ENCINITAS — On Saturday, Sept. 5, Dan Strich will lace up his white Reebok walking shoes, toe the line and prepare to walk 10 kilometers around the Happiest Place on Earth.
For Strich, his participation in the Disneyland 10K isn’t defined by a victory. The fact that he is able to walk in the 10k is a victory in itself.
Nine months ago, participating in a race — or for that matter, walking again — was an uncertainty.
On Dec. 6, 2014, Strich, an avid cyclist, started on what was supposed to be a 30-mile bicycle ride to San Clemente to celebrate his 57th birthday one day earlier. He started the trip heading west on Encinitas Boulevard from his home off of Beechtree Drive.
As he reached the crest of Encinitas Boulevard at Via Cantebria, he said he heard a bang. He awoke lying on the ground, answering questions from emergency medical staff about various injuries he had yet to realize were his.
“What I know about the accident was that I was in the bike lane when I was hit from behind,” Strich said. “I heard a man’s voice saying, ‘I hit him.’”
The next thing Strich said he remembers is being in an MRI unit in the trauma center at Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, where the extent of his injuries became clearer: Strich had fractured his pelvis in five places, broken eight ribs, had a deep contusion in his lungs, a broken elbow, a separated left shoulder, a damaged sit bone and severe road rash. Weeks after the accident, doctors would discover that he tore his posterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament when he was experiencing pain during his rehabilitation.
His helmet was broken in four pieces, which likely saved him from major head trauma that would have cut his redemption story short.
Doctors removed him off of a ventilator five days after the accident. It was at that time, Strich said, that he made the decision that he was going to work to reclaim his life.
“At first I was thinking, I could be really upset about it, but I decided that no one wants to hear an old guy complaining,” Strich said. “It was at that point I decided I was going to get better and get past it.
“I just wanted to get my life back,” he said.
After five weeks in the hospital (first in La Jolla and then in Scripps Memorial Encinitas) Strich began the long, arduous process of healing and recovery.
The process included two weekly physical therapy sessions, first to rule out any brain or cognitive issues, and then to rebuild his body. Within weeks of his therapy, he began training on a stationary bike, and he then began working on a spin bike at his house, which a friend gifted him from the Magdalena Ecke YMCA.
By February, he was back to work part time at his job at Viasat in Carlsbad. Five weeks after that, he returned to work full time.
“I am an A-type personality,” Strich said. “You would think I would want to relax and stay home, but I was itching to get back to normal.”
It was that tenacity and his return to work that ultimately put him on the path to Saturday’s 10K.
Around the time he returned to work, the family got a new puppy, and Strich said he started walking with his wife and his daughter twice a week during the evenings as they walked the dog. At first, he would slowly hobble around the block. But as his legs got stronger, he got an iPhone app to track how far he could walk with the dog.
“I walked almost a mile,” he said.
At the same time, he started to meet with Karen Franz, a vocational coach from Cigna, his insurance company, who mentioned Cigna’s Achilles Program to him. The Achilles program provides people recovering from debilitating accidents with access to fitness trainers and, if they choose, sponsorship in athletic events, such as 10K races and marathons.
Franz and Strich will later learn that San Diego doesn’t have an Achilles Program, but Cigna would still sponsor Strich in a 5K or 10K walk.
That, Strich said, gave him a goal.
“I told myself, ‘I need to walk in that 5K,’ and that became my goal, to keep getting better and do it,” he said.
Strich ramped up his training. One-mile walks with the dog became two miles, then three miles. He started hiking with friends and local hiking groups.
He reached a breakthrough on Memorial Day Weekend, when he went with friends on a hiking trip up Laguna Mountain.
“I realized that day that my injuries were still there, but they were not the thing that was limiting me,” Strich said. “It was me being out of shape.”
It was around that time that Franz checked in with Strich and asked him what his plans were for Labor Day Weekend, and told him that Cigna would like to sponsor him in the Disneyland race.
By this time, Strich said, he was walking 4.5 miles easily, so he asked Franz if he could do the 10K instead.
The answer was an immediate and affirmative “yes.”
So on Monday, Strich will toe the starting line with his wife of 29 years, Encinitas Union School District board member Marla Strich, and Franz.
For her part, Marla said the road of recovery has been an emotional one to watch, but thrilling in its development.
“He has been pretty amazing,” she said. “I remember getting the call when I was at work that he was in the trauma unit and to get there safely. I had no idea what happened, and at least when I got there he was awake and talking. They told me from the beginning that he had a long road ahead of him, but the hope was that he could make a recovery, so I hung on to that hope with my fingernails.”
Marla said walking became a staple in their lives as both remained hesitant about cycling again.
“Part of the thought process of why we started walking was because neither of us was sure we wanted to get back on a bike, so we said, ‘Let’s try hiking,’ because we both like being outdoors,” she said. “But he’s come such a long way.”
Dan said the entire experience has been emotionally and spiritually enlightening. He derived strength from the prayers from friends and the support from his temple, the words of support from the biking community, and the encouragement from his family.
In addition to walking, he overcame a significant emotional and traumatic hurdle when he hopped on a bicycle for the first time since the accident a few months ago.
While he’s almost back to normal though, there are some things that might never be the same.
He has yet to bike on an open road, an emotional barrier he has yet crossed. He holds out hope that one day he will be able to cycle in the The California Coast Classic, a 525-mile scenic ride between San Francisco and Santa Monica that benefits the Arthritis Foundation, which he did the past two years before the accident.
And there are some parts of his body, such as his knees and back, that will never be the same, a revelation he learned during rehabilitation that briefly dampened his spirits.
“But I am just so grateful to be here,” Strich said. “From the first responders to the helmet, so many things in a horrible situation went right. It’s not a perfect Cinderella story, but nothing in this life is perfect.”