Post Register | Nate Sunderland |
Damond Watkins was in pain.
That much was obvious and understandable. The 41-year-old had just completed a 12-hour, 206-mile bike ride from Logan, Utah, to Jackson, Wyo.
He stood hunched over, unable to straighten his back due to a combination of sheer exhaustion and spasms of pain in his damaged spine.
Even so, an unmistakable smile lit up his face — the expression of surprise, relief and triumph that surfaced as he crossed the LoToJa finish line Saturday evening.
Watkins achieved the unthinkable. He’d finished the challenging race one week before the anniversary of a devastating 2013 plane crash that broke his back.
It was a surreal and emotional moment — one that brought a sense of closure to an accident that forever changed his life.
The accident and recovery
Watkins, another passenger and a pilot were returning from a Boise business trip Sept. 19 when disaster struck. Just 1.2 miles from the Idaho Falls Regional Airport runway the engines on the small aircraft stalled.
All three men survived the crash, which is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration, but Watkins didn’t walk away. He broke his back and needed a potentially life-threatening surgery to insert a metal cage to replace a shattered vertebrae. There was a chance he’d never walk again.
But the nearly seven-hour surgery was successful.
Learning to walk again and dealing with lost motor abilities was tough. An avid cyclist, Watkins had completed his ninth LoToJa just prior to the accident. He said the prospect of never cycling again was incredibly discouraging.
At the urging of doctors he set a recovery goal: He would start and finish his 10th LoToJa race, which was held Saturday.
Leading up to the race
Several days before the race, Watkins was nervous.
After months of therapy, Watkins is walking and riding his bike again. He rode about 150 miles per week in preparation. But he didn’t know if could manage 206 miles in one trip.
“One of the most difficult things for me has been being in that position for long periods of time,” Watkins said. “That’s what makes the race so difficult — you’re going 10, 12, 14 hours in that position. In my training, I’ve never gone that hard to see what my limit is.”
To make matters worse — Watkins still copes with significant pain. A little more than a week ago, he learned a bulge from his metal cage is digging into his spinal column. Further surgery isn’t an option, meaning Watkins likely will deal with moderate to severe back pain for the rest of his life.
Leading up to the race, he said “I don’t know what to expect, but I’ll give it everything I’ve got.”
Watkins didn’t sleep well, but at 5:30 a.m. he was dressed and had finished his stretching exercises a few minutes before heading to the starting line.
“There are a lot more butterflies this time,” Watkins said. “Last night I kept thinking of all the people that have rallied behind me in the last year. They’ve been my biggest motivator and this is as much for them as it is for me. I want to prove to them I can do it.”
It was 42 degrees at the starting line and still dark. Watkins was surrounded by brother Dane Watkins Jr. and several longtime friends. They would ride with Watkins throughout the day, providing moral support and forming a protective shield around him if necessary.
A GPS locator attached to Watkins showed him keeping a brisk pace of 20 miles per hour for the first leg. The GPS signal was lost somewhere after the Utah border. But wife Jinger Watkins reported when she saw Watkins in Montpelier he was feeling good.
“He had to get off and do some stretches, but he was OK,” Jinger said. “But the next stretch they are doing is a tough one — it’s just uphill for a while.”
The GPS signal returned after Montpelier — some 80 miles into the race. It showed his pace had slowed to an average of 15 mph.
Watkins later said that’s where the going got tough.
“It was really bad — it was grueling,” he said. “The first 50 miles wasn’t too bad, but right around Montpelier my back started to really tighten up.”
At one point in the race he saw a cyclist with one leg, which inspired him.
“I was feeling really down and low for myself, but when I saw that guy I thought there is always someone that’s worse off than you,” Watkins said. “If he can dig deep and find something to work toward and then I can too.”
The last 20 to 30 miles were the worst. At that point, Watkins said no amount of food, stretching or pain medication could make him feel better.
The knowledge his family would be at the finish line got him through the last leg. His 10-year-old son Eliot joined the entourage on his bike for the last 200 yards of the race.
The big finish
Despite Watkins’ haggard appearance — the mood at the finish line was happy. His whole family gathered around him to offer congratulations.
His father Dane Watkins kept repeating over and over how proud he was. Dane Watkins Jr. had the same sentiment.
“This was the goal six hours after surgery and here we are after 11 months of working toward that,” he said.
When asked about his smile, Damond Watkins said it was because of his son.
“Up until that point I wasn’t smiling, but when I saw him it dawned on me that each of my family has taken this experience and dealt with it differently. It’s been hard on everyone and to see my son — when he met me out there — it felt like a team effort. It wasn’t just about me.”