Two and a half years ago, Laurie Allen’s life changed in an instant when a slip on ice resulted in a paralyzing fall. However, despite being diagnosed with quadriplegia, Laurie swore that she’d return to the sport she loved: triathlon. On August 6, 2017, she did just that, completing Jack’s Generic Triathlon in her hometown of Austin, Texas. Here, the Wings for Life World Run Ambassador talks about the challenges and exhilaration of that experience – and about the big event she’s already lined up for May 6, 2018.
Laurie, congratulations. How was it to finally be back in a triathlon?
It was absolutely amazing. I had the best time.
To give an idea of your challenges, can you describe your physical condition?
My injury is toward the base of my neck, so my legs don’t work and I don’t have any trunk control. I also don’t have any hand function. I do have biceps and shoulder function, so my arms move, but I don’t have triceps function. It’s like half the muscles in my arms work, but I don’t have feeling or function on the back part of my arm. Also, my right arm is significantly weaker than the left, so that provides an interesting challenge because I pull to one side in the bike and in the racing chair.
What distances did you take on in this triathlon?
I did a modified version of the course, with a 300-meter swim, a six-mile bike ride, and a mile run.
And what were the mechanics of it all?
I have to swim on my back now, doing a modified backstroke, because on my belly I can’t get my head out of the water. A triathlete in South Africa sent me videos on how he swims, and I figured it out with the woman who had been my triathlon coach. The joke was she always wanted to turn me into a backstroker, and now she finally did! We had to strap a pull buoy [leg float] between my legs to keep them from sinking, and for the race she had a hand under my head, to make sure I didn’t go under and to be my guide since I couldn’t see where I was going.
What was next?
Then we got me into transition, and the bike people took over. I have a hand-cycle that is geared like regular bike, but you lay in it. We put wrist guards around my wrists, and I pedaled along using my hands. Finally we transferred me to my racing chair for the run.
Then you finished!
It was quite the finish. I’ve been in this triathlon community for almost 17 years, so I know a lot of people, and then a lot of my friends came out, plus I had 10 people on my crew actively helping me with the race. The scene was insane.
Before your injury, you’d done nine Ironmans, nine half-Ironmans, something like 75 shorter triathlons, and always loved it so much. Did this bring back those feelings?
It really did. Getting there at the crack of dawn, being in the transition area – you know, it’s race morning and you’re there with all your friends, getting your stuff ready to go, getting under the water, listening to the national anthem. It was amazing.
But it must have felt different, too.
Starting the run I had to take a couple of seconds to regroup, because we had been moving along so quickly like I normally would. Now it’s just a little harder to process, and I don’t breathe as well – especially getting into the racing chair it’s pretty hard to breathe, because you’re all folded over.
It was also funny at times. I can’t sweat and can’t tell if I am overheating until I am overheated. And so my crew were equipped with spray bottles, and everyone was spraying me so much that I finally had to ask them to stop because I was getting cold! One guy I work with had volunteered to be my motorcycle escort for traffic control. So I had my own motorcycle escort. It was hilarious.
Now that one big sporting goal is accomplished, do you have more?
I’ll do some shorter-run races during the winter, and there’s a potential half-marathon in January, which is a big-stretch goal. And I’m going to be very involved in the Wings for Life World Run on May 6 next year, helping to put together an Organized App Run and a team.
You were a force behind the team that did an App run in Austin this year…
Yes. I only learned about the Wings for Life World Run about three weeks before the event, and I was super-excited about the whole concept. Participating with the App was great, and knowing that you’re running at the same time as people all around the world is really cool. People really liked that, and they liked that it didn’t matter how fast or slow they went: we were all running together as far as we could, but people could walk and still participate. Though it’s funny – the finish line is a Catcher Car that chases you, or a virtual Catcher Car on the App, and people really start getting competitive as the Catcher Car gets closer!
You’re known for your positive attitude, and clearly you manage to have a sense of humor about your situation, but nonetheless you’re dealing with a very serious condition every day. What would progress in spinal cord injury research mean to you?
I think there’s a perception that the only success metric is whether people like me walk again. But there are so many levels of success. For me personally, if I could get bowel and bladder function back, that would be a huge success. If I could get my hand function back, that would be amazing. While I do think that one day spinal cord injury will go away and people will walk again, it’s not all or nothing. There are steps I could make in the meantime that would make my quality of life significantly better.
So as someone with spinal cord injury, what appeals to you about the Wings for Life World Run in particular?
I love that 100 percent of the proceeds are going to spinal cord injury research. And from everything I’ve looked into, Wings for Life is an extremely well-organized group that does a really excellent job of being selective about what they invest in and support; of allocating funds appropriately toward research projects that are more likely to be successful.
If people want to get involved with the Wings for Life World Run, where can they get more information?
The website at www.wingsforlifeworldrun.com has information on Wings for Life World Run event locations all around the world, as well as on the App, creating or joining a team, fundraising, and lots more. Anyone who is going to be in the Austin area on May 6 is welcome to join our App Run, by the way. There will be more information about that on the website soon!