Las Vegas Sun

May 25, 2019

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The toughest obstacles: Las Vegas Spartan racer beat brain-eating illness

Tim Frame

Wade Vandervort

Tim Frame has completed nearly 50 Spartan races — over three-, eight-, 13-, and 30-mile obstacle courses — and has become one of the most recognizable faces at events across the Western United States.

Tim Frame is flexing and grinning with his teenage son on his arm, enjoying euphoric feelings of fatherhood and achievement. At least those are the emotions the 53-year-old assumes he was experiencing in the framed photograph of Conner and him that hangs near the entrance to his bedroom. The two are celebrating the completion of their first Spartan race in 2013, one of the most meaningful moments of Frame’s life—but also one he can’t remember.

Less than a year after that race, Frame lost almost his entire long-term memory due to viral encephalitis, a rare, brain-eating disease from which doctors thought he would never recover. As he was rushed into emergency surgery after being diagnosed via spinal tap, medical professionals told his then-wife that if he survived, he would likely exist in a vegetative state.

Though Frame defied the prognosis and refused to lose hope during a lengthy recovery, he struggled to regain his personality and find purpose until the photo of Conner and him randomly appeared as a Facebook Memory one day. “I wanted to be that dad again,” Frame says. “It’s driven me ever since.”

He has gone on to complete nearly 50 Spartan races—over three-, eight-, 13-, and 30-mile obstacle courses—and has become one of the most recognizable faces at events across the Western United States. He still suffers from short-term memory issues, which is why that picture of Conner and him hangs with more than 100 other photos, alongside other medals and memorabilia, on the walls of his Summerlin apartment.

They serve as a shrine to his accomplishments—and a constant reminder of his journey.

• • •

Frame calls it his “wall of Frame,” and the chronologically arranged photos stretch across his entire bedroom. The timeline begins with 2013 post-race shots, just before a two-year gap with no documentation.

Those recovery years might be the only time in Frame’s life that he wishes he could remember even less vividly. His brain had deteriorated so much, he was told he only had a 3 percent chance of survival, but he persevered through surgery and a three-day coma. When he awakened, he couldn’t recognize his wife or son.

“It was like if my dad had a twin brother, and my original dad died and his twin brother that I never knew about came in and was my new parent,” Conner recalls.

Frame’s hardships didn’t end there. As part of his recovery, doctors restricted him to bed rest with heavy doses of steroids to help repair his brain. The drugs eventually backfired, however, and caused a massive pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in his lungs that spread throughout his body. Once again, Frame was rushed to the hospital.

“The doctor told me it was the biggest blood clot he had ever worked on his career,” he says. “I can remember his exact words. I’ll never get them out of my head. He says, ‘This is a fatal event. Let’s go.’”

Frame was able to fight off the infection, but afterward, his outlook changed. For most of his life, he had been a fitness enthusiast. He played soccer at Illinois’ Olivet Nazarene University, coached Conner’s youth sports teams all the way up to high school soccer at Faith Lutheran and even launched his own personal training business, FrameWorx Fitness, before his illness.

Digging through boxes and Facebook archives, Frame could see his passion for fitness and felt determined to get back to the lifestyle. “Being on a couch for three months tied to an IV on steroids is what nearly killed me again,” Frame says. “Not being active nearly killed me, so I preach an active recovery now. That’s what I try to share and do through exercise and physical therapy on a daily basis.”

In hindsight, he might have moved too fast. Frame signed up for 2015’s Las Vegas Spartan race—the same one he’d run with Conner two years earlier—and though he was able to shave off some of the 50 pounds he had gained through recovery, he labored to complete the three-mile course.

“I didn’t feel like the guy I saw in those pictures—young, in great shape with his son looking up to him,” Frame says. “I still finished, but it made me feel weak. I failed miserably in that race, but it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.”

