Last year, 2014, was going to be her year. It would have been the year of her 20th 100-mile race, her year to re-qualify for Western States, the year she would run with her stepson during his own WS100 effort, and the year in which she might have had a go at the Tahoe 200 Mile.
“It was supposed to my year,” Terry Rhodes said. Instead, her life took a very different path.
On March 16, 2014, Terry lounged in a beach chair on the deck of a Mexican resort not long after running the 2014 Way to Cool 50k in California with a girlfriend. Another vacationer had just gotten up from that chair at the bustling hotel and Terry quickly nabbed the open space. She wasn’t there five minutes when the cover of a hot tub flew off a deck in a wind gust and hit her in the back of the neck.
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “It was instant.”
“I said, ‘Okay, just breathe. Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out,’” she said, recollecting those first few thoughts of the accident.
The hot-tub cover had hit the base of Terry’s neck, paralyzing her from the neck all the way to her toes. The accident took place on Sunday, and by Monday she was undergoing surgery at a hospital in Mexico. By Tuesday the feeling in her legs returned, but her arms remained motionless.
“I was put in an MRI at the hospital in Mexico,” she said. “They took my hands and moved them over my head. I watched them move. It is surreal to not feel anything.”
She was diagnosed with C4 incomplete paralysis, which meant that her body was paralyzed from the neck to the waist. This injury usually affects a person’s ability to breathe, paralyzing the heart and causing death.
“I am a walking miracle,” Terry said. It is a reputation she has had all her life. Terry Rhodes, now 59 years old, grew up in southern California near Pasadena. At age 16 she was in a horrible car accident that forced her to relearn how to walk.
After high school Terry moved to Santa Barbara and worked various jobs. “I did struggle after high school,” she said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” She eventually landed a job working in the juvenile probationary and family court in Reno, Nevada, and stayed there for the next 30 years.
“It was a really amazing job,” she said.
Her time at the family court led her to her daughter, Ashley Sieczkowski, who is now 28 years old. “She was removed from an abusive house, and nobody claimed her,” Terry said. “But I did.” It took three years for Terry to become Ashley’s adoptive parent and in 1993 she was allowed to take her home to her family. A year before, Terry had her son, Matt.
Terry met her now husband, John Rhodes, while running during her lunch break in 1992. On her daily run to the river from her office, Terry sensed someone behind her. “Don’t worry, I’m just drafting,” was the man’s remark.
Apparently John also used the route on his daily lunch break, coming from the office right next to Terry’s. Both single at the time and with kids of their own, the two bonded over running. He also introduced ultrarunning into Terry’s running lifestyle. Terry had run her first half marathon in 1980 and her first marathon three years later, deciding to skip the 5k’s and 10k’s.
Her first ultra was the Silver State 50k. She took the bib of one of John’s friends who couldn’t make the race, and was hooked from the start. “I had a ball!” she exclaimed. “It was slow, there were cookies at the aid stations, the trails were incredible. It was just an amazing day!”
The next few years became operation ‘Get to Western States.’ In 1994 she ran her first 50 miler, the Jed Smith Ultra Classic, to qualify for the race, but didn’t get the qualifier. Then in 1995, she had qualified, but didn’t get picked in the lottery.
It was in 1996 that the pressure was on. John was set on running WS100 with Terry, and she was ready to do anything to get her name on the list. That year, she earned her qualifier.
For the next 10 consecutive years, Terry ran and finished Western States. Each one had different pacers, crew members, and of course, different highs and lows. In six of them, she and John ran the entire race together.
One year she struggled into the finish with “that lean,” she described. “I couldn’t straighten up,” she said. “It was horrible, but at the finish everyone was cheering me on.”
In 2006, on the 1,000th mile of her 10th Western States, she finished without her crew. “They kept missing me because I ran too fast,” she said. “They came 15 minutes later and made me cross the line again.”
For a few years, her son and his friend would drive and park somewhere on the course, waiting for Terry to come by. Cheering in the dark, they were covered head to toe in glow sticks.
The ‘tiny dancer,’ as Western States icon Gordy Ainsleigh describes her, has also run the Leadville Trail 100 Mile, the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run, and the Ice Age Trail 50 Mile.
“I am very lucky to have run and finished 10 Western States,” she said.
One could also say luck has been on her side throughout her recovery, too. But how does the actual occurrence, getting seriously injured while on vacation, fall into Terry’s story? When I was speaking with her about her accident, I mentioned the fall of Dave Mackey and his ongoing recovery. Though Terry had not heard all of the details about his accident, she could relate well. “You look at some of the things people do, climb and run mountains,” she listed. “They are doing the things they love. You can’t just not do something or stop doing it because you’re afraid. No, you have to do what you love.”
