NEENAH, Wis. (NBC 26) — After falling nearly 100 feet down a cliff, doctors warned Marine Corps veteran Chris Rand that he may never walk again. One year later, the Doty Island resident is running the 2021 Fox Cities half marathon.
Rand and his wife are on a mission to camp in every Wisconsin State Park. In August 2020, the two were at Wildcat Mountain State Park on a clear night to take in some stargazing at the observation area.
"So I went up to the observation point, and I lie down, and I stared at the stars. It's just beautiful, clear; can see the Milky Way, just everything," Rand said. " I doze off. Took a snooze, and I kind of woke up a little groggy, and I needed to relieve myself. So I was going to step into the woods instead of stepping in the woods I stepped off a cliff."
Rand and his wife estimate that he fell 100 feet down the cliff.
"When we went back and look you can look down and see the tops of trees, it's really surreal to think about," Rand said. He landed headfirst on rocks, which tore his scalp and broke his neck, back, multiple vertebrae and ribs. When he eventually sat up, he saw headlights ahead and starting walking toward a road.
"We know later on because of my smartwatch that I walked about a mile until I found help," Rand said. "I knocked at some people's door and I said, 'Please call help,' and I firmly collapsed on the ground in front of them."
The strangers called Rand an ambulance that took him to the nearest hospital to stabilize him. He was then transported to the Mayo Clinic's Level III Trauma Center in La Crosse.
"They said if I had just lied there I would have died," Rand said. "I probably caused more damage by walking the extra mile, but, you know, those are the options."
Rand was slated for spinal fusion surgery three days later. Those 72 hours were filled with stillness and anxiety about the future.
"During that three days, you know I'm in a lot of pain, lying in the hospital," Rand said. "You know they've got me completely immobilized because any wrong turn and I could become paralyzed. Three days in there, you know, preparing my wife like 'You might need to look into a care home, he may never walk again,' these types of things."
Rand said he was impressed that his doctors fused five of his vertebrae together in just an hour-long surgery. He came out with worse pain than before. The next step was to learn to walk again, but the pain from trying to sit up would exhaust him. He credits his wife's partnership for his ability to get through the next steps of this journey.
"We were at the hospital for a couple weeks, and I said, I was like 'What do I need to do to get out of here? I need to get out of here,'" Rand said. "And they're like, 'Well, we'd like to see you know, walk with a walker.' And so that was my goal and, you know, eventually was able to walk, you know, just up and down the hallway. I mean it was terribly exhausting. I was just there just pumping me full-on pain meds to be able to do it, but I was able to do it."
Goal-setting has been key to Rand's mental fortitude in recovery, and the 2021 Fox Cities half marathon is just his latest box to check off. Big milestones include being able to walk to the end of his block and back for the first time, rid himself of the neck brace, and hike 40 miles in the Ice Age Trail with his friend, as well as moments where he realized he was gaining mobility and losing pain.
"I have a little goal. I have to push myself through the pain, recover from it, get up and do it again, and do it again, and do it again," Rand said. "And that's what I've been doing ever since they told me the best thing I could do for my recovery was walk. I took that very seriously."
His first race in recovery was the Dobogai Memorial 5k in Fond Du Lac over Memorial Day weekend.
"It felt great to do that, and it was a great run. I mean I'm running," Rand said. "Talking about perspective, there's these, you know, disabled veterans in wheelchairs outdoing me by like a stretch during that run. Just zooming past me, oh my goodness! But you know, really puts things in perspective."
Rand signed up for the 2021 Fox Cities half marathon that same day. He hopes his journey will inspire people to let go of fear and challenge themselves.
"We're all at different places on our journey right like, like maybe I inspire somebody to say, you know, I can, I can do something that I didn't think was possible," Rand said. "It's just what we think, you know, just thinking that something is impossible prevents us from doing it and you know until you try and fail, it's, it's not impossible, and even failure doesn't mean impossibility."
"Nobody would have faulted me for sitting in a chair and taking pain meds for a long time," Rand said. "But I think that, you just have this moment – this – this now, that exists. This burning fuse that is not past or future. This is your opportunity to get up and do the things you want to do with your life."
There is still time and space to register 2021 Fox Cities marathon events including the half marathon and 10K on Saturday as well as full marathon and relay team marathon on Sunday. Sign up here.