By Karen Mitchell
BOSTON, MA, April 15, 2019—The weather was quite pleasant for spectators and photographers. The predictions of bad weather did not materialize, and it was certainly different from the relentless cold, rain, and wind of the 2018 Boston Marathon. The high temperature was expected to be 70°, a lot warmer than runners like.
Forty-seven-year-old Shawn Whitecomb was one of the 23,074 qualifiers who toed the starting line. He had qualified in 2017 at the Harrisburg Marathon with a 3:16:50 and had run three previous Bostons; his fastest finish time was 3:03:36. Marathoners recognize Shawn’s personal best of 2:57:55 as a very good time.
He ran as well as he could, but this marathon was painful; his training was not as good as he would have liked, but he had qualified after all and wanted to run. His legs weren’t strong, as his only four training runs in the last month had been 4, 8, 12, and 16 miles. In fact, these were nearly his only training runs since the previous September. Yet he crossed the finish line in 4:01:12, a personal worst.
Why was his finish remarkable?
Seven months earlier, he had sustained a broken neck, had two strokes, and needed surgery to sacrifice two of the four arteries to his brain and repair his neck. Even so, his wife, Liz, knew Shawn would complain that he should have run just a bit faster, for a sub-4.
YORK, PA—Shawn Whitecomb grew up near this small city in a farming family. (Locals know Whitecomb’s Farm Market, a family business.) In high school he played basketball and wrestled.
In 2006, he married Liz Treffinger, who had already founded her own contracting company when she was so young that she declined to meet her customers face-to-face, so no one would wonder if such a young person could do the job for them. She proved herself by building 200 homes in 20 years and retiring– because she could. Shawn was also a builder with his own company, and that’s how they met. He has also retired from the building business but has rental properties.
Shawn’s running career began when he started running in his mid-20s to stay in shape. He tried a 5K and did well. He was pretty successful racing, attaining a 17:50 PB for 5K. He worked his way up to running marathons, his now-favored distance.
His running career progressed and his first marathon was Charlottesville in 2010. He knew little about training or especially running a marathon. He didn’t drink a sip until Mile 18, became disoriented, and finished in 3:30:55. He had trained in York during the winter and didn’t know marathoners were supposed to drink.
That year, he did three more marathons with a PR at that point of 3:02:56 (Rehoboth Seashore Marathon). Marathonguide.com shows 14 marathons prior to Boston 2019 and a personal best of 2:57:55. Shawn and Liz, also a runner, learned by reading Runners World. Liz would help Shawn with ice baths and warming blankets, and they paid special attention to what the pro-runners said about training. By 2018 he had completed Boston three times and was qualified for Boston 2019.
Then everything changed.
YORK, PA, SEPTEMBER 19, 2018—Shawn and a friend headed to one of his rental properties to adjust a satellite dish on a 30-foot pole. They used two ladders like an A-frame with the pole between the ladders, just like they had done before. Suddenly the pole snapped and Shawn fell to the ground, 25 feet below. His friend says that Shawn immediately got up and started running around in circles. He convinced Shawn to sit down, but Shawn passed in and out of consciousness and even stopped breathing for 30 seconds.
When the EMTs arrived, they placed Shawn on a board, but they couldn’t get him up a hill to the ambulance. Firefighters were summoned to help.
At York Hospital, he and Liz soon learned that Shawn had a C1 fracture (a broken neck). The local surgeon told Shawn he needed surgery. Although this surgeon had done the needed surgery only once, he told Liz and Shawn that he would do it. With three days at York Hospital, Shawn had two strokes.
Meanwhile, Liz learned of Dr. Nicholas Theodore of Johns Hopkins, a nationally recognized neurosurgeon and expert in brain and spinal cord injury, and became determined that her husband would have this surgeon, “the best of the best.” Nine days after his injury, Shawn was transferred to Johns Hopkins.
There he had an angiogram (which Shawn and Liz later learned was the most dangerous and critical time), surgery to repair his neck and sacrifice two of the four arteries that carry blood to the brain, and he began his recovery and rehabilitation. He had lost 18 pounds, a lot for someone who had no extra weight.
Dr. Theodore told him that with this injury, he had had a 2% chance of survival. He wouldn’t have survived at all, except for his excellent health because he was a runner. He had strong bones and neck muscles, great blood flow, and a low heart rate (50 bpm before, during, and after the surgery). His body was accustomed to the trauma of running which enabled him to go through everything—strokes, surgery, and a great deal of trauma in just a few days. Dr. Theodore would say to Liz: “Thank you for bringing me the healthiest patient I’ve ever had.”
Soon after the surgery, Shawn demanded that he be released to go home. (He admits that he should have stayed longer and that he was in very bad pain.) He came home on October 10.
He started walking outside the next day, first by walking about 50 feet to the mailbox, and then he needed to rest a couple of days. In about two weeks, he worked up to walking a mile with Liz holding him to prevent falls. He stopped the pain meds cold turkey, and not without withdrawal symptoms. He slowly started gaining weight, and he was able to walk longer. Within a short time, he got to 54 miles in a week. But he couldn’t drive yet, swallowing was difficult, and he had trouble turning his head.
He ran a few times in December, but it didn’t work out; his neck was cracking and creaking every step. He got the flu on Christmas Eve, and when he got out of bed, his neck had stopped creaking. Shawn is a smart man, so he knew he needed to rest his neck. He stopped his walking and running regime and tried not to turn his neck. When he started to run again a month before Boston, his neck felt much better. He ran four miles and rested a week. He ran eight miles and rested a week. He ran 12 and rested a few days, ran 16 and rested a few days. Time for Boston!
Did he think Boston was a good idea?
He didn’t know if he’d ever qualify again, and he’d already qualified for 2019. When one doctor questioned his decision to run Boston, he was determined.
But Boston was painful, not from his neck, but from being undertrained.
How did he feel about his accomplishment? Initially he was disappointed at his “slow” time. But he was happy it was over. He wanted a pizza, and he wanted to begin training again.
Since Boston: He took off three days, and now he has built up to 40-50 miles a week. He’s doing two runs per day and treadmill workouts in addition to running outside. His legs are stronger, and he’s pleased that he’s back to running in the “sixes” (6+ minute miles).
Shawn’s future goals: He’d like to do ultras, starting with a 50 miler.
What advice do Shawn and Liz have for others?
Shawn: At some point he started a journal of what new thing he could do each day. This really helped him when he thought he wasn’t making progress.
Liz: She says she worked hard to get Shawn to Johns Hopkins and tells others to “be a patient advocate, and keep fighting the system.”
Both of them: Previously they had high-stress careers and were often anxious. Shawn’s injury has put everything into perspective. When something happens, they’ll joke, “No one had two strokes or broke their neck.” When they hear an ambulance, they feel bad for the person or family that might be having a big problem. And they say: “Lots of people have it worse than we do.”
And there’s no self-pity.
2019: Boston Marathon 4:01:12
2018: York Marathon 3:38:22
2017: Harrisburg Marathon 3:16:50
2013: Boston Marathon 3:21:33
Gettysburg North/South Marathon 3:19:24
Pocono Mountain Run for the Red Marathon 3:13:22
2012: Boston Marathon 3:28:50
Gettysburg North/South Marathon 3:04:31
Pocono Mountain Run for the Red Marathon 3:10:12
2011: Boston Marathon 3:03:36
Rehoboth Seashore Marathon 2:57:55
2010: Charlottesville Marathon 3:30:55
Bob Potts Marathon 3:13:05
Harrisburg Marathon 3:03:56
Rehoboth Seashore Marathon 3:02:56
Categories: Athlete Profiles