SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
After a near-fatal accident, Brian Boyle began an amazing journey of endurance.
By Jennifer Van Allen
As the starting gun fired at November’s Philadelphia Marathon, Brian Boyle looked like any other antsy runner in pursuit of a PR, weaving through the pack, darting to the sidelines to get ahead. There was no trace of fatigue from the four marathons he’d finished in the past six weeks. There was no shadow of the shattered skeleton he’d been five years ago, unable to walk, much less run.
On July 6, 2004, one month after his high school graduation, a dump truck smashed into Boyle’s black Camaro, crushing his pelvis, ribs, and clavicle, pushing his heart to the right side of his chest, and causing both lungs to collapse. He lost 60 percent of his blood, endured 14 surgeries and 36 blood transfusions, and spent two months in a coma during which time he lost 100 pounds. When he awoke, the former body-builder and state-champion swimmer from Welcome, Maryland, barely had the strength to blink his eyes—his sole form of communication. Talking, the doctors said, might take months. Walking, they warned, might take a miracle.
But underneath the tangle of life-support machines, Boyle was still the kid who’d never settle for less than an A, the one who wouldn’t quit a game of one-on-one basketball until he triumphed or wore down his opponent trying. Boyle lunged for every challenge—first to lift his index finger, then to lift himself out of a wheelchair, then, in the fall of 2005, just one year after the accident, to start his freshman year at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and swim with the team.
In July 2007, he made the most astonishing leap of all, signing up for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run, held in October. Race organizers invited him to participate, provided he could get permission from his doctors and finish an Ironman 70.3 event (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, 13.1- mile run), which was three weeks away.
Though doctors cleared Boyle to do the race, a triathlon seemed absurd, if not dangerous to his friends and family members. “After all he’d been through, I didn’t think his heart and lungs could handle it,” says his mom, Joanne.
But Boyle was driven to try, compelled by a desire to get as far as possible from the accident. “I was haunted by the idea that I was this sick, limited person, and I thought that if I could finish an Ironman, I could prove that I was finally healed,” he says. “I knew how high the odds were that I’d fail, but that was nothing new.”
He finished the Steelhead 70.3 Triathlon in 7:13, and devoted the next two months to training for the World Championships. Leery of traffic, he plodded back and forth on a one-mile road for hours to log long runs. He cycled around a high school track to practice shifting gears and eating and drinking while pedaling. On October 13, 2007, Boyle crossed the finish line in Kona in 14:42. “My legs felt like lead pipes, my heart was racing, but it was the pain of exertion, of living,” says Boyle, now 23 and a college senior studying art and photography.
Boyle wants to return to Kona, this time as a qualifier, which would require placing in his age group in another Ironman. Since he considers running his weakest link (he ran Hawaii’s marathon leg in 5:40), he became set last year on breaking four hours in the marathon.
He made his first attempt at the National Marathon in March 2009, finishing in 4:15. Ever more determined, Boyle trained hard through the summer and set an ambitious fall racing schedule. He entered the Baltimore, Marine Corps, New York City, Richmond, and Philadelphia marathons, even though the races occurred in a six-week time frame.
But the four-hour mark kept eluding Boyle. In New York he was on target until he hit the last hilly miles in Central Park. In Richmond, he fell behind the four-hour pace group at mile 23. Finally, in Philadelphia, he surged across the finish line with eight minutes to spare.
“It feels so good to see that 3:52 on my watch,” says Boyle, who now has another goal in sight. “It’s only 42 minutes away from qualifying for Boston.”