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Matt Russell’s (Miraculous) Unfinished Comeback

"He doesn't have 20 minutes." A year after a near-fatal crash at the Ironman World Championship, Matt Russell returned to finish sixth.

In 2017 Matt Russell crashed into a van during the Ironman World Championship. Those on the scene thought he’d been killed. A year later he finished sixth in Kona.

Matt Russell at the Kona finish line in 2018. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

By Matt Johnston

In triathlon, as in life, setbacks are inevitable. It’s how we deal with setbacks that will determine our results, our reputation and how well we sleep at night. At the 2019 Ironman World Championship, Matt Russell was biking well until a mechanical problem forced him to stop. By the time he resolved the issue, precious minutes had passed and the pack of riders he’d been with were gone. Russell knew he wouldn’t beat his sixth-place result from the previous year, nor would he finish in the top-10 and claim any prize money.

Facing those realities, most pros would make a business decision and stop. Those who know anything about Matt Russell won’t be surprised that he got back on his bike and gutted out the rest of the brutal race for a 17th-place finish.

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“Everyone has challenging times,” he’d told me long before that race. “You can go down a negative path, or you can turn the experience into an asset for you and for others.”

This is the story of Matt Russell’s unfinished comeback and some lessons about recovery.

October 13, 2018 Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

The Ironman World Championship is the most iconic race in endurance sports, held every year on the west side of Hawaii’s Big Island in Kona. The race consists of a 2.4-mile ocean swim, followed by a 112-mile bike to the top of the island and back on the Queen Ka’ahumanu highway, followed by a 26.2-mile run. The finish line at the Ironman World Championship is an unforgettable experience for those who witness the stunning brutality of this event and the perseverance of its competitors.

Every Ironman race is stacked with stories, but the moment that caught my attention was watching American Matt Russell as he finished sixth. I’ve never seen a professional overtaken by such raw joy and emotion. I knew that Russell nearly died on this course one year before. It was awesome to see him crush this race and hear the crowd roar for him. Passing through the finishing arch, Russell looked up, stared straight into the blazing Hawaiian sun with tears streaming down his cheeks. He shared the moment with someone the rest of us couldn’t see.

Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

It also struck me that Russell seemed to forget his usual ritual of doing a “Blazeman Roll” across the finish line.

For context, the “Blazeman Roll” was first done by Jon Blais in 2005. Blais competed at the Ironman World Championship after being diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). As he came to the line, Blais lay down and rolled himself across the finish line. Blais died in 2007, but the “Blazeman Roll” has been taken up by many triathletes to raise awareness of the disease. Blais’s legacy continues through the Blazeman Foundation.

Russell’s mother was diagnosed with ALS when he was eight. He witnessed the full progression of the disease that eventually took her when he was 13. Dealing with his trauma and grief, Russell began running marathons. Then he started racing duathlon events, and then Ironman races.

On that Saturday afternoon on the Big Island of Hawaii, one could argue that ALS was the reason Russell was there. His emotions at the finish line confused the medical staff, who moved in and ushered him away to the medical tent. He appeared a while later to complete his Blazeman Roll.

After the race I got to know Russell personally, and learned a few things that helped me understand what I saw unfold at the finish line.

October 14, 2017 Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Four hours into the 2017 Ironman World Championship, Matt Russell was on his bike, hammering down the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway on his way back to Kailua-Kona. At the intersection of the Queen K and Waikoloa Road, a police officer was controlling traffic, waiting for breaks between riders to let vehicles cross the highway. The officer signalled a truck through the intersection and a minivan followed the truck through. The first vehicle slowed after it cleared the intersection, leaving the minivan behind it directly in Russell’s lane. With only seconds to respond, Russell sat up and screamed for the vehicle to move. But by then it was too late.

Russell slammed into the rear passenger-side door at roughly 50 kph. His bike exploded. His face, neck and shoulders were shredded as he pierced the minivan’s tempered glass. The glass cut Russell to the bone under his right eye, and opened a gash on his neck six inches long and two inches wide. His sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle and external jugular vein were completely severed. Razor-sharp glass pebbles lodged in his neck. Russell’s body struck the metal body of the vehicle and bounced backwards, sending him to the asphalt flat on his back.

Among the small crowd of spectators at the intersection was Meredith Gardner, a friend of Russell’s who had been watching for him to pass. She rushed towards him.

“He was bleeding badly from his neck,” she says. “I called out for a towel.”

