SHERIDAN — Jackson Zabel’s life changed during a bike ride in April. When he returned home from the ride, his uncle was waiting in the driveway with unfortunate news: Jackson’s father, Joe Zabel, had been seriously injured after falling 40 feet during a hiking accident in Moab, Utah.
“I just knew something bad happened,” Jackson said. “It was that kind of feeling right away.”
Joe Zabel was fighting for his life after the fall. His lungs collapsed and were perforated from the impact. The fall also tore a kidney, damaged his skull and pushed one vertebra through its spinal tissue. As a result of the injuries, he will never walk again and will take a long time to relearn complex mental functions.
Before the accident occurred in late April, Joe was constantly active, always running, biking and hiking with friends and family. He had planned to run the 18-mile race at the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run this year, but after the accident, that was not an option.
Joe had asked his son if he wanted to do the race together, but Jackson declined. Jackson, who just finished his freshman year at Thunder Basin High School, competed on the cross-country and track teams but had never run 18 miles in the mountains.
After the accident, though, family friend Stan Israelsen suggested Jackson run the race in his father’s place. Jackson agreed and ran over the weekend with Israelsen and three more of his father’s friends and finished with a time of 3 hours, 28 minutes and 55.65 seconds.
Jackson also competed to help raise money for his father’s medical bills. A GoFundMe page has already received more than $30,000 in donations.
Jackson completed a 16.5-mile training run near Buffalo a few weeks before the race, but he was still a bit nervous beforehand. He said it was both physically and mentally exhausting, especially the last few miles.
To lift his spirits, Jackson spoke briefly with his father before the race.
“He told us to get battle-ready for the 18-mile race, and I kind of liked that and used that to keep going,” Jackson said.
Joe Zabel competed in the Bighorn trail run in 2016.
“Joe called it the hardest race he ever ran, but he loved doing it,” family friend Matthew Melinkovich said.
Joe Zabel grew up in Gillette the oldest of five children. The family often camped in the Bighorns near Dayton, which Joe liked.
“He always enjoyed that, was always scrambling around on the rocks and the trails, leading his younger brothers and sister on a lot of adventures in the outdoors when we were there,” Joe’s father, Bob Zabel, said.
After high school, Joe attended college and worked as a nursing home administrator for a short while. The family moved back to Gillette in 2004, where Joe worked with his father as a commercial agriculture real estate appraiser.
Bob was stunned when he heard about his son’s accident.
“One of those things that you don’t want to believe it but you know you should,” Bob Zabel said. “You start to first just wonder if he’s going to live, and then you start to think about all the possibilities of what it will mean to them. As a parent, you don’t think too much about yourself, but about what it’ll mean to your child and to their future. Even though he’s a grown adult, you still think of it the same way.”
Joe’s wife, Heather, has spent most of the time with him at hospitals in Colorado.
As a result, Jackson has spent time living with various family members in Gillette.
“It’s just been going back and forth between the three houses and getting to learn a new lifestyle,” Jackson Zabel said. “Having to take care of ourselves more often now.”
Joe currently resides at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, where he has started intensive therapy for his traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury.
“Two of the doctors told us that there is no way he should have lived the first 24 hours,” Bob Zabel said. “All they could attribute it to was his excellent health and fitness, and his relatively young age.”
Joe is paralyzed from the waist down but can speak words and phrases and call family members by name.
“He’s making phenomenally fast progress,” Bob Zabel said. “For him to be this far along is almost like blinding speed for this kind of injury. But on the other hand, it’s likely to take a lot longer now for the brain to rewire itself.”
As a special homage, Jackson wore his father’s race bib on his leg during the race and triumphantly raised it across the finish line.
“When he asked me a couple weeks before sign-up, I didn’t really want to do it,” Jackson Zabel said. “Now I think he’ll be glad that I did. I’m glad that I did.”
Joe Zabel has a long journey ahead. But an 18-mile course in the Bighorns helped Jackson and his family, literally and figuratively, move further along that journey.