Monday, January 31, 2011

To Boston - Charleston Marathon Part VII

It did not occur to me until some later in the day on January 15 that I had qualified for the Boston Marathon as a Mobility Impaired runner. Assuming I can get registered, I will be on the starting line for the April 16, 2012 race. Mobility Impaired runners start first at Boston, not given second citizen status or none at all at other races. They have their results posted for their division.

Like many runners, I had sought the golden Boston Qualifier (BQ) as an able-bodied runner, missing it by a little over 7 minutes in 1997 and never getting any closer. It seems running has given me one of its prized jewels as a gift. I suppose the the running gods thought their little SAG wagon joke was just a little over the top and felt this was just compensation.

*******

A word on my prosthesis: despite the problems I had it was a still a successful learning experience, a trial by fire, the type I will not soon forget. You bet I will have some sleeve repair material and a spare at the ready at future races. What was incredible to me was my residual looked amazing after the marathon, no cuts or swelling or red friction spots, nothing other than what looked like a little heat rash well above my knee.

There will be some fine tuning required, but I am hopeful that things will only improve. Many things may have gone wrong on race day, but the most important decision I made was the correct one. Thanks to Stephen Schulte and the professionals at ProCare for providing some extreme technology quite literally overnight that allowed me to run this marathon. I doff my socket to you!

Also thanks to Scott Rigsby, Jason Gunter, and Kelly Luckett; amputees who helped direct me to the path as I stumbled around in the forest. You guys are giants of inspiration, courage, and fortitude. What a lucky man I am to have come to know you.

*******

We raised over $2000 for the IFOPA. My goal was $5000, one I thought was a bit ambitious but certainly not impossible. So it is on to Boston, and I will run once again for IFOPA, for Ashley Kurpiel, and for everyone affected by the disease.

Ashley will be hosting a 5k race in the Atlanta area this spring to raise money for IFOPA, so please come run, walk, or volunteer if can. Say hi to Ashley and we will see YOU there.

*******

There were many, many people who helped me achieve this dream. Please know I cherish the support in emails, tweets, posts, donations, and moral support. My gratitude is neverending.

I wrote how alone I was for much of the second half of the marathon, but my friend Tom DeSee said: "you were NEVER alone bro!" He was right a thousand times over. You were there.

***

Here is a chapter closed and another one opened. As my friend Pi has guided me from the beginning, I hope you will turn the miracle into routine, and let the amazing be seen every day.


Yours in running, forever,


- Richard

Every, every minute - Charleston Marathon Part VI



Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?

No. Saints and poets, maybe--they do some. 

- Thorton Wilder "Our Town"


Being an occasional poet and knowing some saints, I can say without reservation or fear of sudden, inexplicable death that January 15, 2011 was one day that I realized life, every, every minute.


Where two became two

The other day was December 31, 1998 when I married Jennifer. Our families were intact with the exception of my dad who has passed 10 years earlier. It was just a perfect day, an idyllic setting in Rockville for our ceremony. Our dinner cruise in the Charleston harbor came complete with a glorious sunset.


- Van Morrison


*******

"Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you." 

- Thorton Wilder "Our Town"





Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Near and The Far - Charleston Marathon Part V


Just past mile 20
I would not have given this runner much of a chance to finish this race had I been able to step outside myself at where I had been and how far I had to go. My thoughts were becoming more and more simplistic as the fatigue mounted and the mind focused on one thing: running.

Check your pump...still holding vacuum...I'll take my gels every 4 miles and fill my bottle whenever I can to make sure I have fluids at the end should they run out...I hear music...the next mile marker should be coming up soon...hey...I see a former coworker and her husband, Mariann and Danny Chritton.

And then at about the 11 1/2 mile mark something good happens. The steenkin' SAG bus has stopped completely. I see runners coming from the other direction, marathoners who have run about 8 miles further than me on their way out to another part of the course. For a moment I am not certain which way to go, but then a police officer and some volunteers indicate I should go to the opposite side of the road where suddenly the course becomes very lonely.

*******

Into old North Charleston and I hear the Mike Wolk Jazz Group playing. Mike is 'in the groove' and I cannot get his attention, but think if he's still here on the return trip I'll try again.

