The smile of an ‘Ironman’

The smile of an ‘Ironman’
Chris O'Connor raises her hands triumphantly after finishing Ironman Arizona Nov. 21 in Tempe. (Courtesy photo)

Horrific injury cannot stop Butte native Chris O’Connor

By Bill Foley

Chris (Haley) O’Connor smiled for the photo.

It was a photo she insisted her husband, Pat, take. O’Connor had been blogging about her training for the 2017 Ironman Coeur d’Alene race, and she figured the photo in the emergency room of Kootenai Health would be a fitting touch.

She just wasn’t sure why she was in the hospital.

Scared and confused, O’Connor mustered up the smile to try to reassure her husband, who she figured also must be scared and confused.

“For the next week I have spotty memories,” O’Connor said. “I remember telling myself to smile at him so he wouldn’t be scared, even though I had no idea what was wrong with me.”

O’Connor, a Butte native and Bozeman resident, had just been a horrible wreck. About 80 miles into the 112-mile bike ride of the Ironman on Highway 95, a support truck turned in front of her. She had been cruising long without worrying about traffic along on a stretch of the course that was closed to all vehicles that were not part of the event.

It was supposed to be just her, the competition and the road on that August Sunday day in 2017.

A law enforcement officer did not see O’Connor coming, however, and the officer waived the driver to make a turn into an aid station, where the truck was picking up other bikers who were not going to make the cutoff time.

At least that is what she has been told.

“I have no memory of the accident,” she said. “It hit me in the front quarter panel. I was probably doing 35 miles per hour when I hit. I’ve seen pictures. The truck has a big dent in the front panel where it hit me.”

Pat got the call that his wife was being air lifted to the hospital and he took off. He beat her there.

“She was actually apologizing,” Pat said of seeing Chris for the first time at the hospital. “She said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened. I must have wrecked.’

“She kept saying, ‘Are you going to take my picture?’”

He took the picture before he realized the severity of the injuries sustained by his wife of, at the time, 27 years.

“Then the doctors came in and said, ‘This is what’s wrong, this is what’s wrong, this is what’s wrong,’” Pat said. “That went on for bit.”

It would be a long time before Pat and Chris would have reason to smile. Chris never posted the photo on her blog, and she did not write again about the 2017 Coeur d’Alene Ironman.

She was told that her running days were behind her. She was no longer an Ironman.

The “Ironman” distinction is something O’Connor earned in 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky in 2015. She did it again in 2016 in Coeur d’Alene. She headed back to northern Idaho to try it again in 2017.

An Ironman race consists of a 2.4-mile swim in open waters, a 112-mile bike race and a full marathon. That’s 26.2 miles of running for a total 140.6 miles. To be an “Ironman,” a competitor must finish all of that in less than 17 hours.

In Louisville, O’Connor beat the cutoff by two and a half hours, and she felt like she was on top of the world. As she laid in the hospital bed in Coeur d’Alene, she was just hoping to learn how to live again.

“The doctors said, ‘You shouldn’t run again,’ O’Connor said. “One doctor said, ‘You should never run again.’ I didn’t like hearing that.”

However, on Sunday, Nov. 21 — just shy of four years and three months after her horrific crash — the now 56-year-old O’Connor swam, rode and ran at Ironman Arizona in Tempe.

She crossed the finish line to once again hear the words, “Chris O’Connor, you are an Ironman.”

Chris O’Connor smiles from her hospital bed. (Courtesy photo)

‘Not an athlete’

O’Connor graduated from Butte High in 1983, and most of her classmates were probably surprised to learn that she ended up competing in Ironman races.

The daughter of Dennis and Miriam Haley, O’Connor grew up on North Washington Street in Butte. She attended Lincoln and McKinley elementary schools before going to West Junior High School and then Butte High.

Dennis, who passed away at 76 in 2019, was a math professor at Montana Tech. Miriam, who still lives in Butte, is a former hair dresser and secretary for a church.

“I was not an athlete during my school years,” O’Connor said. “I started running after I met Pat when we got married. Pat was a runner.”

Pat and Chris married in 1990. Pat is the son of the late Eileen and William “Oakie” O’Connor. He is one of six O’Connor siblings, all of whom have or are still called “Oakie.”

His father was an elementary school principal in Butte. He was also the unmistakable voice of KBOW’s Partyline, a staple on the Butte airwaves every weekday afternoon.

