The Lonely Road: Whistler triathlete shares struggles with head injury in new film 

Paul Suter's dream of Ironman glory was derailed after 2006 skiing accident

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAVID MCCOLM / COURTESY OF PAUL SUTER - BATTLING BACK  Paul Suter was forced to cut his dream of becoming an Ironman world champion shortly after a severe head injury left him incapable of doing any sort of physical activity.
  • Photo by David McColm / Courtesy of Paul Suter
  • BATTLING BACK Paul Suter was forced to cut his dream of becoming an Ironman world champion shortly after a severe head injury left him incapable of doing any sort of physical activity.

Whistler's Paul Suter spent years chasing his dream of becoming an Ironman world champion. It took only an instant for all of that to be stripped away from him.

It was an early December day in 2006, and Suter was out with his wife, Christine, for a leisurely cross-country ski trek at Lost Lake.

"I went around a corner and out of Christine's sight, I got tangled up and went head-first off the trail into some rocks," said Suter.

The fall left him in a fog, his memory fuzzy. He forgot when Christmas was. He temporarily lost vision in one of his eyes.

But Suter was on a mission: to qualify for the Hawaii world championships, and he wasn't about to let a little blow to the head get in the way. He had already made plans to train with three-time Ironman world champion Peter Reid, and exactly a month after the concussion, his third, they began their rigorous training regiment. Within months, he was racing triathlons again.

"I was fully concussed still, but I was very motivated to train with Peter and to achieve our goal," said Suter, 54. "I wasn't going to let anything stop me, but I definitely wasn't of sound mind to be making those judgment calls."

The consequences of that decision still linger with Suter nine years later. He is essentially a prisoner in his own body, unable to do any of the activities he so loves. He gets crushing headaches just from cutting the grass or shovelling snow. He can't walk his dogs for more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time. Triathlons are out of the question.

"Physically, I can't do anything," Suter said. "The way I look at it is I'm a handicapped person in an able body."

Suter believes the head injury damaged his pituitary gland, affecting the flow of adrenaline to his system. When most people engage in physical activity, their adrenaline tapers off once they're at rest. But not for Suter.

"If I do something too physical or I'm driving and something happens that raises my adrenaline, the adrenaline keeps flowing and it will flow for a couple days," he said.

In some cases, that has led to an adrenal crash, like in 2009 when Suter and his wife returned from a trip to California.

"We did some pretty long bike rides and runs on the beach and my body was slowly telling me that I'd done too much," he said. "But again I didn't acknowledge it."

Suter awoke the morning after the long drive back to Whistler feeling like he had "been hit in the back of the head with a two-by-four." The crash kept him bedridden for two weeks.

"At that point my body just quit," he said. "It was basically the end of physical activity in my life to this day."

Suter's journey has been a lonely one at times. He struggled at first living in a community surrounded by active people, his wife — an acclaimed triathlon coach — included. On top of that, he's felt increasingly "isolated" by a healthcare system that has failed him on multiple occasions.

"I definitely fell through some cracks in our medical system," said Suter. "I've been to probably 12 doctors that range from regular GPs to endocrinologists, and every one of them has put their hands up and said there's nothing they can do."

It forced Suter to turn to alternative medicine for answers, which is how he learned of the damage to his pituitary gland. But when he brought his naturopath's findings to his doctor, they were ignored.

"It would be really helpful if the two healthcare systems could work together," he said. "But our doctors and our medical system don't acknowledge the benefits that can be provided by their healthcare counterparts."

Suter was also critical of a system that allowed him to resume his triathlon training and worsened his symptoms.

"The last person that should be making a decision about a concussion victim's future, especially their immediate future, is the concussion victim," he said. "I wasn't capable of making those decisions, I was just driven to succeed."

Today, Suter has come to terms with his condition. He's filled the void his injury left behind with flying — he recently passed his pilot's test — and fixing up a vacation home he and his wife bought in the Gulf Islands.

And while he's been reluctant to discuss his struggles with friends and co-workers, Suter is finally sharing his story in a new documentary filmed by his brother-in-law, called Flat Out In Pieces. He's hopeful the film will show other head injury sufferers they don't have to suffer in silence.

"Part of the reason for me doing this documentary is to bring awareness," said Suter. "I wanted to put it out there to the public that it's OK to talk openly about this issue. You're not alone."

Flat Out In Pieces screens at the Fairmont Thursday, Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. Admission is free, although registration is required as seats are limited. Visit eventbrite.com to register.

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