm in and around the start corral, making last-minute adjustments and kissing loved ones goodbye. Mackey is comparatively calm and undercaffeinated.
At 4 a.m. a shotgun blasts into the air and the runners lurch into the darkness toward the Sawatch Mountains to the west. Tiki torches, pit fires and Hand Clappers give way to barbwire fences, low-lying shrubs and the odd trailer park. It starts to rain. The course travels along the foothills below the tallest peak in the range, Mount Elbert, which is obscured by low clouds. Thirty-eight miles later Mackey arrives at the Twin Lakes aid station. It stretches four blocks and is lined with hundreds of spectators. He looks good and says the early rain didn’t bother the socket as it has in the past, either an improved fit or luck, but either way he’ll take it.
He runs off toward the highest point on the course, Hope Pass, at 12,600 feet. At that altitude all living organisms are affected: Flies get slow enough to grab with chopsticks, and ultrarunners begin to question their life decisions.
The fascinating thing about those who run long distances is not their psyche but how they affect the psyche of those who witness their feats of endurance. Watching a person run for more than an entire day — a period in which they don’t stop, or sleep, or eat a real meal — is unsettling, if only because it forces you to compare yourself to their efforts.
Now on the last half of the out-and-back course, Mackey returns to the Twin Lakes aid station to throngs of spectators who erupt in applause when he arrives. It’s a scene more akin to the Tour de France than an American ultramarathon.
Running 100 miles is a basic struggle to continue moving forward against a mounting desire to stop. “I almost dropped,” Mackey admits. “I got to Winfield and I was 50-50 if I would drop out, but I just started walking and eventually bounced back.” Mackey is nothing if not understated. His pacer, Bob Africa, says they passed about 30 runners on the return climb up Hope Pass.
Nine hours later, out of the darkness of 6th Street in Leadville, emerges a silhouette with that recognizable running hitch. Mackey crosses the finish as the announcer bellows his name and his time. He’s the last runner to beat the 25-hour cutoff for the special belt buckle.
“That was brutal,” Mackey says. “I gotta sit down.” And finally, he’s still.