Pat is still a runner. He once again ran the Veterans Day Race in Butte this year. He has completed 14 marathons. He ran the New York Marathon and finished the Boston Marathon three times.

While Pat, a wrestler who as a part of Butte High’s Class AA state championship teams of 1980 and 1981, liked to run race, Chris was not a competitive runner.

In 2014, though, O’Connor decided she wanted to compete in triathlons.

“I took swimming lessons as a kid, and I hadn’t been in the pool since probably fourth or fifth grade,” she said. “I found a program on the internet on ‘How to swim your first 500 meters,’ and I just went there.”

Once she got the triathlon bug, O’Connor decided she wanted to go big and become an “Ironman.”

She had the swimming down, and the biking was no problem. O’Connor though, had never ran a marathon. Her first 26.2 race would come at the end of her first Ironman.

“I had two half marathons,” she said. “But I had never done a full. It was just something I wanted to try and wanted to do. It just happened.

“I wasn’t a big competitor in races,” she said. “I signed up for a 5K or two before my half marathons, mostly because Pat said, ‘You really should run a race and get that experience and know what it feels like to be at the start of the race.’”

O’Connor, who earned a computer science degree at Montana Tech, decided to walk away from her job as an IT professional, in part to focus on her training. But just when it seemed like the Ironman life was going great, that truck slammed in front of O’Connor and changed it all.

Pat and Chris O’Connor share a rare smile in the hospital. (Courtesy photo)

‘He was just wonderful’

When O’Connor hit the truck, she did not go flying over the top. She came to a crashing stop, and her body basically crumbled.

It takes quite some time for O’Connor to tick off all of the injuries she suffered. One was a concussion, and that messed with her memory, which might have ended up being a good thing.

She said her only memory of the emergency room is asking Pat to take her picture.

“I don’t remember anything else,” she said. “Throughout the next few days, we learned I had eight broken bones. I had a concussion. I had a broken nose. My right clavicle was broken. My second rib was broken on my right side. The L2 vertebra was broken. My right tibia plateau fractured complete. My right fibula and my right fifth metatarsal.”

Her first surgeries were to fix her tibia plateau and her nose.

The tibial plateau fracture is a rare break of the larger lower leg bone below the knee that breaks into the knee joint.

Then, O’Connor underwent back surgery, and her lower back was fused from the L2 to the S1 vertebrae.

After about two weeks in the hospital in Coeur d’Alene, O’Conner was ready — or not — to go home. Getting her back to Bozeman was a job in itself. With a handful of family members riding along, O’Connor rode home in a motorhome.

“We had Chris propped up in the back,” Pat said. “I was sitting on the floor, making sure she didn’t come off the bench.”

For Pat, that was just the beginning of the work. He took six weeks off of his job to take care of Chris, who struggled through the house on a wheelchair and a walker.

“I had to use a walker, initially,” she said. “That was tricky with a broken clavicle.”

At that stage, everything was tricky. O’Connor’s insurance offered to pay for nursing home care, but that did not seem like a good option to an “Ironman.”

“I told Pat, ‘You can take care of me. You can take care of me,’” she said.

Pat accepted the challenge.

“He would have to help get out of bed,” O’Connor said. “He would stick his arms under me and pivot me so I could sit up. He put the wheelchair or walker in place. He’d help me go to the bathroom. He helped me shower. Anything you can think of, he helped me do it.

“He was it. He was just wonderful.”

Pat, a Navy veteran who earned a chemical engineering degree at Montana State, started studying the nurses at the hospital. He knew the task he was about to take on was a big one.

“When she got hurt and I was in the hospital, I was thinking ‘This is long-term, you’ve got to start doing this,’” Pat said. “There were a couple of nurses out there who trained me how to do it.”

That, Pat said, helped him see nurses in a new light.

“For the two weeks we were in the hospital, I was thinking, ‘You guys are amazing. These were the hardest workouts I’ve ever done.’ It gave me an appreciation of their profession.”

O’Connor said she got so much help from family and friends. Her father built her a wheelchair ramp, her mother took care of cooking and cleaning. Her sister, Jen Haley, helped wherever she could.

“Pat’s family was just super emotion support,” O’Connor said. “They would come over and visit and just give us the chance to think about something else. It was just all consuming there, the injuries and just trying to get through each day.”

Other friends would stop by to visit, too.

“I have great friends,” O’Connor said. “People would come by and just spend time with me.”

