From brain tumor to ultra runner to crocodile attack survivor to Leadville! Rosie Mtichell started running at 44 after surviving a brain tumor and brain surgery. Rosie entered her first half marathon in 2008, by 2015, she ran the 90km Comrades Marathon. In 2014, Rosie visited Leadville on an American road trip. She recalls saying that she would never dare enter the LT100 Run, but in November 2017, she did!
On December 30th of 2017, Rosie was in her native Zimbabwe and was attacked and almost died at the jaws of a 10-foot crocodile. Out of nowhere it bashed into her canoe, then leapt out the water and attacked her. It smashed her left arm, crushed her left hand, opened her chest and left thigh, then swallowed her right arm. Out loud, she said, “I am NOT ready to die. I have too much left to do!” It seemed un-survivable but she tried anyhow! Somehow, she hung onto the boat and pulled towards shore with her smashed left arm and crushed hand. With her hand and arm down its throat, she stared the croc right in the eyes and told it out loud over and over not to eat her. Its grip steadily tightened through the 75 minute ordeal. A second croc soon began following them. Odds of surviving seemed even slimmer. On shore, her horrified partner Sarah kept her head and drove away for help; an hour’s round trip on a bad dirt road. Rosie eventually reached some rocks near shore where the croc pulled her off the boat and began to drown her. At that very moment, park rangers arrived and fired many shots in the air! As she began drowning, the croc released her right arm! She ‘swam’ ten meters to shore with smashed arms and hands and both crocs somewhere nearby. With one third of her blood volume left, amazingly she survived nine hours before receiving a transfusion. But John, brought to shore by the rangers, tragically died not long after from the shock. Rosie’s survival odds were considered very low for the first week but incredibly, she did not develop the expected sepsis, a huge risk from a croc attack, which very few survive.
Two weeks after the attack Sarah walked into Rosie’s hospital room beaming. Sarah showed Rosie her Leadville Trail 100 Run certificate! Rosie spent a month in the hospital where she had five operations to save her arms and patch up 66 crocodile bites and injuries. For four long months, she had no use of her hands and was in 24 hour nursing. However, Rosie was determined to keep her leg strength and began walking as soon as permitted in hospital. By June 2018, Rosie was running again! By September she ran a half marathon and by November, she PR’d her first marathon since the attack! All the while she’s been training diligently for the Leadville Trail 100 Run. She will run in memory of John who did not survive the attack, but played a vital role in her survival. ‘Dig Deep, you’re stronger then you think you are’ took on a WHOLE new meaning after her croc attack! She did, and she’ll be on the start line on August 17th to rise above at the Leadville Trail 100 Run!
We asked Rosie a few more questions about her incredible story in the interview below.
Leadville Race Series: Given your prior tribulations, what does finishing the Leadville Trail 100 Run mean to you?
Rosie Mitchell: In my continuing recovery from my very near fatal crocodile attack 18 months ago, finishing the famous and iconic Leadville Trail 100 race, about which I first read in Chris McDougall’s book ‘Born to Run’, in 2009, has become hugely important and highly symbolic for me.
Back then, I honestly never dreamed that I would one day run this famous race. It sounded completely impossible – and yet here I am just one month away from standing at the start line!
It will be the triumphant culmination of all the pain, effort and determination that has gone into climbing back up from near death to taking on the massive challenge, both physical and mental, of this amazing race, with its incredible scenery, history and the extra challenge of the altitude!
My ultra marathon running, taken up quite late in life (I am now 59 and only started running at all at 44), played a pivotal role in the fact I survived the crocodile ordeal at all, according to the medical team that worked to bring me back from this catastrophic event and repair my very broken body. They said that without the fitness my ultra running had given me, I simply would not be here.
In turn, it is only because of a life-threatening illness that I discovered the absolute joy that running brings me, at all; a brain tumour, a very long brain surgery from which I might not have woken up, and a very long recovery from that, which triggered a bout of depression, which, after research online, I decided to combat by experimenting with running, having always been, in any case, a very fit outdoors person who loved to hike, cycle, swim and explore.
So when I was told, in hospital, and just two weeks after my crocodile attack, that I had a spot at Leadville, I was completely overjoyed, knowing that I would most likely be able to defer by a year, and placing it in my mind as my number one goal for which to aim in my recovery.
Leadville Trail 100 Run has therefore been constantly in my mind over the last 18 months, as I have crawled my way back up from the almost five months during which I had no use of my hands or arms at all, suffering indescribable levels of constant pain; and since then, as the pain has gradually lessened, and I have worked so hard to build back my strength and fitness. I have talked endlessly about the Leadville Trail 100, constantly referred to it, and trained so hard and well, starting almost from scratch at the end of May last year, and always with this race in my mind.
To participate in it, and finish it, to me will signify and symbolize my joyful celebration of being alive to run it, of still being able to run in spite of the dreadful injuries I suffered, of overcoming a totally impossible situation out on that water, and of having the focus, determination and sheer iron will, to climb my way right back up to the extremely high level of fitness I had in December 2017, which saved my life. I will also with deep gratitude celebrate the life of my beloved friend John who at the age of 90 died as a result of the attack, and who, by helping pull through the water on that fateful day, clinging onto our canoe, contributed to saving my life.
LRS: Your story is a tremendous example of determination. How were you able to “Rise Above” your prior obstacles to get back to the start line of a 100 mile race?
