SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah mountain runner is happy to be alive and grateful for the paramedic who came to her aid after she took a wrong turn during a marathon and fell off a cliff in Alaska.
Penny Assman was participating in her first Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska, on July 4. She said she enjoyed the grueling 3,000-foot ascent to the top of Mount Marathon, running on all fours like a bear at times. On the descent, she was feeling good speeding downhill.
"It's like when you're a kid and you’re going down the hill so fast that it's hard to keep control of your legs," she said.
About five minutes from the finish line, she took a wrong turn and found herself precariously perched on the edge of a cliff. "Initially, I panicked," she said.
She couldn't see the bottom over the lip of the cliff, but she knew it was a long way down. She had scouted the area the day before and made a mental note to avoid the cliff.
"There wasn't anywhere for me to go but down," she said. So she sat down to brace herself. The rocks were wet and she immediately started to slide on her feet.
She said it felt like two minutes, but might have been 20 seconds. It was certainly long enough to conclude that she would likely die.
"I wasn't scared necessarily of the fact that I wasn't going to make it through the fall," she said. "I was scared about how much the fall was going to hurt."
She shouted out to a couple of people below and told them she was about to fall. She made a last-ditch lunge for a couple of tree roots, and then she was sliding and accelerating.
"I was conscious the whole time, but I don't remember any of the fall," she said.
She slid about 30 to 40 feet on the steep, rocky slope, then freefell about 20 feet. The next thing she was aware of: a woman was telling her to spit out her gum and her boyfriend was looking over her. She thought that was strange, because he wasn't running. He was positioned at the end of the race to cheer her on and take pictures.
The woman telling her to spit out the gum was Autumn Ludwig, an EMT with the Bear Creek Volunteer Fire Department.
"All I heard was, 'She's falling,'" Ludwig said. "I stepped back and saw a tree move, and my first thought was, 'I've got to stop her.'"
Ludwig stepped up, while others below the cliff moved away. She stretched out her arms to break the fall and turn Assman's body at a safer angle.
"She had to be stopped,” Ludwig said. “If she went down and continued to go down the mountain, she wouldn't be here today."
"While other people were trying to get out of the way, Autumn committed to making sure that she helped me in that moment,” Assman said.
She spent six days in the hospital with broken ribs and a lacerated liver, but the fact that she survived surprises her, her boyfriend — and the woman who stepped up to break her fall.
"Spiritually, there was a lot that happened for me that day,” she said. “I definitely believe that I was in God's hands that day."
Assman's boyfriend, Rory McCarthy, saw it all from a spectator area a couple hundred yards below. He watched in horror as she fell.
“She came down so fast and violently that I thought, at best, she’d be seriously hurt, maybe dead,” he said.
As he raced up to see her, he saw her move and was relieved. In the months since the accident, he said, “All the little stuff goes away, and all the things that are important in life get very clear, very quickly.”
Assman and McCarthy are both officers in the Utah National Guard. Thursday, Brian Tarbet, commanding general of the Utah National Guard, awarded Ludwig a certificate of appreciation for her valor.
“This was a very steep area with many cliffs that she could have been injured or killed,” he said. “It was just great courage on behalf of one of our fellow public servants, which in this case benefited one of our soldiers.”
She was also named Firefighter of the Year in Alaska, a first for a woman.
"I feel very honored by that, but then again, it was my job,” she said. “I was doing what I was supposed to be doing."
They all enjoyed some free time together in Utah last week, along with Ludwig's husband. They even headed for the Alpine Slide at Park City Mountain Resort, undaunted by the prospect of hurtling down the mountainside together.
Assman said she's headed back to Seward next summer, determined to finish the race.