injury, inspiration, marathon, running, running as religion, ultra, Uncategorized, White Rock, White Rock Marathon

A year ago he was near dead from a freak accident, now he’s ready to run the Dallas Marathon

An almost-recovered Brandon Cumby ponders his upcoming 26.2-mile race: Photo by Danny Fulgencio, Advocate Magazine

This story originally is published in the December 2013 Lake Highlands Advocate and East Dallas Advocate magazines.

A freak accident left him burned, broken and dependent, but this White Rock-area runner intends to finish what he started training for two years ago — the Dallas Marathon

On a cool November morning, Brandon Cumby rounds the last turn of the Dallas Running Club Half Marathon at White Rock Lake. Feeling better and stronger than he’s ever felt in a race, he smiles at the breaking sun and crosses the finish line in 1 hour, 51 minutes and 14 seconds.

His time places him at a nondescript 416 among male finishers. But considering where the 33-year-old runner was little more than a year ago — facedown in mud, spewing blood from multiple orifices, nose and ribs broken, flesh smoldering, no discernable pulse — the finish ranks him decidedly outside the realm of ordinary.

The accident
In summer 2012 Cumby began training for the Dallas Marathon, but his plans screeched to a halt in August. Cumby cannot cohesively recall anything between July 28 and Aug. 24, he says. But family members and friends help him piece together the events that nearly snuffed out his future.

On Aug. 13, a Monday, the air conditioner in Cumby’s car died. After leaving the North Dallas office where he worked as an accountant, Cumby stopped at his friend Scott Boyle’s house. He figured he could park in Boyle’s driveway, hopefully fix the blower and avoid a sweltering drive home.

While Cumby toiled under the hood, Boyle and mutual friend Michael Baker played with their new toy — a high-tech remote-control helicopter.

By the time Cumby joined them, the sun was sinking, and visibility was low.

“They were ready to take it in — they didn’t want to crash it. It was expensive. They’d pooled their money to buy it. But I asked them to do a couple more runs. I egged them on, telling them to fly higher, do crazier stunts.”

Promptly, the copter crashed into a nearby tree, embedding itself in the uppermost branches.

Boyle went for a ladder.

Cumby, confident in the strength gained from his marathon training, and feeling responsible, was determined to climb and retrieve the object himself.

In fractured flashbacks, Cumby recalls ants biting his hands as he climbed the tree, looking way down at his friends and feeling the first pang of anxiety, seeing the power lines in the distance (avoid, he noted to himself).

He couldn’t get to the helicopter, he assessed. But he could climb close enough to loosen it from the branches, if only he had something long with which to prod it.

A neighbor who had joined the guys below handed him an aluminum pool-skimmer pole. Perfect.

He was clutching the pole with his right hand when his foot slipped. Falling in the direction of the wires, he lost control of his arm, which launched the pole over his head and into a power line.

A deafening “hmmmmmm!” shot through the air.

The hum was so powerful it made your teeth chatter, the witnesses say.

Then there were flames — orange and blue, that looked like they were shooting from Cumby’s belt buckle and from behind his knees, Baker recounted.

Then he fell, maybe 20 feet, “like a rag doll doing a gainer,” one witness later told him.

Motionless, Cumby lay prostrate. Boyle rolled him over; Mud clogged Cumby’s mouth, blood gushed from his nose and face, he was black and blue, smoke was rising from his groin and he smelled like burning flesh.

Boyle, a onetime lifeguard, searched for a heartbeat, a pulse. Nothing. He began chest compressions and kept working until paramedics arrived.

EMTs intubated, defibrillated, pounded Cumby’s chest until, finally, mercifully, his heart sprung to life.

But Cumby still was in grave danger. He was bleeding internally.

His friends say that even in his bed at Parkland Hospital, blood was seeping from his nose and mouth, from everywhere, it seemed.

The doctors could operate, they told Cumby’s loved ones, but his chances were not good. As his family waited with the hospital chaplain, a team of surgeons administered 22 units of blood and, against the odds, repaired Cumby’s lacerated liver and abdominal wall well enough to keep him alive. Later, burn and trauma surgeon Dr. Francis Ali-Osman later told Cumby that 100 out of 100 other people in his situation would have died before surgery.

Alive, but not well
The days and weeks following the first operation were the most mentally and physically agonizing of Cumby’s life, he says.

