LIFE STORIES: Near fatal crash leads to cross-country cycling trip

A car accident after his sophomore year at the University of Iowa almost took Chase Thurman's life. A year and a half of physical therapy and exercise later, he recently returned from a cross-country cycling trip to began in California and ended in New York.| Photo by Mack Mumford/mackmumford.com
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 13, 2018 9:30 am Updated: Aug. 22, 2018 11:59 am

QUINCY -- After the accident, doctors didn't think Chase Thurman would live another day, let alone be able to embark on a cross-country bike tour.

The University of Iowa student was heading from his home in Bloomington, Ill., to his maternal grandparents' home in Blandinsville, Iowa, when a truck going 80 mph T-boned the car he was driving, his grandmother's Volkswagen Beetle, launching the small, bright yellow vehicle the length of a football field without rolling over.

He had been celebrating the end of his sophomore year of college with a rock climbing trip in Arkansas and was wrapping up the trip with stops to see both sets of grandparents. The accident happened only a few miles from his paternal grandparents' home near Macomb, Ill.

Although he doesn't remember much before or after the accident, he remembers the date: Jan. 13, 2017 -- Friday the 13th.

"The last memory I have is either my grandma or grandpa telling me to be safe and to buckle up. That was the last thing I remember," he said. "Then I woke up in the hospital."

That day, he racked up a tab of injuries that included every system in his body and would cause his doctors to question his ability to survive. The accident left him with a broken foot, broken hand, broken rib, a shattered femur that needed to be completely reconstructed with a titanium rod, tramautic brain injury, two punctured lungs and contusions on his heart and a ruptured spleen.

Thurman was flown by Air Evac to Blessing Hospital and rushed into surgery. He had three surgeries right away and another five over the next year and a half.

"The doctor said any one of those could have finished me off independently," he said. "The doctors gave me a 35 percent chance of living past the first 24 hours."

He woke up in the hospital confused, asking those around him if he was in a dream. Time and time again, Thurman heard that he shouldn't be alive, that people didn't know how he survived, and that he must have been spared for a reason.

"It messed with me for awhile," he said. "I started asking myself why I was here. That kind of got me in a funk."

In constant pain and sinking deeper into depression, a cycling magazine helped him pull through. An article about riders who traveled from Los Angeles to New York inspired him, and he promised himself that he would someday replicate the trip.

"I decided to take full advantage of being alive," he said. "I knew I had to get better to get back to doing what I like to do."


Hitting a low point

Thurman took up cycling in his sophomore year of high school and pulled his father, Lance, into the hobby shortly after. The two competed in the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) two years in a row.

The multi-sport athlete -- he was all-state in cross-country, track and wrestling in high school -- and Army ROTC member could do little more than sit in bed after the accident.

He was discharged from the hospital 22 days after arriving. When he got home, he got a puppy -- a chocolate lab named Crash -- to keep him company during the day. The two would walk a half-mile loop around his neighborhood.

"The first time I tried to go all the way around, I had to stop and rest on the side of the road for 30 minutes," he said. "I just broke down there on the curb. That was definitely a low for me."

Though his abilities were almost entirely constrained at first, he found he could use a stationary bike without resistance. He spent hours pedaling on that bike those first few months home.

"Exercise has always been my thing," he said. "I can kind of work myself to death."

His doctor at Blessing credits the muscle mass built up over a lifetime of exercise as what prevented him from succumbing to permanent injury. He still has pain when he walks, but he's used to it.

Those countless, unmoving hours on the bike, coupled with ongoing physical therapy, helped Thurman to slowly regain the strength and endurance that had dissipated with his injuries. A 10-mile ride slowly gave way to 20 and 25 mile rides.


Rising to the challenge

When he told his parents he wanted to bike across the country, a 3,500-mile trip, they weren't particuarly surprised, and they gave no complaints.

"I've never done anything this long before," he said. "My longest before this had been 200 miles in one day."

By the summer of 2017, he was able to participate in his first triathlon since the accident.

He embarked from the pier in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 3 -- about a year and a half after the accident -- burdened by 65 pounds of supplies. As the trip went on, and the pack got lighter, he shrugged off some of the emotional weight he had been carrying, too.

"I'm tired of asking why I'm alive," he said. "Unplugging for the summer gave me a new perspective. I waste too much energy on worrying about stupid, petty stuff."

Fifty-four days after he started the ride -- his first ever attempt at touring -- he arrived in New York City.

"One thing that really stands out to me that I gained on the trip is that I'm not always in control of my circumstances," he said, "but I can always been in control of my attitude toward those circumstances."

Thurman has returned to the University of Iowa and is now in his junior year. He has changed his major to criminal justice and has been physically cleared to enter into a six-year commitment with the Army after he graduates.

His next endurance challenge will be the Grand Canyon Rim2Rim, a marathon that will take him along trails through the Grand Canyon. He will run the race the first weekend in October.

"Long distance running has never been my thing," he said, "but I just want to see if I can do it.


Staff Writer Matt Dutton will ?bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.