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A triathlete and her husband share the long road back

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Beth Fong paces in her wetsuit around the grassy park overlooking Tempe Town Lake, contemplating the grueling daylong race ahead.

She has trained for months to swim, bike and run the nearly 141-mile Ironman triathlon. Her father, standing behind her, tightens the zipper on her suit so it hugs her slight 5-foot-2 frame. At 29, Beth is in the best shape of her life.

She scans the crowd of 2,400 wearing black wetsuits and red-and-white swim caps. She is looking for her coach, her husband, in his wheelchair. Lawrence Fong, 36, had promised to see her off before the race.

Barefoot in the 50-degree November morning, Beth tucks her brown bob into her swim cap, the one with "I hate swimming" scrawled across the top. Her face is grim. She grew up near here and knows the water is salty and cold enough to turn fingers, toes and lips blue.

The triathletes have started filtering down to the lake. She can see a flotilla of heads bobbing in the waves. Beside them, officials float on speedboats, bullhorns and stopwatches poised.

It's just minutes before the 7 a.m. start, and Beth can't wait for her husband any longer. She will have to go on without him.

He proposed as she crossed the finish line of her first triathlon in April 2007.

Beth Kallok had been a Hollywood party girl who joined a triathlon program for fun, more interested in meeting new friends than becoming a serious athlete.

Lawrence, a buff athlete and sports chiropractor, coached the group. Beth thought he was arrogant. She ignored his strict training rules and stayed out all night. On one of their first runs, she was so hung over she had to stop to dry-heave.

But during the next few weeks, she realized she had misjudged him. He was strong, not arrogant. He knew what he wanted and was willing to sacrifice for it.

So was she.

A year and a half after they met, Lawrence and Beth were married April 19, 2008, at Wayfarers Chapel in Palos Verdes. Under his tuxedo, he wore a triathlon singlet. She scrawled her age on her calf with a Sharpie, a triathlon tradition, and flashed it during the garter toss.

On their honeymoon in Hawaii, they kept training. One day, they ran 16 miles, surrounded by black volcanic rock radiating heat. That fall they planned to run their first Ironman together.

Lawrence arrives about 10 minutes before the start of his wife's race. In a nearby parking garage, his mother-in-law, Cathy Kallok, helps him from the car, only to discover the elevator is broken. By the time they make their way to the course, Beth has disappeared into the crowd.

On a bridge overlooking the lake, he scans the water but can't pinpoint her. Already, his morning had been full of frustrations. Beth had helped him dress the night before and packed a bag of supplies. But it was up to him to get out of bed and into his wheelchair, to brush his teeth and lift himself from his wheelchair into the family car.

With the race underway, his mother-in-law wheels him to a fenced-off holding area near his wife's cycling supplies. He is excited for her, but also frustrated. He wants to be competing too.

After an hour and a half, Beth emerges from the lake shivering and bruised.

Swept up in the stream of bodies, she was unable to break free. Other swimmers pushed her underwater. Just as she managed to find a pocket of space, someone's elbow struck her in the temple. By the time she completed the 2.4-mile swim,her goggles had been knocked off four times.

Lawrence sees her jog up, still wet and shivering. They had not been out of contact for this long since his accident a year earlier.

She grabs spandex shorts, shoes that clip to her pedals and other items for the long bike ride ahead. Volunteers stand ready beside vats of sunblock to slather her up.

She leans over the barrier to give him a kiss.

"I still hate swimming," she grumbles.

His face next to hers, he tells her to get back in the race. She rushes off to claim her bike.

They were supposed to enter this race together last year. But two weeks before the competition, Lawrence collapsed in the restroom of a Marina del Rey restaurant. Triathlon club friends found him on the floor, bleeding. He said he had hit his head but didn't know how. The friends called 911 and Beth.

She rushed to Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, where her husband of six months was on a gurney, apologizing to nurses for bleeding and vomiting. He did not recognize her.

Doctors told her that the accident had triggered a series of strokes. A CT scan revealed a blood clot pressing his brain stem. Surgeons operated that night to remove the clot and Lawrence slipped into a coma.

The next day, as Beth waited outside the intensive care unit, a doctor approached. He said her husband was brain-dead and she should consider taking him off life support.

She went to the hospital chapel.

In their marriage, Lawrence had always been the one to make the major decisions. She liked letting him take the lead. She never thought he would falter. She remembered a movie they had watched in which someone was on life support. Lawrence had said he didn't want to wind up like that.

"I was scared, but deep down I always knew that this was not how our story would end," Beth said.

He is in there, she thought. I just have to reach him.