He was released from the hospital temporarily at the end of August. In his condition, he could not live alone, so he moved in with his grandparents. Clothing felt like sandpaper on his sensitive skin. Movement was nauseating. Stillness was unbearable.

“The pain and swelling from my burn excisions was unbelievable — I couldn’t tolerate walking or sitting down without one of those donut-shaped pillows.”

He couldn’t sleep, experienced hot and cold flashes, and lacked an appetite. A walk to and from the bathroom exhausted him.

“Before I had the accident I was fit. I rode a Harley, played the guitar, ran, cycled, worked on building lean muscle … I had lived on my own since I was 22, had relationships, had a house, was financially independent. Now I couldn’t live by myself or cook my own meals, drive or wash my clothes. I took medication out of a daily pill sorter so I wouldn’t get mixed up.”

And there was this hole in his gut, he says, whose source was anxiety over the idea that he might never run another mile.

But there is no space left in your head for marathon dreams when, say, the open wound located near your genitals inflames and oozes blood.

During a trip to the Parkland emergency room, Dr. Ali-Osman told him the wound wasn’t closing — it is called dehiscence. Cumby would just have to give it time.

“The anxiety of having an open bleeding wound in a sensitive area is worse than the wound itself,” Cumby says.

Before his groin-area wound healed, he was readmitted to the hospital because, once it became clear he would live, surgeons needed to mend several sinus and facial bones broken during the fall (fractured rib and cervical bones also were dealt with separately).

This time, doctors cut a line from one ear, over his shaved head, to the other. They folded down the skin, repaired the bones — adding synthetic bone filler and wire mesh where needed, Cumby explains — and sewed him back together.

Seemingly endless sleepless nights and sickening withdrawal from opioid medicines — tremors, insomnia, nausea and increased sensitivity to pain — followed.

For weeks, his face remained swollen beyond recognition. He weighed 143 pounds, down 30 from his training days.

Several mornings on end, he had his stomach pumped — exploratory measures to determine the effectiveness of his digestive system. Unbearable abdominal pain sent him to the emergency room on multiple occasions. Digestive distress and stomach pain are results of postsurgical ileus and abdominal adhesions, respectively, Cumby explains.

Through it all, doctors prodded Cumby for information.

“They seemed to wonder how I had survived,” he says. “Their best guess is that my fitness, the running, saved me.”

Two weeks after his release from the hospital following cranial surgery, Cumby snuck out of his grandparents’ house. He needed to run.

“I made it about a half mile before I had to lie down in the grass. I was wearing a heart-rate monitor, and it was going crazy. I walked home.”

A couple of days later he tried it again, with similar results. His mom, though she didn’t understand why he needed this so much, began walking with him, and they eventually began adding small jogging intervals.

Running therapy
Even as he was recovering from electrocution and life-altering trauma, Cumby felt this undeniable urge to run. Why? “I don’t expect anyone who is not a runner to understand this,” he says.

“When I first got out (of the hospital), I was entirely focused on the physical components. I wanted things to quickly return to normal. I needed to go back to work, get in shape, get my own place, make things look and feel normal. Turns out, there’s no quick way.”

Going out too fast can be detrimental in a long-distance race. Same goes for recovery, Cumby says.

He realized he had to go back and build a stronger foundation before he could rebuild his life, he says.

“So I asked myself, ‘What brings you joy?’ That is a good place to start.”

And his answer was: running.

“Running empowers me, centers me, focuses me,” he says.

The exercise strengthens his atrophied muscles and weary heart, but he says it is about much more.

“People think running is physical. It’s not. Most of it is between the ears.”

When he first started running years ago, he learned that.

“At that time, I was overweight, ending a marriage, unhappy, so I started running. Back then, I did my best thinking while I was running,” he says. “It is no different now. It is my Zen.”

Brandon: Photo by Danny Fulgencio, Advocate magazine
Brandon: Photo by Danny Fulgencio, Advocate Magazine

The marathon
Rebecca Baker is Cumby’s running partner. In 2012 the duo decided to train for the Dallas Marathon.

After Cumby’s summer 2012 electrocution, which was witnessed by Rebecca’s husband Michael, the Bakers only wanted their friend to survive.

“Everything was so touch and go for the first few days that we were more worried whether he would live,” Rebecca recalls. “It took a couple of days for them to figure out that he didn’t have any significant spinal injuries, which meant that he would walk again. At one point, he was so disoriented that he thought he had overslept and missed the marathon start. He kept telling his mom he needed his water bottle. Clearly, running was never far from his mind.”

