LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – There are defining moments in all our lives. How we respond to them can change our entire future. Accepting what is dealt to you is one option but finding the courage to fight through the pain and chaos is another. David Helms was faced with that decision 12 years ago. He decided to fight back.
In November of 2011, Helms was driving about 65 miles per hour down a two-lane highway in Dothan, Alabama when a truck heading in the opposite direction crossed into his lane and hit his car head-on.
“I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember the hospital stay and don’t remember the treatment.”
The impact was so strong, the dashboard of his car went through his right knee. He also suffered a brain injury. His recovery was physically emotionally and financially draining.
“I couldn’t sleep on my back. I had crutches and a leg brace for a long time. It hurt to sit up. It hurt to do almost anything for months. I had glass coming out of my arm and head for months. I would wake up and find glass on the pillow.”
Unable to work, he moved back to Arkansas so his family and friends could help take care of him and his family. Making matters worse, he had more than $100,000 in medical bills to pay.
“When you start to have bills pile up and you’re talking to an insurance company that doesn’t want to talk and they’re not taking care of you… it’s scary.”
Fortunately, Helms found a trustworthy personal injury attorney who not only helped him settle his case but made sure his medical bills were paid. That newfound freedom allowed him to focus on his recovery, which would take him on a journey no one could have predicted, including Helms.
Doctors had to rebuild his right knee completely and his brain injury caused short-term memory loss.
“It was so bad, I had to set an alarm so I could remember to go pick up the kids from school.”
His rehabilitation program required him to hit the gym and lift weights. Running, however, was something he thought he would never be able to do. But one day the unexpected happened.
“I was playing catch with my son, and I had to run for a ball and my son yelled at me, ‘Hey Dad, you’re running.”
The next morning, he woke up and ran to the gym.
“I hated to run. I never liked to run, and I did it as a warmup. A mile at the most.”
One mile turned into 5 miles, then 10 miles and before he knew it, he ran his first marathon in 2014, just three years after his accident. And then his neighbors got involved and pushed him even harder.
“I met a neighbor who swam. I met another neighbor who rode bikes and they said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come swim with me? Why don’t you come ride with me? So, I got a bike and started riding and that’s where everything started.”
In 2014, Helms signed up for the Lake Degray Olympic distance triathlon in Arkadelphia. The race consists of a 1.5-kilometer swim (0.932 miles), followed by a 40km (24.85 mi) bike ride and then a 6.2- mile run.
“I will never forget. We all get in the water and the guy points out to an island that’s 6 or 700 yards away and says, ‘If you get tired you don’t want to stop there. It’s about 90 feet deep.”
Helms did not stop during the swim, bike, or run. And when he crossed the finish line he wanted more.
“You want to sign up and go again. It is exhilarating.”
And that’s exactly what he did, but this time he upped the ante. He set his sights on half-Ironman races, which consist of swimming 1.2 miles, followed by a 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.
“Ever since my car wreck, it has been how far can you run? How far can you push yourself? So, I signed up for the half Ironman in Oklahoma City. The Red Man Tri that year.”
His mental and physical strength improved so much that instead of chasing the pack, he started leading the pack and ended up on the podium in several races’ thanks in large part to his training partner.
“When you have a wife that is more driven than you and you’re scared that you’re going to get beat, that’s when you start getting faster.”
And when you get faster, you must up the ante even more. So, Helms signed up for his first full Ironman in Louisville. One week after finishing that race, he signed up for another one. He then decided to set the bar even higher, focusing his attention and training on qualifying for the 70.3 Ironman World Championships.
A feat that is not easy to do, no matter how old or young you are. His times improved significantly, and he was among the top contenders in his age group (45-49), but something was missing. His wife was the one who pointed it out to him.
“She said you need to change your mindset and stop thinking ‘I can’t do this,’ to ‘I can do this.’ That’s what made the difference.”
Armed with a new mindset, Helms hit the pavement and took off.
“Next thing you know you’re training smarter and better and faster because you think you can.”
To qualify for the 70.3 Ironman World Championship, triathletes must compete in at least one of 70.3 Ironman events held around the world and earn a slot that is awarded to the top finishers in each age group.
So, in April of 2022, Helms picked a race in Galveston, Texas to try and qualify. He finished the race in four hours and 44 minutes. Of the 200 triathletes in his age group, Helms came in 14th place.
An incredible feat, but at the time he did not know if his time was good enough to earn him a spot in the 70.3 World Championship. It wasn’t until after the race was over that he learned he had accomplished his goal. He was going to St. George, Utah to compete with the best triathletes in the world. His wife also qualified.
Later that year, both he and his wife showed up ready to go. The feeling was overwhelming.
“When you get to the World Championships everybody looks fit like they should be in the Olympics, and getting to race against some of the top people in the world was just amazing.”
So how did Helms do? He finished the grueling and competitive race in five hours and 23 seconds. Of the 500 men in his age group, he came in 155th place.
“I finished top third in the world, so I will take that.”
An incredible ride, a memorable and inspirational journey for a man who nearly lost his life.
But what makes it so special for Helms is that he now works at the Brad Hendricks Law Firm where he helps others navigate the choppy and frightening waters of the legal system, something he is very familiar with.
“It helped me in healing myself and yeah, I’m now able to help people that have been through something that I had been through.” Helms is still chasing his own finish line. His goal is to do a full Ironman in less than 10 hours. He hopes to accomplish that this year when he and his wife compete in the Tulsa Ironman on May 21, 2023.