A New Balance

(Originally published in the Missoulian newspaper)

Kalispell, Mont. – Nobody knows for sure how Gary Hanson is still alive.

By all rights, the 60-year-old marathoner from Kalispell should have died during an early spring morning five years ago, on a narrow running path in Washington that slopes down a gentle hill toward the Spokane River.

The accident that should have killed him is old news now to Gary and his wife Gail. They talk about it with the kind of acceptance, wit and dignity reserved for those who have seen the very worst in life and survived it.

Gary recounts the details of the incident without difficulty, though later he admits he doesn’t remember getting hit.

Even now, his words are partially slurred and his conversation tips from topic to topic in an effortless and unrestrained patter. When he apologizes for “rambling,” or losing track, forgetting something, he points at his own head.

“The mind is an interesting thing,” he says.

He smiles a lot, but cries easily. His stories are typically punctuated with a joke, his sense of humor soldiering on undamaged.

“You learn how to walk, you learn how to talk, you learn how to see, when you’re a little kid,” Gary says. “I had the pleasure of learning how to do it all over again when I was 55. Most people don’t get that opportunity.”

The accident took away his passion and robbed him of his pastime, but it could not kill him. Exactly how and why he lived, he can only guess.

He guesses it has something to do with the unwavering determination to continue putting one foot in front of the other that has, in one form or another, powered his whole life.

He guesses it’s because of a heart toughened by years of racing – marathons and longer – and a mind trained to demand the body keep moving when muscle and tendon beg to quit.

Gary has had to get used to life at a slower pace. He can no longer run, and moves with a noticeable hitch in his walk. He still races, if for no other reason than to test his own fitness and prove that he can still put in the miles.

“I’m very competitive,” he says with a sly grin.

He seems to have no trouble getting around the two story home he shares with Gail in one of the new upscale subdivisions that are springing up all around Kalispell.

But the going does not look easy. The fluid, athletic stride that he once must have possessed is gone now. He regards his own shuffling gait with a mixture of discomfiture and pride.

“It may not look like much to you,” he says, “but to me it’s better than it was before.”

His comeback is already a miraculous one, but he is not yet completely satisfied.

He doesn’t want pity.

He doesn’t want sympathy.

He just wants to run.

Gary Hanson competed in Spokane’s Bloomsday Run so many times he lost count. Fifteen or 18 years straight, something like that, usually finishing in the top 15 or 20 in his age group.

In May of 2002, he and Gail made the trip a few days early. It had become part of their annual routine. Most times they stayed with friends, but that year they rented a hotel room near downtown.

The day before the race Gary woke very early, dressed and stretched and went out to run the course. Just a warm up before the real thing. Gail was still asleep, so he left her a note promising that he’d be back for breakfast.

Next comes the part Gary doesn’t remember anymore.

According to news reports, he was running on Fort Wright Drive near the Intercollegiate Center for Nursing at about 7:30 a.m.

He’d passed the community college campus and started down a hill into the river valley when a 19-year-old woman heading home from an all-night church function fell asleep at the wheel of her car, drifted across the center line and hit him.

Gary’s body was thrown onto the hood, then over the top of the car and onto the ground.

His head left a hole the size of a watermelon in the front windshield.

The groggy driver was confused. Gary says he found out later that at first the woman thought she’d hit a rock.

Her first call was to her parents, he says. Then, when someone saw Gary’s body lying in the weeds off the trail, she called 9-1-1.

“I’ve never met her,” Gary says now of the woman. “But sometime I will, just to tell her that I’m fine.”

He was taken by helicopter to Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a crushed pelvis, a smashed left femur, a badly injured knee and severe brain trauma. Doctors kept him in an induced coma for more than two weeks.

It would be longer than two months before he fully returned to the world.

The first time Gary Hanson tried running, he quit.

He was 13 years old when he joined the Kalispell high school track team. As a freshman, he ran the mile and was good at it, qualifying for divisionals.

He had his heart set on a varsity letter, one that he was sure he’d earned, but there was a catch.

“(The coach) didn’t believe in giving freshmen a letter,” he says. “So, pardon my language, I told him to go to hell. That was the end of track.”

Aside from some spurts of activity during a stint in the Navy, Gary didn’t run again until he was 38. At the time he was working as a drug counselor in California. The job was stressful and tests showed he had high blood pressure. His doctor wanted to put him on medication, but Gary didn’t want to take pills. He started running instead.

Three miles, twice a week in an old pair of velcro running shoes from K-mart. Slowly, he built up the distance. Still a clueless novice, he ran his first race at the age of 40 – an easy 10K.

“I had no idea it was 6.2 miles,” he says. “I saw the two mile marker and I thought ‘man, I’ve got two miles to go.’ I didn’t know I was just two miles into the race.”

It was an inauspicious beginning, but Gary was learning. Running had gotten into his blood. Soon he was pushing the mileage as far as he could every day.

He ran from his home to Bigfork and called Gail to come pick him up.

He ran in weather so cold that his water bottle froze solid.

He raced in Missoula’s Riverbank Run, Bloomsday and organized a loose collection of area runners called Flathead International Track.

Working as an electrician he carried a 15-pound tool belt up and down a ladder all day. Then he went home and ran six miles.

By the time he was 45, Gary went big, turning to marathons. During the next 10 years he estimates that he ran around two dozen of the 26-mile races all over the western states.

