Beth Fong

Beth Fong watches the monitors as her husband, Lawrence Fong, recovers from a surgery at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. Lawrence Fong , a sports chiropractor , triathlete and iron-man competitor, slipped and fell in a restaurant bathroom last year and became comatose. Doctors told Beth Fong that he was brain-dead. (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

Beth had fought to get him transferred to UCLA Reagan Medical Center. Once there, to ease the swelling, Dr. Nestor Gonzalez removed two large pieces of skull from the back and right side of Lawrence's head. He stored them in a refrigerator to be reattached if Lawrence recovered.

The surgeon was not optimistic. The inside of Lawrence's brain looked as though he had been hit by a car.

After the surgery, Lawrence remained in a coma, hooked to a ventilator and a feeding tube.

Beth stayed by his side, watching his heart and temperature monitors and talking to him as if he could hear her.

By Christmas Eve, he was breathing on his own, tracking her with his eyes. That night he kicked off his blankets. She asked him if he was cold. He nodded.

Surprised, she asked again. Again he nodded.

He was in there, just as she had felt in the chapel.

As they holed up in hospitals to focus on his recovery, the couple lost everything: their savings, their jobs and their Balboa town house, which was foreclosed.

Beth tried to stay positive. When Lawrence's ring finger became too swollen to wear his wedding band, she bought him a new one and wore the old ring around her neck.

By spring, Gonzalez was able to reattach the pieces of skull he had removed.

A fellow triathlete hired Beth, who had worked as a veterinary assistant before her husband's accident, as the live-in manager of a Culver City apartment complex. When Lawrence was released from the hospital in July, they moved into their new home, a one-bedroom apartment she had filled with photographs from their racing days.

He encouraged her to train for the Ironman. They made a deal: She would race if he would coach her.

Between training sessions, she drove him to physical therapy, where he learned to stand and walk with assistance. He still needed help wheeling himself to the kitchen or shower.

But his doctor, impressed, said Lawrence would probably walk on his own in a few years. The triathlete wanted more. He wanted to race again.

His wife had survived on her own for months while he was in the hospital. She'd even taken on his old job as a triathlon coach.

"I definitely need her more than she needs me," Lawrence said. "I give her basically some love and attention -- that's all I can really give to her right now."

The more he brooded, the more she tried to draw him out, to make him see that it was his personality that she had fought so hard to restore, not just his body. As he coached her, she began to see glimpses of the old Lawrence, the man she loved who knew all her weaknesses and challenged her to overcome them.

"He got to come back in the world we met in and we both thrived in," she said.

They decided to walk together at the end of the Ironman -- to celebrate how far they both had come.

She is running as the sun sets over the mountains and stars blanket the sky. The temperature dips, and the muscles in her thighs and calves constrict. Her right calf starts to cramp. She is doing 11-minute miles, slow but steady.

On a grassy bend in the road, Lawrence waits with friends hoisting handmade signs proclaiming "Team Fong" and "We Love You Beth." He watches her loop past, reading her fading smile as a sign that she is tiring.

He is pretty tired too. Staying alert all day has exhausted him. He naps in his wheelchair as his mother-in-law drapes a quilt over his lap and Beth's Pomeranian, Cosette, nuzzles his chest.

Race officials have warned that if he crosses the race barriers to walk with her at the end, she could be disqualified. But he needs to be there for her at the finish. He wheels off with a friend to persuade the officials to make an exception.

Shortly before 9 p.m., Beth closes in on the finish line. Brushing aside her weariness, she grins and sprints the final 100 yards. Blinded by floodlights along the final stretch, she doesn't see Lawrence at first.

She crosses the finish line at 14 hours, 7 minutes and 13 seconds, and the crowd parts.

Lawrence isn't walking, or even standing. She doesn't care about that. What matters is that he is there -- for her -- beaming the way he used to when he finished a race. As the crowd cheers and cameras flash, she kneels and gives him a triumphant kiss.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com