Staying out of trouble is every runner’s responsibility.
Lying in the street, the last thing Matt Gabrielson remembered was looking back to see if any cars were behind him. Visiting his family in Knoxville, Tenn., for the holidays about 11 years ago, Gabrielson was finishing up a 10-mile run and heading back to his aunt and uncle’s house where his family, who had gone bowling that afternoon, was waiting for him.
Jumping over debris along the narrow shoulder of the winding road, he thought about how much nicer it was in Knoxville in comparison to the frigid, icy December weather of Minnesota. The then-23-year-old had recently quit his job as a teacher to run for Team USA Minnesota, a post-collegiate running program dedicated to helping its members improve their times along the way to the world championships, Olympics or big-time marathons like Chicago, Boston and New York.
Gabrielson felt like he had the world at his fingertips.
Not familiar with the area, Gabrielson made up his route as he ran. Just three miles from his family’s home, he looked behind him and took off across the clear road. But as he ran to the other side of the street, a car sped around a corner, horn blaring.
“I remember jumping over a creek and jutting onto the road and onto the side of the road to avoid obstacles,” Gabrielson, now 34, recalls. “I remember thinking I’d cross here, and I looked back, but I must have done it so quick that I didn’t see the car. He was going 35 or 40 miles per hour and I remember hearing a car horn, but the next thing I remember was waking up with EMTs surrounding me, and all I could do was yell, ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’”
After several hours bouncing in and out of consciousness, Gabrielson woke up and doctors secured his skull together — his head had hit the car — with seven staples. Gabrielson then realized how much his life might change because of one wrong move.
“I remember being in the hospital bed in a hallway and all of a sudden losing all my emotions and just started bawling,” Gabrielson says. “I gave up teaching to be on the team. I was worried whether or not my life would work out the way I envisioned it.”
Steven Grahmann, 35, was on a business trip in Denver three years ago and, like many runners, just wanted to put in a few miles before the day began. He was only a few weeks shy of running his first marathon and chronicling his training as co-host, Gomer 2, on his podcast, “Two Gomers Run for Their Lives.” Having packed his running gear into his carry-on bag for the short trip, he was determined to keep up with his training and squeeze in at least one run while he was out of town — so he didn’t have to admit on his podcast that he hadn’t run at all in Denver.
Out of bed with just enough time for a quick 2 miles before 12 hours of meetings, Grahmann pulled on his running gear, set the GPS on his phone and went. But instead of sitting in a conference room for the day, Grahmann found himself lying in a hospital bed wondering what if?
“I was less than a block from the house I was staying at when I decided to cross the street,” Grahmann remembers. “When I crossed I didn’t see the car that hit me. It was a Smart Car and there were cars parked on either side of the street, so I didn’t see it because it was lower than the rest of the cars.”
The car slammed into Grahmann at 25 miles per hour. His body hit the hood, leaving a large dent in the metal, and he crashed into the windshield, shattering the glass. He then flew at least 10 feet from the car and rolled. He landed in the middle of the road on his back, his glasses strewn to the curb, both lenses missing from the frames.
“I remember lying there, looking up, and people were yelling at me not to move,” Grahmann recalls. “I never lost consciousness so I remember everything, but I have no idea how long I laid there. My back hurt and my ribs hurt and there was a nurse standing over me asking me questions.”
Only a few minutes after Grahmann and the car collided, he was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Lying in the hospital bed with a minor concussion, five broken ribs, bruises all over his body and in the most excruciating pain of his life, he had never felt luckier.
“What if the car had been going faster?” Grahmann says, thinking about how he played the “what if” game over and over again in the hospital. “What if they had been going faster? What if it was a bigger car? I was really, really lucky that day.”
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Stories like Gabrielson’s and Grahmann’s are not uncommon. According to Road ID, a company that makes identification bracelets and shoe tags for runners, 122,000 runners a year are taken to the hospital after being hit by cars. And many of these runners who come face to face with a car aren’t as lucky as Gabrielson and Grahmann. In a report by Transportation for America, a public policy organization promoting improved infrastructure investment, between 2000 and 2009 more than 5,300 pedestrians were killed each year in vehicle-related accidents.
In August, Phil LaVallee, a 19-year-old runner who was just weeks away from starting his second season of cross country for South Dakota State University, was killed during a training run when a van veered across two lanes and into the far shoulder where he was running, killing him instantly.
Jeffrey “Jay” Ingram, a 32-year-old teacher, husband, father of two and well-known running coach in Kennesaw, Ga., was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was on an early morning run last year.
And it’s not just cars runners need to look out for. Many runners are also hit by trains each year, often because runners are wearing headphones and don’t hear the train or whistle as they cross the tracks.
This is what first responders believe was the case in July when 42-year-old Anita Lewis was out for an evening run and crossed the tracks just as an Amtrak train was passing. Her husband witnessed the accident, having crossed the tracks only seconds beforehand. According to reports, Lewis was trying to cross the tracks at a designated area, but looked to the right when a train was fast approaching from the left.
About six weeks after Grahmann found himself in the middle of that Denver street, wondering if he would ever be able to run a marathon, he was back on his feet and running again. It was slow and painful — mentally and physically.
“There were a couple times where I would try to cross the street and would just freeze up,” Grahmann remembers. “The physical and emotional toll [of the accident] was so intense.”
Still, Grahmann has an upbeat view.
“Looking back, I see the accident as a positive experience because it has made me a safer runner, and hopefully it’s a reminder to other people to run safe too,” he says. “It sucks that I got into an accident. It would have been nice to not get hit by a car, but my hope is that because of this people learn something from me and are running more carefully.”
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One other positive thing came from Grahmann having to put his first marathon on hold. “I realized how much I liked being a runner,” he says. “And how much I missed it.”
It didn’t take long for Grahmann to run his first marathon — four months post-accident in Minneapolis. “I had mostly recovered by then, though my previously broken ribs were screaming at the end of the marathon.”
There are very real, sometimes unavoidable, dangers when running on the roads, but, as Grahmann and Gabrielson admit, there are things all runners can do to be safer runners. Given that November is National Runner Safety Month, there is no better time to head out for a run with some extra safety precautions.
Gabrielson’s life did turn out the way he’d hoped. He had a successful running career, including a 2:13:28 PR in the marathon.
“I don’t think about the accident every day, but whenever I’m out on a run I remember how lucky I am to still be out there,” he says. “It could be a different story. It’s cliché, but the one thing I learned from the accident is that if you’re lucky enough to go for a run, don’t take it for granted.”