Triathlon & Multi Sport Magazine of Australia

Out of a Coma and Onto Kona
by Rod Cedaro

”When I say Brian Boyle is a freak, I mean it in the nicest possible way.

Brian Boyle isn’t setting world records, he isn’t even winning his age group but the fact that he’s even alive is a miracle.  That he’s walking and not in a vegetative state is incredible and his completion of two Ironman races with a PB of 10 hours 55 minutes beggars belief.

We’ve all seen hardship at different times of our lives, Brian’s story puts ours into perspective.  If this guy can suffer the anguish he has endured and come out the other end, then there’s hope for all of us.

You see, by all accounts 23-year-old Brian Boyle from Maryland, USA should be dead.  On July 6th, 2004 Brian (then 18) was driving home from swim training when a dump truck plowed through his car at an intersection.

His injuries were massive.  He suffered extensive internal injuries and all but bled-out losing 60 per cent of his blood volume.  After being transported via helicopter to a local trauma unit, the doctors on duty had to kick start his heart eight times during his initial lifesaving surgery. To lessen his pain, Brian was placed into a medically induced coma lasting two months.

After being placed in a coma Brian, recalls starting to regain consciousness about six weeks later. “I was aware of my surroundings but wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating or not. This was ages before I was able to speak, but I could understand what was going on around me. I heard a doctor talking to my parents. He was predicting that I’d pretty much be a vegetable and that I’d spend the rest of my life in a nursing home. I remember not liking the sound of that. I was mentally there but nobody knew this because I couldn’t communicate. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move a finger, I couldn’t even blink. It was like I was trapped in a mental prison. It was hell, I tried to scream but I couldn’t. Some days I would sleep or rather drift in and out of consciousness, not that you’d know it, my eyes were permanently open, I was so weak I couldn’t even close them. Nurses had to bathe them and put some sort of ointment on them to stop them from drying out.”

Brian slowly started to re-enter the world of the living. First it was a faint smile, then he was able to move his index finger and eventually mutter a few words. Within weeks he was making rapid progress, undertaking hours of daily rehab, learning the most basic of skills again – speaking, walking, feeding himself, showering, etc. It was during this time that he vowed to do two things: (i) Rejoin his swim club and (ii) complete the Hawaiian Ironman.

His doctors thought he was delusional. After all, the impact of his trauma meant he’d lost his spleen, shredded his lungs and had pushed his heart from one side of his chest cavity to the other. They underestimated this young man that has become known as “Iron Heart”.

On October 13th, 2007 Brian crossed the line in Hawaii in 14.42, 30 months after the accident.

A lot has happened since July 2004 and I posed a series of questions to Brian recently.

1. What were your athletic aspirations before July 6th 2004? I understand you were a swimmer and body builder – how far had you gone with those pursuits up til the accident. In other words, tell me how good were you?

BB: My background is in swimming and in high school I had a few State Championship titles under my belt. I was also nationally ranked in discus, was a champion powerlifter and had a big interest in bodybuilding.

2. As an 18 year old, was triathlon on the horizon as something you were contemplating doing?

BB: In high school I had three goals after graduating; (i) go to college, (ii) swim with the college swim team, and (iii) compete in an Ironman triathlon one day.  I grew up watching the Ironman on TV. I was always amazed at the inspirational stories – Team Hoyt, Sister Madonna Buder, etc. It still blows my mind that I had the opportunity to tell my story to the world on the Ironman broadcast.

Before the 2007 Ford Ironman World Championship, I didn’t have any prior experience in triathlon.  The most I had ever run in a race was 200 metres on the track team. As for cycling, I rode a mountain bike in middle school and in the summer when I would go to my cousin’s house and we would ride around the neighborhood for fun – that’s the closest I ever got to “cycling”.  Even as a swimmer, my longest race was 100 yards, so doing a 2.4-mile ocean swim was a huge challenge for me.

3. What was the trigger that made you pick Ironman rather than climbing Everest for example?

BB: It wasn’t until May of 2007 that I believed I could even attempt the Ironman triathlon in a time span of maybe 5-10 years.  I really don’t know where the sudden confidence came from, but it just popped into my mind one afternoon during final exams week.  I was checking my email and decided to look at the Ironman Triathlon website and, just for laughs, I sent an email to their corporation and told them my story to find out how to register for one of the races in the distant future – something local to where I live like Ironman Lake Placid.  After I sent it, I forgot all about it because I never thought in a million years that they would even listen to me, I figured they were really busy.  To my surprise, less than a month later, I received an email from the executive producer of the Ironman show with a proposition that I couldn’t refuse.  With the odds stacked really high against me in regards to being prepared for the race, I had to at least give it a try and that is where it all started.

4. I see from your blog you’ve lowered your Ironman PB in Louisville to 10.55 – very respectable. Did you end up racing Hawaii 2009. If so, how’d you go?

BB: Ironman Louisville 2009 was my first full Ironman since Kona in 2007.  I was a few places away from qualifying for Kona in my age group in this race.  When I was on the Ellen DeGeneres show in November of 2008, she surprised me with a trip to Kona to do the Ironman again this past year (2009).  However, after Ironman Louisville (Aug. 31, 2009), I decided not to go to Kona because I’d made a promise to myself, to my family and to the Ironman Triathlon staff that the only way I will go back to Kona is if I qualify on my own merit.  I’m training even harder this year to help my chances for qualifying in 2010.

5. I see you’ve backed up a few marathons over the last month or two. Are you jogging these or racing them? What sort of pb’s are you pushing out for the marathon? How’s the recovery from backing up going?

