Distance runner Alvaro Palacios never imagined the most important race he would ever run would be an agonizing 12-mile marathon of pain to save his own life.
His ordeal remains seared into his memory, as painful and fresh and angry-red as the extensive second- and third-degree burns that cover both of his legs.Twenty thousand meters down a steep trail in the Desierto de Los Leones (Desert of the Lions) Mountains near Mexico City.
Each leg badly scorched from stumbling into an unseen pit of burning embers left behind days earlier by a forest fire.
All alone, battling shock and struggling to ignore the inevitable pain that came with every stride of his seared legs, Palacios ran and ran and kept running.
He ran with a prayer on his lips and fear in his heart. He ran for himself, for his loved ones and for every race as yet unrun.
But most of all he ran with an unquenchable determination that he would not let death beat him to the finish line.
And he came away the victor.
Palacios now lies recuperating from his burns in an eastern Sugar House home where he is being cared for by close friends.
The finely muscled limbs that have pistoned Palacios to victory in four Deseret News marathons and scores of other races over the past 13 years are all but immobilized by his injuries, still scarlet-raw and swathed in gauze.
"I'm just happy to be alive," he says, his voice wavering with emotion as he tells the remarkable saga of his May 14th run for life.
Call it luck. Label it a miracle. Chalk it up to divine intervention.
But this is one story that Palaciosprobably shouldn't be around to tell anyone, and he knows it.
When he's not running in distance races, the 38-year-old Salt Lake resident is a flight attendant for American Airlines.
Palacios flew into Mexico City a week ago Thursday and had a one-day layover, so he decided to train for the upcoming Deseret News Marathon with what should have been a routine jog in the Desierto de Los Leones Mountains park.
"The place is famous because all of the good Mexican runners train there," said Palacios, a native Colombian who came to the United States to attend college in 1981 and has evolved into one of the nation's elite distance runners.
"It's about 15 miles from Mexico City," he said, "I've run there before. I wanted to avoid the pollution and get some quality air."
Forest fires had ravaged mountainous areas around Mexico City two weeks earlier, Palacios recalled, but the blazes had subsided and there was no sign of flame.
Taking a taxi to the entrance to the park, he headed up a mountain path and was 12 miles into the run when the trail suddenly disappeared beneath a layer of whitened ash that had once been a canopy of trees and bushes.
The burned-off ground did not strike him as particularly threatening or treacherous.
"All off a sudden, I just went into a hole," Palacios said. "At first I was surprised, then I felt a burning sensation up to my pelvis."
Thinking back on the ordeal, Palacios now realizes the unseen hole was created when a huge tree was burned to the ground and kept on burning - all the way down into its large root system.
Covered by its own ashes and fueled by its roots, the tree had created a large pocket of burning embers that had continued to smolder for days after the original fire had exhausted its fuel supply.
"My first reaction was to get out of the hole, but all I could grab was ashes," Palacios recalled. "Hot ashes." He remembers panic and fear shooting through his being.
"I knew the more I struggled, the more I would go down into the hole," he said. "The first thing I thought was, `God, don't let me die like this.' "
Somehow, the veteran track star managed to flip his body enough to roll out of the hole. Maybe it was inspiration or desperation. Or maybe it was the old Fosberry Flop in reverse.
But he was free from what could have been a burning grave.
"I knew I was in for a serious struggle," Palacios said. "I was in a lot of pain and when I looked at my legs, I saw the crunchy skin everywhere. And there was nobody there to help me."
Ironically, before he went on the run, Palacios had purchased a close-fitting pair of glasses to protect his eyes. And they had done the job. Despite the mishap, he could see and soon found the trail.
"I almost never wear glasses," he said. One of those little miracles that defy explanation.
But the hardest part of the ordeal still lay ahead and after trying to hobble down the trail, Palacios decided his life depended on him doing what he does best.
He started running.
"When I made the decision to run, I knew I would have to overcome the pain," he said. "I asked God to give me the strength to make it down."
It was a roller coaster ride of emotion and excruciating pain all the way down the mountain.
Flashes of hot and cold washed through Palacios as his body, teetering on the edge of shock, fought against a physical agony unlike any he had ever experienced. His mind constantly battled for control.
"It was very emotional," he recalled. "I was worried about everything. There was an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. I knew I was alone and could pass out at any time. I was down, and I also was happy to be alive."
But those reliable old runners' legs, seared and raw and wracked with pain, just kept pumping.
Somewhere along that 12 miles of physical and mental hell, Palacios found that gut-check confidence that propelled him to so many running victories. "I knew I was going to make it," he said.
Palacios found a park policeman who drove him to a fire station where his wounds were bathed with oxygenated water. Instead of seeking medical help in Mexico City, he obtained some pain medication to get him through a sleepless night and flew to Dallas the next morning for treatment.
"The doctors knew I was going to need extended therapy," the runner recalled, so he flew on to Salt Lake City and reported to the burn center at the University of Utah Medical Center. "The burns didn't look very good, and I had to be admitted overnight."
Barely able to walk, Palacios is facing a long period of painful therapy and isn't sure when he'll be able to run again.
That's not easy duty for the former Colombian National Team member, who has competed in everything from the Boston and New York marathons to prestigious races in France and Germany.
"But sometime, I know I will run," Palacios said.
He also said his ordeal has taught him some important lessons and "helped me realize how precious life really is."
In the future, however, Palacios doesn't want to be remembered as a "walking" miracle.
The next time he laces on his track shoes, he won't settle for anything less than being a miracle of the running variety.