Rebecca says she wasn’t all that surprised when he resumed training. “I was worried that he would try to do too much too soon, but he has done pretty well this season.”

The running community rallied around Cumby after the accident. The Dallas Running Club and White Rock Running Co-op held a fundraiser to help with medical expenses.

In January 2013, the Bakers and Cumby’s lifelong best friend Aaron Stevens (a Lake Highlands resident whose birthday, Cumby points out, fell on the same day of the accident), joined Cumby for a 5k race.

“It took 33 minutes to finish, and I thought I would die,” Cumby says. “But that got me over a mental hurdle.”

He didn’t like being slow, though.

“I am my own worst critic. I look at the other guys in my age group and their race times and feel inferior,” Cumby notes.

However, both he and Rebecca acknowledge that the way he is running now, all things considered, is nothing short of a miracle.

In March, Cumby ran the Rock n’ Roll half marathon in a little over two hours.

Then he registered for the Dallas Running Club’s training program for the December 2013 Dallas marathon.

As the miles increased and Dallas marathon hopefuls ratcheted up the calorie, carb and protein intake, Cumby ran into trouble.

In August he landed in the ER with severe pain and vomiting blood.

His doctor wanted to operate to remove scar tissue growing around Cumby’s intestine.

Cumby begged for an alternative.

“The doctor looked at me like, ‘Let me get this straight. You are refusing surgery because you do not want to interrupt your marathon training?’ and I say, ‘Yes’.”

The doctor made a deal. They would try one more thing, and if his symptoms improved, he could resume training. Cumby said he would try anything.

The treatment was dietary — Cumby would go on a strict low-carb, low-protein, high-fat diet.

To avoid mid-workout distress, he also started fasting for several hours before any long-distance run. The diet essentially goes against everything marathon coaches preach, Cumby says.

But it has worked.

Before racing the DRC Half Marathon in November, Cumby completed a 21-mile training run with the running club’s 4:10-marathon pace group.

When he runs the 26.2-mile Dallas Marathon course on Dec. 8, he won’t be wearing a watch, he says.

“I don’t want to put any undue pressure on myself by worrying about how fast or slow I am running,” he says. “I am just going to concentrate on finishing the race.”

As he expected, while he focused on running over the last few months, Cumby’s life shaped up. He recently got his own place near the lake — the epicenter of Dallas fitness, he calls White Rock — and a new job at a small firm.

He’s learned some lessons: No tree-climbing with aluminum poles. His friends and family are too good to be true. Follow joy. Forget the odds. Do not make specific plans, because you risk short-changing yourself.

After the marathon, he might try ultrarunning or a triathlon, he says.

“I want to see how far I can go.

inspiration, running, running as religion, Uncategorized

When life goes to sh*t, thank God for running

Even the half-alert among us know that ever-present feeling (if only looming in our subconscious) that the world can change in an instant.

But who could ever really be prepared when it does?

Friday March 16, I was laying out my stuff for the Dash Down Greenville 5k before heading to visit my mom in the hospital—a couple days earlier she had suffered a fainting episode at the gym (she works out every morning) and doctors were observing her. They felt she might have suffered a minor stroke, but she was doing well. They had moved her into a “step-down” room and were planning to release her the next day. So, at this point I was concerned mostly about my mom’s mental health—she was worried about the bills, more than anything—but, frankly (read: selfishly), I was more concerned about arranging my 20-mile run on Sunday and whether I could run a respectable 5k in the morning.

I was cheery when I walked into Doctors Hospital at White Rock Lake. I was heading for the 4th floor when I ran into my dad. His face was red and he looked worried. “They’ve moved her to ICU,” he said. Weird. Why? “She’s having trouble breathing and they think she might have pneumonia,” he said.

When we got to her room, she was wearing an oxygen mask and her wide eyes were filled with panic. Her breathing was laborious. The nurse told us to wait for the doctor to talk to us. My heart dropped. I could sense the nurse knew something but didn’t want to tell us.

When the doctor arrived, he confirmed. When looking for the feared pneumonia he discovered a “type a aortic dissection”. Without immediate surgery, there’s about a 10-20 percent chance of survival. The surgery, he told us, was of the highest magnitude and something that only a handful of doctors in the world can perform and only certain facilities can support.  Tiny Doctors Hospital was not one of them.

