The stars aligned on our arrival into San Diego. It was the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s biggest event of the year, the San Diego Triathlon Challenge, and we were invited as special guests to participate in the three-day, jam packed agenda.
Hundreds of challenged athletes arrived from all across the country to celebrate in community and sport. I could count on one hand the number of other challenged athletes I had met in my lifetime, and now I was surrounded by people just like me with dreams as high as the sky! I was in a complete utopia. A world where my difference was celebrated and the only limits placed on me were the ones I created in my own mind.
Friday, 10/20 – Swim Clinic, Kids’ Surf Clinic, & Celebration of Abilities Dinner
The first event I attended was the open water swim clinic at La Jolla Shores. As I approached the beach, I looked out into the ocean and saw huge white caps and waves upon waves crashing onto the shore. Being only my second time swimming in the ocean, and having grown up in rather calm waters in Minnesota and Michigan, I wondered if this was normal.
A few minutes later, my question was answered: the clinic was cancelled due to unsafe swimming conditions. The cancellation didn’t stop us from having an incredible time and soaking in everything the day had to offer. Elite swim coaches, Alan Voisard and Alison Terry, gave pointers on open water swimming and connected us with XTERRA for an amazing deal on wetsuits.
We also went around meeting other amputees, hearing their stories, and watching the kids’ surf clinic. Talk about inspiration! Seeing their smiles had us smiling from ear to ear the rest of the day.
That night, the whole team got “dressed up” (aka we wore the only nice outfit we brought on our 1,500 mile journey) for the Celebration of Abilities Dinner. And boy, was it a celebration! With co-founder Bob Babbitt leading the show, we were on a total high, inspired by stories of challenged athletes who re-defined “possible” and crushed boundaries in countless physical arenas.
These athletes dared me to dream big:
- Andre Kajlich (top picture), is a world-class paratriathlete and ultraendurance wheelchair racer who just became the first handcyclist to complete the Race Across America (RAAM) in June. RAAM is billed as “the world’s toughest bicycle race,” and arguably the ultimate endurance fest, where competitors race more than 3,000 miles coast-to-coast, climb 170,000 feet and cross 12 states. All of which must be done in 12 days or fewer. Sleeping only 90 minutes per day, Andre finished with eight hours to spare. His journey was captured in a film called “Joyrider.” (He lives in Seattle, where I’m at now, and invited me to ride with him…in the rain, of course.) Also, if you need some motivation to get out the door for your workout today, Watch this. Andre is incredible!
- Eduardo Garcia (pictured below) is a celebrity “bionic” chef and the co-founder of Montana Mex. In a freak backcountry accident, 2,400 volts of electricity were sent through his body. He lost an arm, ribs, muscle mass, and nearly his life. But he didn’t let this stop him from pursuing his passion as a chef, or for his love of being active and outdoors. His documentary, Charged, was just released on Amazon and iTunes. (And I must say his BBQ sauce kills it! We made some mean sliders when we got back to Washington from the huge samples in our CAF goodie bags!)
- American paratriathlete and former Paralympic track athlete, Sarah Reinertsen (pictured below), is a personal role model for me. She was the first female leg amputee to complete the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. She’s also an incredible mentor to many and I was so excited to meet her and get a picture! As a Nike-sponsored athlete, she promotes Bill Bowerman’s mantra, “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” (I hope to complete an Ironman someday, and will be thinking of Sarah’s relentless spirit. Get it girl!)
Saturday, 10/21 – Össur Running and Mobility Clinic
Riding on the momentum from the night before, we were up bright and early Saturday morning for the Össur Running and Mobility Clinic. I had never been taught specifically “how to run” as an amputee, and now I would have the opportunity to learn from world-renowned experts in lower limb amputee mobility, Bob Gailey and Peter Harsch. I was ecstatic!
We were split into two groups, “able-bodied” volunteers and amputees. I paired up with Nat, and Kathleen found a fellow amputee, who she connected with right away. We did a number of drills to improve our running form and worked on pacing. I also met Eric McElvenny (pictured above), former Marine and now a below-knee amputee and accomplished Ironman, who took me under his wing to offer some tips and show me his leg set-up, both for running and biking.
Beyond the drills, I was completely blown away at the technology the majority of these amputees donned on their legs! There were Össur Cheetah running blades left and right, and many amputees sported various activity-specific prosthetics. It was as if I had walked into an alternate reality! But this was real life. A utopia that was all possible thanks to the incredible partnership between Össur and CAF, as well as the generosity of countless donors.
