Anchorage — One day this spring, a group of Matt Kenney's mountain-running buddies accompanied him on a hike along the Turnagain Arm Trail south of Anchorage as part of Kenney's rehabilitation -- physically and emotionally -- from traumatic wounds, including a brain injury, he suffered in a horrific fall last Fourth of July in the annual Mount Marathon race in Seward.
After spending eight months in hospitals here and Outside, Kenney was finally back in Anchorage -- rejoining his wife, Gretchen, and children Justin and Savannah at home -- undergoing physical therapy and speech therapy. He also returned to the mountains and trails he loves and that for years lured him for training runs and grueling races.
Kenney's friends take him hiking several times a week. He still has a rod in the broken right legthat limits his speed, but he's making progress. And though his speech and thought processes are improving steadily, he still sometimes halts in mid-sentence, searching for a word -- "spinning his wheels,'' Kenney's pal Brad Precosky calls it.
Those wheels gained traction on that spring hike when a runner approached the group from the opposite direction.
"So, this guy comes running down the trail at us,'' Ellyn Brown recalled. "And we all recognize him, but none of us could remember his name. Except Matt.''
"Luke Duffy,'' Kenney said.
His bewildered friends could only smile and laugh at themselves.
"It was hilarious,'' Brown recalled. "It's those little things like that, they make the hikes so special and they show you how much he's improving.''
As Kenney's friend Barney Griffith said, "Sometimes he's a little slow, but sometimes he surprises the hell out of you.''
Kenney, 42, hasn't yet returned to his job at K&L Distributors, and doctors have not yet cleared him to drive -- "It drives me crazy that I can't drive my truck,'' he said -- but he, his family and his friends report he's making consistent progress as the first anniversary of his accident nears.
"I'm doing good,'' Kenney said in a telephone interview from his home. "I spend most of my time hanging out here at the house, taking care of the kids, and I do a lot of physical therapy and speech therapy. That helps a lot, and the people who are helping me with therapy are great.''
He also has that group of mountain-running friends who have overseen Kenney's return to his beloved mountains. A group of them met with Gretchen shortly after Matt returned to Anchorage in March and developed a plan to take Kenney hiking several times a week.
These are the same friends Matt used to meet nearly every winter Sunday for a hike up Bird Ridge, followed by a beer and nachos at the Brown Bear Saloon, the same friends with whom he regularly trained and raced.
Griffith took Mondays and Dave Rebischke took Tuesdays. Precosky took Thursdays and Brown took Fridays. If one of them had a conflict, alternates like Matias Saari were lined up.
"We rallied the troops,'' Precosky said.
So it was that a month ago, Kenney was spotted grinding his way up Rainbow, part of the Turnagain Arm Trail, with Precosky and Precosky's 5-year-old son, Braun.
Rebischke said watching Kenney's progress these last few months has been "unbelievable.''
"When we started out, it was all he could do to concentrate on his feet, and he couldn't carry a conversation,'' Rebischke said. "Now we hike and talk. I ask him where he wants to go, and he's real cognizant of what he wants to do. He was always a determined person -- he didn't let obstacles get in his way.''
Kenney was a standout wrestler and football player at Service High, and once he got his first taste of mountain running in 2003, he approached it with the fervor of a wrestler. He trained relentlessly. He dropped more than 30 pounds. He dieted. Soon, he was finishing Mount Marathon, a 3.5 mile torture test up and down that 3,022-foot slab of pain, in well under one hour, which rated him as exceptionally fit.
Last Fourth of July, in light rain that made slicker an already treacherous section at the bottom of the mountain variously known as The Cliffs or The Waterfall, Kenney fell and careened an estimated 30 feet down the mountain. He suffered a broken skull, a broken right tibia and assorted cuts and bruises.
"I don't know if I tripped or slipped, but somewhere in there I broke my leg, and when that happened, I went down,'' Kenney said. "I don't remember any of that. That was the end of the day for me.''
Gretchen said doctors warned her that Matt might get an infection from all the rocky debris that blew into his various cuts, but no infection materialized. She was told Matt's low heart rate the first few days he was hospitalized was worrisome -- until she told doctors her husband's heart rate was usually low because he was so fit. She is convinced her husband's fitness made a difference.
"If he had not been as healthy as he was, he probably wouldn't be here,'' Gretchen said.
After being hospitalized in Anchorage, Matt was transferred to a facility in Denver and then one in Omaha, Neb. In Omaha, the initial plan was for Matt to return home in June. Gretchen instead told doctors she wanted to take Matt home in March, to coincide with their 15th anniversary, because she believed returning home would serve as an emotional boost for her husband.
"When you're married to someone for this long, you just know,'' Gretchen said. "You can sense what's best. I knew in my heart it was the right decision.''
Since returning home, Matt has biked from Bird to Girdwood with Justin, 12, and Savannah, 10. Gretchen said Matt pushes himself in therapy, just like he used to on Mount Marathon. And as much as Matt cherishes his hikes with his friends, those pals say helping their friend has buoyed them.
"It's just joyful because no one knew how much he would improve, and you see it on a weekly basis,'' Griffith said. "I just enjoy spending time with him, just like I used to. It's just a gratifying feeling to help someone you're close to.
"You learn too. It's not just a one-way experience.''
Brown said Kenney inspires her.
"Gretchen always says he's happier when he gets home after a hike,'' Brown said. "So I'm getting a lot out of it too. It's like, these are the important things in life. It's not about me.''
Gretchen's learning too, she said with a laugh.
"It's a very long process and I've never been the most patient person,'' she said. "But, dammit, he's made me one. I love him. When you say 'for better or for worse,' it's a true testament to that. He would do the same for me.''
The Kenneys plan to return to Seward for Thursday's 86th edition of Mount Marathon. They want to locate and thank emergency medical personnel who tended to Matt. They plan to watch the races, probably from near the finish line, and congratulate friends who race.
Thousands of spectators flock to Seward for the Fourth of July and the Mount Marathon races, and some downtown streets are literally packed elbow to elbow. Kenney is well known in the mountain running community, so he will undoubtedly be recognized by many. The Kenneys have friends who live in downtown Seward, so if Matt needs a break, they can visit their friends.
"I think it's going to be emotional,'' Gretchen said. "I think at times it might be overwhelming. I hope it's good. Through love and compassion and spirituality, he's back.''
Knowing Matt, he'll be watching the races, plotting his return.
"I had friends who 10 days after the accident asked if I'd ever let Matt do Mount Marathon again,'' Gretchen said. "I said yes, of course. That's his passion. That's his art. His goal is to be fit and ready for next year.''
Matt said he is determined to race Mount Marathon again, to finish what he could not finish a year ago.
"Definitely,'' he said. "Definitely.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.