Chris O’Connor is shown not long after her Aug. 27, 2017 crash. (Courtesy photo)

On the move again

Slowly, things started to come back for O’Connor, who spent a total of more than three years in physical therapy.

“It was November when the doctor told me I could start walking with crutches and put very little weight on my right foot,” O’Connor said. “My left foot was still broken.”

In December of 2017, she was able to start weening off the back brace. She would take it off for an hour one day, and then maybe two the next.

“That was hard,” O’Connor said. “When I finally got completely off that back brace, just standing in front of my sink to brush my teeth was all that I could do. I had to go sit down.”

Then, she started walking without crutches, going a little faster than the doctor said. She said she saw her doctor on a Thursday, and he hinted that she would soon be walking without the crutches.

“Over the weekend — without telling Pat because he doesn’t like when I take chances — I would walk around the house holding the crutches so it looked like I was using them. But I was walking without them.”

Then, O’Connor’s physical therapist gave her the OK to lose crutches.

“The doctor said it would be a while,” O’Connor said. “I was off them in a couple of days.”

She returned to the pool to walk, but her back doctor advised against running in the water.

“I was in the pool, and I was really happy,” she said. “It was a week before I was released to start swimming. I went and did 50 meters.”

While things seemed to be coming along quickly, O’Connor said everything was a challenge.

“How do you learn to walk again?” she said. “Getting my knee to bend was the first thing.”

She did that by lying in bed and holding her leg on the wall. She would slide her foot down to try to get the knee to bend.

“At first it would slide an inch or two,” she said.

Amazingly, everything came into place in time for O’Connor to, get this, complete a triathlon in July of 2018.

It was no Ironman, but the Montana Women’s Triathlon in Helena was something. The event featured a 500-meter swim, a 12-mile bike ride and a 5-kilometer run.

“I was not in any kind of good shape to do it,” she said. “I could swim the 500. Biking 12 miles felt like an eternity. The run just hurt. Everything just hurt.

“It was not a feel-good moment. Everything hurt.”

The triathlon, though, got O’Connor thinking Ironman.

“I finished it, and I just built from there,” she said. “I was like, ‘OK, I can do another one.’ Eventually, I thought I could do another Ironman.

“I never stopped think about it. I never stopped stop thinking that I wanted to do one, but I didn’t know if I’d be able to do one,” O’Connor said. “The desire to do one was never gone. As I started feeling better, I started thinking that I can’t stop. I just love triathlons so much. I asked Pat, and he said, ‘You go for it. You do what you need to do to make you happy.’

“When he was OK with it, I was OK with it.”

Then, O’Connor found herself back in the surgery room.

In November of 2018, she slipped on some ice and broke the rod in her back. That meant O’Connor had to undergo a second back surgery to repair the damage in January of 2019.

Another surgery meant another three months with no activity.

“It seemed like every time I started making progress, I’d have a setback,” O’Connor said. “Every time I would move forward, I would move backward because I had to have something else done.”

In all, O’Connor underwent six surgeries — three in Coeur d’Alene on her nose, back and knee, two on her knee in 2018, and the second back surgery. She also had some stem cell injections into her knee, which made a “night-and-day difference.”

Eventually, O’Connor was able to start setting her sights on the desert.

Pat O’Connor is his wives biggest fan and supporter. (Courtesy photo)

Ironman Arizona

The training for an Ironman is fierce, and O’Connor knew it when she registered for Ironman Arizona a year ago.

“I signed up not knowing if I could get through the training,” she said.

She told her coach that the training was going to be the toughest part.

“I told him if I can get through the training and my body was in good shape to start, I know I can finish it,” she said. “I knew that I wasn’t doing the same amount of training and intensity that I did for my other Ironmans.”

Her coach held her back at times, playing it safe with a conservative approach. That worked, but she said it did not help with her anxiety.

“It was a year of a lot of questions and unknowns,” O’Connor said. “Did I do enough to get me through that 15-and-a-half-hour day?”

Eventually, O’Connor got to the starting line in front of the Tempe Town Lake. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

“I got there and I was feeling good,” she said. “I had a couple little tweaky things, but everybody does to start an Ironman. I felt good. It was a good day.”

The crowded swim was not an easy one, but O’Connor was going fast despite multiple collisions with the many swimmers.

“I felt really good in the swim,” she said. “I just kept getting hit and punched, but I felt good during it.”

