The last we heard of Alvaro Palacios he was literally running for his life. Next week he will run to celebrate it. He will celebrate it the best way he knows how: by running in the Deseret News Marathon.
The old champion just couldn't stay away, even if he had every reason to do so. He will run the July 24 race in support hose, with a right leg that has atrophied 2 1/2 inches in circumference and features the red scars of the fiery death trap he survived last May on a mountaintop in Mexico.Palacios never expected to race again so soon, but he should know better than to underestimate the will of an old marathoner. Only 2 1/2 months ago he couldn't walk on his scorched legs, but he pushed himself through recovery and therapy as if he were in the homestretch of a race. He went from a wheelchair to walking around the house with a metal walker to riding a stationary bike. From limp-walking around the park to limp-jogging. Only three weeks ago he began to run again. A week ago he was running repeat miles on the track. Next week he will race.
"The reason I'm running this is because I'm just happy I'm alive, and I belong to running and to this race," he explains. "This is what I like to do. This is a type of celebration of life. I had the challenge of running for my life and dealing with the physical and emotional agony that went with that. I want to compare that to this race. This race is a challenge. I truly love this race. I overcame a lot of adversity to get here."
Palacios, a 38-year-old flight attendant for American Airlines, was on a layover in Mexico City last May when the earth tried to swallow him. Without telling anyone where he was going, he left his hotel and went on a training run on a mountain trail near Mexico City. Just as he reached the top of the mountain, the trail beneath his feet collapsed. Two weeks earlier, forest fires had swept through the area. Apparently, the fire had burned deep into the ground into a tree's root system and then covered itself with ash. It was a natural trap.
Palacios fell into a pit of hot, burning embers that melted the skin of his legs. It was like falling into a giant barbecue pit. Standing waist deep in the hole, his legs were being baked.
"My first thought was, 'God, help me,"' says Palacios. "'Don't let me die here."
He tried to climb out of the pit, but all he could grab were more loose ashes, and every time he moved his legs, he sank deeper into the hole. "I couldn't find any solid ground," he says. "I felt like I was going to keep sinking. I knew I was in for a serious struggle. I was in a lot of pain, and when I looked at my legs, I saw crunchy skin everywhere."
Somehow he rolled out of the hole and wound up face down in the dirt, covered with dirt and ashes. To this day, he finds his escape inexplicable. I'm going to die here, he thought to himself, as he lay in agony. He knew he had to get up, so he climbed to his feet. Confused, dazed and disoriented, he didn't know the way back down the mountain. "God, help me," he said aloud. Then he saw old footprints and followed them.
He was experiencing a wild mix of emotions, all at once thrilled to be alive, but desperate and panicky to reach help and consumed with pain. At one point he tried to scream, even cry, but couldn't do it. He set out in a walk, taking tentative baby steps because he feared any moment that he would step into another trap.
"I thought, OK, I have so much pain I've got to do something," he says. "I just said, `God, give me strength to run. I need to run to make it down.' "
As he ran, he reminded himself to stay calm, control his pace and ignore the pain - all the things he had learned to do as a world-class distance runner. Palacios has won the Deseret News Marathon four times (in 1985, '86, '95, '96). He has run in big marathons around the world and competed for his native Columbia's national team. Drawing on that experience, he ran 12 miles down the mountain, fighting off the effects of shock and fearing any moment he would pass out and die on the trail.
He found a park policeman, who drove him to a fire station, where his wounds were bathed with oxygenated water. He distrusted the hospitals in Mexico City, so he asked for pain medication and spent a restless, painful night in his hotel room. Meanwhile, his legs cramped and the burned skin grew so dry and tight that he couldn't bend them or walk. The next day he was placed in a wheelchair and flown to Dallas, where he received treatment, and then flew to the burn center at the University of Utah Medical Center, where he was hospitalized for two nights and received extended treatment and therapy.
Second- and third-degree burns covered two-thirds of his right leg and half of his left leg. "I was awake most nights," he says. "If I got two hours of sleep, that was a lot." His therapy has included frequent stretching of the damaged skin to counter the shrinking effects of burning. He wears support hose to keep the skin tight and smooth, and, to avoid exposure to the sun, he stays indoors most of the time and runs in tights.
"I have to avoid sun and water because the skin is so fragile and thin it will break," he explains. "The burns got deep down into the skin. New skin is growing and rebuilding itself. I have to take care of it."
Doctors have been surprised by Palacios' rapid recovery and credit it to his conditioning and willpower. "I would be in bed now if I was not in good condition," he says. "At first, doctors said I would require skin grafts, but now I won't.
"I couldn't walk for a long time. My right leg was stuck at a 90-degree angle because of the burn behind the knee. I've had to do a lot of stretching for the skin. As the skin is growing, it tends to shorten and pull, so I have to keep stretching it out so I won't have defects when I walk."
After the accident, Palacios thought he was done racing for the remainder of the year, but his progress the last three weeks changed his mind. He began running again on June 20th, although there have been days since then that he was unable to run because of soreness. He is putting himself through his usual pre-Deseret News Marathon regimen of rising at 4:30 each morning for a training run to prepare for the race's early start. He has logged training runs of 10 to 14 miles and performed a couple of speed workouts on the track.
"I don't think I lost a lot of conditioning," he says. "My body is rested. But I haven't done 26 miles. It will be interesting. I'll be relying on what I did in the past and what I did before the accident. I feel like I can be competitive."
Sitting in his house this week, hiding from the sun and letting his skin heal, Palacios reflected again on his ordeal on the mountain in Mexico. "I could have died in the hole that day," he says, "and no one would have found me. I would have cooked slowly. The police told me I would have been just so much smoke coming out of the mountain. No one knew where I was. I'm thankful to be alive. I am celebrating life."