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Racer prepares for homecoming after Mount Marathon brain injury

Kyle Hopkins
Matt Kenney who was injured in a fall during last year's Mt. Marathon has a FaceTime video chat with his family on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. Kenny is at a transition facility in Omaha, Nebraska, recovering from injuries.
Bill Roth
Gretchen Kenney visits her husband Matt Kenney in the hospital after being injured in a fall during the Mt. Marathon Race last summer.
Photo courtesy the Kenney family
Gretchen Kenney along with her children Justin, 12, and Savannah, 9, have a FaceTime video chat with her husband Matt Kenney on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, at their Anchorage home. Kenney is at a transition facility in Omaha, Nebraska recovering from injuries he sustained in a fall while competing in the Mt. Marathon race last summer.
Bill Roth
Savannah Kenney, 9, holds a Matt Kenney Donation Fund poster on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. Kenney is at a transition facility in Omaha, Nebraska recovering from injuries he sustained in a fall while competing in the Mt. Marathon race last summer.
Bill Roth

Runner Matt Kenney doesn't remember the 30-foot fall that broke his skull seven months ago at the base of Mount Marathon.

"He wasn't supposed to make it," said the racer's wife, Gretchen Kenney. She said Matt has been recovering in Nebraska, where he grapples with bouts of confusion but has regained the ability to speak and is jogging with a titanium rod in his calf.

"He has a severe traumatic brain injury on the left side of his brain, and that affects his speech, cognitive and short-term memory," Gretchen said.

As Kenney heals, organizers of the notoriously dangerous Independence Day race in Seward are striving to make a recovery of their own, rebounding from the worst day in the event's 97-year history. Last year, for the first time, a Mount Marathon participant died in the race. Rookie Michael LeMaitre, 66, vanished on the trail. His body was never found.

Race directors have created a new rule for the 2013 race as a result. This year, runners must make it halfway up the 3,022-foot peak within an hour of the start or face disqualification, said Cindy Clock, director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the race.

Had the rule been in place in 2012, LeMaitre would have been among about four people disqualified for taking too long to make their way up the mountain, Clock said.

Race officials have not adopted certain other changes recommended by longtime runners, including the creation of mandatory "trail sweepers" to walk the trail at the end of the race and make sure no back-of-the-pack participants are still on the mountain.

"They talked about that too, but that's only going to work if somebody stays on the trail," Clock said. "Obviously, Michael LeMaitre was not on the trail because that whole mountain was swept for days (after his disappearance.)"

A panel of volunteer directors will meet monthly until the race. So far, rule changes do not appear to address the risky falls and tumbles that have plagued even experienced runners such as Kenney throughout the event's history.

Clock said future changes may address the way officials react to wet race-day conditions like those reported during the 2012 race, when runners said rocks on the trail had become slick and "greasy."

Gretchen Kenney said her husband probably wouldn't want to see runners required to wear safety equipment, such as rock-climbing helmets, or other such changes debated after the 2012 event.

"He loved the race the way it was. If he didn't support it in the way it was designed and executed, I don't think he would have done it," she said.

 

A TUMBLE DOWN THE ROCKS

A former Service High wrestler, Matt was racing in Mount Marathon for the seventh time last year, she said. He'd completed the race several times in the past in under an hour -- elite territory -- but had talked about taking it easy this time.

"This was the year that Matt had accepted the fact that he was 41, and was never going to finish in the top 10," Gretchen said. "That this year he just was going to enjoy the race. He knew he wasn't going to break any records."

Matt may have changed his mind once he started running, she said. He rocketed to the top of the mountain. Other top runners said he was on pace for a personal-best finish when he fell.

Gretchen said she's heard different accounts about what happened in the moments before Matt's injury.

"People said that someone saw him slip and fall, and he got back up," she said. He said he was OK, took a few steps and turned white. He appeared to pass out and tumbled down the rock and shale, landing at the foot of a cliff near the end of the race, Gretchen said.

A National Guard pilot suffered broken ribs and a lacerated liver in a fall at the same place during the women's race.

Matt was flown to Anchorage, Gretchen said. The doctors were blunt.

"They were very honest with me in the first couple of days in the hospital and said, if something's going to take him, it's going to be the infection that his body is going to sustain from all the dirt and leaves and trees and everything that was inside of him from the fall," she said.

The infection never came, a stroke of luck that doctors attributed to Matt's good health. Fluid was drained from Matt's brain to relieve building pressure, with the runner placed in a medically induced coma for about a week.

A few weeks later, Kenney was flown to Craig Hospital in Denver.

For the first month, he was unable to speak, Gretchen said.

That changed on Aug. 2.

"I was saying, 'I love you," Gretchen recalled. Matt stared back at her.

"Do you love me?" Gretchen asked.

"Yes," he said. "Give me a kiss."

On Aug. 30, he took his first steps, she said.

 

'IT'S GETTING BETTER'

Matt's recovery seemed to accelerate when he was moved to a brain and spinal cord injury rehabilitation center in Omaha, Neb. On his first day at the center, Oct. 25, he walked the entire day.

The rod in his right calf is a result of a fractured right tibia he suffered in the Mount Marathon fall. Cuts from the shale and rock scar his body.

Otherwise, Matt's body has fully recovered, Gretchen said. "He's perfect, there's nothing wrong with him physically."

Matt still suffers moments of confusion, she said, and is making steady progress in regaining short-term memory.

"It's getting better. I've seen significant changes," Gretchen said.

Matt's co-workers at K&L Distributors, where he worked as a day warehouse foreman, have given him 500 hours of their vacation time, Gretchen said. The family learned this month that his insurance ends in March.

A donation fund, used to pay for continued therapy, has been opened at Wells Fargo, account number 5638489590.

Matt plans to return to Anchorage and continue his recovery with his family, including kids Justin, 12, and Savannah, 9, in March, Gretchen said. "He's already talked about doing Rainbow (Trail) with his friends and with his dogs."

Meanwhile, registration for the 2013 Mount Marathon opened earlier this month. Already nearly 400 people have applied to run, Clock said.

 

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

 

 


By KYLE HOPKINS
khopkins@adn.com