It was an ideal morning for a bike ride. That's what Lodi resident Cliff Barnes remembers first about that June day in Idaho — how nice the weather was. Sunny and clear, without a hint of wind: perfect for the long-time Ironman competitor to climb on a bike and get some training in. So he saddled up on a black Kuota Kalibur bike and headed for a canyon highway he'd traveled many times before.
What happened next was far from ideal.
While riding in a bike lane, Barnes was clipped by a side mirror on a passing car. He tumbled off his bike, which may not have been so bad — had he not landed in the roadway.
The next vehicle to come by was a Ford F-250, and the truck ran over both of Barnes' legs, causing instant, catastrophic damage.
"I really didn't know what had happened," Barnes, 56, said. "I knew I'd been hit, I knew I'd been run over, but I didn't know the degree of the injury."
Although the extent of his injuries wasn't immediately clear to him, the pain certainly was. Barnes said it felt like he was standing in a fire pit as he lay face down on the pavement, waiting for medical aid.
"I was fully awake through the whole accident," Barnes said. "It wasn't until I was in the ambulance that they gave me a shot of morphine. ... It was such horrendous pain."
Barnes was coherent enough to give his wife's phone number to the paramedics. Cathy Barnes had been on her way to get a cup of coffee when she got the call, letting her know only that her husband was hurt and not much else.
"I wasn't sure what I was going to find when I got there," she said. "When they told me he was hit by two cars, I just about flipped out."
The total damage wreaked by that Ford truck was both life-changing and devastating: The tibia and fibula were broken in both legs, and though the right leg had a more conventional break, the left leg was a compound fracture, where a bone ends up so askew that it juts out and punctures the skin.
"It was pretty terrifying to see a bone sticking out; I had never seen that," Cathy Barnes remembered.
The injuries were devastating, yet Barnes does not plan to merely recover.
He dreams of competing again.
Aftermath of a ride gone terribly wrong
Six months removed from that gruesome incident, Barnes looks back at photos and remembers the ordeal. The early photos of his injuries are unsettling at best, showing tattered flesh in gaping wounds on both of his legs.
Barnes and Cathy had been on a brief vacation to Idaho to visit the youngest of their three daughters, 21-year-old Chelsey. The accident and the chaos in its aftermath extended his stay there for weeks, and it was a full month before they could arrange for special transport for the wheelchair-bound Barnes. A driver for Costco for 15 years, Barnes has not been back to work since the accident.
Now, Barnes spends a lot of time in his recliner at his Lodi home. On an unseasonably warm autumn day last month, he related how hard it was to be nothing but a spectator on such beautiful afternoons.
"Days like today, I'd definitely be out on my bike or running or something, because you can't ask for much better than this," he said. "There's a lot of idle time, it seems like."
Barnes has already come a long way from that accident, but still has even further to go. A large metal apparatus surrounds his left leg, where a bone protruded out after the collision. Now there is a steel rod going into that leg, near the ankle, helping to keep it stabilized as the long healing process continues.
"This thing is pretty restrictive," Barnes said. "I walk now with a walker, but I don't have the flexibility in my ankle because of the pins going into it."
He has another steel rod inside his left leg, along with four screws in it, that will never come out. There are pins in both of his once-strong legs, which have atrophied into skinnier versions of their former selves. His right leg has broad scars on it from a skin graft performed on it not long ago. Barnes can't even remember how many procedures he's had — at least six or seven, he said.
The Iron Man
Before his accident, Barnes had been a shining example of endurance and pure will, competing in nine full Ironman competitions nationwide and at least as many half-Ironmans.
The grueling exhibitions combine three different events that would be challenging enough to finish on their own: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon (26.2 miles). Competitors are also given a time limit to finish the demanding contest, which is usually 17 hours.
Barnes' journey toward becoming an Ironman began nearly 20 years ago, when he said he got tired of being overweight and started eating better and exercising more. Within a couple of years he had dropped 80 pounds, and competed in his first triathlon, the Lodi Triathlon. He did a few more triathlons over the years, and in the late '90s he became interested in the Ironman.
The Ironman dates back to 1978, when it was created to settle an argument. Competitors in a Hawaiian triathlon had a debate going about who were the best athletes: swimmers, runners or cyclists. According to the official Ironman website, John and Judy Collins founded the Ironman competition to try to settle the dispute.
So what inspired Barnes to take up such a daunting challenge?
"A screw loose," he said with a chuckle.
His first Ironman was in 1999 in Florida, which left Barnes drained.
"I had to walk upstairs backwards, because my legs were pretty well shot," he said.
He's competed in Ironmans all over the country, including one in Idaho where the temperature reached close to 100 degrees, he said. Despite the half-day length of the event, the process of training and preparing takes so long that Barnes agrees with a friend who likened crossing the finish line to childbirth.
"You've carried this thing for 9 months of training," Barnes said, "and now you're at the end of it, you know, the finish line, and it's pretty rewarding."
Road to recovery
Today, Barnes would give just about anything to compete again in the brutal Ironman. He has trouble just walking these days. He gets around with the help of a walker, as he slowly recovers from his injuries. But at least he's a little more mobile now, making walker-assisted trips around his block in west Lodi on a daily basis. The giant metal brace on his left leg should be coming off early next year, he said, and he's working out three times a week at Lodi Physical Therapy.
There he rehabs with the owners, husband and wife therapists Monty and Lauri Merrill. Monty Merrill said Barnes is one of the hardest-working and determined clients he's ever had, which has been crucial during his recovery.
"He's always been a very dedicated athlete, and he's applying that to his rehab," said Lauri Merrill. "To come from that, to where he is now, is amazing."
Part of what's allowed him to keep working through the hardships is the support of Cathy, whom he affectionately refers to as Mother Theresa. The pair have been married for 36 years, and she has done all she can to help her husband get through what may be the roughest patch of his life.
"She's just an amazing woman ... and she's been right by my side through the whole thing," he said.
There has also been support from his daughters, Chelsey, Breann, 28, and Harmony, 31, as well as friends and even members of the community he had never met, Barnes said. One friend, Carl Cox, who is a contractor and used to train with Barnes, built a wheelchair ramp outside Barnes' home. And English Oaks Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which the Barnes family does not attend, has several members who offered to help the family adjust to their new adversity.
The most important lesson he will take from this experience? Be thankful for every day you have a "whole body." Barnes remembers being wheeled out of the hospital one day and overhearing the lamenting of three nurses walking in.
"They were complaining about where they had moved their parking lot to, and how they were having to walk further to the hospital," he said. "I'd give anything to walk that distance."
Crossing the finish line again
Barnes still possesses an indomitable spirit — the same spirit that allowed him to keep running during those tortuous final miles of the Ironman, that allowed him to make a lifestyle change almost 20 years ago to shed pounds and become a world-class athlete. He's not a young man anymore, and the injuries he suffered were grotesque. But Barnes insists he will not only run again — he'll be competing in Ironmans in the future.
"I know my personality, and I'll be finishing them again," he said. "I'm not going to let this stop me."
Barnes has convinced at least one other person that he'll reach that goal: his physical therapist, Monty Merrill.
"I'm 100 percent sure that he's coming back," Monty Merrill said. "He's just that kind of a person."
Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at fernando@lodinews. com.