The ultimate challenge: Burn victim ready for second year in Deer Creek Challenge bike race

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By Chelsy Woods Klein

Don Keller, 53, has faced his share of challenges — some he didn’t willingly choose, such as heart disease and an explosion that burned over 40 percent of his body and destroyed his home.

But Keller has chosen to face, for the second year in a row, the Deer Creek Challenge Cycling Race on Aug. 19. The race, in its third year, is a benefit for Conifer’s Mountain Resource Center.

Last year’s race was Keller’s first, a goal he and wife Betsy Keyes had previously set for themselves. But it just so happened that Keller competed in the race 10 months to the day after the fire at their home.

The race, which starts and ends at West Deer Creek Road, just off C-470 near Chatfield Reservoir, offers riders a choice of 33-, 62-, 89- or 100-mile courses. And because of its impressive 12,000-plus-foot total vertical climb, “the Challenge” is touted by some as being among the toughest bicycle races on the planet.

“We didn’t decide to call it ‘the Challenge’ for no reason,” chuckled Pat Downing, owner of Downing Event Group, which organizes the Deer Creek Challenge, along with the Tri for the Cure and the Cherry Creek Sneak. “This course was specially picked and designed to be tough for even the most experienced and fit riders.”

Such a race would prove especially difficult for a recovering burn victim. But Keller was undaunted, and he refused to feel sorry for himself.

“(The explosion) was the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Keller says.

The explosion and resulting fire occurred on Oct. 21, 2010, while Keller was home alone in the townhouse that he and Keyes share in Highlands Ranch. When Keller was downstairs in the utility room, the water heater ignited combustible fumes and sparked an explosion.

Keller says he let out a “primal scream” as flames enveloped his body.

“But I only allowed myself that one outburst,” Keller says. “Then I knew I had to refocus my energy on finding my way out of the room and finding my phone, so I could call for help, because my neighbor was home and I didn’t want her to get hurt. And then I had to call Betsy.”

Attempting to escape through the garage, Keller could lift the door only about 6 inches, and he became stuck underneath it. As the fire quickly spread through the home and flames licked at his legs, Keller called Keyes.

“I was at the gym during work when Don called to tell me about the fire,” Keyes said. “I answered, and he said, ‘Well, I’ve really done it now.’ And I said, ‘What did you do?’ He said, ‘The house is on fire.’ I was kind of mad and said, ‘That’s not funny.’ And then he said, ‘No, really. The house is on fire. I called 911, and I have to go now because I hear the fire trucks.’ ”

Someone working nearby heard the explosion, saw smoke and found Keller trapped under the door, pulling him free and wrapping a blanket around him to extinguish the flames on his legs.

“He pulled me to the opposite side of the parking lot, and we stood and watched as my house burned,” said Keller, who spent 23 days in intensive care. “It was surreal to see my house burning down. I kept waiting for someone to come and ask me if I was ready to go to the hospital.”

Making some life changes

While Keller was on fire and inhaling more smoke than air, he was thinking about the safety of his neighbor and about Keyes.

But he says he wasn’t always so selfless.

Keller said his first marriage unraveled as a result of constant business travel and too much focus on his career. His divorce and a heart attack provided a wake-up call that persuaded him he needed to make some changes.

It was about that time that he met Keyes through work. For the past 10 years, Keller and Keyes have been happily married.

“She is my everything,” Keller said. “After the fire, I knew I had to recover because I thought, ‘How can I lie in this bed and feel sorry for myself when there are so many people who love me and want to see me better?’ I mean, she was by my side day in and day out — how could I not do everything in my power to be by her side?”

Keller and Keyes had been training for the Deer Creek Challenge before the fire, but afterward Keller was even more determined, knowing he needed a goal to help him work toward his recovery.

Still, losing the sweat glands that regulate body temperature in his legs and parts of his back has made high-energy activities like cycling all the more challenging. The skin on his legs is so sensitive it can’t withstand exposure to the sun, so he has to wear special compression leggings every time he rides.

“Last year was my first time riding the Challenge,” Keller said. “I was nervous that I wouldn’t finish and that I would let everyone down, but Betsy and I finished, and it was a great feeling knowing that I made it.”

Keller and Keyes now own and operate their own nonprofit company called Profound Resilience, which aims to help people fulfill their potential. They work closely with the University of Colorado Hospital burn unit, counseling other burn survivors so that they, too, can find ways to focus on recovery.

“Betsy, my family, the race, they were all things that helped me remember that (my life) is not about me,” Keller said. “When we go to see patients, we try to help them feel empowered to recover.”

“This year, the race has even more meaning to us because the area suffered from the (Lower North Fork Fire),” Keyes said.

The Deer Creek Challenge raises money for the Mountain Resource Center in Conifer through online pledges. According to Kim DeLashmit, spokeswoman for the Downing Group, the race raised more than $15,000 in cash and food donations for the Mountain Resource Center in 2010 and 2011, and the event has set a goal of $10,000 for 2012.