UW senior Tanner Tennyson was a promising baseball prospect before an accident left him in a coma for three days.
It is summer in Napa Valley and a man is running through the suffocating heat. Ten hours ago, he started swimming through the Russian River. He has swum, biked and run for more than 130 miles today, and now, 15 miles into a marathon, he is suffering from severe dehydration and gastrointestinal problems that should have him bedridden. Just eight days ago, he got off an Alaskan fishing boat after 40 days at sea.
The man shouldn’t be here. By all rights, he should have been in a wheelchair for the past 10 years.
On Sept. 14, 2001, Tanner Tennyson, now a UW senior, fell off a 10-foot high breezeway and landed on the back of his head. He fractured his skull and suffered a brain bleed in his left frontal lobe that left him in a coma for three days.
But Tennyson was lucky. These are serious injuries, ones which could have killed him, or left him a paraplegic, or in a vegetative state. Instead, he escaped with mild memory loss and pains in his head.
“I’m just kind of like, ‘How did I not break my spine? How did I not break by back? How did I not break the bones inside my skull?’ you know,” Tennyson said with an incredulous shake of his head. “I didn’t have a scratch on my head, which was wild. There was no blood. It is kind of amazing.”
When his coma ended, Tennyson faced an even greater problem: How to live a life that had previously been defined by athletics while dealing with the side effects of a traumatic brain injury.
“When I had my body stripped from me, it was like, ‘Oh, who am I?’” Tennyson said. “You go through an identity crisis, totally.”
At the time, Tennyson was a promising baseball player already being contacted by colleges as a 15-year-old. But the pain caused by his brain injury proved to be an end to that dream. Every time Tennyson experienced any sort of jarring motion, from swinging a baseball bat to simply walking too fast, the inner bones of his skull jabbed at his brain, no longer inhibited by protective tissue that was destroyed in the accident.
Tennyson searched for answers, going from one doctor to another in the hope of an answer to one simple question: How could he be an athlete again?
But one after another, the doctors told Tennyson to be careful. They said the pain and the after-effects would simply be a part of his life, something he would forever have to deal with.
And for four years, he did what the doctors said.
“I didn’t do anything,” Tennyson said. “It was terrible. It was really, really terrible. Because I have so much energy, and I’m athletic, I want to do things. I would [have] liked to play athletics in college, but I [couldn’t] really do anything.”
Just as the frustration of stillness became too much to bear, a chance encounter with an old acquaintance changed Tennyson’s life.
“I was eventually going to community college and bumped into a guy from my high school who had lost 145 pounds,” Tennyson said. “And I was like, ‘Whoa, you’re kidding me?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m marathon running now.’ And I was like, ‘That’s insane. If he can do that, I got to figure my thing out.’”
Tennyson could not accept being careful anymore. He kept going to doctors, kept seeking opinions — until a fortuitous trip to Virginia Mason. Tennyson serendipitously wound up in the office, not of a neurologist, but of an ear and eye injury specialist who had a few much-desired words of advice.
“She was like, ‘Well, I am not really the specialist for you,’” Tennyson said. “But then we ended up chatting, and she was like, ‘What if you tried [treating it as a soft-tissue injury]?’”
That advice came with a few magic words: If it hurts, do it. If it makes you want to cry, don’t do it.
So Tennyson started to walk, faster and for longer distances. Then he started to run. Before long, he entered a half-marathon. And within just a few months of his re-entry into the world of athletics, Tennyson entered his first triathlon.
“I just wanted to be able to use my body again,” he said. “I had no idea what [a triathlon] was. I was like, ‘That sounds really hard, I want to do it.’ That is basically how I got interested in it — I was just curious.”
Shortly after his interest in triathlons was piqued, Tennyson met a seasoned triathlete named Aaron Scheidies — a UW graduate student at the time — at a fundraiser for the UW triathlon club. Scheidies, who is legally blind and holds multiple world records in the triathlon, took Tennyson under his wing.
“At first, I tried to be that mentor and show him the ropes,” Scheidies said. “[But] once he learned some stuff, he has been able to branch out and kind of pave his own way.”
Before long, Tennyson realized he had found something he was good at it. Better at, in fact, than just about everyone else who raced triathlons. While he was good from the start, he was at first unable to fully dedicate himself to the sport due to the lasting effects of his brain injury. It took about a year after the start of his career for Tennyson to begin training to compete on the national, and eventually international, scale.
Simply racing triathlons wasn’t enough for Tennyson. In the summer of 2008, shortly after competing in his first triathlon, he was offered a spot on a commercial fishing boat in Bristol Bay, southeast of Alaska. Each of the past three years, Tennyson has left home just after the end of school, around June 15, for about 40 days of fishing in some of the toughest conditions in the world. In two weeks, he will leave for his fourth summer at sea.
For the first year, this worked fine — it didn’t interfere with his training because he couldn’t fully train in the first place. But by the next summer, and the summer after that, going away to fish for a month and a half once a year put a serious strain on Tennyson’s competitive ability.
“It makes a big difference, for sure,” he said of spending so much time on the boat. “You don’t get any fruit, and you don’t get any vegetables. … You put on a little bit of weight, or at least I do. Everyone else starts to lose weight, because they are working like, ‘Oh, this is the hardest work I do all year,’ and I’m like, ‘This is not enough for me.’”