BB: Between Oct. 10 to Nov. 22, 2009, I ran five marathons pretty much back-to- back each week.  My times have hovered around 4 hours. But at the Philadelphia Marathon, the last of the five, I finally accomplished my goal of running sub-four hours with 3:52.  I’m very happy with this time.  It may seem a little extreme to run so many marathons in such quick succession, but I really enjoy the challenge and the experience from these races.  I’m learning a lot about the marathon and my confidence is increasing. So, hopefully it will help my Ironman times next season.

6. I see you had extensive internal injuries. What about your limbs, pelvis, etc. and has this affected your mechanics when you swim, bike or run? Or are you pretty much back to where you were functionally before the accident?

BB:  My limbs seem to be holding up.  I feel strong and healthy but I still have to be careful not to overexert myself (heart and lungs especially). So, recovery is always important after training and racing.  I can read how my body is feeling pretty well, which is good.  With all the training that I do, and with the loss of a few organs like my spleen, my immune system is very weak so I get sick quite a bit from my body getting worn out with Ironman training.

7. How has the accident changed your life aspirations?

BB: I remember looking around my physical therapy unit at all the other people, of all ages and thinking to myself, I might actually be fortunate enough to leave the hospital one day and lead a normal life, some of these people never will.  There and then I decided that if I did get out I was going to be a positive influence for others and do the best I could to use my experiences to help others get through their own bouts of adversity and tragedy.

These days I do a lot of volunteer work and testimonial speaking engagements with the American Red Cross and have also started working with Lance Armstrong and his Livestrong Foundation.  I have a lot of big plans in regards to these types of things. I’m just getting started because my story is all about giving back.

8. I note that you’re busy with book writing, traveling, competing, sponsor appearances, etc. etc. these days. Where do you see yourself in 5 years time? What will Brian Boyle be doing into the future?

BB: In the spring of 2010, I plan on graduating from college and then joining forces with an athletic company to begin my working career.  I would like to continue competing in the Ironman triathlons and marathons around the world and hope to qualify for Kona and the Boston Marathon one day.  I’m also looking for a girlfriend who is interested in running and/or triathlon.  Overall, I feel that any day is a good day when you live your dreams, so everyday when I wake up – I know it is going to be a good day.

9. As a person how has the accident changed you?

BB: I’ve always had a positive outlook in life – very grateful and appreciative, lived a clean life and been very driven.  I was lucky to have all these attributes before the accident because they really helped me out a lot during the road to recovery and the only thing that I really feel has changed is that my driven mindset has gone into overdrive. I try to do as much as I can and help make a positive impact in the world.

10. What are the half a dozen most incredible things that have happened to you because of the accident? People you’ve met, places you’ve been, experiences you’ve had, etc. that you probably wouldn’t have had had you not had such a horrific accident?

BB: I competed at the 2007 Ford Ironman World Championship as well as the 2008 Foster Grant Ironman 70.3 World Championship.  This past year I was able to run in the New York City marathon.  I’m honored to represent the American Red Cross and be a part of the Livestrong Foundation.  I’ve been on a few national talk shows here in the States like the Ellen DeGeneres show and the Today Show and was recently selected as one of the twenty heroes of Men’s Health’s Magazine’s 20th Year Anniversary.  I’ve received several fitness awards over the past five years in regards to the progress that I have made during my journey back to life.  It’s really exciting to be sponsored by companies such as Powerbar, Nike and Cannondale that, as a kid, I routinely used. At the age of 23, I had the privilege of having my first book (Iron Heart) published and I haven’t even graduated from college yet.  And, living in a small town in the USA, I’m very lucky to have my story told in the biggest triathlon magazine in Australia. I’m blessed to have had all these opportunities and competing in Ironman triathlons and marathons – I get to see some pretty awesome places around the world.

Writing the book, Iron Heart, was a journey in itself.  I started writing it back in November, 2004 as another form of therapy, to track the emotional and psychological progress.  I started writing in a journal and five years later it was transformed into a final book format with about thirty chapters.  It was published by Skyhorse Publishing of New York City on Oct. 1, 2009 and is available in the bookstores and online.  My motivation when writing the book in its final draft was to create a positive perspective for anyone who was also experiencing their own form of recovery – whether it was minor or catastrophic.  It is meant for both athletes and non-athletes.

11. Any long term implications, ongoing concerns?

BB: I have heard doctors say that I have a 50 year life expectancy so I don’t take a single second for granted.

12. If you could, what would you change? Many people, who have had defining, life-changing experiences such as you’ve experienced are “thankful” for the experience and consider themselves better people because of the experience – do you fit this mould and if so how?

BB: Since 2004, I have tried my best to turn my tragedy into a triumph, and with all the support that I have received from my parents, family, friends, doctors, and many people all over the world, I can happily say that my journey back to life has been a triumph.  I don’t really know that I’m “thankful” for the accident taking place because the hardest part for me was seeing my parents suffer as they looked at what was left of me – I still have nightmares about that. I feel that with all that negativity and hardship that was stacked against us as a family, I was very lucky to be able to continue on in life and still accomplish my goals and live my dreams. So, I’m thankful to have had this outcome from the accident. To people who have survived something tragic there exists a sort of bond of survivorship.

With all that I have been through, I still don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow or next week, but at least I have the ability to look back and this is something that I don’t take for granted.

Brian, it has been a pleasure. I’m sure anyone reading this article, your book or blog will draw similar conclusions to me – the world’s not such a bad place when there’s people like Brian Boyle in it.” – January 2010 Issue