“It fit (my style) and I got out of here in the winter time,” he says. “I got down to Arizona, California, New Orleans, that type of thing. Gail and I could go and the only problem I’d have with it is that I’d tend to drink a little too much wine or beer before the damned race. That’s kind of tough, but you can work it out in 26 miles.”

He routinely posted times near three hours and he won the grand master’s age group at the Mardi Gras Marathon in Louisiana in February of 2001.

He also tried his hand at longer races, some measuring around 50 miles. He finished those in about five hours, but found they wore on his body.

“Fifty mile races are a little long for me,” he says.

Gary wasn’t the best. He wasn’t destined for greatness, or on the cusp of the Olympics. He wasn’t going to be the next big thing.

He was just a guy who was pretty good at running, and as one of the best age-group athletes in Montana, he had a blast doing it.

Every day for two months, Gail Hanson went to the hospital hoping that today would be the day that her husband would recognize her. Today would be the day that he would know who she was.

As the days crawled by, Gary seemed stuck on auto pilot. He participated in the hospital’s rehab program, but was still disoriented. He talked gibberish and tried to escape his bed every chance he got.

“It was a very scary time,” Gail says. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get him back.”

Still, he was alive.

Gail admits that the day of the accident, when she answered a knock on the hotel room door and found a Spokane city policeman standing in the hall, she thought Gary was dead.

She got to the hospital quickly that day, and found that doctors were still cleaning off the dirt and picking pine needles out of Gary’s skin, prepping him for surgery. She was relieved just to see him breathing.

“He was alive and I knew he was going to make it through,” she remembers.

“She knew I was too ornery (to die),” Gary adds.

“I just didn’t know what a trip it was going to be,” Gail says.

The accident was minor news in Spokane. Two days after Gary was admitted to the hospital the Spokesman-Review ran a brief story listing him in “satisfactory” condition.

Again and again, local TV news reports showed a closeup shot of one of Gary’s Nike running shoes sitting lonely in the weeds near where he was hit, its laces still tied.

While Gary convalesced in Spokane, Gail shuttled back and forth to Montana, keeping their homegrown electrician business on its feet.

Then, 60 days after his near-death put him into the fog of dementia, Gary came back.

“I just thought he was never going to come out of it,” Gail says. “There are lots of steps (to recovery) in a brain injury. He seemed like he was repeating the same day over and over again. Then I went home for the weekend one time and came back and he was awake.”

They got Gary a wheelchair which, predictably, he hated. Eventually he was well enough to be transferred to St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula.

He brought a marathoner’s focus and intensity to his rehabilitation. He made rapid progress.

“The body is a miraculous thing,” he says. “If you give it time, it will rebuild itself.”

It didn’t hurt that – though he is reluctant to admit it now – he already had a goal in mind.

Almost exactly one year after the day he should have died, Gary Hanson made it back to Bloomsday.

This time he didn’t blaze through the course. He was not among the leaders, in his age group or otherwise.

He walked. Even as the clean-up crew started sweeping up the course and cars began to trickle back onto the streets, he walked.

He still had a pin in one leg. His injured brain still had him seeing double, but he walked the whole thing.

He was one of the last to finish, in a time just over four hours. Along the way people yelled at him to go faster, pick up the pace.

“If I could, don’t you think I would?” Gary told them, as quoted in a short notebook piece in the Spokesman.

Organizers of the race voted him the “Spirit of Bloomsday.”

Months later he walked a marathon in Coeur d’Alene. In the years following, he hit Bloomsday every year except one.

He says he’ll be back in Spokane again a month from now, improving on his time.

“I wanted to prove to people that you can do what you want to do,” Gary says. “The second year I did it an hour faster than the first year. The year after that I did it close to an hour faster than that. I’m probably not going to get back to my old time, because I was pretty good … but it’s nice being back.”

To this day, Gary Hanson keeps clips of some of the the articles about the accident. He also has a compilation of the TV broadcasts on a VHS tape, which he had his son – a radio and TV major at UM – put together. He can’t watch the tape without crying.

His recovery efforts have run the gamut from traditional Western care to the most alternative. Each night for an hour he hooks his ears and head up to a suitcase-sized machine that he says reads his biofeedback and uses electricity to try to repair the damaged pathways in his brain.

He still yearns to run and – after the run is over – to drink a beer. Since the accident, he has to carefully monitor his alcohol consumption.

“I’m a cheap drunk,” he shrugs.

He has other hobbies now too.

He plays cribbage at a local hang out. He has a shop behind the house where he’s started crafting his own knives. The walls out there are covered in posters from races, plaques, awards he’s won.

Early on, he took up the harp, but admits he doesn’t play it much anymore.

He still walks every day. He also hits the treadmill and does a lot of push-ups.

The accident is always there, but it doesn’t own him.

“It changed me,” he says “I’m having a great time, but it changed life. You don’t go down the same path, you’ve got to veer over a little bit. I think I veered over a lot, and so did Gail. But we’re doing fine.”

He says this from a leather easy chair, on an overcast afternoon last week. Gail is on the couch a few feet away. Their house is clean and quiet and new. Their days seem subdued and as contented as can be, given the circumstances.

Gary is, after all, still alive.

And right now, he’s hungry. He wants Chinese. Later, he might work in his shop. He might take a walk. He might play some crib or smoke his pipe. He smiles at the thought of it.

“I feel really blessed,” he says. “I really do.”

This is their life. Small things. Big victories.

Try to go a little faster every day.