We outbound marathoners are few and far between, many more on the other side of the road heading for the barn. We are now at mile 12; they are over 19. My pace has slowed from the great bus chase and I try to conserve energy as much as possible, shorter stride, run relaxed, one mile at a time.

For the next few miles I am able to make the 26.2 an abstraction, for if I consider how far I have to go I think it would overwhelm me. My brain is shirking all extraneous thoughts. There is no "Eye of the Tiger" playing in a loop. Occasionally I think "we're gonna get there soon" or "nobody said it would be easy" but not often. It's run as best I can, eat, drink, and eventually another mile peels away.

keep. moving.  forward.

It is a welcome sight to come upon the aid stations and jubilant volunteers. I drink in their enthusiasm and support and always take in some fluids. In the back of my mind I have that woebegone SAG wagon haunting me and wanting to make sure I keep my hydration level high.

I have not seen much of this part of North Charleston, there are some depressed areas but I love the older neighborhoods, 50s era housing, and mature landscapes. I am also becoming aware of weariness of the body and wonder how long before I will be reduced to walking. My answer comes at mile 17, when I decide I should start with 30s and see how it goes.

*******

My prosthesis feels sloshy but otherwise doesn't threaten to fall off and leave me hopping about on one foot. I pull up my shirt sleeves as I grow warmer and remove my gloves. I am finding the half mile my watch "lost" earlier offers a trick that has been making some miles go by quicker. If I look at my watch and it says 16.3 miles, I am closer to 16.8 miles and the next mile marker. I try not to play this mental trick too often but I am convinced it does help.

Back through old North Charleston and I see Mike again and get his attention. His wife Judy is on the other side of the street walking their dog Wilson. They offer words of support and I speak to Wilson, who gives me a nod of approval. I hear ya brotha. Dog tired I tell ya.

*******

Now at mile 20, the thought flashes in my head and I allow it to burn there a while.

I am going to do this thing. I am going to finish this race.

Into Riverfront Park, quite scenic, but with some uneven surfaces that I take care not to trip on. The band lifts my spirits and we exchange waves and words as I pass. The invigoration lasts for a few more minutes when I feel compelled to walk again. I know I am now climbing The Wall.

I ran the 5k through this part of the course last year, my fourth race as amputee runner, I won 2nd in my AG and gave that trophy to Ashley Kurpiel at G2T camp I wrote about here. For most of this race I have kept my emotions in check, otherwise I would have been dehydrated after the first few miles. In my mind's eye I picture Ashley waiting for me at the finish line, her smiling, joyous face, and even though I know she will not be there in person, I keep take that image from my head and place it in my heart.

Just past mile 21 we enter a 5 mile out and back where runners are on both sides of the road again. There is a good sized, vocal crowd and many people are cheering on their runners. Jato and I make our way down the road, very rough with broken pavement and many railroad tracks. Many throw inspirational words my way and I try to respond with a wave or a smile.

I realize with every step now, it is further than I have ever run before as an amputee, my last long run was 21 miles at the end of November. On the plus side my right hip flexor has mostly kept its complaints to itself, but my left foot is starting to feel a little sore. Nothing bad, just a little 'hey, I'm doing all the work here, that other dog cannot speak!'

*******

At mile 22 the fatigue brings his concrete-shod friends to the party. I am walking for longer periods now, run when I can for as long as I can before the legs demand more rest. I see Carolyn Murray, who calls my name out twice before my brain awakens to hear her. Carolyn is a news reporter for local TV station Channel 2, and she was going to do a story on Ashley until the Atlanta area weather intervened. I was very sorry this did not happen because I knew Ashley's story would be compelling and I so wanted others to hear it.

I trudge forward. These last 4 miles were hard. Very hard. I have never been on my feet running (or run walking!) for over about 4 1/2 hours in my life. I have refused to look at the total time on my watch because I do not want any source of discouragement. This race is to finish. I am going to get there. We are going to get there soon.

There is a curious, squishy noise coming from Jato...there is sweat squirting out of a port on the vacuum pump. My leg is awash with perspiration in the liner and some is running between the socket and the frame and through the pump. If this was not happening there would be no way to avoid stopping as the prosthesis would just be too loose.

