On May 23, 2015, Dave Mackey, 46, of Boulder, Colorado, made one stride that would change his life forever. That morning, Mackey left from his doorstep to run a few of the peaks rising above town—a training mission he’d made hundreds of times during his storied trail-running career.
However, disaster struck between South Boulder Peak and Bear Peak, when a boulder gave way, sending Mackey on a 20-to-30-foot plummet through rocks and branches. In the process, he badly compound fractured his tibia and fibula.
Fortunately, another runner nearby heard Mackey’s cries for help, and was able to call for a rescue, a difficult affair in the rugged terrain.
Over the ensuing 16 months, Mackey endured 13 surgeries that included bone, muscle and skin grafting. He suffered from multiple infections and continual pain, and had to wear an external-fixator device. While he had progressed to unassisted walking and riding a bicycle, with a poor prognosis and more surgeries looming, he made a difficult decision—to have his left leg amputated below the knee.
On October 25, Mackey posted the news on his Facebook page, concluding, “This would mean the freedom, if I choose it, to walk the kids to school without a thought, ski, run in 6-8 weeks, compete in races again, even take down Mike Wardian’s treadmill world record (okay, this will NOT happen).”
Mackey’s trail-running resume is extensive. Over the past 20 years, he has won some of our sport’s most competitive races, including the Quad Dipsea, Miwok 100K, American River 50-Miler, Way Too Cool 50K and JFK 50-Miler. He was also renowned for his versatility as a master scrambler on technical terrain, rock climber, cyclist, adventure racer and skier. In April 2015, before his accident, Mackey had notched an impressive 12th-place finish in the famous Marathon des Sables, Morocco, and was training for the Western States 100.
Mackey is not only a tough competitor but also an extremely popular and humble figure in the trail-running community. An outpouring of supportive comments flooded his Facebook page after he announced his decision.
“He’s always been one to make the best of any situation and use his physical, mental and emotional strength to get through the rough patches. This will be no different,” says Brian Metzler, a friend of Mackey’s and editor-in-chief of Competitor. “He’s one of the strongest, most grounded people I have ever met and I know he will approach this challenge as he has approached every race, training day and mountain.”
We had a chance to speak with Mackey a week after his surgery, which took place November 1.
What ultimately convinced you that amputation was the best choice?
As it was, the bone grafting had been ineffective, there was possible residual infection and the “nail” [the carbon-fiber rod in his tibia] was wobbling around. To redo those procedures, there was a low chance of success and a high chance of complications.
How did your family [daughter Ava, 8, son Connor, 6, and wife Ellen] deal with the decision?
Having their dad’s leg lopped off was no big deal for the kids. Ellen had a harder time with it.
How was it to wake up without your leg?
Going into the surgery was the hardest, and it took the most emotional toll. It’s always risky, and I could have woken up to have my leg taken off above the knee, which is a much more difficult condition.
Waking up to see the surgery had gone as planned wasn’t too hard.
How did the surgery go?
It went well overall. Going in, the surgeon was not 100-percent certain what he would find. There ended up being lingering infection and scar-tissue build up, and he had to do some extra work, but the outcome was very good—especially creating an inner base for a prosthetic.
I just spent one night in the hospital, and pain control was not a big issue. I’m in a mid-thigh cast now and should get that off in a couple of days. I’ll get fitted for a prosthetic next week, and could be walking soon after that.
What can you expect to do with a prosthetic leg?
With today’s prosthetics, the sky’s the limit. Knowing what other [leg] amputees have accomplished is encouraging, like [the climber] Malcolm Daly climbing overhanging ice and [ultrarunner] Amy Palmiero-Winters running 100 miles. And there’s Terry Fox, who ran across Canada.
A below-the-knee amputation is very functional, since you still have a lot of energy transfer and use of your whole body. I’m not worried about where I can go from here.
What are you looking forward to most?
I can’t wait to go climbing in Eldorado [Canyon, a renowned climbing area near Boulder]. I’m looking forward to skiing and even just walking my kids down the street.
For me, once something is taken away and given back to you, it is a thousand times more valuable than it was before.
What about running?
My surgeon was, like, you’ll be running in six weeks. But I don’t want to push it because of the way my amputation is structured—there’s a bone bridge between my tibia and fibula.
It will probably take over a year to fully heal, but walking or hiking in the mountains should be a possibility soon. And that’s a form of trail running, right?
What has your accident taught you?
That the risk of trail and mountain running is real. I think I was a little too casual with my approach that day. I only had two points of contact [on technical terrain]. If I would have had one hand touching above me, it could have made a difference. Awareness of what was going on with the soils in those conditions is another factor.
Maybe being more respectful would have helped. Maybe not.