A year ago, I was starting physical therapy after a below-knee amputation. Yesterday morning, for the first time in my life, I ran a 5k–at 8,800 feet of elevation no less. Well, I ran most of it. It took fourty-one minutes. For context, the first place finisher did it in fifteen.
The week leading up to it, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to run. I had been having back issues, and the last month it was painful just to walk most days. It was going to have to be a run-time decision based on how my body was feeling, and it hadn’t been feeling great. I had every excuse not to run, and I had no shortage of advice discouraging it as well. But in terms of recovery, the race felt like something I had to do. Often, with this recovery, the things I regret are the things I didn’t try. Unless I couldn’t put my leg on, I couldn’t imagine not following through with it. I’m glad I did.
Usually, the harder I push myself, the more I pay for it. A few months ago, a run like this may have meant not being able to wear my leg the next day. Today, it’s a little tender–and my body is incredibly sore–but it’s working. I can tolerate more, and after four years of just treading water, it feels like I’m almost out of the woods.
Talking to friends after the fact, plenty of people have told me how they’re impressed that I could do that with just one good leg since they believe they couldn’t do it with two. Before all of this, I probably would have made that same statement. But, you don’t have to run a 5k. Even those that walked the whole thing finished in under an hour. And even going slowly, it’s still fun just to participate. It’s less about racing, and more about finding the right degree to push yourself.
Over the last few years, I’ve read countless stories about individuals facing much more difficult challenges than me, and trust me, my recovery pales in comparison to theirs. We all have very limited visions of what is truly possible until we have to face it. I’ve spoken with so many active amputees who were self-proclaimed couch potatoes prior to amputation. Now they run marathons and triathalons. Many of them with fewer limbs than I have.
Of course, it doesn’t start that way. It starts with a single step. For me, it was a series of single steps. At first it was just walking. Then it was running for 30 seconds straight. Then about 6 months ago, I attended a running and mobility clinic. That lit a fire for finding enjoyment in running, and I saw many others working through their own struggles. It was difficult, and we were all exhausted. But everyone there was all-in and committed to simply making progress. It’s a moment that I’ll never forget.
Through the last four years and multiple setbacks, life has been a roller coaster of extreme highs and extreme lows. Often, people would “helpfully” point out that it could be worse. What I started to realize, though, was that it wasn’t about appreciating that it wasn’t worse. That’s looking at it hoping that this is the bottom when it rarely was. Instead, I just tried to think about progress in terms of steps that were just big enough to be meaningful, but not so big they were depressing. It turns the focus upwards instead of downwards. Then everything just became a simple matter of telling myself, “You’ve got this.”
Each goal was personal and relative to my situation and my capabilities at the time. They were real. Sometimes, I’d fail to reach these goals, but I’d get close enough that it still felt within reach. Sometimes I’d reach the goals but find out I pushed too hard. So I’d scale back my ambitions. Over time, it all came together. These days, my goal is to cross over from recovery to growth so that I’m at a point where I can begin to help others. With this 5k, I can see that I’m not quite there, but it’s in my sights.
Today, I filled out my application to volunteer with the local adaptive sports organization this winter. I’m not sure I’ll be physically ready, but on the off chance I reach this next milestone soon, I want to be ready to volunteer and help someone else take their next step. There’s another goal or two between now and then, but that’s become the big one: cross over from a focus on my recovery to begin to focus on others’ recoveries.
I wish I hadn’t had to lose my leg to reach this point, but I did. It took me a year to struggle through a 5k. These things take time. These days, my biggest wish is for others to see more in themselves. Whether it’s a triathalon, 5k, a walk around the block, or a walk around the house, milestones are milestones. Get a small win, and then find your next step–it may literally even be a single step. Just keep going. You’ve got this.