Getting back up to speed athletically would prove simple compared with catching up socially. Many friends fell by the wayside, as it was difficult to understand and relate to the new version of Frame that awoke from the coma. It was even challenging for those who put in the effort. Frame and his wife split—amicably, he says—three years after his illness. He remembered his parents (most of his remaining memories date to his childhood and adolescence) and remained close to them, but Frame felt at home in Las Vegas so he opted not to move back to the Midwest where they lived.

Conner became an adult and began pursuing his own endeavors, so while he never strayed far from his father, they were no longer inseparable. “I still see some of his old mannerisms, but he’s a totally different guy,” Conner says. “I try to hang around him and be around him as much as possible, but we definitely had to rebuild.”

• • •

Spartan Racing, which calls itself one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, branded 2016 as, “the year of resilience.” No one encapsulated that spirit better than Frame, whose story was featured in the company’s promotional materials and self-published magazine. And he was only getting started.

After his 2015 race disappointment, Frame outlined a path to improvement that included a goal of working out every day with a minimum of 30 minutes of cardio, 100 sit-ups, 100 push-ups and 100 pull-ups. Since he began keeping a daily gym journal in June 2015, he says, he has missed only 41 days of exercise—all on race days.

Frame went into 2016 with the objective to earn a Spartan “trifecta,” a distinction given to those who finish three different types of races in a calendar year. He surprised himself and did it twice to earn a double trifecta. The medal now hangs above his headboard.

Last year, Frame became one of the only athletes to manage a seven-times trifecta, with many of the races completed under trying circumstances. Past steroid treatments continued to tear away at his bones, leading to hip-replacement and shoulder surgeries. Neither operation stopped him, however, and he completed a number of races in crutches and an arm sling. He also regained his personal-training licenses, and has begun coaching Spartan competitors.

Frame led one beginner through a 13-mile race, and last year Frame guided a 77-year old man who had just survived cancer and a 73-year-old woman recovering from bone diseases. “We did it slow and steady, not fast and competitive, but that’s what’s cool about the sport,” Frame says. “It’s more about doing it together, and no Spartan left behind.”

Frame finished third in his age group in his final race of 2018, but he still doesn’t run as fast as he’d like. He makes up for it by being an “obstacle specialist,” hinted at on his wall, where Frame can be found carrying 100-pound rock buckets, crawling under barbed wire and flipping over monster-truck tires.

Then there’s the infamous fire photo. In one of the races in which Frame completed on crutches, he tumbled into the firepit jump obstacle but ignored surface burns on his arms to finish the final leg of the race. “I’m as well known for that as anything now,” Frame laughs.

• • •

Whether it’s because of the fire mishap, coaching or awareness of his tribulations, fellow competitors constantly come up to Frame at Spartan races. It means a lot to him. “This is what keeps me going, not only physically but in my heart and mind,” he says. “I’ve lost everything in my life—family, education, even my closest friends disappeared—so I don’t have a lot of that, and it’s hard to understand sometimes. But I’ve moved past that now and found a community in Spartan that uplifts and raises people up after difficult things.”

Frame has run out of room on his bedroom wall, so the memories overflow into photo albums and elsewhere in his home. In his office, across from a T-ball plaque showing coach Frame with an elementary-aged Conner, rests the most important current item sporting the Spartan logo— a registration packet for the 2019 Las Vegas Sprint and Super weekend, March 9 and 10 in Mesquite. He recently took the now 21-year-old Conner to dinner and asked if he would compete alongside him in a Spartan race for the first time since he got sick.

“He’s going to run it with me,” Frame says. “I’m looking forward to it and hoping it might help me reconnect with him in a positive way. I see these photos and know we were tight and know I miss that part of my life.”

Conner says he still considers them tight. Unlike his father, Conner can rattle off vivid details from the 2013 Spartan race and raves about the way the pair caught a rival at the end to finish strong.

“He was always a huge inspiration to me,” Conner says. “But he’s an even bigger inspiration now because of everything he’s gone through and the way he’s still fighting through it every day.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.