The man who arrived with a towel also happened to be an anesthesiologist. Moaning, severely concussed and bleeding-out on the asphalt, Matt was in shock and made several attempts to get up and continue racing. An Ironman medical van appeared about five minutes after the crash. An ambulance was on its way, but the Ironman doctor was trying to organize an airlift. Meredith overheard the doctor telling someone “He doesn’t have 20 minutes.” In the end, an airlift wasn’t possible, and Russell was taken to North Hawaii Community Hospital by ambulance.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Even before Russell found himself fighting for his life, his wife, Gillian, was experiencing complications with her pregnancy. Now there was trauma from the crash to add to the mix. Medical bills mounted, and, with Russell’s career on hold, there was no prize money coming in. At 34, ageing becomes a significant recovery factor. Russell’s future in the sport was uncertain.

“2017 was the most beautifully awful year of my life,” Gillian says.

ALS may be the reason why Matt is an elite Ironman professional, but there is also the how. As a physical specimen, Matt Russell is closer to the Marvel character “Wolverine” than he is to you and me. In 2012, the year Gillian and Matt met, he did nine Ironman races. Most pros don’t even do three in a single season. Prior to the crash, Russell had never had a significant injury — also unheard of for a pro triathlete, especially one with 45 Ironmans under his belt.

There are other bits of odd data that support the “Wolverine” comparison. Russell doesn’t taper before races, which defies conventional wisdom in the sport. According to Russell’s Garmin data, he gets about 4.5 hours of deep sleep per night, three times more than the human average. Matt has inherited extremely rare physiology that makes him an outlier even among his peers of elite Ironman professionals.

Matt, Makaio and Gillian Russell. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

There is a second dimension to Russell’s ability to recover — his mental model. Russell has been a Christian since childhood. His beliefs, and his relationship with God, is something that enters most of our conversations. Listening to him, there is no doubt that his recovery is spurred by the hope, interpretations and aspirations related to his belief system.

Russell’s faith has grown, evolved and hardened as he coped with the stress and grief of his mother’s suffering and untimely death. He accepts challenging times and loss as part of God’s master plan, and finds purpose in what he learns. Russell’s truth is that God allowed the minivan to move in front of him for a reason — God gave him the gift of recovery. It’s God’s will that he survived.

After the crash, the evolution of Matt’s thinking features two opposite concepts that rotate seamlessly around each other. On the one hand, he’s grown more fatalistic, accepting the myriad of forces that are outside his control. With this, Russell is at peace. His open-ended, ongoing prayers are a kind of meditation that keeps him grounded in his environment and cognizant of himself.

Since the accident, Russell is more passionate about shaping his future. He’s changed his diet (97 per cent plant-based and gluten-free), started to meditate and went to the wind tunnel to hone his aerodynamics on the bike.

“I’ve been given a second chance and I want to make the most of it,” he says. “I want to share my experience to help other people who are going through hard times. I want to make my family proud with how I race.”

April 28, 2018 The Woodlands, Texas

The Ironman North American Championship in Texas might as well be Matt Russell’s hometown race. He’s raced there every year since the first event in 2011 and has always been a podium threat, including finishing second twice.

Russell returned in 2018, just six months after his near-fatal crash in Kona. He came out of the water in the second pack, then rode to the front of the race thanks to a 4:06 bike split for the 180 km ride. On the run, his compromised SCM muscle caused problems. The weakness through the right side of his neck forced the muscles on the left side to work on overdrive, building to unbearable pain. At the 28 km point of the marathon, Russell had to walk for the first time in his career. He would walk for awhile, massaging and stretching his neck, then jog for as long as he could. Finishing the slowest marathon of his career, Russell laid down and completed a Blazeman Roll, crossing the line in 14th place.

On the bike at the Ironman World Championship. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

Russell would finish three more Ironman races during the 2018 season. He was third at Ironman Canada, third again in Mont-Tremblant and second in Chattanooga. That August, Ironman CEO Andrew Messick called to offer him a wildcard slot to compete at the 2018 Ironman World Championship. Russell flew to Kona with a piece of tempered glass still embedded in his neck, a reminder of all he had been through and motivation for what lay ahead.

There was unfinished business to attend to before the race. He visited the police station and picked up what remained of his old bike. He rode past the spot of his crash at the Waikoloa intersection to experience the fear and emotion before race day.

“I was really emotional riding that part of the course at Kona,” he says. “I knew I would be. I needed to get through that once before the race.”

On October 13, 2018, Russell took that little piece of glass through the world’s most challenging single-day endurance event, finishing with the ninth-fastest time in the 40-year history of the iconic race.

Russell told me he had never felt so alive as he did crossing the finish line that day. He was so overtaken by his own moment of joy as he crossed the line that he forgot, just for a moment, about his mom. She’d be proud of him.

This story originally appeared in the March, 2020 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.