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When Danelle Ballengee headed out for an eight-mile trail run near Moab, Utah, last December (2006), it was supposed to be just another outing.
And that’s probably what her dog, Taz, thought, too.
A two-time world champion in the extreme sport of adventure racing, and a seven-time Ironman triathlon finisher, Ballengee lives in Dillon, Colo., and frequently uses Moab as a training ground. And lucky Taz—a big mixed breed— often gets to come along.“He loves to run with me,” says Ballengee, adding that she thinks Taz is part Australian Shepherd. “He really enjoys it.We’ll run for a couple hours sometimes.”
They were midway through what would have been about a 90-minute run when Ballengee slipped on a patch of black ice, slid down a steep rock face and across a series of ledges, and finally crashed to the ground some 80 feet below, shattering her pelvis.
As soon as Ballengee realized she wasn’t paralyzed, she started to crawl; it took her five hours to go about a quarter of a mile. Then, when the sun went down and the temperature dropped into the 20s, hypothermia became a very real threat. Ballengee drank water and ate her energy gels sparingly, but knew that if she closed her eyes, she’d fall asleep and might never wake up. Rather than giving in, Ballengee did subtle abdominal crunches, both to stay awake and to keep her body temperature from plummeting. She also took comfort in having Taz at her side.
“I wanted to curl up next to him and be closer, but I couldn’t move. But it still helped to have him there. I wasn’t really alone,” Ballengee says.
Ballengee has always loved dogs. When she was a child, her parents had an Australian Shepherd, a Springer Spaniel and, later, a Golden Retriever. She considered getting a dog when she graduated from college, but developing her career as a professional endurance athlete, race director and personal trainer took a lot of her time. When she wasn’t running, cycling, swimming or kayaking, she was planning for a race or traveling to an exotic location—New Zealand, Argentina, Italy, Switzerland, Hawaii or Fiji—to participate in one.
Still, she really yearned for canine companionship, and kept her antenna out for a good candidate. In 2003, in the middle of a busy summer, she drove two hours to a rescue facility north of Denver.“It was one of those places where you know you’re not going to leave without a puppy,” she recalls. It was love at first sight when she laid her eyes on a 10-week-old mutt, part of a litter that had been rescued from a Kansas farm.
During their first year together, Ballengee took Taz on short walks and trips to the lake. As he got bigger, they started running and hiking together, eventually covering as many as 15 miles at a time, and occasionally hiking to the summit of one of Colorado’s 14,000- foot mountains. So while the Moab trail she and Taz were running that day was rugged and remote, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Ballengee. “She trains 20 to 30 hours a week by just going out and having fun in the mountains,” says Dave Mackey, an ultrarunner and adventure racer from Boulder,Colo.“It’s amazing, but that’s what she does. That’s who she is. She’s tough as nails.”
When the sun rose the morning after her fall, Ballengee’s optimism was renewed, but Taz was growing restless. He spent that day running off and returning, each trek seemingly longer than the last. When night again found the pair alone in the wild,Taz wouldn’t sleep next to Ballengee; instead, he lay about 15 feet away. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘I can’t die. I’m not ready to die,’” she says. “It scared me to even think about it, so I just kept fighting and telling myself I just had to stay awake.”
At about noon the next day—more than 48 hours after Ballengee and Taz began their fateful run—police found her pickup at the Amasa Back trailhead.As a search and rescue team assembled, a dog matching Taz’s description was spotted heading toward town.“We were going to try to identify the dog, but the dog basically didn’t want to be caught,” said Curt Brewer, chief deputy of the Grand County Sheriff ’s Office in Moab. “When the dog turned around and started running, we decided to follow it.”
By midday, Ballengee had become very lethargic. When Taz returned from his longest journey yet, he wagged his tail and gulped water from the small water hole on which Ballengee had come to rely. “I figured maybe he had a nice run and was just happy to be back. I gave him a little pat—and then I heard the sound of an engine. He knew that someone was coming… he knew before I did.”
The rescue team arrived and worked quickly, strapping Ballengee to a stretcher in preparation for being airlifted to a hospital in Grand Junction.“The dog took our rescue personnel right to her,” Brewer says. “I think we would have eventually found her because we were in the right location, but the dog saved us some time. And that was important, because if it had gotten dark, that would have complicated things. And it wound up snowing later that night, too.”
He spent that day running off and returning, each trek seemingly longer than the last. After surgery to repair her broken pelvis and an extensive rehabilitation, Ballengee made a full recovery. By late spring this year, she and Taz were once again trail-running, albeit a little more cautiously, and in May, Taz received the National Hero Dog Award from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles.
“It’s pretty amazing, what he did,” Ballengee says.“We figured he must have run about 15 miles when he led the rescuers to me.He definitely helped save my life.”But it might have been a case of one good turn generating another: Taz was repaying Ballengee for rescuing him.
Photo: Mark Doolittle