Össur, a pioneer of advanced orthopedic technology, had donated a majority of these blades, and through CAF’s philanthropic support, granted these to countless challenged athletes. Most insurance companies don’t cover “activity-specific” prosthetics, for example running or swimming; it is up to donors to ensure amputees have access to the technology they need.
Being surrounded by this community, I started to feel my own infinite potential. People who believed my athletic pursuits were worthy of the equipment and training I needed as an amputee. Which made me wonder:
“If this community could see my potential, why couldn’t insurance? And why was no one holding insurance accountable for this unmet need?”
Finally, we headed over to the CAF headquarters to pick up our packets for the triathlon which we would be racing as a relay. I would be doing the 1 mile swim, Nat would be biking 44 miles, and Kathleen running 10 miles. We also picked up our goodie bags…which were HUGE!! They were stuffed with awesome gear from Nike, Speedo, Converse, Clif Bar, you name it! I nearly fell over trying to lift my bag up. We really felt like VIPs!
Sunday, 10/22 – San Diego Triathlon Challenge
The big day finally arrived… the Aspen Medical Products San Diego Triathlon Challenge! We arrived early to set up our gear in the transition area: my XTERRA wetsuit, Nat’s bike, and Kathleen’s running gear.
I was on cloud nine, surrounded by my teammates, family and friends who had flown in to see us compete. It was also my first time participating in an athletic event where I wasn’t the only amputee racing. I was excited to see able-bodied athletes who had signed up for the race as well. An incredible showing of support by thousands of people.
After participating in the Parade of Athletes, which was similar to the Olympic Games’ Parade of Nations, we made our way to the transition area to start the race. To my dismay, I found out the swim had been cancelled. The swell from Friday had continued and the water was not safe for the racers.
“If there was anything I had learned on our 1,500 mile voyage, it was how to be flexible. I wasn’t going to let this stop me!”
So, with the help of CAF race staff, I changed my swimming bib over to a running bib. I would run the 10 miles with Kathleen.
As I started to mentally prepare for the run, a few things started to go through my mind. I knew I had the endurance to finish the run, but I also knew that 98% of our 1,500 miles had been from biking. I really wasn’t in the best running shape.
Long-distance running is a very taxing sport for an amputee, let alone for an amputee who doesn’t have a leg designed for running. The decision to make the majority of our journey biking was purposeful.
I can tell you with 100% certainty, that if I had tried to run 1,500 miles down the coast, my leg would not have survived. And I’m talking about all aspects of my “leg.”
What would have happened?
My carbon fiber foot would have snapped in half, my spectra socks and footshell would be torn apart with holes, my liners worn away beyond recognition. My prosthetic would be completely unusable. With no back up leg, I would be on crutches and severely limited in my mobility.
Additionally, my actual leg would be covered in wounds, bruises, sores and blisters that developed from an ill-fitting socket combined with sweat and constant friction.
Due to asymmetries between my left and right side (from years of atrophy in my left leg muscles, as well as a carbon fiber foot meant for only walking and light jogging), my pelvis would become completely misaligned and I’d be racked with lower back pain.
Now, if you’re thinking, “Well, that’s because 1,500 miles is a long distance! Issues like that would have happened to anyone!” I can also tell you this same scenario happened to me while training for a half marathon. A goal that is not that far out of reach for most able-bodied athletes.
As I started the run, I knew I was in for a sampling of these challenges.
And, here’s what unfolded:
- Since I had lost around 10 lbs since the beginning of our journey, my prosthetic socket did not fit my stump the same as when I was first cast for it, just 6 months previously. In order to fill in the gap, I had gone from using a single ply sock to now wearing 5 plys of socks. This created a lot of extra wiggle room for friction and blisters on my leg.
- Extra socks also added heat. On this 80 degree day, I was sweating like crazy. I ended up having to take my leg off 3 times during the course of the 10 miles to dump sweat out of my liner, dry off, and add ointment for my blisters.
- Having a leg that was only meant for walking and light jogging also created asymmetries in my running form. The foot was just not designed to give me the propulsion I needed to match the strength of my right leg. As my left leg muscles began to feel taxed, I could feel my lower back tightening and the resulting back pain begin to creep in.
I finished the 10 miles with a pace of 12:00/mile…far from any PRs. It also put into perspective for me that I could put in countless miles, but it could not replace what a running leg could do for me and my goals as an athlete.
After the race, I was called on stage for what I thought would be a Q&A on Forrest Stump. What happened next, you would not believe… Read More.