MOAB — Five years since her rescue from a remote desert canyon that in its own way was as odds-defying and awe-inspiring as Aron Ralston's one-armed escape from Blue John Canyon, Danelle "Nellie" Ballengee, 40, is running as fast as she ever was.
Her specialty isn't the multi-day international adventure races she used to dominate, or climbing all 55 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, something she once did back-to-back-to-back in a 14-day stretch to set a speed record that still stands. Those days are over for the woman Sports Illustrated in 2003 proclaimed "the world's premier female endurance athlete," although she still competes in the occasional nearby triathlon, snowshoe race, or eco challenge when she can find the time.
These days her workouts mostly involve chasing after Noah, who's 3 1/2, or his little brother William, who's 1 1/2, or making sure everyone's showing up for their shifts at Milt's Stop 'n Eat, the diner she and her husband, BC Laprade, own and operate on the east side of town.
Just last night she had to go over to Milt's and fill in for a girl who missed her turn because her work availability is connected to the phases of the moon.
"Finding dependable help isn't easy," she says, "in Moab there are a lot of alternatives."
It was the alternatives that first lured Nellie, who grew up outside Denver, to buy a little Moab fixer-upper a dozen years ago and settle into the town. With unlimited places to run, bike, kayak and rappel, it was the perfect place to train.
But all that came to an abrupt halt on the afternoon of Dec. 13, 2006, when Nellie's foot slipped during a training run in a remote canyon with no name about five miles southwest of Moab.
She plummeted 60 feet down the side of a cliff to the bottom of the canyon.
The landing shattered her pelvis.
Adrenaline and raw determination got her a quarter-mile along the canyon floor … in the next five hours.
She settled in for the night next to a small pool of water as temperatures dropped from the 40s into the 20s. In the morning the water was frozen solid, and so was Nellie. She crawled a half-inch at a time until a small depression in a rock completely halted her progress. She hadn't gotten two feet all day.
By the third morning she was surprised to see the sunrise — and sure she couldn't make it to another one. Her feet were frost-bitten, she was bleeding internally, slipping in and out of consciousness.
She thought about Aron Ralston. Three years ago, when all appeared lost, Ralston came up with the life-saving brainstorm of breaking his arm so he could cut it off and free himself from the rock that had him pinned in a remote canyon not all that far from here.
In Nellie's case, she looked down at the body she could no longer move and had her trapped …
… and then she looked over at Taz.
Her dog. The "pure-bred mutt" she'd rescued as a puppy from the pound four years earlier and named Tasman since one of his more obvious breeds was Australian Shepherd.
Taz had come along for the run and he'd stuck with her ever since the fall. Occasionally he would wander off, but he never left her side for long. If she wasn't leaving this canyon, neither was he.
Nellie called to him.
"You've got to go, Taz," she said when he came close, playing the only card she had left. "You've got to go get help."
She drifted away again, for how long she did not know. When she woke up, Taz was there, slurping the water behind her head. Despite her delirium, she sensed his demeanor had changed. His tail was wagging. He looked for all the world like he was ready to play.
A depressing thought came over her. Who was going to take care of Taz?
Then, around the corner came a four-wheeler.
That's why Taz's tail was going like a metronome. That's what he was telling her. He'd brought help!
Through a series of fortuitous events involving Nellie's neighbor Dorothy, her parents Gary and Peggy, and a Moab detective named Craig Shumway, Nellie's truck had been found hours earlier parked just beyond the Amasa Back trailhead.
The search party was just getting organized when they saw the dog running out of the backcountry.
They tried to entice him with food, but he eluded their grasp and kept running in the direction of town.
Only when it appeared that the dog was confident he had everyone's attention did he execute an abrupt U-turn and head back where he'd just come from.
The rescuers tried to follow, but Taz was too quick for them, so farther up the Amasa Back trail, a veteran search and rescue guy named Bego Gerhart was called on his radio. Watch for the dog! Bego saw Taz just as he made a hard left turn away from the main trail.
On his four-wheeler, Bego followed the dog's tracks into the remote canyon.
It was as Nellie was looking at Taz, wondering who would take care of him, that Bego rounded the corner.
Within seconds, he had her covered in a down sleeping bag and big warm gloves; within an hour she was strapped into a helicopter that rushed her to the hospital in Grand Junction, Colo.
She'd have never survived another night; maybe not another hour.
The doctors took six hours in surgery to set the bones and insert a titanium plate in Nellie's pelvis. They couldn't guarantee whether she would run again, let alone walk.
But she treated her rehab like training and before long she was out of her wheelchair, then off her crutches, then, eventually, putting one step in front of the other.
The time flat on her back in the canyon caused her to realize several important things. One was that she wasn't ready to die. Two was how much friends and family meant to her. Three was a spiritual awareness of the "inner-connectiveness" of us all.
She also thought about the guy she'd met at a snowshoe race just a few weeks earlier.
Five-plus years later, she's married to that guy.
They started their family three and a half years ago with Noah — there was some concern about the childbirth because of the broken pelvis, but all went well — and then they added William. The boys are the center of BC and Nellie's world.
The other center is Milt's, a 58-year-old Moab institution that had seen better times when they bought it in 2007. They've kept the look of the old diner but made the atmosphere new and hip, adding such touches as grass-fed beef and their own homegrown ice cream mix. At lunch and dinner it can be difficult to find a spot at the counter.
BC and Nellie take turns managing the diner and the kids at home.
In the meantime, Nellie still finds some time for the endurance races that used to be such a large part of her life. Besides competing occasionally, the woman who once won the Pikes Peak Marathon four times in a row and was part of teams that won the Primal Quest Adventure Race three times is also doing some personal training and organizing endurance events. One of them is the Moab Trail Marathon (www.moabtrailmarathon.com), a 26.2-mile run that will be the national trail championship this November and features, according to its brochure, "multiple slick rock scrambles, river crossings, slot canyon slithers and single track shenanigans."5 comments on this story
The course goes right through the canyon where she once spent two very long, very cold nights.
But to Nellie, it is no longer nameless.
"I call it Taz's Canyon," she says as she sits in the sun on her lawn with one arm around little William and the other around Taz.
In honor of the best teammate she ever had.