The moment that mountain climber Carl Byington’s legs hit the rocks — having just lost his hold and plummeting 70 feet off the face of a vertical cliff — he had one very specific thought.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to run the Chicago Marathon,” he mused, gazing at the gruesome fracture to his right leg and pondering the athletic event in October 2003 he’d been training for the past several months. It was to be his second road marathon.
About that much, he was correct.
But after multiple surgeries — including the affixing of a steel plate and 10 screws to repair the shattered tibia of his right leg, a bone graft and months and months of pain and recovery — there would be more races to run.
Over the next 10 years, Byington — formerly of Pennsylvania and now an Ellijay resident — would go on to finish marathons in all seven continents. This goal he set for himself helped him through some of the hardest moments of rehabilitation and excruciating pain.
After being airlifted from Seneca Rocks in West Virginia to Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., in September 2003, he discovered not only was the tibia broken, but part of it was “just obliterated into a lot of pieces.”
As it was, he was told that he might not ever walk again.
Upon seeing Byington’s X-rays and CT scans, Dr. James Widmaier, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Geisinger Medical Center, described the fracture as a “limb-threatening injury.”
Over the next several months, Widmaier performed five surgeries, including the bone graft, to get Byington to the point where he could walk again. In March 2004 with the help of a cane, he did just that.
“Once the bones heal, it comes down to the want and the willpower (of the patient), and that part is out of the physician’s control,” Widmaier said.
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At one point during the latter part of recovery, Byington, a mechanical and aeronautical engineer by training, shared with his surgeon that he planned to get back to running marathons again as soon as he could.
“I was a little skeptical regarding that …,” Widmaier said. “And damned if he didn’t prove me wrong. Here we are, how many marathons later? How many trips to different continents?”
In November 2006, Byington began his globe-trotting marathon spree in Greece. Over the next seven years, he would complete marathons in Washington, D.C., Chile, Australia, Malaysia, Antarctica, and finally, Zimbabwe, in July 2013.
“Accomplishing what he has accomplished, that’s hard to do for someone perfectly healthy,” Widmaier said. “I wonder, mentally, how did he prepare himself to say, ‘I fell off a cliff, and now I’m going to go do some more dangerous activities’?”
From the moment he fell and suffered the injury, Byington’s answer to that question was simple: “I’m not done.”
It’s the idea that’s kept him busy the past decade and a half since recovery: running, hiking, scuba diving and — yes, still — mountain climbing. He climbed Mount Rainier in Washington state in 2011 and Argentina’s Aconcagua, which is 22,841 feet at its summit, in February 2018.
“Whenever you have a traumatic event like that, it reminds you of your own mortality, and we’re all going to die at some point, but for some reason or another, I didn’t die on that rock that day,” Byington said. “I said to myself, ‘OK, I better get busy living,’ and part of living for me was to get myself healed and do whatever I needed to do.”
The desire to be active with his sons, Connor and Eric, also played a role in inspiring him.
At the time of his accident, they were, respectively, 6 and 4 years old.
“When I fell, they were definitely on my mind a lot,” Byington said. “It was an emotional time … them seeing me all busted up, and I wondered, would I be able to play baseball with them, run around and play football with them, take them hiking like we loved to do.”
Added Byington: “So, I think there were things I still wanted to accomplish in life for myself and for them. That’s what pushed me, more than anything else.”
When recalling those moments after the September 2003 injury at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia, Byington chuckled that his first reaction was about not being able to compete in a marathon a month later — never mind the prospect of never being able to walk again.
Even now, Byington’s love of marathons and mountain climbing remains strong. He says he plans to complete some other big mountains — Denali (in Alaska), Kilimanjaro (in Tanzania), and perhaps some in the Himalayas. He also may come out of “marathon semiretirement” to do the North Pole Marathon.
Today, he sees what happened as “a blessing. It was traumatic, but it also gave me the opportunity to set goals and journeys in my life that maybe I wouldn’t have taken otherwise. Sharing this story is, for me, sharing my gratitude to Geisinger (Medical Center) for helping patch me up as well as trying to give back by providing inspiration to others who may be struggling in any way right now.”
He was able several months ago to personally offer gratitude to the surgeon who put him back together.
On May 29, Byington was reunited after more than a decade with Widmaier in Danville, Pa. — an emotionally fulfilling moment for both.
“What I did for (Byington) was something that orthopedic trauma surgeons do around the world every day … but, it’s refreshing to take care of enthusiastic and energetic patients like (Byington), so I’m lucky to have the resources at Geisinger to do this,” Widmaier said.
Byington chimed in that it was “incredible” to see Widmaier again. “I hadn’t seen him since 2005, when he took out the plate screws from my legs … and there’d been much recovery since.”
To those struggling through any type of recovery, Byington offered the following: “Be captain of your own recovery and set goals you want in life. It doesn’t have to be ‘go run marathons in seven continents,’ but shoot for something that gives you the desire to make yourself better and have a zest for life.”
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