O’Connor emerged from the water in 1 hour, 38 minutes, 14 seconds, and she could hardly control her excitement.

“She got out and she said, ‘I can’t believe it,’” Pat said of her swim time. “She was ecstatic.”

The loops of the bike race included long stretches uphill, and the wind made that even more challenging.

“It was a really windy day,” O’Connor said. “It was uphill into the wind, which made it really hard. But the downhill was really fun. I felt good for the whole bike course.”

The 112 miles took O’Connor 7 hours, 24 minutes, 51 seconds to ride. With a marathon to go, O’Connor was just over 9 hours into the race, and she was about to realize she had a problem.

“I got off the bike, and my back was stiff,” she said. “That never happened in training. That concerned me a little bit. I couldn’t quite stand up straight.”

Pat was very concerned.

“She’s always been solid on the bike,” he said. “She told me at the start of the run, ‘Awe my back’s killing me.’ This is the start of the marathon.”

Instead of heading to a spot where Pat could see Chris run at the 5- or 6-mile mark as he planned, he ran to a destination where he could see her 3 miles in.

When Pat saw his wife running again, though, his worries subsided.

“As soon as I saw her, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, she’s going to nail this,’” he said.

O’Connor would run for a bit, then walk. That was her plan for the marathon that featured three laps around a course. Run 8 minutes, walk 2. Then run 5 minutes and walk 2.

“I did that for the first lap of that course,” she said. “My back was still stiff for the whole time, but I was just ignoring it.”

By the time O’Connor got to the third lap of the marathon, her stomach felt sick, and her foot hurt. She said she knew that if she kept running it would lead to a stress fracture, or worse.

“Probably the last seven miles I had to walk,” she said. “My stomach was queasy and my arch on my left foot was really sore. I walked as fast as could.”

The marathon took O’Connor 6 hours, 12 minutes, 17 seconds to complete. She hit the cutoff time with 1 hour, 20 minutes, 17 seconds to spare.

She placed 24th in her age division, 384th among women and 1,672 overall. When she crossed the finish line, though, O’Connor got to hear the magic words.

“Chris O’Connor, you are an Ironman.”

As she stood in front of the camera with her finisher’s medal proudly hanging around her neck, Chris O’Connor smiled for the photo.

Chris O’Connor poses for a post-race photo after finishing Ironman Arizona. (Courtesy photo)

A new way of living

Even if you have never been hit by a truck, an Ironman is brutal. The recovery takes time.

On Monday, eight days after her finish, O’Connor got in her first post-race workout. It was a light strength workout.

“I’m getting better every day,” she said of her recovery. “It makes my legs hurt, my ankles hurt, my back hurt. It makes everything a little sore.”

Will this be her last Ironman? Will she be satisfied competing in smaller triathlons? O’Connor does not know the answer to that.

Now fully retired at a young age, O’Connor has lots of time to find out.

“The more days I’m away from last Sunday, and the more days I have to recover, the more that thought keeps creeping into my mind,” she said of signing up for another Ironman.

The long-term effects of the injury are unknow, but O’Connor knows that they are going to be there. She also knows she has a partner she can lean on.

“I’m still not going to be where I was before the accident. My body just took such a hit,” O’Connor said. “It’s a new way of living. I know my back is going to be sore sometimes. I know my knees are going to be sore sometimes. But sometimes they’re not.

“I’m fine with it. And Pat’s fine with it. If he’s fine with it, then I’m going to keep going.”

12 comments


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12 Comments

  • Joseph Melvin
    November 30, 2021, 9:07 pm

    Butte Tough!

    REPLY
  • Diane Rewerts
    November 30, 2021, 9:09 pm

    What a wonderful story! So proud of you Chris and Pat. You’re amazing. Thanks for sharing their story, Bill Foley.

    REPLY
  • Jen Haley
    November 30, 2021, 10:03 pm

    Chris! You never cease to amaze me. This made me smile. I’m so proud of you! #ironsister #thisishuge #shesback

    REPLY
  • Mark Parvinen
    December 1, 2021, 5:15 am

    What an amazing story! I am having back surgery next week and this is inspiring me to do big things afterwards! Thanks, Bill. And thanks to the O’connors for showing what Butte Tough is all about!

    REPLY
  • Cynthia Knox
    December 1, 2021, 5:22 am

    Wow, Chris, you are such a Superstar! Way to go, you’re so tough! Just amazing!

    REPLY

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