Human Race: Amazing Grace

Photo by Ben Knight

In early 2014, Grace Havard was in a coma. She’d been involved in a car crash that left her with 28 broken bones (including in her neck, spine and pelvis), a punctured lung, kidney failure, a ruptured liver and spleen, and extensive petrol burns. Her family was told not to hold out much hope. It hit spring 2016 and Grace ran the Virgin Money London Marathon. ‘I was doing it to give something back to all those who helped save my life,’ she says.

When you meet this sparky 22-year-old, it’s hard to imagine what she’s been through: the accident itself, a three-month stay in St George’s hospital in Tooting, south London – from which she emerged in a wheelchair – and then the hard graft of physiotherapy.

It’s even harder to imagine what drove her to sign up for a marathon. But one thing that’s come out of Grace’s experience is a renewed self-belief and a determination to live life to the full. ‘I want to get my story out there to raise awareness and funds for the amazing work that goes on at St George’s,’ she explains. ‘If I can give one person hope, or change one life for the better, it makes everything I went through worth it.’

On April 2nd, 2014, Grace, a student at Reading University, was driving home to Chertsey along a dual carriageway when her wheel clipped the curb, sending the car onto the other side of the road. Five weeks later, she woke up in the trauma orthopaedic ward of St George’s. ‘It’s quite hard to come to terms with losing five weeks of your life,’ she says.

During those three months in the hospital, Grace had numerous surgeries – including the insertion of metal rods into her pelvis (broken in five places) and multiple skin grafts. ‘Sometimes I was in so much pain I would just cry,’ she says. ‘The biggest thing is the uncertainty. Not knowing if you’re ever going to walk, ever going to be able to be how you were. I just wanted to see someone who’d been through what I’d been through and was OK, living a normal life.’

A further four months of treatment followed before Grace was sent to Queen Mary’s – St George’s sister hospital in Roehampton – for physiotherapy. ‘I arrived in a wheelchair,’ she says. ‘I could walk about 200 metres with the help of a stick and I couldn’t turn my head without losing my balance. I’d lost a lot of bone and muscle strength from not being able to bear weight for so long. When the physios asked what my goals were I said I didn’t want to have to use a wheelchair and I didn’t want a limp.’

But soon, Grace had set her sights far higher: ‘Most of the other patients on the ward were amputees,’ she explains. ‘It brought it home to me that I was lucky I still had my legs and it made me all the more determined to use them.’

Part of her rehabilitation was using the hospital treadmill, gradually building up her walking speed. Noticing her determination, her physio, Ben Bowling, encouraged her to try jogging and 11 days later she completed 5K in 42 minutes. ‘Then I set myself the challenge of running it in under 40 minutes.’ The day Grace was discharged from Queen Mary’s, she succeeded in that aim.

Though fit, Grace was not a runner before her accident. But it soon began to play a big role in her recovery. ‘Running gave me purpose. I’d had to take a year out of uni because of the accident, which was tough. Working towards goals gave me something to focus on.’

Grace continued with her 5K runs after she left hospital and then gradually began to increase the distance. A year after the accident, she ran her first 10K. ‘I cried at the finish. I felt so proud and it made me realise that I could do anything I put my mind to. I’ve now resolved to do something that makes me feel alive every year on the anniversary of the day I survived,’ she says. ‘I want to turn something bad into something good.’

Last autumn, Grace began to prepare to run the 2016 Virgin Money London Marathon on behalf of St George’s Hospital Charity. She already had two half marathons under her belt and loved the way running makes her feel. ‘I feel so proud of myself when I come in from a long run or cross a finish line.’

Alex Trompeter, the consultant who oversaw Grace’s care at St George’s, is a former marathon runner himself. He told her, ‘When you hit the wall in the race, remember where you were when we first met and how far you’ve come.’

‘Whatever happens, I know I will finish, whether I walk, run or crawl,’ Grace told Runner’s World before the race. She went on to complete the marathon in 6:02 after injuring her foot at around mile 22. ‘Every time I tried to run a little bit, it was pure agony and I felt like I had failed, as hitting my goal of 5 hours was now out of the question.’ However, a stranger offered some touching words of support to carry Grace over the finish line. ‘As I was walking down the Embankment, a man said "Listen love, you get the same medal if you finish in 2 hours or 8. Be proud.” He reminded me of how far I'd come and what an achievement running the marathon is for anyone. Nothing will ever beat the feeling I had when I crossed that finish line.’

To date, Grace has raised almost £13,000 for St George’s Hospital, and has Dublin Marathon, a tandem skydive and an obstacle course race next on her list. She’s also applied for the 2017 London ballot to give that 5-hour marathon another shot. One thing’s for sure – there’s not a single thing that will hold Grace back. ‘I’ll never forget all the people – surgeons, consultants, nurses and physiotherapists – who helped me. If I can help them give somebody the same chance that I had, then I will have done what I set out to do.’