*******

And then running shows me something new, something I have seen but not really known, just like the difference in seeing an amputee and being one. We runners are at the very back of the pack. I have been there in high school but that was different, a shorter race with fewer participants.

Some are able to run, some manage a walk, some step aside to stretch a cramping muscle. All have run 5+ hours, all are moving forward, and nearly every single one is encouraging their runner brother or sister on. As tired as I am and unable to process the flood of emotion, it is one of the best feelings as a runner...hell, it is the best feeling as a runner as I've ever had.

It is the sheer magnificence of the human spirit that will not be stopped. I think if we could treat each other like this all our lives in everything we do, how little room there would be for anger or dispute. Each moving forward, each helping the other to that same place: the glory of the finish line.

*******

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)

 *******


I am so tired. I am walking more and more. I pass some, walk, they pass me back. Back and forth. Back and forth. Someone says "we've got to stop meeting like this" which makes me smile.

I can only run short periods, maybe 200m at a time, when the legs simply stop running. The mile markers come with excruciating lethargy. It is becoming an effort to speak to other runners who talk to me. In relative terms, these last 4 miles have taken as much time as the first 22. Oh god I am tired.

keep.  m o v i  n  g.         f o  r   w   a    r        d  .

There is an amazing volunteer some distance before mile 25. She chants words of 'You didn't quit! You are such an inspiration! I am so proud of you...' and on and on until I am out of earshot and my eyes are hot with tears.

Come on. You can do this.

The crowds are gone from mile 25 to 26 that were so boisterous on our way out. There are a few groups of families and friends waiting for their beloved marathoner to come into sight. I see no one I know, but they applaud me and I try to run as best I can.

oh.  oh.  sweet baby jesus     this is hard.

the brain is emptied, there is nothing left but a few running steps, walk. walk. walk.     run.

A left turn and I see the mile 26 marker. I kiss my fingertips, reach up and plant it on the sign. Where have you been all day my friend?

There is a volunteer ahead who motions me to the left. 'Been a long day at the office' I say, knowing my friend Joe would know the meaning.

And there it is in the distance. The banner. Our home. The finish line.

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

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

*******

I allow the waves of emotion to sweep over me as I pick up my pace. I flash on the those who are there and not there. Jennifer is there and friends Cal and Jannette. I see someone else's broad smile. Ashley, we did it...we did it...we did it...

There are no words for what I am feeling. 
It is everything and nothing. 
It is death and rebirth. 
It is the near and the far.

*******

I cross the finish line, hold my arms up to embrace the day, this gift. Tears of loss and of pure joy. I am home. I hear the words, "Richard Blalock...from Mount Pleasant..."

*****

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)


*******

My hands are on my knees, there is nothing left. A few steps forward. Hands on knees. Yes, thank you, I am okay. Finish photo. Out the back of the chute.

Jennifer finds me. I do not know if I would have been able to finish today without her help way back at mile 8. I am overcome with gratitude as we embrace and embrace with friends and the tears fall again.

I have finished my first marathon.


Again.









Saturday, January 29, 2011

Back to the Start - Charleston Marathon Part IV

January 15, 2011 - Start of the Inaugural Charleston Marathon

 Reunion

Old friend

You have been with me every other step of the way
From first light we stumbled into everyday

As you depart know when time has done his worst
we will laugh and run along the high road
high above the sorrow
high above the pines

and we are flying
with wings

                                                       (April 14, 2009)

*******


The first mile of the marathon is the usual congestion, but it does not take very long to clear enough to run one's own pace. The roads in downtown Charleston, even the better ones, often have a lot of dips and depressions owing to the cheese-like fill much of it is built upon. I have to keep an eye on the pavement, made a little tougher because the road is still thick with runners. As we approach White Point Gardens, a.k.a. The Battery, some runners take to the higher seawall and run above us on the left.

I allow myself to think about a day long, long ago, when my dad was taking home movies at this very spot. My mom is holding the newborn brother Mark, so I think this movie was filmed in late November or earlier December 1960. This would make me 6 years old, almost 7.  This is the earliest film of yours truly running, and if you were to watch our old home movies. you'd know exactly why I came to run today.

video

I looked to my right to the memorial where my sister and I played. And there I remembered the little boy, running around this monument so many years ago. And here I am today, fifty years later, still running. With one foot. I do not quit. Ever. This day is sealed.

