SOUTH JORDAN — If Walter Brown had never known the euphoria of running, he might not have battled through the excruciating pain.
If he didn't know that he possessed the kind of talent that made a difficult sport almost easy, he might not have tried to defy his doctors' predictions.
If he didn't know what it felt like to really believe he could make his dream of running in the Olympic Games a reality, he might not have longed for something a drunk driver stole from him on Christmas Eve 1993.
But he did know.
And that made the longing more unbearable than the physical agony he had to endure to reclaim what was once his.
Almost 18 years after a drunk driver nearly killed him and nearly stole his ability to walk and run, Walter Brown will line up Sunday with more than 200 other runners to compete for the World Masters Championships in marathon running in Sacramento, Calif. (Learn more at www.runwithwalter.com).
It is an impressive accomplishment for any runner. But for Brown, it is a moment no one — not even he at times — thought he'd ever achieve.
Brown started running when he was 12. His father worked at the University of Utah, where he ran into BYU All-American runner and former Olympian Paul Cummings.
"(Cummings) was training for either the Deseret News or St. George marathons," said Brown, "but he gave my dad a running schedule for me because I'd expressed an interest in running. It was a little log, a little program."
Brown followed Cummings' program and placed fourth in his first race — one of the indoor events at the Salt Lake City Track Club. He continued training and ran the Deseret News Marathon at 12 years old.
"It really got me excited to keep going," he said.
Brown continued running with moderate success throughout high school, but he essentially took a break from the sport when he served a two-year mission to Germany for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"My training essentially stopped then," he said, although he admits he tried, with very little success, to persuade more than one companion to either take up the sport or sit at the track while he ran.
When he got home in 1992, he began running again. He asked Cummings for help and began training with a group the former BYU star had organized.
"I realized I'd lost a lot of speed," he said. "It kind of discouraged me."
He didn't get serious about his training until April 1993, and just as he began to see the benefits of consistent training, a drunk driver changed the course of his life.
It was the early morning of Christmas Eve 1993. He was driving home with his then-girlfriend, now his wife, Misty, when he hit a patch of black ice on the bridge that took motorists from 1300 East to I-215 westbound. He hit the guard rail, and the impact of the crash disabled his car.
A woman named Amy Weight stopped to help him, and he asked her to direct traffic around him while he tried to figure out how to get the car to start.
"I was going to pop my hood when I heard an engine revving," he said. "The car came straight into Amy and hit her; then it hit my car, caused my car to hit me and pinned me into the guard rail. His car continued to crush into my car and the guard rail until my car moved sideways. I fell forward, and I couldn't move. The car landed on top of me, kind of twisting me. I was lying on my left side, facing oncoming traffic."
His brother and a neighbor saw the accident and turned their cars on the ramp to protect him. The drunk driver happened to be a medical student, and he put a tourniquet on Weight's leg, which likely saved her life. She was flown to the hospital, while Brown went in an ambulance with his girlfriend, who suffered head injuries in the accident.
"As soon as (medical personnel) turned me over, my left hip opened up," he said. The gash was eight inches long with bone sticking out of it. His intestines were falling out of the gash and blood was pouring out of his body. "One of the paramedics pushed his knee into my hip (to stop the bleeding), and it was the most extreme pain I'd ever been in. It was so crazy."
He was so damaged — 23 breaks in his pelvis, broken and hemorrhaged knees, and traumatic injuries to his intestines and internal organs — that doctors did nothing but monitor his vitals that first night.
"In the morning they gave me the option of pinning my hips together, and they told me I'd never walk again," Brown said. The other option was to be in a cast and suspended in the air by pulleys for two months. With this option, they said, he might have a 50 percent chance of walking with a crutch or cane.
"I was a little depressed," he said. "Amy was flown to University and she'd been through surgery to save her other leg. She'd lost one leg, and they told her I died. When they told her that I pulled through, she insisted on seeing me. She became my guardian angel. She told me not to listen to the doctors. 'They just give you worst-case scenarios,' she told him. At that point, I changed my attitude. She'd lost her leg, and she was still really positive."
Even as he hung from the pulleys, he dreamed about running. Doctors dismissed his desire and told him he might be able to ride a bike. One doctor actually bought him a mountain bike, which he was able to start riding four months after the accident thanks to his determination in rehab.
By May, he could walk unassisted.
"I wanted to do a sailing trip, and I couldn't take the walker," he said matter-of-factly. "So I was pretty determined. It was very difficult. I would drag my left leg. I walked kind of zombie-like. By the fall, I could walk on my own back and forth, but turning was difficult."
Brown continued to defy prognosis after prognosis, including the one telling him he'd never father children. He is now the proud father of four children, and he said he feels blessed he's regained so much.
He said the doctors weren't negative, just cautious.
"I just did what I felt like doing," he said. And sometimes he just didn't ask permission. "I knew if I went to a doctor, they'd discourage me. I just kept pushing myself."
He knew he was blessed. But for eight years, he yearned for one more thing.
"Whenever I'd see people out running, or see a race go by the house, I'd be sad," he said. "But I just pushed it to the back of my mind. I thought, 'At least I can bike."
One day he was riding his bike up City Creek Canyon when he saw a lone jogger making his way up the hill.
"I wondered if I could do that," he said. He put on running shoes and ran up City Creek "with quite a bit of pain."
And then there was the descent.
"Pain lit up my whole hip, my knees, and I was in such extreme pain, I had to walk the whole way down," he said.
That experience just makes it more incredible that a year later, when his sister-in-law needed someone with whom to run during a family camping trip at Yellowstone, it was Brown who volunteered. He'd watched her finish the Top of Utah Marathon a few months earlier.
"I saw her come in and it was just so exciting," he said. "I wanted to be a part of it so bad. I thought, 'I'll just do a mile or two and build up.'"
Brown was consistent with his training, which likely helped his body adjust to the more demanding sport again.
"Whenever I did a long run, mile 16 was my absolute breaking point," he said. "It felt like my hips just locked up."
There was no quick fix or magic pill. He just kept pushing through the debilitating pain. He fought through the discouragement of hitting a wall of pain over and over. The wall moved to mile 22 or 23. And then, at last, he learned to finish like he used to before the accident.
"Finally I just broke through," he said. "I just learned to push myself through the pain. That was three years ago." Brown said he'd never really abandoned his goal of running in the Olympics. But as he aged, and as he dealt with the ramifications of the wreck, he began to realize he might have to revise that dream.
"I know I'm starting later in life," Brown said. "It's a lot harder and that same speed isn't there. But I'm 10 minutes off the qualifying time, and the trials are in January. I don't think I have it in me to run a 2:19 (marathon), but it does fuel me."
His desire to represent the United States in a race is what makes Sunday's race so special.
"This race that is coming up is one of those things that fuels me," he said. "I found out that running for me is not as hard as it is for other people. Even with the wreck, it's proven that to me."
Sometimes he thinks about how much more he would have accomplished had he not lost nine years to the accident, but then again, he said he's more determined because of it.
In fact, he takes the time to help others find the joy of running because he sees it as a way to improve their lives and the world as a whole. He believes that if everyone could feel the emotions and energy present at the start of a marathon there would be world peace.
And despite living nearly a decade without running, Brown said he can't imagine his life without the sport.
"I don’t know what it would be like," he said, laughing. "Being competitive is what pushes me. It's not a sport to a lot of people, but for me, it's like my own personal miracle. To go from nothing to having everything is probably the best feeling you can have."
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