On a warm November morning in 2008, Eric Nelson, 38, and his wife, Colleen, had just crossed the finish line of the Dallas Running Club Half-Marathon—a race that traces part of the 9.3-mile path around White Rock Lake, a popular running spot in the Dallas area. Walking back to their car, the two basked in the satisfaction of their success: Nelson ran a 1:33, a new PR, while Colleen finished six minutes behind.
Train using expert marathoning tips from the masterminds at Runner's World!
A few minutes later, it was unclear whether Nelson, a seven-time marathoner, would ever run again. As he and Colleen made their way through a crosswalk, a car careened into their path, plowing into Nelson and two other runners. "I felt the car brush past my leg," says Colleen, "and the next thing I knew, Eric was gone." (Search: What do serious accidents mean for runners’ futures?)
The vehicle slammed into a pole, scattering the trio like bowling pins. Behind the wheel was a 31-year-old woman with no insurance and a suspended driver's license; on the ground were Mary Oliver, 49, a Dallas-area teacher and single mother; Jay Newton, 28, a Fort Worth attorney and father; and Nelson, an editor at The Dallas Morning News.
The car's impact broke all their legs, cracked Newton's sternum, broke Oliver's arm, and shattered her pelvis, but Nelson, found lying unconscious under a parked car, was the worst off. He had fractured vertebrae in his neck, broken ribs, and a traumatic brain injury. Nelson spent three weeks recovering in the hospital, followed by eight months of physical and cognitive therapy, where he had to relearn basic motor skills, including how to walk and dress himself. In the most grueling moments of his recovery, he stayed focused on getting healthy enough to run again with Colleen. "Running had become such a big part of our lives," he says. "I missed it."
How to Cope With Running Injuries
For Newton and Oliver, the recovery process presented different challenges. Both were wheelchair-bound while their injuries healed, but Oliver was determined to get back to her everyday routine—which included raising two teenagers and going to graduate school—as quickly as possible. "I needed to prove to myself and my children that everything was going to be okay," she says. Meanwhile, Newton's wife was pregnant with their second child. "I was picking glass out of my scalp for weeks," says Newton, who, like Nelson, had a titanium rod inserted in his leg. "It took more than two years to get back to normal."
Free Poster: Go Running
While the three runners struggled to rebuild their bodies (Video: Use resistance bands to build strength at home) and lives, the driver was issued just two misdemeanor citations—getting no jail time and offering no apologies. When Nelson's neighbor, then state representative Allen Vaught, heard about the accident, he took the runners' plight to the state capitol, drafting Eric's Law: Unlicensed and uninsured drivers who cause serious harm in an accident now face up to one year in jail, plus fines up to $4,000. It passed in 2009.
On New Year's Day 2010, Nelson celebrated a more personal victory: He took his first run with Colleen, at White Rock Lake. "I started to think, I can get closer to where I was before the accident." He has since finished the 2010 ING New York City Marathon in 4:47 and the 2011 Chicago Marathon in 4:11. "I don't know if I'll ever run 3:31 again," says Nelson, "but I'm making strides."
Follow these 10 Golden Rules of Injury Prevention
On December 4, 2011 Nelson, Oliver, and Newton—who bonded during their recovery and occasionally run together, calling themselves Team to Hell and Back—will compete in Dallas's White Rock Marathon, Oliver and Newton's first 26.2. The race includes a route around White Rock Lake, near the accident site.
"I used to train at White Rock Lake, but it took me a while to get back to running there, both physically and emotionally," says Nelson. "Team to Hell and Back—Jay and Mary—understand that, because they went through the same thing. Being able to run this marathon is another step forward for all of us."
More: Want monthly inspiration in your mailbox? Get a Runner’s World subscription today!