*******

We head up King Street and I latch onto the 2:30 half marathon pace group. My pace feels like I am holding back, I am running within myself, so I feel good about the day's prospects. Crowd support is better than I expected for a relatively small marathon, and I can tell you the words of encouragement are never lost on me now. Somewhere I realize I have hit the stop/start button on my watch instead of the lap button, and restart it, losing about half a mile in the process. I am not kind to myself in my self-admonitions. Doofus.

My body is already heating up when I notice it seems my prosthesis fit is a little wobbly. I pull over to the side of the road, press a button on the pump, and it turns on. Okay, maybe I managed to turn it off before the race start. It pumps for a while but soon the prosthesis still feels loose, and I can feel sweat building in the liner. I retrieve the fob from my shorts. I turn it on and see the pump is off. I turn it on. It runs and turns off. What the...?

Just run.

I keep monkeying with the fob while I try to decide I should do. I notice a woman wearing a shirt for her mother who had Alzheimer's; I touch her shoulder and said a few words of encouragement. Many of us were running for someone else today.

*******

Now I am completely unfocused from my race. What am I going to do with my pump turned off? My guess is some suction will remain, but I will have to make several stops to remove my prosthesis to dump the sweat that will accumulate in it. I awkwardly remove the IFOPA singlet and the outermost shirt over my head while running, thinking afterward how I could have fallen when I couldn't see the road for a couple of seconds and how that would have looked to others. Doofus.

Things start to deteriorate. My pump will not stay on and I feel my liner and sleeve slipping down. I yank the sleeve back up, but it short order it slids back down. I start pulling over to the side of the road to adjust the sleeve and liner but I am new to elevated vac and don't know what is causing this unusual behavior. Many runners ask if I need help or if I'm in trouble...thanks, but no, I am having an equipment problem.

One of the people who asks if I need help is a nurse. From my operation to my first mile to my first marathon, nurses have always been there. I wish I could have told her this, but I thanked her and said I was okay, and she ran on.

I take a chance and try to unzip the a pocket to retrieve my phone, managing to partially rip off a fingernail; I look dumbly at it, see it bleeding, and tear if off completely. Ouch. BIG OUCH. I manage to call Stephen, my prosthetist, without further bloodshed. He answers and I tell him as best I can what is going on. Over the next couple of miles while I am running we discuss what might be happening; Stephen is leaning toward a leak somewhere, but I have been unable to find a hole when I stop to adjust the slipping sleeve.

*******

The star marks the moment of truth
Jennifer catches me and asks what is wrong. I tell her my prosthesis feels loose and the vacuum keeps shutting off. Gratefully, she take some of the clothes I have removed as I do not want to lose them. I run ahead for a while and then just before mile 8 I have to stop again. So many runners have passed me by and I am thinking I am getting very close to last place.

I decide to remove my prosthesis, dry everything, and then just run without the vacuum pump operating. I sit on the curb and start to remove my leg, but I cannot find the lotion I need to allow the liner to unroll over itself in order to pull it off. (After the race I find the lotion stuffed in the towel compartment. Arrrgh!) The liner is made from polyurethane; it requires a lotion lubricant to don and doff (put on / take off). Jennifer catches up to me once again and asks if she can help.

At this point I am starting to think there are just too many things working against me today. Jennifer helps me with keeping my prosthesis upright while I root around in my waist pack for the lotion...oh no, it is not there. I am thinking it fell out while I was getting my phone out of the zippered pouch where I thought I placed it. Oh my.

And then adversity pulls out his nasty trump card: the SAG bus passes us by, and we hear someone tell the volunteers they can pack up and leave. I cannot believe what I am hearing.

Jennifer then sees what I could not. There it is, about two inches from the top, a small rip in my liner. This hole is the cause of the leaking and why the vacuum pump cannot hold suction. I roll the top of the liner over the top of itself, start the pump, and it holds. I put it well below the level I should have because the battery is at least half discharged and I don't want it running out of juice since we still have a long way to go.

