It was just another day. There was nothing special about it, nothing especially noteworthy. Just another day at work. Little did she know, February 28, 2019 would send Wanda Kriebel down a path of misery that would take her years to recover from. In fact, she's still recovering from it.
The Allentown, Pennsylvania native was at Lehigh Valley Plastic, the plastics manufacturing plant where she worked, when she went to put a piece of material away. As she was doing so, she accidentally tripped over a 12-foot-long, 10-inch-wide rod that was lying on the floor. Kriebel slammed down hard on the concrete, shattering both of her elbows upon impact. Unable to get up, she tried desperately to get her colleagues' attention. But she couldn't lift her right arm, which she quickly realized was broken, nor her right one. She couldn't get her head off of the pavement, either.
Eventually, through sheer determination, she managed to slightly wave her leg and get her group leader's attention. Kriebel was rushed to the hospital, and had surgery on both elbows the following day. Six days in the hospital was followed by 16 days of rehab, and then a second surgery. (She would end up undergoing a total of six surgeries.) When she finally returned home, she was completely limited. Kriebel couldn't dress herself, wash herself, or feed herself, much less get back to work. She had plates and screws put in both elbows, and with a lack of movement came an onslaught of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
"I was helpless for months," she said, "until I started pushing myself."
How Her Spartan Story Began
Kriebel wasn't always helpless. Quite the opposite, in fact. First introduced to Spartan Race by her youngest son way back in 2012, her first race was the Spartan Super in Vernon, New Jersey that same year. She was hooked instantly. She continued racing leisurely in the ensuing years before really stepping it up in 2016. That year she finished 16 races, including three Trifectas. In total, she has five Trifectas to her name, and she had been targeting two more in 2019. Then the accident happened, and everything stopped. Her training, her progress, her livelihood, her drive, her happiness — all of it was stripped away from her in a matter of seconds.
Now she wants it back, and she's working tirelessly to retrieve what she lost.
Proving the Doctors Wrong, One Training Session at a Time
In March of 2020, Kriebel's doctor told her that she couldn't work or race anymore. In the nearly two years since then she has made tremendous progress, but the aftereffects of the accident remain ever-present. She still experiences pain day and night, as well as numbness and tingling on the left side of her body. Her elbows are no longer straight, and she lost so much muscle that she can no longer lift anything heavier than 20 pounds without straining. Getting up out of bed is still a challenge, as is finding a comfortable enough position to sleep.
But even with all of those reasons to quit, Kriebel isn't allowing herself too. She's doggedly determined to get back out on the course in 2022, and is currently training for a return to racing, which once seemed inconceivable.
Kriebel is back in the gym, trying to build back some semblance of the strength that she lost in 2019. Maintaining a fitness regimen is hard to begin with, but the difficulty is compounded by the fact that Kriebel can only do so much before exhaustion sets in, and she has to call it a day. She gets tired fast, and when you combine that with the constant pain she still contends with on a daily basis, the sessions can be absolutely grueling.
But if you think that's going to give her pause, or perhaps cause her to second-guess herself, think again.
"My surgeons told me that I will not be able to race again," she says. "But now it's time to prove them wrong."
Going Big or Going Home
Though Kriebel is optimistic about her return to racing, she's not delusional. She knows that she's not the athlete she was prior to 2019, and that she won't be able to cross the finish line alone. She'll need a great deal of help to achieve her goal.
Luckily for her, the Spartan community is filled with people, and organizations, committed to assisting those in need.
Cue the Oscar Mike Foundation. Oscar Mike is a nonprofit organization that strives to keep injured veterans active, and the foundation has been known to have a presence at Spartan races across the country. When Kriebel was volunteering at the New Jersey race this past fall — she didn't race, obviously — she struck up a conversation with some of the members. She took a group photo with them and, prior to departing, one of the Oscar Mike racers said something that would change Kriebel's life: "Whenever you want to race with us, let us know. We’ll help you out.”
Moved by their generosity and willingness to help, Kriebel took them up on the offer and reached out, asking if she could race the Tri-State Beast with them, in New Jersey, on April 30. They added her to their roster immediately.
Yes, Kriebel's first race in more than three years will be the 21K, 30-obstacle New Jersey Beast, one of the hardest races on the Spartan schedule.
"I'm gonna go big or go home," Kriebel says.
'I'm Not Done Being a Spartan Yet'
Kriebel has her sights set on two more Trifectas in 2021, but she's trying not to get ahead of herself. First things first: Complete the New Jersey Beast, which she's done twice before (pre-accident), and then assess from there.
If she's able to cross that finish line, she'll then shift into Trifecta mode. On the tentative schedule for 2022 is the Palmerton Super and Sprint, the Stadion race in Philadelphia — which happens to be the site of her last race, back in 2018 — the New Jersey Trifecta weekend in October, and perhaps even a Super and Sprint down in North Carolina.
“I’m coming back," she says in a tone that suggests there's literally no chance she'll be proven wrong. "I’m not done being a Spartan yet. This injury slowed me, but it hasn’t stopped me ... I know I’m going to be scared, excited, nervous, but I’m just looking forward to getting back out there.
"It will just be nice to be out there with friends again. There’s so many people I’ve gotten to know through the years. It’s such a family.”