Last year, Tennyson decided he had to find a way to remain in shape while on the boat. He did it the old-school way. To work on his cycling, Tennyson found an old exercise bike on Craigslist and had it craned onto the boat. For running, he convinced his captain to make periodic stops so Tennyson could run through the beaches and forests of southern Alaska.
It would seem that finding a chance to swim would be no problem while bobbing in an ocean. But the fishing waters are cold — deathly cold, in fact. So Tennyson brought a set of elastic exercise bands on to the boat and, at every opportunity, hooked them around the boat’s stern roller and emulated a swimming stroke, using the bands as resistance.
Competitive triathletes race according to age groups separated in five-year chunks. As a rule, divisions get more competitive and post faster times the older they are. Last year, with his 24th birthday on the horizon, Tennyson realized his last chance to be a member of Team USA, and thus to race at the world championships, as a member of the 20-24 age group was rapidly approaching.
In a spur of the moment decision, he decided to enter the national championships in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last Sept. 26. Despite having only trained at the race’s distance (a .46-mile swim, a 15-mile bike ride, and a 3.6-mile run) for a month and a half, Tennyson placed sixth in the nation for his age group, qualifying him to represent the United States at the World Championships in Beijing, this coming September.
“I am nervous, I am really nervous,” Tennyson said of the upcoming race. “Because this distance isn’t as popular in the U.S. as it is everywhere else. The sprint distance isn’t cherished in the U.S. — everyone gets their rocks off on Ironman. I want to get as fast as I can and represent the U.S. as well as I can, especially being one of the top guys on the U.S. team. I feel a little bit of pressure on my shoulders, for sure.”
Scheidies, who is himself experienced on the international stage, thinks that the main adjustment for Tennyson may be getting used to the magnitude of the event.
“The thing about it is that Tanner hasn’t done a lot of big races,” he said. “So it is time that he races the big boys. [But] I think he has improved a lot, and I think he can maybe surprise some people.”
In preparation for the world championships, Tennyson has tailored his training in the past nine months to better fit the sprint distance, which included a little practice at school.
“I taught a spin class at the IMA this year, which actually did help me a lot,” he said. “Everything that I wanted to do for my distance of training, I put them through. They liked it.”
For most Americans, as Tennyson said, the holy grail of triathlon is the Ironman. An Ironman triathlon is a massive, draining adventure that takes a full day to complete. The athletes begin by swimming 2.4 miles, follow it with a 112-mile bike ride, and end by running a full marathon, 26.2 miles. Suffice to say, it is not for the faint of heart.
In 2009, Tennyson and a friend were contemplating entering their first Ironman. They had their sights set on the Vineman, the longest-running Ironman in the lower 48 and a crazy dash through Napa Valley.
The plan sounded fine and dandy until the pair looked at the date of the Vineman: July 31, about a week after Tennyson would return from his annual 40 days spent fishing.
“I was just like, ‘F--- it, let’s do it. This will be ridiculous,’” Tennyson said. “Everyone was like, ‘You’re stupid, that’s the dumbest thing. You are going to hurt yourself.’ And I’m going, ‘No, this is sweet — you’re probably right, but this is sweet.’”
So Tennyson signed up for the ride of his life. He arrived home from Alaska July 23, dropped his bags off at home and hopped a flight for California.
Scheidies was one of those who thought Tennyson was just a little bit crazy.
“I was shocked that he decided to do that,” he said. “I was very impressed with how he did … because that is not optimal, and probably in most cases not healthy. It is kind of fearless, you know, and pretty amazing to be on a boat for 40 days and then get off and do an Ironman eight days later.”
There’s a lot of time to think in an Ironman (Tennyson ended up finishing in 12:50:14). For Tennyson, it was an opportunity to reflect on just how amazing his journey to Napa Valley was.
“Really like giving thanks to God, big time, because it was like, I shouldn’t be walking,” he said. “I could have all these crazy disorders, I could be going into a seizure in 10 seconds, but I have none of these issues.”
It wouldn’t have been quite right, though, for Tennyson to go through this race, the ultimate triumph of the power of his once-broken body, without just one debilitating injury.
At about the ninth mile of the run, Tennyson felt a sharp pain in his lower abdominal. As a childhood survivor of often severe stomach problems and complications, he recognized the pain for what it was: A stop sign.
But, just like being careful, stopping isn’t really an option for Tennyson. He had promised to himself before the race that he would not walk the marathon — he would run, or he wouldn’t finish at all.
“A lot of people swim, and then they bike, and then they walk the marathon,” he said. “And then they get an Ironman tattoo, and they wear the Ironman hat for the rest of the year, and they want a pat on the back, and I am not into that. I was like, ‘No, f--- that, I’m not walking.’ With internal bleeding, I am still not walking. So I didn’t.”
So, in between harried trips to the restroom, Tennyson finished the race.
“I got to the finish line and about 10 minutes after the adrenaline wore off, I got myself to the medical tent, and they did a lot of work,” he said.
There he is. The man is running through Napa Valley, sick and suffering, but with a smile the size of a sockeye salmon on his face. A triumph of the athletic and human spirit. Because Tanner Tennyson knows he shouldn’t be here.
“Everyone is like, ‘Ironman,’ and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding?’ There are so many harder things in life than Ironman,” Tennyson said. “There has got to be.”
Reach reporter Kevin Dowd at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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