The SAG bus is about a quarter mile away; Jennifer reminds me that if I cannot finish no one will think the worse of me, that today has gone badly and I can just pull out if I need to.

What comes out of my mouth shocked me with its voracity: "HELL  NO! Sorry hon, I am not yelling at you, but I have come too far to stop now. I feel okay except for these leg problems...I am going to go as far as I go, I just can't give up. I just can't."

It occurs to me how my foot came to injured all those years ago as it was crushed by the school bus rear tires. I give chase to the SAG wagon, determined to catch it and leave it behind. I outran the damn pace truck at Parris Island many years ago, surely I can track down the vehicle going at at course closing speed, which is over 17 minutes a mile.

Surely, unless the bus driver has a lead foot, which he did.

As he pulled away, the support tables were being dismantled, and I had no idea how I was going to be able to run 18 more miles with one bottle of Gatorade. Now I became concerned that I would lose my way on the course if the volunteers left...what more was expected of me this day?

I watched the runners ahead of me for turns, eyed the cursed speeding SAG wagon that I could not make ground on despite running much faster than course closing pace, and kept moving forward. My mind was clear of all other distractions, there was no thoughts other than to stay on the course and keep running after the bus.

keep. moving.   forward.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Daybreak - Charleston Marathon Part III

Note to self: wake up with 30 extra minutes to take care of additional amp requirements. You can always manage too much time, nothing good comes from having too little of this precious resource.

First thing, feed the cats and pour the coffee. Done. Now for the bagel, one half with peanut butter and one half with almost butter. Yum.

While I eat on go online for a short period of time while and post something I have done before other races: 

I try not to think too much of what has been an emotional week for me. Now is the time to ready myself for the day that is to come, to steel myself for this dive into the unknown. I cannot help but think of races under similar, undertrained circumstances. Once in high school after I suffered a severe ankle sprain - likely torn ligaments - and ran the final 880 in my high school season. I stepped off the track a little after the first lap in searing pain. It was my only high school DNF. Many years later, at the Mystic Places Marathon, plantar fasciitis stopped me in my tracks when it felt like I might have ruptured it.

No doubt, I was going to make it to the starting line with a prosthesis I could count on to be comfortable. Finishing was far less certain, and I put that thought out of my mind as best I could, though it circled out on the periphery, anticipating a kill.

Putting on a prosthesis with elevated vac (vacuum) is best left to a future post, but it does take more time to don. The payoff is a great fit, better, more natural limb health, and, if all goes well, not having to take it off to adjust prosthetic socks or worry as much about sweat. It will be well worth the time investment now.

*******

I jog across the living room floor and smile. Yes, this will do nicely, thank you very much. I allow a small glimmer of light to think...maybe...

Jennifer is getting ready and we try to decide exactly what to wear this chilly morning. The temperature would be near freezing at the start but a pleasant low 50s at the finish. Even as I dress I know I am wearing too warm clothing for later in the race, though later at my speed is quite relative.

A singlet on the skin, then 2 long sleeve shirts, the outermost with a zipper, and the IFOPA singlet over that. My Nike "racing" gloves because they are black and have red swooshes; I decide to wear a second layer of throwaway gloves while waiting for the start. Some Adidas compression thigh-length shorts and my trusty Race-Readys over them stuffed with GU Roctane. The Garmin 305 Santa brought me, IFOPA bracelet, Road-ID. Brooks headband and my beloved G2T visor cap. DryMax sock and on my left foot, an Asics Gel-Cumulus shoe with a Terry Fox shoelace. I fix a bottle of Gatorade for my backpack, and place extra prosthetic socks, a small towel, and a tube of lotion in it, the latter for removing my polyethylene liner should I need to.

Jato comes to life as my good right foot this morning. Bzz bzz bzz goes the electric vacuum pump.

The race starts at 8 a.m. We leave the house at 6:45 but I am calm. The morning air is frigid and the sky is a brilliant blue arc, a day in sharp focus as if everything is new and unused. We discussed the size of the field the night before and there shouldn't be any problem with traffic or parking. I send a few tweets as we drive to the race start from Mount Pleasant, one as we cross high above Charleston on the Cooper River Bridge...the lowcountry spans all around us. "It is a good day to run, a beautiful steel blue sky. Let's honor this day. This life. This blessing. This gift." 