R.M: When I was fighting for my life, with my right arm down the crocodile’s throat, clinging onto my canoe and pulling through the water with my smashed left arm and hand, a thought went through my mind:
If I did manage to survive this, as unlikely as that was, it seemed certain I would lose my right arm. But even without that arm, I reasoned, I would still be able to run!
Miraculously, as it turned out, I didn’t lose it, because the crocodile spat it out!
I was just so grateful to be alive and to know that I would run again, in the ensuing very hard months, and with my first 100 mile race, the Leadville Trail 100, looming large in my mind, and other famous races along the way, which in that first year post croc attack I also could not run due to my injuries, namely the Two Oceans and Comrades ultra marathons, from the outset, I was extremely determined to regain my strength and fitness as fast as it could possibly be done.
Thus, from the moment my surgeon gave me permission to walk, accompanied by hospital staff, or anyone else who would assist me, I walked. I was very insistent about this! I was in constant terrible pain and my body was very weak but I just kept walking up and down those hospital corridors as much as it could be done. I was determined not to let my leg muscles atrophy. I spent a month in hospital and I was permitted to walk during the last 12 days.
Once I went home, I had 24 hour nursing care as I could not use my arms and hands at all. The terrible pain continued. Nonetheless, I insisted that my carers take me walking round and round the garden, all in a bid to build my strength back up and prevent wasting of the leg muscles. These walks were very difficult because I had external fixators in my arms and as painful as it was, it had to be done, in my mind, as I had big races ahead of me! And I so wanted to get back to running! The crocodile inflicted a huge injury on my left thigh as well, but luckily, that did not hurt very much and healed really well.
Of course this walking did indeed prevent muscle atrophy and in spite of my arms becoming inevitably very weak, due to their immobilization for the best part of four months, my legs regained strength quite quickly.
After a while, I insisted that these walks became longer and we started going round the blocks in the neighborhood. I got some very funny looks from passers-by with all that metal sticking out of my arms!
After a final operation to remove the fixators, and to place plates in my right arm, one bone in which had not healed fully, I now insisted on being taken walking back in the African bush that I love so much in my home country Zimbabwe, on my many and varied running training routes. Oh, the joy that being able to do this brought me!
By mid May, four and a half months after the crocodile attack, my nurses were no longer needed, and these walks had already reached distances of 8 to 12 kilometers. My legs were strong and I was regaining quality of life!
By the end of May, my arms were no longer in casts or splints and it was time to start running again! I started with just 2 km. Within two weeks I had built up to 10. In July I took on our running club, Run/Walk for Life’s, annual “Progressive Marathon” which means running the marathon distance in specified amounts over five consecutive days, ending with the last 8.2 km as a club event. I was the second fastest woman overall in the full marathon distance – that made me happy! I was coming back!
Whilst it was not all easy, getting back into running and building my fitness back up, in the sense that I battled continuous pain and was of course working very hard with a physiotherapist and occupational therapist to rehabilitate my very badly injured hands and arms, it did bring me great joy to be back running through the bush again, my favorite place to run, as nature is such a great healer and being in a natural environment brings me so much joy and serenity.
Quite a few people tried to dissuade me from working so hard on my running and admonished me for doing too much too soon. I was totally determined however to get my fitness back up enough to be able to run the Two Oceans, Comrades and Leadville Trail 100, in 2019.
So by September, I took on my first half marathon since the accident, which went very well, and by November, I actually took on the full marathon distance, to qualify for the Two Oceans and Comrades, and into the bargain, I actually ran my fastest full marathon ever! In December I ran the annual 20 Miler race in my home city Harare, coming third in my age group, getting a prize, and equaling my best time in that race.
Our running club named me Athlete of the Year, as well as awarding me the Endeavour prize for the runner who has overcome major adversity and gone on to attain significant running achievements! I was fully delighted by this and taken by surprise!
In January this year, I ran another full marathon, which also went very well.
I kept on training, and I was well ready for my fourth Two Oceans marathon (56km) in Cape Town in April and had a totally wonderful race. In May I ran my personal-best half marathon, coming second in my age group and winning a prize, and with the utmost joy, in June I was back at the start line of the Comrades for my fourth time in Durban South Africa, a race I truly love, with its history dating back to 1921, and ran my personal best time for the ‘Up Run’ from Durban to Pietermaritzburg (the direction of this race reverses annually). I ran it 23 minutes faster than my previous up run in 2017! And this time, the Comrades, which used to seem such a daunting distance to me, was now a training run for Leadville!
I am sure that being an ultra runner with a huge goal in mind meant that I recovered much faster than might have been the case, after such a catastrophic accident. Ultrarunners treat their goals seriously and focus in a dedicated way on achieving them! Having Leadville in mind as my ultimate goal has kept me very well focused on recovering my strength and health in the best way possible. Being an ultra runner also means being able to cope with a lot of pain. I have had to do that – but training for Leadville has helped to make that easier somehow. My previous experience coming back from my brain tumor also played its part. That was also a long painful process but I knew that I had come through it and come through it triumphantly and that it had given me an amazing gift: the gift of running! So when I look back, I actually see my brain tumor as a blessing, and as an indirect major contributory factor in my survival of what would otherwise most certainly have been a fatal crocodile attack. Because I would not have been a runner without that tumor!
To survive on just one third of my blood volume for 10 hours would not have been possible if I had not been an ultra runner, and to come through 66 crocodile bites without the medically expected and predicted systemic sepsis, which in itself would most likely have killed me, can also be attributed to my fitness from running.