That is why her accident was so out there, so bizarre, she said. “I was just lounging on a chair and got hit in the head. My kids know about these trail races I do. You take one wrong step and you fall off a mountain. They always thought that if they get a call about me, it would be something like that. But no, it was this. You have to laugh because it is so crazy.”
What is also bizarre in Terry’s story are the events leading up to the accident. Days before leaving to go to Mexico with her friend, Terry had a weird feeling about going. “I didn’t want to go,” she admitted, but the vacation was a free one. She said, “How do you turn down a free trip?” Before she was about to leave, Terry said that dread filled her body, but she didn’t know why.
“I thought maybe something was going to happen to my mom,” she said. “She’s 94. But that shouldn’t be dread, I said to myself. I thought, It should be reveled that she’s doing so well.”
While having surgery, her husband was stuck in the States and unable to reach her because he had an expired passport. Then, when she was recovering in the hospital, a nurse accidentally punctured a hole in her stomach with a feeding tube. “I was a mess,” she said.
However, the power to think positive and stay in the moment has allowed Terry to overcome every obstacle thrown at her. “My mom has always been positive,” she said. “She always says, ‘Gotta’ roll with the punches.’ And, ‘Think pink.’”
And, similar to Mackey, she had an entire running community behind her. Her family set up a CaringBridge page, where they could post updates on Terry’s condition for others. Her hospital room was covered in get-well cards and posters, and she received letters from ultra legends.
“It was just beautiful,” she said. “Whether or not I could run again, the support from the community was incredible.” Terry has kept every message she received and uses them, along with meditation, yogic-breathing techniques, and a self-made mantra to help her through recovery. “When things started creeping in, I chanted my mantra and went someplace beautiful,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to that place.”
“After surgery the first time, I thought, I don’t have the courage to do this,” she said, fearing her future without running and possibly becoming a quadriplegic. “I tried to stay in the moment. I didn’t let myself look backwards or forwards. No ‘what-ifs.’”
Since the accident, Terry’s legs are functioning but her arms are still catching up. Apparently she has had to become a lefty, since ‘Righty,’ as she calls her right arm, is still trying to come back to life. “I was not able to put my hair up in a ponytail, and having someone who can’t do it try to help is so frustrating,” she told me, trying not to criticize her husband’s hair styling.
Now, at 16 months since the accident, Terry has short hair and she’s performing everyday activities as best she can. The other day she put the dishes away and cleaned the cat box: all things she couldn’t do months ago.
“I am just so grateful for everything,” she said. “I don’t take a moment for granted.”
With regard to running and exercise, Terry’s progress is slow but has become a daily activity.
“I went for a two-mile walk today with John,” she told me on the phone. “I try to do something every day, whether it is walking or going to my PT appointment or shopping at Costco with my mom. We call it our Olympic event because the cart gets so heavy that it becomes an upper-body workout!”
She has her ups and downs, but Terry says she is still able to enjoy and appreciate both her old life and this new one. She returned to Western States this past summer to cheer on her stepson and she plans on volunteering at more races in the future.
She even has some lofty plans with her daughter, Ashley. To her, Terry will always be a peppy, never-stops-smiling woman. But as most mothers do, Ashley knows that her mom shields her from the pain she still feels. “That darn lady hasn’t ONCE used this as an excuse,” Ashley wrote me. “Yeah, she might need to cancel plans because she’s in more pain than most days, but she never uses her injury as an excuse to quit anything. The other day she even said, ‘Let’s do a mother-daughter marathon!’”
“She doesn’t push her mile times. She isn’t focused on getting bigger, better, faster,” Ashley said of her mom’s running style before the accident. “She runs because she loves the way it makes her feel.”
Terry says she’s happy with how she’s doing now, and if you look at her Facebook page, you can see the truth in that. In every picture, that big, wide grin is showing brightly on Terry’s face.
“My mom is the happiest person you’ll meet,” Ashley said. “In high school I ran into someone who knew my mom and said, ‘Does she ever stop smiling?’ That’s the best way I can describe her: happy, perky, and just genuinely sweet.”
“If my walking-quadriplegic mom can do a marathon, then I better get off my butt and do it with her,” Ashley exclaimed about Terry’s recent marathon proposal.
Terry’s 2014 goals did not pan out the way she planned, but perhaps 2014 was still her year. A very different year from that which she imagined, but one that deeply demonstrated the fortitude of her spirit and the love of her family and friends. She said, “It’s amazing what can happen in a year.”
Perhaps in another year, the reunion between Terry and a starting line will take place. Who cares if it is an ultra, marathon, or local 5k, Terry will be back to running with more love and gratitude for the sport than ever before.