The San Diego Mountain Bike Association, in collaboration with the city, is holding a
Smith,“The Tunnels Guardian”, who took care to make the Tunnels one of San Diego’s favorite mountain biking spots, passed away in December 2015 at the age of 58 following traumatic brain injury complications from a mountain bike accident. An oak wood bench will be placed that day at the bottom of “Tunnel 4” in his memory.
“I’m just excited to do this to honor him. He was an amazing person,” said his wife Fran Kennedy, who hopes the work day will become an annual event.
Brian Smith was an avid outdoorsman and strong athlete, enjoying rock climbing and mountain biking. He was a PhD medicinal chemist and drug inventor for Arena Pharmaceuticals, where he created the molecule for the weight loss drug Belviq.
In 2002, the adventurous Brian and Fran, an Ironman triathlete, were married atop Half Dome in
Smith loved having Deer Canyon in his backyard and in 2004 he started working on trails under the canyon’s scrub oak trees, previously used by migrant encampments in the area. The 25 miles of single track trails he created were known as The Tunnel trails.
“He turned it into a really special place for a lot of riders,” Kennedy said. “He was very smart in the way he used the terrain.”
The trail building was illegal and while the trails were much-loved, the Del Mar Mesa Preserve trails were closed by the city in 2008. After a lengthy seven-year process, San Diego City Council approved a resource management plan for the mesa in 2015, opening 7.9 miles of trails while restoring 13.3 miles of illegally created paths. Many of the sanctioned trails use the original names Smith called them, including the Tunnels, Cardiac Hill, Zig Zag and Rocking Horse.
Kennedy and Smith’s lives changed forever on Nov. 5, 2010. Smith was riding on a jump trail in the canyon when he landed badly off a launch—his sternum broke and he ruptured his aorta.
After heart surgery, he came home and started to recover. But Kennedy noticed that his balance seemed off and he was struggling to walk. Going back to the hospital revealed that he had a hemorrhagic stroke in his right frontal and temporal lobes.
A craniotomy was performed and Smith was in an induced coma for nine days. He was in the hospital for a month before returning home; a setback revealing he had developed sunken brain syndrome.
After the reconstruction of his scalp with skin from his stomach, Smith called it his “coconut head.”
“This guy was a jokester and through it all he maintained his sense of humor,” Kennedy said.
It had been an “unbelievable recovery”—he was able to start hiking again and getting out for eight to 10 miles a day, with Kennedy having him use a walkie-talkie to help him navigate from her perch atop the canyon.
In 2012, Smith was ready to return to work when he suffered a grand mal seizure so severe that it broke his back in five vertebra. After two back surgeries, he was back up to hiking 10 miles again.
“The determination this man had was so inspiring to me,” Kennedy said.
Smith’s seizure disorder started to take over in 2014. He had uncontrollable brain storms and mini-strokes but kept hiking even if it was only one mile a day. One mini stroke while on a hike resulted in him shattering his ankle bone. Smith found an upside: being on a knee scooter helped him feel like a mountain biker again.
In fall 2015, Smith had a stroke in the other side of his brain which took away all of his motor skills. His body and brain were unable to recover. Kennedy said it was devastating to see this proud, active man not able to eat on his own or go up the stairs.
“He didn’t want anyone to see him like that, he said ‘I just want it to be me and you, Franny’ and that’s how it was for the next three months,” Kennedy said.
Smith passed away on Dec. 28, 2015 after celebrating one last Christmas, filled with laughter and gifts from friends and family.
Kennedy said she had “five good years” with Smith after the accident and together they worked diligently to learn everything they could about brain injury rehab and recovery.
Smith’s positive attitude, goofiness and jokes helped them get through the days. He called his knee scooter “Horace”, his cane “Hugo” and named his oxygen machine“Herman”.
“That’s the humor that gets you through because you don’t want to face the gravity of what’s really happening,” Kennedy said.
She hopes to write a book someday about “this crazy story of ours” in the hopes it could help people going through any kind of struggle. In his memory, Kennedy also fundraises for Sharp Rehabilitation and for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, to help athletes with traumatic brain injuries like Brian’s, to reach their full potential.
It took some time but Kennedy has returned to the canyon and has frequently visited the jump where his accident occurred. As she stares at the 120-foot drop-off she often asks herself “what were you thinking buddy?”
“I go just to think of him,” Kennedy said through tears. “I understand why he did it. He was so smart, so intelligent and he needed a physical outlet. He had that beautiful canyon right in our backyard and it was his escape.”
“Honoring him in this way is special,” she said. “I know he’s here.”
Volunteers at the Nov. 6 work day will meet at Via Canyon Drive, off Torrey Santa Fe Road (off the Camino Del Sur exit of SR-56). Volunteers should wear closed-toe shoes, gloves, hat and sunscreen. Tools will be provided. Limited water and snacks will be provided—bring anything needed for a safe and comfortable work day.
Those interested can RSVP at the SDMBA’s Facebook page.