From the Never a Bad Day archives, a classic story about the unbreakable bond between Danelle Ballengee and Taz the Wonder Dog.
What do you do now, Danelle? That had to be the question rampaging through her mind. Forget winning the Eco Challenge and Primal Quest multi-day adventure races, climbing all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks in 14 days and change, the seven Ironman Triathlon finishes, the world mountain running championships, or the six US Athlete of the Year awards in four different sports. This was a new sport, one that she had never hoped to participate in: it’s called survival.
Danelle Ballengee played back the last few hours in her mind. It had started like so many other workouts. She parked the truck at the trailhead a few miles from her home in Moab, Utah, put on running shoes, grabbed Taz, her mixed breed that she had had for three years, since he was only seven weeks old, and headed out for a two hour jog. A romp up a Jeep road to the canyon followed by a short scramble up the rocks to another Jeep road. It was on the short scramble where her life was turned upside down. She hit some black ice, her feet went out from under her and Danelle started sliding down the face of the rock. For an athlete who is always in control, this had to be the worst possible scenario. She was sliding to oblivion and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.
Danelle flew past an overhang and plunged 60 feet to a rock shelf. “I thought I was dead,” she admits. “I reached down to touch my legs to see if I was paralyzed or not.”
She wasn’t. But her pelvis was rotated and fractured on both sides, there were fractures in three of her vertebrae and her sacrum was split down the middle.
With the adrenaline still flowing, Danelle was somehow able to crawl a quarter mile as she tried to get out of the canyon before sunset. It took her a full five hours to negotiate that quarter mile. Remember, this is Moab in December. The forecast was for temperatures to dip into the low 20’s overnight. Danelle was wearing baggy running tights, a thin base layer, a polypro shirt and a thin fleece over the top. She also had a fleece hat and gloves plus a shower cap that she happened to have with her.
A shower cap? “We use them all the time in adventure racing,” she says. “You put it over your hat to keep the heat in.” Danelle was lucky. The shower cap just happened to be in her water bottle holder, left over from a previous race.
She had made it to a pothole and broke a hole in it with her bottle to get water . “By this time it was 5:00 pm and I realized I was stuck there,” she says. “I stayed up all night, rubbing my hands, tapping my feet and doing crunches. Taz curled up with me to try and keep me warm.”
Not having anyone to talk to, her conversations through day two were with Taz. “I told him that I was hurt, that maybe he could get some help,” she recalls. “I think that dogs are a lot smarter than we realize.”
Before going out for her run, Danelle didn’t leave a note or call anyone. She realized that there was a good chance that no one even knew she is in danger. As the second night approached, Danelle’s neighbor Dorothy Rosignol realized that something was wrong. The lights and computer were on at Danelle’s house and the blinds were wide open. After a call to Danelle’s parents, search and rescue went into action and by the dawn of day three they had started to hunt for Danelle.
If she tried to move, the pain was excruciating. So she stayed as still as possible and thought about simply staying alive. “I wanted so badly to live,” she admits. “I wasn’t ready to die. I thought about my life, my family and my friends and how much they meant to me. I wanted to tell them all how much I loved them. Those thoughts were so strong I didn’t really feel pain when I was lying there. All I wanted to do was survive.”
By day three Taz realized that something was seriously wrong. His owner had never stayed in one spot for so long and he hadn’t had anything to eat. “Taz would take off and I finally realized that he was running all the way to the trailhead and back hoping to find help,” Danelle recalls. “It was five miles or so each way. Taz would run to the trailhead, look for help, then run back and lick me in the face before heading off on another run. He did this even though he hadn’t had food in three days.”
During one run he arrived at the trailhead at noon, just as the search and rescue team found Danelle’s truck. At first they didn’t know that this crazy dog running around biting and barking was Taz. They were thinking about taking him to animal control before they realized that this was Danelle’s dog. They got on their ATVs and followed Taz, who did a Lassie and took them right to Danelle, who had by this time lost a third of her blood. Most people can live 8-12 hours after sustaining similar injuries with that much blood loss. The doctors told Danelle that she was lucky to be alive, that she was only able to withstand 56 hours of torture because of her amazing level of fitness.
That night the temperatures dropped into the teens and it snowed.
From the time the search and rescue team hooked up with Taz, it was another four hours before they reached her. “I don’t think I would have made it through another night,” says Danelle softly, “I am just so lucky.”
Lucky to be alive and lucky to have a friend like Taz.
Danelle was interviewed by The Today Show while in her hospital bed. At the end of the interview she was reunited with Taz the Wonder Dog and it was an emotional scene.
Being right before Christmas, Danelle was asked if she was going to put an extra bone in Taz’ stocking. “A bone?” she laughed as she petted Taz. “He’ll be getting steak!”
A few days later a large box arrived from Michigan. When Danelle opened the box, she found a Christmas Stocking with Taz’ name embroidered on it. Underneath? A six pack of steaks for the hero of the day.
Sometimes it’s all about pay back. When Taz was a puppy, Danelle adopted him from puppy rescue in Boulder, Colorado.
Three years later, Taz repaid the favor.
Taz the Wonder Dog appears in my book, Never a Bad Day