Beth speeds past Tempe's red rock mountains and straight into the desert in the heat of the afternoon, the start of her 112-mile ride. Her black-and-white racing bike, the one she nicknamed "The Dark Phoenix," is balanced on Zipp 404 carbon tubular racing wheels borrowed from her husband.

Wary of the race's intricate rules, she keeps a cushion of four bike lengths between her and the racer ahead.

When she passes her husband, he is looking at his watch, checking her time. He had warned her not to sprint at the beginning, to save her energy. He smiles. She is doing well.

Then the desert winds pick up. They beat her face, dry from the saltwater and stinging from the relentless sun. Rounding a curve, she hits a head wind that makes the flat course feel as if she is riding uphill.

This is exactly what Lawrence trained her for.

Still, she is frustrated. She is a fast cyclist, usually doing about 18 mph. Now she is moving about 11 mph. After this, she has to run a marathon. She remembers facing a similar head wind during a 90-mile ride with Lawrence in San Diego before he was injured.

"You can't fight the wind," he told her then. "Go with it."

In the days after her husband's accident, doctors said the pressure inside his head was so intense that it threatened to squeeze his brain out through the base of his skull, like toothpaste.

Beth had fought to get him transferred to UCLA Reagan Medical Center. Once there, to ease the swelling, Dr. Nestor Gonzalez removed two large pieces of skull from the back and right side of Lawrence's head. He stored them in a refrigerator to be reattached if Lawrence recovered.

The surgeon was not optimistic. The inside of Lawrence's brain looked as though he had been hit by a car.

After the surgery, Lawrence remained in a coma, hooked to a ventilator and a feeding tube.

Beth stayed by his side, watching his heart and temperature monitors and talking to him as if he could hear her.

By Christmas Eve, he was breathing on his own, tracking her with his eyes. That night he kicked off his blankets. She asked him if he was cold. He nodded.

Surprised, she asked again. Again he nodded.

He was in there, just as she had felt in the chapel.

As they holed up in hospitals to focus on his recovery, the couple lost everything: their savings, their jobs and their Balboa town house, which was foreclosed.

Beth tried to stay positive. When Lawrence's ring finger became too swollen to wear his wedding band, she bought him a new one and wore the old ring around her neck.

By spring, Gonzalez was able to reattach the pieces of skull he had removed.

A fellow triathlete hired Beth, who had worked as a veterinary assistant before her husband's accident, as the live-in manager of a Culver City apartment complex. When Lawrence was released from the hospital in July, they moved into their new home, a one-bedroom apartment she had filled with photographs from their racing days.

He encouraged her to train for the Ironman. They made a deal: She would race if he would coach her.

Between training sessions, she drove him to physical therapy, where he learned to stand and walk with assistance. He still needed help wheeling himself to the kitchen or shower.

But his doctor, impressed, said Lawrence would probably walk on his own in a few years. The triathlete wanted more. He wanted to race again.

His wife had survived on her own for months while he was in the hospital. She'd even taken on his old job as a triathlon coach.

"I definitely need her more than she needs me," Lawrence said. "I give her basically some love and attention -- that's all I can really give to her right now."

The more he brooded, the more she tried to draw him out, to make him see that it was his personality that she had fought so hard to restore, not just his body. As he coached her, she began to see glimpses of the old Lawrence, the man she loved who knew all her weaknesses and challenged her to overcome them.

"He got to come back in the world we met in and we both thrived in," she said.

They decided to walk together at the end of the Ironman -- to celebrate how far they both had come.

She is running as the sun sets over the mountains and stars blanket the sky. The temperature dips, and the muscles in her thighs and calves constrict. Her right calf starts to cramp. She is doing 11-minute miles, slow but steady.

On a grassy bend in the road, Lawrence waits with friends hoisting handmade signs proclaiming "Team Fong" and "We Love You Beth." He watches her loop past, reading her fading smile as a sign that she is tiring.

He is pretty tired too. Staying alert all day has exhausted him. He naps in his wheelchair as his mother-in-law drapes a quilt over his lap and Beth's Pomeranian, Cosette, nuzzles his chest.

Race officials have warned that if he crosses the race barriers to walk with her at the end, she could be disqualified. But he needs to be there for her at the finish. He wheels off with a friend to persuade the officials to make an exception.

Shortly before 9 p.m., Beth closes in on the finish line. Brushing aside her weariness, she grins and sprints the final 100 yards. Blinded by floodlights along the final stretch, she doesn't see Lawrence at first.

She crosses the finish line at 14 hours, 7 minutes and 13 seconds, and the crowd parts.

Lawrence isn't walking, or even standing. She doesn't care about that. What matters is that he is there -- for her -- beaming the way he used to when he finished a race. As the crowd cheers and cameras flash, she kneels and gives him a triumphant kiss.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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