Sitting in Smoky Mountain Roasters one recent morning, FitzGerald leans back into his chair quietly, looking out onto the busy midmorning traffic zooming back and forth on Hazelwood Avenue in Waynesville. To some, July 28, 2015 was simply eight months ago. But, for FitzGerald, it almost seems like a lifetime ago, some dream he awoke from in a haste of confusion and pain.
“I remember wondering what in the heck happened,” he said. “And, in many ways, I’m glad I don’t remember what happened. Then, I started to wonder if I’d ever be normal again?”
On that fateful day, FitzGerald was in the middle of a road cycling workout, all in preparation for the upcoming Ironman World Championship that was to be held in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii some two months or so down the calendar. It was a longtime dream for the ultra-athlete, one that came crashing down with his own body flying up into the air after smashing into a pickup truck crossing across his lane to enter a driveway.
“A friend of mine said, ‘You must’ve been devastated.’ Well, that’s a pretty strong word. I was more disappointed, and happy to be alive. I mean, this is a race at the end of the day, we’re not curing cancer,” the 57-year-old said modestly. “We were just out having fun, and there was some good lessons that came out of it, one being the realization that I was way too focused on that and not on everything else in life — there’s way more to life than just getting on a bike and riding everyday.”
City to country
Growing up in Winston-Salem, FitzGerald led a pretty normal life for a kid of the late 1960s and 1970s, He got involved in sports in middle school, only to soon find a love for track and field and cross-country.
“My father ran cross-country in New Jersey in the 1930s and 1940s, and I was always intrigued by it,” FitzGerald said. “I’ll never forget how sore I was after those first couple of practices. But, once I got over that initial pain and soreness, I liked it, it was fun and I had a great coach.”
And a great coach he was, leading FitzGerald to two state titles during his junior and senior year at R.J. Reynolds High School. The same coach won three more consecutive championships in a row following FitzGerald’s graduation.
That love of running and being outside slid into FitzGerald’s subconscious, to which he found himself majoring in forestry at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. During the summer of 1978, he got a job working on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mount Mitchell. Fitzgerald fell in love with Western North Carolina, and also his wife (a N.C. State grad, too), when they crossed paths while he was collecting site fees at a campground during his gig as a park ranger in Linville Falls in 1980.
“She and her sister came into the campground,” FitzGerald smiled. “She recognized me, we started talking, and after a month, and a lot of letters back and forth, I went to Raleigh and we got engaged, only to marry a year later.”
Into the wild
Following their wedding, FitzGerald transferred to work as a district ranger in the Everglades National Park for nine years. Then, it was onto Washington, D.C., and a six-year stint as chief ranger at the Chesapeake & Ohio National Park, only to wander up to Cape Cod as a ranger for few more years.
“There are two kinds of people who work for the park service, those born in the area who stay cradle to grave, and those who are nomads and like to travel around,” FitzGerald chuckled.
And while he was working in the Everglades, FitzGerald started to pick up road biking, even though his first “road bike” was a mountain bike with “slick tires,” as he said. But, the biking bug bit FitzGerald as he began taking the sport seriously when he landed in Denver as the regional chief for 89 parks in eight states within the Rocky Mountains and beyond.
“With road biking, you can just go so far, and cover so much ground,” FitzGerald said. “And I looked forward to those rides every time.”
Soon, the idea of doing an Ironman triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run) started floating around in his head. FitzGerald wasn’t sure when that would ever become a possibility. He loved running and road biking, but what about the dreaded swimming component, what about the amount of time and commitment needed to just be in shape enough to even step up to the starting line of an Ironman competition?
That curiosity shifted into a daily reality following FitzGerald’s first marathon in 2006, a race he ran to show solidarity with his nephew, who also was running the race as a fundraiser. FitzGerald ran 03:14, but already had sights set on breaking three hours during the 26.2-mile journey.
“I ran that first marathon in Green Bay. I had no expectations. I was 46, and someone told me I had a good enough time that I qualified for Boston,” FitzGerald said.