The next several hours were excruciating. Her primary doctor got on the phone and stayed there for 3 ½ hours, trying to get in touch with one of the specialists. There are only two or three in Dallas (Dallas is a hub of heart specialists) but had no luck finding one — two were out of town for spring break. At around midnight, the Doctors Hospital cardiologist arrived to look at the chest x-ray film. He reiterated the gravity of the situation. They determined the dissection had occurred at the time of the fainting; neither of our doctors had ever seen a case of a patient living through two days in this condition.

That night, my brother, dad and I spoke to my mom with the understanding that it could likely be the last time. I wondered how I would tell my kids—I was very young when I had my son and for nearly 18 years, she’s been a second mom to him.

My brother barfed and I saw my dad cry for the first time in my whole life. The cardiologist intubated her—a process that in her condition carried great risk of fatality in itself—and she continued to breathe.

At six the next morning, just fours hours after leaving the hospital, I got a call from my dad. He was choking on tears, laboring to get his words out. This is it, I thought.

But she was still alive.

My dad had called the priest from St. Patrick’s to administer last rites. Jolted from sleep, I realize it is St. Patrick’s Day (her favorite holiday) and my mom is dying. I arrived back at the hospital as Father Joseph, having just administered the (only Catholic sacrament worse than Reconciliation) Anointing of the Sick, was leaving.

The next two days were hell. Every phone call, every lab coat sighting, was potential doom.

Tuesday, she was still alive and we were still waiting on a transfer. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t indulge in a drink or a sleeping pill—I years ago forfeited those luxuries.

I needed to run.

The rain was coming down hard that Tuesday morning. Even better. The cool, fat droplets mingled with sweat and tears and no passerby knew I was crying or that my mom was dying or that I had no clue how to handle my dad’s and my kids’ suffering, much less my own.

I was soaked to the bone two miles in. My phone buzzed. I never carry a phone on a run, but under the circumstances, I had shoved it under three layers of sports tops. It was still damp. As I stopped to answer it, a bus splashed water onto the sidewalk, re-drenching me. I tried to protect the phone. “Hello?” It was my dad. They are moving her to UT Southwestern to perform the surgery. “OK. Great. I will see you soon.” He asks if I am out in the rain. “Little run,” I say. I imagined him shaking his head.

I continue on in the rain. I talk to God, or the universe or whomever is listening. I accept that, whatever happens, the road ahead will be long, arduous, exhausting. I remember that the most difficult journeys yield the most profound awakenings. Two hours and some 13 miles later I poured into my front door.

No matter what the day brings, I know I am ready.

Epilogue: My mom is currently recovering at UT Southwestern and she has months of rehab ahead. It is nothing short of miraculous that she is alive. I’ve been keeping a log on this site called CaringBridge about the process. If you ever have a sick loved one, this is a great service as it prevents you from having to talk to people (not that I don’t love talking to my people). 

inspiration, marathon, running, running as religion, training

Why run with a group? Because it rules.

If ya really love running, being part of a running group can be enormously beneficial. (If you just kind-a like to run sometimes, you will more than likely find it annoying). I suffer at times from a bit of social anxiety. I don’t generally care for crowds or small talk and and I really savor running alone—but I equally love my running-group members, with whom I meet about twice a week.

A random night's running group comprising Dallas Running Club and White Rock Co-op members

The group isn’t always the same. We don’t always agree or get along. The faces change and people come and go; some people are always there. But everyone has this one thing in common — a passion for a sport that high school coaches use as punishment and in which our coworkers and spouses would only partake if “they were being chased”, they tell us. Here are some of the reasons I like group running.

6. Accountability. Alone running – any excuse to skip will do. Group running — if you miss, you’re going to get sh*t. Others are counting on you to show up. Valid excuses dwindle.

5. Support. Everyone has habits. Some are annoying and harmless, others such as drinking, taking drugs and running can be harmful if not practiced in moderation. Seriously. I’ve seen it and done it myself — we get that good feeling from running and try to do too much too enthusiastically and get hurt, and then we sit around moping and hating our more-sensible friends for their good health. By being part of a group, I got good advice about how to train smart. I didn’t always follow it and learned some hard lessons. But — like the recovering alcoholic attends meetings because fellow alcoholics are the only people who can understand and relate to their affliction — we need a support group, because, face it, some of us have a bit of a problem.

