Student takes on marathon after fall from Half Dome

afgonzales@sacbee.comMarch 25, 2013 

Katie Kolesar saw her friend fall off a ledge while rock climbing in Yosemite in August, and she figured he had died. That's when she felt the ropes tug her, sending her pitching head first off Half Dome, and she thought she was a goner, too.

"I thought I just saw my friend die, and thought I was headed for the same," Kolesar said.

Kolesar's climbing partner walked away with minor injuries after the 20-foot fall. Kolesar also survived the fall but suffered a broken hip socket, pelvis, wrist and ribs, and other internal injuries. She would not walk on her own for more than two months.

The terrifying experience -- including being airlifted by helicopter off Half Dome -- inspired her to fulfill an unlikely dream.

Less than seven months after her accident, Kolesar joined thousands in Sacramento's Shamrock'n Half Marathon on March 17.

"After the accident, I was motivated to have a plan, to improve every week," said Kolesar, 28, a graduate student at the University of California at Davis' civil and environmental engineering department. "I needed to work toward something. Otherwise, recovery can be very hard."

When she told a physical therapist early in her recovery that she planned to run a half marathon within a year, he told her that probably wasn't feasible, she recalled. That made her more determined.

Kolesar set her sights on the Shamrock run, a flat, scenic 13.1-mile route starting at Raley Field in West Sacramento, crossing the Tower Bridge and past the state Capitol, along the American River bike trail and into Old Sacramento before heading back to the ballpark.

Lisa Riley, training programs director at Fleet Feet Sports in Sacramento, said people recovering from physical and emotional trauma are increasingly turning to half marathons as a way to transform their lives.

"We have injury-related comebacks, or people coming off the couch to train," Riley said. "Some people have lost their mom or dad and never had dreams of doing a half marathon, but take it on as a way to stay young and healthy. This has become a 'bucket list' event for people."

Fleet Feet was the organizer of the ninth annual Shamrock'n Half Marathon, which had 7,500 registered participants.

Kolesar and her friend had set out Aug. 28 looking for Snake Dike, one of the easiest technical rock climbing routes to the top of Half Dome. However, the beginners stumbled onto a more difficult path up the granite monolith.

When a piece of climbing gear pulled out of the rock, both climbers plunged over the side of a ledge. Luckily, the pair landed on a flat, sandy spot.

Kolesar said she didn't feel any pain and tried to walk, but realized her legs wouldn't support her. Kolesar felt herself going into shock, but forced herself to stay focused and calm.

Within 10 minutes, two climbers found them and called the park's search and rescue unit.

Rescuers packed Kolesar into a sling dangling from a helicopter, and she was hoisted off the mountain and flown to the Yosemite Valley floor.

"That was one of the more terrifying parts of the day," she said of being suspended midair during the rescue. "I had just fallen, so I kept thinking, 'I can't fall again.' "

Another helicopter took Kolesar to a Modesto hospital, where she wasn't able to sit up or roll over during her nine-day stay.

Over the next couple of months, she learned to use a walker, and by November she was using a cane to walk seven blocks to the Davis Farmers Market.

"I set small goals for myself, like figuring out how to get outside by myself, then moving on to leg lifts, then walking," Kolesar said.

She downloaded an online training guide to prepare for the half marathon, and she and her roommates ran in their Davis neighborhood.

"I ran 12 miles a couple weeks ago, so I feel well-situated," Kolesar said. "It feels good to do this, after not being able to walk or move around at all."

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