MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Minnesota man picked the worst place to crash his bike but the absolute best time to do it.
Gary Werning believes other cyclists saved his life thousands of feet up, on top of a Colorado mountain after he slammed into rocks head-first.
He was riding in a prestigious cycling race, but quickly the race on the course turned into a race to save Werning’s life.
“With all these people and all these specialists, I couldn’t have gotten better care and better experts. And they were right behind me is my understanding,” he said.
Werning was racing in the 2010 Leadville 100 Bike Race — dubbed “The Race Across the Sky.”
It draws the most experienced cyclists, those who can master back-country, rugged terrain some 9,000 feet up.
Leadville, Colo., west of Denver, drew settlers in the 1800s pursuing silver, but these latest adventure-seekers are going for gold, including Werning.
He raced and finished the 100 miles course twice before.
“This was to be my personal best year. That was my plan when I got up that morning,” said Werning.
The 20th mile of this race proved to be life-changing. Descending 40 miles-an-hour down “The Power Line,” an uneven, pothole-packed, treacherous trail, he suddenly lost control.
“It was just a freak accident,” he recalled. “I think I slipped on the handle bars. I hit rocks and, I guess, I hit directly with my face and my head on these rocks.”
Werning hit his head in multiple spots, broke ribs and bruised a lung. Doctors said his injuries were life-threatening.
“He was unconscious, unarousable and he was showing signs very quickly of neurologic injury and I knew it was going to be a problem,” said Dr. Steven Donchey.
Donchey rode-up on Werning minutes after the crash. Werning couldn’t have been in better hands.
“It took us actually three hours before we fully evacuated him off the mountain,” Donchey recalled.
Donchey had saved lives before, but this time he faced massive mountain-top challenges.
He had no medical equipment and 911 dispatchers couldn’t find their location 9,000 feet on top of a mountain.
Donchey said this was the hardest save he had ever done.
“One of the doctors said, ‘You know that race is really intense and it’s really hard.’ He said ‘That was nothing to drag you up that mountain, get you on that helicopter and get you out of there,’” Werning recalled.
Werning was airlifted to a Denver hospital and admitted into the intensive care unit immediately upon arriving. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and later developed blood clots in his lungs due to the trauma.
Werning stayed at that hospital for nearly two weeks and was then transferred to Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis.
Therapists helped him with every day skills like brushing his teeth and eating. He also had to learn how to read, walk and bike again.
“God gave me a second chance, and I’m going to give back,” Werning said.
Giving up has never been an option — giving up on life and giving up on spinning.
Werning is back teaching his stationary bike class at Life Time Fitness in Lakeville.
“This guy is incredible! And just his recovery. How he’s come back. He’s done really great,” said one of people in his pre-dawn class.
Werning’s not giving up cycling either. More than six months after crashing, he got back on a real bike for the first time in Arizona. Werning started training for races this year. He’s hoping to inspire, motivate and challenge all those who think they can’t overcome an obstacle.
“There’s a side of me that I just don’t quit. I just keep going,” he said.
Werning didn’t finish the 2010 Leadville 100 nor did he walk away with a medal. But he believes, in his heart, that he did strike gold in Leadville.
“It is a miracle! It is. It’s undefined, God-sent miracle,” he said.
Werning can think of no better way to explain his Colorado crash, the humble heroes who saved his life and his chance to live his life like he wants once again.