When race organizers announced they would be keeping the 2012 Boston Marathon course open an extra hour due to record-high temperatures, Lisa Buohler reacted with more relief than worry. "I thought, 'Yay. That's great! With six hours, maybe I can at least get a finisher's medal.'"
Even that was a lofty goal for a 42-year-old mother of two who, just last September, was lying in a Florida hospital on a morphine drip, her liver lacerated, lung bruised and back crushed after an SUV rear-ended her on her bike. It was only 16 days before Boston that her doctor had cautiously cleared her to start running again "as long as she took it easy."
So, when she crossed the finish line at 3:48:51 -- on a day so hot that 4,300 registered runners opted to not even start -- she surprised even herself.
"I was shocked," she says. "To this day I am still asking myself, 'How did I do that?'"
Friends and doctors suspect the answer to this question, and to just how she survived her grisly collision without permanent brain or spinal cord damage, lies in the shape she was in before her accident. "She was just remarkably fit," says friend and training partner John Blewis. "Literally one of the most determined athletes I have ever seen."
Born in Manchester, England, in 1969, Buohler moved to the U.S. in 1991, started a family and launched a career as a personal trainer and nutritionist in Lehigh Acres, Fla.
It wasn't until age 37 that she took up running. But after winning her age division in her first road race, a local 4-miler, she caught the bug fast. Soon she was ticking off respectable PRs (17:27 for 5K; 39:35 for 10K; 1:27 for the half-marathon) and competing in the 5,000 meters in the World Masters Athletics Championships.
In 2010 she ran her first marathon in Athens, Greece [3:26], and easily qualified for the events in New York City and Boston. Meanwhile, she was also quickly ascending the ranks of duathlon, earning a spot on the U.S. team for the 2011 ITU World Duathlon Championships in Spain last September. "I was at the best fitness level I had ever been at in my life and I felt like I was ready to earn a space on the podium at worlds," she recalls. "I had no idea that my body was preparing for a very different challenge."
On Sept. 14, two days before she was to leave for Spain, she took her Trek Speed Concept 9.9 out for a test ride. She was nine miles out when an SUV came up behind her, barreling its right headlight into her left buttock -- severing the muscle into two pieces on impact. She was thrown 20 feet and crashed down so hard it cracked her helmet in three places and left cartilage in her elbow exposed.
Five of her vertebrae were fractured, as was her sternum, patella, pelvis and several bones in her foot. She was bleeding internally and had bits of carbon from her mangled bike embedded deeply into her wounds. She had no idea how bad it was. "I remember saying, 'How am I going to get new shorts by the time I'm supposed to leave Friday?"
Buohler would spend six days in ICU and 12 weeks in a back brace. The New York City Marathon was out (she was able to defer) and Boston also looked unattainable.
But she started to regain her fitness the moment she could walk, and on Jan. 2, she ran her first mile, clocking a 7:15, before pain curtailed that day's effort. "She had that focus like she was competing again," says Blewis, who ran with her that day. "It was a surreal moment."
Unbeknownst to her doctor, she started signing up for races, "just to be around that running atmosphere." She walked the Walt Disney World Half-Marathon in January, then ran/walked the St. Petersburg Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon the following month and Sarasota Half Marathon on March 12.
On March 31, her doctor cleared her to run again, and within days she worked her way up to six miles, by far her longest running effort in seven months. She vowed to be at the starting line in Boston, run as far as she could, then walk until the course closed.
"I didn't even try to talk her out of it," says husband Sebastian Buohler. "It wouldn't have worked anyway. I just told her to listen to her body."
She did, and her body told her to keep running, despite temperatures in the upper 80s. "I was amazed at how good I felt," she says. But at mile 20, her legs and feet started to ache. "I just thought, at this point in marathon, everyone is hurting," recalls Buohler. "I'm just going to push through it. When I reached the finish, I was in disbelief."
A month after her improbable finish, Buohler was already plotting her return to duathlon (she competed at this year's world championships in France) and started thinking about running the New York City Marathon in November.
With ongoing physical therapy and copious amounts of stretching and massage, she was able to up her training to 40 miles per week as of early September. But she still aches a lot and says running fast jars her spine.
"People ask, 'Are you sure you didn't set your recovery back by running Boston?'" she says. "I say, 'No, it made me so much stronger mentally, and it was just such an amazing experience.' I don't regret doing it at all."
Her only regret: That she didn't run it 3 minutes and 51 seconds faster. That would have gotten her to the magical mark of 3:45:00, the updated qualifying time for her age group for the 2013 race. But given her tenacity and fitness, it's a good bet Buohler will find her way back to Boston by 2014.
This piece first appeared in the October 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.