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About Utah: Near-fatal fall on Moab trail changes runner Danelle 'Nellie' Ballengee's life

Published: Sunday, April 1 2012 10:33 p.m. MDT

Taz, the "purebred mutt" who ran for help after Nellie Ballengee shattered her pelvis, relaxes in his yard in Moab.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

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.

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