4. Opportunity to share the wisdom. “If you want to master something, teach it.” —Yogi Bhajan. A group like our White Rock Running Co-op enjoys a steady stream of new runners — it’s a ripe opportunity for giving back and mastering the sport though sharing experience and acquired knowledge.

3. Competition. I am no bible thumper, but I once read The Bible for the specific purpose of being able to argue intelligently with religious people. This Ecclesiastes character was my fave. This line of his always stuck with me: “I observed the basic motive for success is the driving force of envy and jealousy.” So insightful. He was cynical, I think, but it is true that when we see others achieving great feats —especially when they are our own peers — we want to get some for ourselves! And as a result, we work harder to obtain it — even if it means saying, “Sure, I’ll run at the track with you at 5 a.m.” or “yes, I am up for an evening run, during which it is 105 degrees in the shade” or “I know I just lost my lunch on the sidewalk, but don’t worry ’bout me; I’m right behind you.”

2. Entertainment. On group runs, I’ve heard stories about dysfunctional families, cocktail party faux pas, encounters with celebrities, bad dining experiences, witnessing drug deals and more dirty jokes than I can count. I’ve heard ideas for documentaries and brainstormed new and strange ways to replace the planking craze. You just can’t get that type of entertainment from an ipod.

1. Enhanced victories. My friend Marlena recently moved to Southern California and she does not belong to a running group. She had a very successful half marathon race a couple weeks ago. Despite an unplanned race a week prior, she ran a personal best in the half — a 1:41 — by about three minutes. She called me immediately after the race. I gave her due accolades, but I am really the only person in her life who fully comprehends her accomplishment. Sure, her non-runner hubby and friends in California are rooting for her, but they wouldn’t really know the difference between a 1:40 and a 1:50, right? When I finished the White Rock Marathon in 2009, reaching my goal with room to spare, my buddy, Chris, who had been working with me for a year to reach said goal, greeted me at the finish line with open arms, happier for me, perhaps than I was for myself. When I finished the Boston marathon this year, a dozen people had congratulated me via text message or Facebook before I even got the medal around my neck. When I finish a local race, there is always a crowd of people I know around. If the race went well, I can go from friend to friend getting (and giving) all the kudos I desire. If it went south, there will no doubt be an empathetic ear nearby.

inspiration, running, running as religion

Running without headphones

Most of the people who run with me know I am totally into the headphones. I take them along on group runs, for those quieter miles (usually 17 plus), and I even wear them in races — I know, I know. I am so impure. But believe it or not, I go through stages where I ditch the headphones altogether. I’m in one right now. It usually happens when I am not training for anything in particular and I just want to run. And think. And calm the chatter in my head.

Let me inject that I feel particularly grateful about how good I am feeling following my recent marathon effort. Though the $300 inserts the doc gave me to treat plantar fasciitis are unbearable, it seems a folded-up sock stuffed into the inside of my shoe, at the arch, just under the heal, has given me tremendous relief. I’m not recommending this as a treatment; it just works for me. But I digress.

The point is, I went for a run just to run. I didn’t bother with headphones not because I didn’t want music, but because I wanted to run with no gadgetry whatsoever. No watch either — the watch equals stress for me. And I need no more stress right now.

The purpose of headphones for me, for a long time, has been self defense, a barrier between other people and me: at 18 I learned that headphones deter people who want to small talk at the gym or who are looking for a sweaty date. Running alone, headphones blocked the catcalls and honking horns. (I think some men would holler at an 80 year old woman pushing a walker, so I am not bragging). They’ve become a safety blanket that I am able to let go at times these days.

So when I head out tonight I endure a couple of startling honks, but eventually it became quiet, except for the barking dogs. As I headed north into Richardson, I passed moms pushing strollers and women walking the trails in twos. Each hello and nod of the head put me in a better mood.

As  I ran the last couple miles back through the hood — the low rent North Lake Highlands area at twilight (I do this partly out of stubbornness, I think, because it’s a documented high crime area, but it’s also the only route home) — a man at the bus stop smiled and called me a “marathon winner” and I passed a girl who was singing beautifully, and a few seconds later I passed a boy singing too. He was walking toward the girl and I imagined I was in the middle of a Broadway musical — that the two were about to meet and commence a West Side Story-esque duet. I smiled what must have looked like a psychotic smile. It was the happiest I’ve been all day.

Running is my drug. It’s my glass of wine at the end of a trying day. Luckily, as the hallucinations set in, my eight mile run came to an end and I was off the streets.