Commentary

Rudrani Devi's marathon survival story

Her road to recovery runs from the Mumbai terrorist attacks to 26.2 miles in Boston

Originally Published: March 4, 2011
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

Rudrani Devi was screaming.

Much of the blood soaking the clothes she was wearing was not her own.

And many of the people she had warmly called friends just seconds earlier were suddenly, indiscriminately and violently gone.

It was Nov. 26, 2008, at the Oberoi Trident Hotel in Mumbai, and hell was breaking loose. For three days, terrorists turned India's largest and most famous city into a war zone, and the bloodshed started at the Trident.

[+] EnlargeRudrani Devi
Courtesy of the Walt Disney World MarathonLess than 2½ years ago, Rudrani Devi was shot in the arm, the leg and the neck. Next month, she'll run the Boston Marathon.

"We were just beginning to have dinner … I remember what everybody was eating … I remember what they were wearing," says Devi, a Nashville-based holistic therapist and yoga instructor who had worked with members of the Tennessee Titans, including former running back Eddie George, in her studio. "We had maybe two bites when we heard gunfire -- pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. A friend goes to check it out, and the hotel officials tell him it was nothing, just some hooligans. He gets back to the table and maybe 10 seconds later, he's shot."

In a moment, another friend was shot, and pieces of his brain matter lodged into the head wrap Devi was wearing. Then the gunmen found her; she was shot in the arm, in the leg, in the neck. By the time it ended, more than 400 people had been either or injured over the three days of terror. Most of the victims were Indian, but tourists from nine nations were caught up in the melee, including the U.S. Only two of the six Americans involved survived. Devi was one of them -- barely. One of the bullets struck just inches from a femoral artery, and she nearly bled to death.

If it weren't for the bravery of a hotel worker who risked his life to drag her to safety, she would have.

For 25 months, she rehabbed. Initially, doctors didn't think she would walk again. Then they didn't think she would be able to walk without difficulty. So when I tell you she'll be wearing No. 3251 in next month's Boston Marathon, you'll understand why she has titled her upcoming autobiography, "Soul Survivor."

"It makes me so happy that I can do this," the 47-year-old says. "The bills were starting to mount, and my ex-husband wanted to sell the treadmill to help cover medical costs, and I wouldn't let him do it. Everyone kept telling me I would never run again, but I just didn't accept that. I couldn't.

"I still have shrapnel in my leg. My iron was so messed up in my blood that I had to have ultrasounds every day. It was so awful. My husband couldn't take it, and he left me. I couldn't keep my business going because I couldn't walk. I gained 35 pounds from the inactivity and all of the drugs I was on. But you know what? I made it. And let me tell you: When you go through something like that, you just appreciate life so much more. You love stronger, you can hear the birds singing in the trees as you run, you can hear the sound the bike pedal makes as you ride down a trail. Everything is just so much clearer. I made it … and now I'm running in the Boston."

Few things can inspire us to reach deep inside and pull out our best self like sports can. Few things can bridge our differences or highlight our similarities like sports can. It's one of the reasons we care so much about our athletes -- they embody the echoing cry we all have heard at some point in our lives to achieve what cannot be achieved.

Rudrani Devi
Courtesy of the Walt Disney World MarathonDoctors weren't sure Devi would ever walk again, much less run a marathon.

Whether it's a skinny kid from Belle, W.Va., who grows up to play in the NBA, as Jason Williams did; a tennis player from war-torn Serbia who goes on to lead his country to its first Davis Cup win, as Novak Djokovic did; or a veteran star with a serious leg injury who limps out of the tunnel to give his team all he has, as Willis Reed did for the Knicks in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals -- there is just something about an athlete overcoming the odds that breathes hope into all of us. When we cheer them, we are also cheering the human spirit.

As life would have it, it was the beauty of the human spirit that led Devi to Mumbai in the first place. A religion minor in college, she joined a small group traveling to India on a spiritual retreat.

"It was all so ironic," she says "We go there for peace and experience something so violent and horrible.

"And yet, because I was on that trip, I am able to finally run this marathon, which had always been a goal of mine."

A runner most of her life, Devi had participated in nine marathons before the attacks. She has always wanted to run in Boston and even spent her down time on the retreat working toward lowering her time so she could qualify. The morning of the shooting, she ran six kilometers on a treadmill in the gym that overlooked the harbor in which her assailants arrived.

"They had lost my luggage, and so, for two weeks, the only shoes I had were my running shoes," she says. "I would start each day with a run, hoping to be ready for Boston when I returned."

With the help of adidas, which heard about her story and helped her secure a wild-card entry, she will finally reach her goal. Afterward, she's hanging up her running shoes; she says age and the pain from her injuries have caught up with her. But she feels good knowing she is walking away on her own terms, not the terms imposed on her by terrorists.

"I don't see myself as a victim but a victor because I didn't succumb to what happened in Mumbai, " she says. "I'm not going to pretend my leg doesn't hurt after a while, but I just feel I have to do this for me. I believe if I can do this, I can do anything.

"Besides, I think the hardest part, I have already been through."

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine