Thursday, March 25, 2010

Here Be Eagles

On Wednesday, March 17, 2010, Jennifer and I woke up and went for our respective runs. Afterward we packed up the Pilot and drive the 5 plus hours to Atlanta for the 2010 Getting2Tri National ParaTriathlon Training Camp at the Georgia Tech campus. We would leave on Saturday, March 20, and whereas I cannot speak for Jennifer, I think she would agree our lives were changed forever by the people we had the intense honor to share these few days with.

Now I will turn the miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day.

- Pi, from "The Life of Pi" (Yann Martel)


We arrived at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Convention Center just in time for rush hour, certainly an event not to be missed if only to pooh-pooh one's own local traffic conundrums. We registered for our room and found the Getting2Tri sign-in tables down the hall. Immediately we found our friend Ashley Kurpiel, what a great way to kick off the weekend. In short order we trotted down to the "Meet and Greet" room where after retrieving our adult beverages, we met my CP Larry Wiley and his lovely wife Annette. Larry was talking to camper and fellow BTK (below the knee) amputee Steven Bible. We all chatted shop for a bit and then settled into our dinner while hearing Mike Lenhart's opening comments.

We had briefly talked to Mike at check-in, while meeting his parents and a number of other campers and volunteers. I knew Mike would be busy this weekend, yet he was always calm and cool under the fire of multitasking events, volunteers, athletes, and the unknown glitches none of us saw. A man of integrity and an intense devotion to his foundation, Mike is the heart and soul of this organization. It is obvious he loves his work and is surrounded by equally caring people. As a coincidental (or not) footnote, while I was nosing around for some background info for my camp blog post, I noticed Mike's birthday - April 14 - is the same as my amputation anniversary. On my birthday - March 5 - my friend Jeff Nolan went through his foot amputation; I hope to see him at camp next year.

I had come to camp as a technical advisor on the running coaching staff and Jennifer as a volunteer handler whose athlete, "AJ," was something of a legend there. Speaking of the athletes, we did not have time to meet them all, and each one had a unique story of courage and perseverance. Not once did I hear anything remotely corresponding to "woe is me." Far from it, I saw bright, smiling faces, full of laughter and hope and achievement. My god, here be eagles. To think I might have missed this would have been the only woeful moment I could conceive.

Depending on the athlete's disability, they could choose different training sessions, like wheelchair racing or a swim clinic. Although I attended some other sessions when running was not in progress, my focus was on running and helping athletes as I could. Through a scheduling mix-up, I was listed as both an athlete handler with Larry Wiley and on the coaching staff. I thoroughly enjoyed doing both, indeed, it was an embarrassment of riches.

 Georgia Tech Campus Recreation Center (CRC) and athletic field

Swimming and other indoor sessions were done at the huge 1996 Olympic Atlanta swimming facility that is now used exclusively by Georgia Tech. It not only houses the pool but every conceivable workout room including a 6.7 lap/mile indoor running track. Oh my. Be still my heart.

The Thursday morning run session was headed up by Mike Jenks, Tom Martin, and Coach Will Dillard with Jason Gunter, Kelly Luckett, and moi on the technical staff. A bit of informal lecture was conveyed to the athletes while also throwing in warm-up drills such as the "superman" and "reverse superman" that indicated most of us need more core strengthening work. The athletes, depending on their disability, were shown some running basics. Seeing someone take those first tentative jogging steps brought on a round of applause and a chill up the spine if not a lump in the throat.

Later that day I got to speak to Kelly Luckett, whose original motto is: "if I can't run fast, I'll run far." At last count, as an amputee, she has run 20 marathons and 3 ultramarathons, all this on a modified Cheetah sprint prosthesis used in the Paralympics some years ago. A genuinely warm and caring person, she gave me some tips on distance running and how much she enjoyed hanging with Amy Palmiero-Winters at the Arkansas marathon this year. Kelly, like many amputee athletes, gives motivational speeches and I hope to hear her story someday.


On Friday morning - a picture perfect day - we started with a couple of easy warm-up laps on the AstroTurf field outside the CRC. I ran with Jason Gunter briefly and we talked about running feet and stride mechanics. Jason has a Flex-Run foot and I am still not in a running-specific foot so our techniques are different. Turnover rate is still the key, so a shorter stride with a high rate is usually preferred over a longer stride with a slower rate. Most world class able-bodied athletes run around 180 foot strikes a minute; whether they are running fast or slow they simply change their stride length while maintaining this high cadence.

I worked a great deal with Jennifer, Larry, and athlete Doug Bolton, who wore AFOs (Ankle Foot Orthosis). Doug is an excellent swimmer and loves to bike and has a great deal of focus, determination, and pure grit. He plans to do a full Ironman in 3 years, so he has set a realistic schedule for it, as Scott Rigsby would say, an UnThinkable goal. He has started a long journey up a steep mountain. He will see us from that lofty peak in 3 years hence. I can't help but imagine him crossing that finish line and feeling the crush of emotion and empowerment. I hope we are there to see him on that summit.

We did a number of drills and I went for a short run with Doug. The athletic field is about 1/3 mile around and we did two laps. Doug's AFOs are not very comfortable but he persevered. We later examined his shoes and found he had some for heavy motion control; since like me he is actually an underpronator/true supinator foot strike, these shoes were the worst possible type for him.

I am amazed at how many running stores - even those manned by experienced runners - will sell the wrong shoes to a runner. Unfortunately some are more interested in selling what they have in stock as opposed to what the athlete actually needs. I do not purchase from two local stores for this very reason; the other store fit me perfectly. I should add it is the person doing the fitting whom I trust, like a good sports doctor, you need to find one you can stick with.

After the morning run clinic finished up the athletes headed to the pool, I decided it would be a good opportunity to get my 6 mile run in at this very convenient location. I had planned a 2 mile w/u with 2 x 2 miles at a little faster than tempo pace. The field was quite soft compared to even a Mondo track, maybe a little too cushy in some spots but very easy on the legs. After my 2 mile warm-up, I dried the liner out and started my first 2 mile interval.

I felt extremely good...and happy. I was thinking how fortunate I was to meet these heroes, how I never heard a complaint and only saw smiling faces heard supportive words between us. It came to mind...what if I could have my foot back, a granted wish that would have cost me this experience.

No, it is a deal I would not take. I would be ever so poorer for the exchange.

I ran on with eyes hot, a throat constricted, under a clear blue Georgia sky. I felt more connected to my life than ever. And oh so happy.

I circled the field.

Round and round.



My face is set to a grim and determined expression. I speak in all modesty as I say this, but I discovered at that moment that I have a fierce will to live. It's not something evident, in my experience. Some of us give up on life with only a resigned sigh. Others fight a little, then lose hope. Still others - and I am one of those - never give up. We fight and we fight and we fight. We fight no matter what the cost of battle, the losses we take, the improbability of success. We fight until the very end. It's not a question of courage. It's something constitutional, an inability to let go.

- Pi, from "The Life of Pi" (Yann Martel)

(Side note: As I ran around the field I noticed a marker for the "Pi Mile Running Trail." My life at times seem to be so many random coincidences as to be part of a dismembered puzzle drawing itself together.)


I had to attend to a sore spot on my residual just below the kneecap, then headed to the pool to observe the swimming. Jennifer's athlete "AJ" was co-handled by Mike Lenhart's sister-in-law, Molly Lenhart. We talked to Molly a number of times; she is fully engaged in helping Getting2Tri's mission to help the disabled athlete. We really enjoyed her company and the ideas she had to keep the organization moving forward. This being only the third year for the camp, I would have guessed they would have been at this much longer. Mike is open to suggestions, even from a rookie with space cadet credentials (me), and I believe would cut off one of his limbs if it helped improve things for his athletes. 

I love watching swimming, knowing how strenuous the sport is while, when done with correct form, appears to be effortless and gliding and...not unlike what I feel when I am having a prefect run. AJ is a bilateral amputee, who finally had her remaining foot amputated knowing further surgeries would serve no purpose whatsoever. A dynamo of optimism, her enthusiasm is contagious to know AJ is to be carried along on a tidal wave of friendship. If AJ is anywhere closer to your radius of hearing, you'll want to lean in and see what the fuss is about!


The camp banquet was held at the Palomar Hotel and was well attended. The guest speaker, Matt Stinchcomb, was from a minor sport, football. Okay, American football is a Big Deal to some folks and Matt was an excellent speaker, elevating his sport in this runner's opinion. I had no idea football players possessed a quick wit, much less be able to spell it.

The 2010 Athletes of the Year were Deanna Babcock and Shaun Daily. I was around Deanna some at the pool but didn't get to know Shaun this visit. The G2T gang gave a well-deserved - and entertaining - award to the employee of the year, Mike Lenhart. I think Mike was a little embarrassed about this spotlight, but I know every single one of us attending this event were grateful Mike was so honored.


We finally caught up with Ironman Scott Rigsby on Saturday before the Finish Line Luncheon, the final event of this all-too-brief gathering. If you have been reading my blog you know a bit about Scott. I have an idea in the upcoming years you will know him in a different...light. Suffice it to say, it was another in a long line of highlights for this camp. Larry purchased - or promised to send Scott a check! - several copies of Scott's book "UnThinkable" to give to patients.

The luncheon itself was a perfect ending to the camp. The speaker was Mike Wien, a 5th place podium finisher at Kona after overcoming a childhood baseball career as a right fielder. (I should note as a pre-glasses wearing youth baseball player I hit a triple to the right fielder after guessing to swing at a pitch I could not see. I played left field because I could run after the balls I could not see hit to me.)

While at the luncheon, and without warning, my feelings became very raw. Jennifer and I will admit that socializing tends to wear us out, but not with this magnificent group of athletic eagles. To think a portion of the bald eagle's scientific name signifies a sea "halo" eagle is significant and perfectly suited to my friends, athletes, coaches, volunteers, and families who support our passion.

Before we left I was able to screw up my courage and constitution to give Ashley Kurpiel something I had been carrying around in my backpack nearly all weekend. This was my 2nd place AG award at fourth race, a 5k in North Charleston, a glass trophy. I told Ashley she was my hero, and she is all that embodies courage in the face of a relentless adversary. This race will have an associated marathon on January 15, 2011 and it will be my first amputee marathon. Ashley, I hope you can come see me run it.

 Jennifer had not read "The Life of Pi" so she downloaded the book and we listened to it on the drive to Atlanta and the trip home. Just outside of the city the words I have chosen to define this blog were spoken: "Now I will turn the miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day." I turned my head, eyes wet, such an overwhelming feeling of amazement of this life, these lives.

We saw the amazing every day. I saw Rajesh Durbal come into the hotel before breakfast, having made sure he did his workout before the camp's day activities began. I saw what my dad would call "a million dollar smile" belonging to Kelly Casebere as she learned to ride a bike. I saw the promise in Steven Bible's eyes that he would run whether on dirt roads or fields of fire. I heard John Kuznarik announce his goal to walk the entire Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia.

There were other stories I did not hear...that is what next year is for. I have already been thinking about coming back as an athlete; but in whatever capacity I can help, I will be there to do it.

To be among these magnificent individuals was an honor like no other I have had in my life. Thank you athletes, volunteers, coaches, and for Mike persuading me to attend this camp. Here be eagles, eagles all.

And thank you Jennifer, for being there with me. Be it the high road or low, we go there together.

For in the end it is the love of each other that is all there is. 


At moments of wonder, it is easy to avoid small thinking, to entertain thoughts that span the universe, that capture both thunder and tinkle, thick and thin, the near and the far.

- Pi, from "The Life of Pi" (Yann Martel)


  1. Thank you for this post. The event sounds so good, so brilliant to be a part of, to experience all the desire and courage of those who are in this life to win, and be the champion of all who support them and encourage them in their progress. There is nothing more inspiring to me than stories such as this; this is what it means to achieve, and it puts life into real perspective for me. Thank you again.

  2. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for the thoughtful note. I have learned about this other side of humanity only by becoming part of it. I wish more folks had your insight.

    The Paralympics are in London in 2012, hope you get to see some events!

    - Richard