When he was 18, Brian Boyle was in a catastrophic accident. Now, Boyle connects with life on the trails.
On July 6th, 2004, just one month after graduating from high school, Brian Boyle was finishing swim practice. A top high school athlete, Boyle was looking forward to college and entering his first triathlon. An avid mountain biker, swimmer, and standout track athlete, Boyle was at the top of his game.
But Boyle’s dreams were put on a cruel hold. As he was driving home from the pool, a speeding truck struck the passenger side of his car as he was crossing an intersection.
“My injuries were pretty catastrophic,” says Boyle, 14 years later. “My heart was ripped across my chest, and my ribs and pelvis were shattered. Just about every major organ was lacerated, damaged, or in failure. I lost 60 percent of my blood at the scene of the accident and was trapped in my car. Firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs received awards for the way they extricated me from the scene.”
Boyle was medevacked to his local trauma center, near Washington, D.C. While some physicians considered him dead on arrival, he was rushed into surgery, where doctors operated on his heart, liver, kidneys, and vital organs. He was given 36 blood transfusions, 13 plasma treatments, and put into a medically induced coma for the next two months.
Boyle’s first memory was of his hospital room, probably a month after the accident.
“When I woke up, I wasn’t sure why I was there,” he remembers. “I didn’t know why I couldn’t move or why my parents were hysterical. This must have been in the first few weeks, but I was like Rip van Winkle. Time didn’t exist. I couldn’t tell what was day and what was night. I remember my parents begging me to keep fighting and stay strong. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t in a dream or a nightmare. This was reality.”
While Boyle was in a coma for two months, during the second month, he was very aware of his surroundings. He could see and hear but couldn’t move or communicate. After two months, he was weaned off the heavy sedation and was gradually brought out of the coma state.
After being in the ICU for two months, he was taken to a step-down unit, which was a local rehabilitation clinic in Baltimore. His recovery lasted for more than three years.
“First I had to transition from a bed to a wheelchair and then a walker and then a cane,” remembers Boyle. “During that timeframe, it was a big accomplishment to smile and blink and learn how to tie my shoes.”
Boyle went from an 18-year old athlete about to head off to college to being almost completely helpless.
“I had to live with my parents,” said Boyle. “I was 18 and alive but I lost 100 pounds and couldn’t do anything on my own. My parents had to carry me everywhere, which was a huge struggle for them. It took a toll on them for sure.”
Even then, Boyle knew how much his parents were suffering, and he tried to always appear positive.
“Of course, there were moments when I was bitter,” he says. “My buddies were going to college and having the time of their lives and I was being spoon fed and learning how to chew ice. It was a really tough time, so in those moments of bitterness and anger, I would try to reflect on the situation. I would tell myself, ‘Yeah, it’s tough, but look at the people supporting you.’ The reality was that it was hard, but tomorrow could be a better day. And I was so grateful that I was able to see tomorrow. As hard as that time was, I was very aware that I was still alive, off life support, out of the coma, and back into life again. I was constantly trying to reground myself on the extent of how lucky I was.”
Throughout the process of recovery, Boyle kept his dream of completing a triathlon.
“I had felt so limited and restrained, even when I was getting better,” said Boyle. “So I needed something. Coming across the finish line seemed like that something. I was so used to physical challenge in my recovery, and doing a triathlon seemed like the metaphorical light.”
In the summer of 2007, just three years after his accident, Boyle competed in his first triathlon, which amazingly enough, was a 70.3 distance race in Michigan.
“I think I had about two weeks of training in the sport at the time,” says Boyle with a laugh. “I got a road bike just before the race and didn’t know how to clip into the pedals or hold onto the aero bars. I was in the wrong gear for the entire race, but I didn’t care. I knew that triathlon was what was going to complete the healing process for me so I didn’t feel limited or constrained.”
His first triathlon was tough, but he still remembers the feeling of accomplishment at crossing the finish line and knowing that his accident was that much further behind him.
“Racing triathlon is a different kind of pain than what I experienced in the hospital,” says Boyle. “When I was in the hospital, it was anguish and agony. Triathlon is different. The race has become a way to reflect and remind myself not to take a single breath for granted.”
When Boyle first entered triathlon, he expected everything to be on the road. But he was always drawn to the peace and freedom of nature that he experienced hiking. It wasn’t long before his hikes turned into trail runs and then ultra races and trail runs.
From the trails, XTERRA was an easy jump.
“For the past three years I had been talking to Jim Harman and Andy Bacon, race directors of the XTERRA EX2 race in Maryland,” said Boyle.
In July of 2018, Boyle registered for his first off-road triathlon at XTERRA EX2. He finished 12th in a very competitive age-group (hint: XTERRA Regional Champ Tyler Guggemos was third.)
“I am fascinated with the off-road,” said Boyle. “There is such a different element to it because you never know what’s around the next corner. You have the ups and downs of the trails and the terrain. And then there is trail running and mountain biking. I love that the trails add an extra challenge. It’s really exciting just to be out there in nature, enjoying the scenery and the ongoing changes in elevation. I often stop during my training just to reflect on the moment and take a photo or two. I just love being out on the trails rather than the roads or the treadmill. Getting onto the trails has been rejuvenating to the mind and body over the years.”
In addition to pursuing the light on the XTERRA trails, he is also passionate about getting more people out on the dirt. Last year, when Boyles’s wife Pamela found out that they were expecting, Boyle became especially motivated to get kids out onto the trails.
“We really wanted to bring the health and fitness component of triathlon to kids of a young age and inspire them to get out onto the trails,” said Boyle. “Swim, Bark, Run is the story of Daisy the Bulldog, who has gone to all of her owner’s triathlons and is there to meet him at the finish line. In the meantime, Daisy does her own dog-athalon where she doggy paddles at a local pond, skateboards, and then does a trail run.”
Today, Boyle’s daughter Clara is a year and a half old.
“Clara was a huge motivation for the book,” said Boyle. “As an athlete, I wanted to find something to connect her to the sport I love, and I couldn’t’ find anything. So when Pamela and I found out we were expecting, we knew this was an idea that had to come to fruition even if we had to create it ourselves.”
Clearly, there is nothing Brian Boyle can’t accomplish once he sets his mind to it. He has come such a long way from being pulled from the wreckage of that terrible accident, thanks in no small measure to his incredible strength and outlook on life.
“After the accident, when my heart was racing and my blood was pumping, that was a sign that I was dying,” says Boyle. “Today, in triathlon, when my heart is racing and my blood is pumping, it’s a sign that I am living. I just love competing in this sport. It’s been incredibly healing.”