Boston as in the “Boston Marathon,” the sacred Holy Grail of running. FitzGerald ran Boston four times in recent years, capturing his personal record time of 02:52 in 2013. Those initial races became a springboard for him, ultimately pushing him into his first Ironman in Wilmington in 2009. Although it wasn’t the prettiest of debuts, FitzGerald persevered in his training, only to win his age group at the Chattanooga Ironman in 2014, which qualified him for the pinnacle of triathlons — the Hawaiian championships.
“I qualified for Kona,” FitzGerald marveled. “I had the plane tickets bought, the condo rented. Training was going well. I won the Gateway to the Smokies Half Marathon (in Waynesville) that spring, and also placed well at the Asheville Marathon — everything was happening right when it should be.”
Road to Recovery
July 28, 2015. After an extended swim training session at Lake Junaluska, FitzGerald and a friend grabbed their bikes and decided to do a five-hour road bike workout, one that did multiple loops along the Lake Logan triathlon course, which meandered through Bethel and Canton.
Riding down N.C. 110 into Canton, FitzGerald peddled hard through the circuit, a road map of miles and hills he’d known for years. Coming over one particular hill, a pickup truck crossed over the centerline to turn left into a driveway. FitzGerald was full speed and too late to stop by the time the two made contact. He shot off the bike, into the air, and landed like a ragdoll on top of the hard pavement of N.C. 110.
“The guy that was driving behind me saw the whole thing,” FitzGerald said. “He told me later he thought I was dead. I wasn’t moving and I was just laying there in the road.”
But, by sheer coincidence, a couple of medics on vacation from Florida stopped. They grabbed their medical kits and worked on FitzGerald until emergency help arrived. All told, FitzGerald had multiple skull fractures and a traumatic brain injury (the helmet saved his life), a ruptured eardrum, broken scapula, collapsed lung, broken femur, ruptured and torn quadriceps, broken fibula, and hundreds of stitches and staples to various cuts around his body.
“My left leg was killing me when I woke up in the hospital,” FitzGerald spoke of his broken bones. “And I asked that they put my leg in traction heading before surgery, but it was already was in traction — it was that painful.”
And so, the long road to recovery began for FitzGerald. With a seemingly second chance in life, he and wife decided to put the road bike away for good, not out of fear, but from the simple notion this wasn’t his first time getting hurt.
“This was my second accident. A couple years ago I hit a roll of insulation that fell off the back of a truck and broke some bones,” FitzGerald said. “It’s not easy because I love biking, and I’ve made a lot of great memories and friends through it. But, for the time being, I’m not giving it a thought.”
It was time to move on, into new endeavors. Since the accident, FitzGerald has officially retired from road biking and from Ironman events. And yet, it still hasn’t stopped his deep love of competition. These days, he helps coach local high school swimming and youth cross-country teams, sharing his knowledge and passion of sports, discipline and working hard to achieve goals.
“It’s about building that love for fitness, more so that just the results, to enjoy the journey rather than the destination,” he said. “And working with these kids has given me way more than I’ve given them — I love it.”
And in recent months, FitzGerald has come full circle in two moments of his life. He recently ran a 5K (3.1-mile) road race in Lake Junaluska, where he clocked a time of 19:19 (just 27 second slower than before the accident last year). FitzGerald is already making plans to return and try to, perhaps, defend his title at the upcoming Gateway to the Smokies Half Marathon. He also has met face-to-face with the driver of the truck, a man who will forever be connected to FitzGerald through an unfortunate incident.
“I knew where he lived and I just decided to stop by randomly one day,” FitzGerald said. “I wanted to stop by and tell him I was OK. I wanted to let them know it was an accident, and that I don’t know where I’ll ultimately be, but I’ll be OK — I’m here, and alive, and talking to you.”
Getting ready to head out of Smoky Mountain Roasters, it’s another bluebird sky high above Haywood County. With the mountains in the distance, FitzGerald says goodbye and enters into his unknown day, another day he’s grateful to be alive.
“I’m able to live in the house I love, in a community I love, with my best friend, my wife,” he said. “We’re able to do great things here, and look forward to doing more — I’m lucky, I really am.”
Want to run?
The Gateway to the Smokies Half Marathon will return for its second year on Saturday, May 14, in Waynesville. The route winds through tree-lined streets before ascending for mountain views, starting on Main Street and ending at Frog Level. For more information on the race and to register to compete, click on www.smokieshalfmarathon.com.