***Heads up: this story contains a picture of Mary Susan in the hospital during recovery. Some readers may find the image intense.
Experts in the science of life disruption recognize two primary ways in which a person’s life can undergo dramatic, permanent change: you can disrupt it yourself, or your life can be disrupted by an outside force. The only other variable is how much time remains between now and then.
In 2009, Mary Susan Breeden’s life was disrupted, violently and unexpectedly. And it wasn’t her choice.
7AM — It was in every respect a normal day. Mary Susan was on her way to work and chatting with her mom on the phone as she always did. The only difference today was that workers were repaving I-95, and traffic was unusually heavy. Mary Susan’s car inched along between other vehicles moving just as sluggishly — except for one vehicle, an 18-wheeler, which veered into Mary Susan’s lane a few cars behind her and failed to stop.
The behemoth struck the first car and pushed it aside.
It struck the second car and pushed it aside.
Then, it struck Mary Susan’s car.
Mary Susan wakes up with some new limits
(If you’re squeamish, buckle up.)
If Mary Susan had been stopped behind another car the size of hers, the juggernaut behind her might not have wrought as much destruction as it did. But the impact of the 18-wheeler from behind crunched Mary Susan’s car underneath the back of another 18-wheeler that was stopped directly in front of her. She was left with severe injuries to her skull, forehead, ribs, and arms. Her left wrist was shattered and degloved — another term for “hanging by a thread.” It took the jaws of life to extract her from the wreck.
After being rushed to the hospital, Mary Susan began a long series of intensive and complicated surgeries: a plate in her arm and multiple skin grafts to reattach the hand she nearly lost for good. For a month, doctors had to keep Mary Susan’s hand attached to her groin to revascularize the tissue. Detaching it from there was only the first of many difficult steps, as a large lump of flesh from her thigh had to come with it. From then on, Mary Susan was back at the hospital frequently for reconstructive surgeries. On top of the physical damage below the neck, the accident damaged Mary Susan’s brain and left her cognitively impaired. After such a catastrophic disruption, and with absolutely no memory of the accident, Mary Susan was frustrated most of all at her sudden, unexplainable loss of ability.
“I used to run a good bit, at least five miles a day,” she explains. “The fact that I could do that [before the accident] and was extremely active…and couldn’t [physically] do the things that my mind wanted me to do…was frustrating. One minute I could do it, and the next minute I couldn’t.”
Despite the damage to her body and her brain, one part of Mary Susan that the 18-wheeler couldn’t touch was her big heart — that, and her refusal to quit.
Mary Susan doesn’t take no for an answer
Throughout the next year of hospital visits, physical therapy, and neuropsychotherapy, it was extremely rare for medical professionals to remind Mary Susan of how powerful she really was. More often than not, they were telling her how limited she was.
“Mary Susan,” they would say. “With your injuries, you’re going to be able to do ‘this’ [read: something small], but that’s probably all you’re going to be able to do.”
But Mary Susan wasn’t one to settle for small, so she shook her head and fought hard for her own recovery. She started simply, with spin classes and Zumba, to lose the weight she had gained from having two kids. Along the way, she met a trainer who had just opened a circuit training and CrossFit facility (serendipitously) in her home town. Intimidated at first, Mary Susan gave this intense new gym a try. After just learning a few “basic” moves with a PVC pipe, she was exhausted and drenched in sweat.
“It wore my tail out,” she said. “But I loved it.”
From then on, Mary Susan was committed and driven. With a knowledgeable and informed instructor at her side who kept her from overexerting herself, she knew she was safe to test her new limits. Over the next month, Mary Susan graduated from her PVC pipe and began adding weight. She started to regain abilities her doctors said she’d never have again.
One day at the gym, Mary Susan overheard her instructor talking with another client about an event she had never heard of: a Spartan Race. Intrigued, Mary Susan asked him about it, but upon learning more, she judged that she could never do one. Just as she was about to close that door and go back to ‘normal,’ her instructor said something that changed her mind.
“Mary Susan,” he said, “if you can do a burpee, you can do a Spartan.”
In that moment Mary Susan decided to disrupt her own life. Her method: the Charlotte Sprint.
April 2016: Mary Susan becomes a Spartan
To prepare for her first race, Mary Susan was smart and signed up for a free Spartan workout in Columbia, SC. Fittingly, the workout was outdoors, and that day the ground was soaked with rain from a storm the night before. Undeterred, Mary Susan shrugged and thought it would be good prep for the course in Charlotte.
Long story short, she was right.
Mary Susan got the full Spartan package at her first race. In addition to four tough miles up and over Charlotte’s hills and the 20+ signature Spartan obstacles, she braved a cold snap that sometimes sent the air temperature plummeting below freezing. Nevertheless, with the help of her small team, Mary Susan persevered through every dunk and every frigid, muddy barbed-wire crawl. She crossed the finish line, earned her first Spartan medal and realized — yes, I can do this.
Despite all obstacles, Mary Susan is adamant: it’s TRIFECTA time.
For the average person, a life disrupted is a life destroyed; unexpected events have the final say, and circumstances determine the scope of a person’s life. But Spartans like Mary Susan demonstrate that life’s inevitable pain and destruction are only the beginning of something bigger, more powerful, and more valuable than we could ever know.
Having seen some of the worst life has to offer, Mary Susan sees every new challenge through a new perspective. “I’ve been through more than all of this,” she says, referring to the strain of an everyday workout.
“Now, all of this [work] is the fun stuff. I don’t need to complain.” — Mary Susan
Part of Mary Susan’s “fun stuff” is chasing her first TRIFECTA at the Carolinas Beast and Sprint Weekend. Why is she shooting for such an audacious goal? Because, even with all of the new obstacles she has had to face since her accident, she knows she can do it.
“[The TRIFECTA] is one of those things I can look back on and say to myself, I can do that,” says Mary Susan. After the TRIFECTA, Mary Susan hopes to branch out further, try even more difficult Spartan events, and discover just how far away her limits truly lie.