It was a memory of another morning come to greet us, one during the difficult passing of my sister, when these words came to me:

Icarus Unbound

morning.
the mist embraces my marsh.
sunrise.
up. UP.
run to it.
embrace this day.
this gift

*******

We drive down East Bay Street and make our way to the garage near the city Aquarium. From early race course maps I thought the start was near the Maritime Center, but everyone was walking toward East Bay so we followed the brightly colored flock. The line is near Laurens Street, the marathon race course map is here. Jennifer gets a pre-race photo of the gimp:
Ready to rumble
Port-a-potties are by the Gaillard Auditorium, so we make one last pit stop and then drop off our gear bags. The gear truck is on Laurens Street so we have to make our way through the even more crowded assembly for me to shed my jacket. Back through the throng to our spot near the back of the pack. I am thinking of my frightening lack of training, whether or not I can finish what I am about to start, and what an absolute poser I feel like. What the hell am I doing here? I am being bludgeoned with clubs of doubt.

Scott Rigsby (center) and Ashley Kurpiel (right)
Stop it. Do what you can do, take each mile as it comes, remember what you did to get here. Draw on your vast resource of support. Remember who you are running this race for; someone else is going with you every step of the way. Run for those who cannot, run because you can. It is a good day, a miraculous day to run.

I kiss Jennifer, thinking I may not see her again until the finish, not yet knowing what the day has in store for us. And we're off. I didn't hear the actual start, suddenly we are moving forward, stopping, and surging again as the runners work their way toward the starting mat. I start my watch as I cross this new beginning and we head toward White Point Gardens.

I am running the inaugural Charleston Marathon.

I have started my race.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Not Any Friday - Charleston Marathon Part II

Friday would be a busy day, and not at all what one should do before a marathon.

My original plan from was to take Friday off, no work. Run 2 miles, carbo-load, and then stay off my feet, uh, foot as much as possible. It's usually tough to get a good night's sleep before a big race, so I thought getting rest would be very important. I did sleep soundly on Thursday, and that may have prevented a complete meltdown.

I decided I would work on Friday since we close at noon; I had burned off too many excess vacation days and thought working would help keep my mind off tomorrow. Tomorrow. Running 26.2 miles on minimal training. On who knows what leg. TOMORROW. What the hell am I thinking? You get the picture.

While at work I received something mid-morning that caused me to smile and choke back a happy tear right here. I began receiving more tweets and emails and FB notes of support. So much for work distraction. As I've said many times in the past, I have found the support I received since my operation to be more than words. It goes deep down, somewhere in my center, and attaches to my heart.

I also receive a phone call from Mike McKenna. I've written about how I thought I could have never come to know or understand the people I've met since becoming an amputee, those like me or with other disabilities, that it is truly not possible to understand unless you are. I think, though, Mike has an empathy for us, a desire to help, and this he has done in action, not only in words. But the words do mean something to me, and his friendship means a thing that is true.

Thanks Mike.

*******

My new prosthesis was shipped Thursday night and Sheila from ProCare emailed to say she had checked tracking and it was already out for delivery. I wanted to make sure the package was left at the house, so I drove home and, contrary to my current luckless streak, found Jato waiting for his master at the front door. I unboxed my blade, admired the coolness of the carbon fiber frame (Jamey at ProCare does incredible work!) and the ingenious mounting of the LimbLogic VS elevated vacuum pump under the post.

My revised afternoon plan was to purchase a memory card for an HD sports movie camera Jennifer gave me for Christmas. Stephen Schulte at ProCare wanted me to video myself walking and running when I got my prosthesis back so he could do a cursory check of the alignment. But first, a Texas-sized helping of pasta with my mom's homemade spaghetti sauce. One look at the heaping bowl and I thought there was no way I could eat that supersized meal. 10 minutes later and it appeared an invisible army marched through and dismantled it, leaving a cabinet-ready clean dish behind.

I picked up the memory and decided to call ShowOffs and see if my IFOPA race shirt was ready; no, not yet, but it would be ready today and I could come by closer to 5 pm and pick it up. It is now around 3:30; I decide to go home, don Jato, and take some movies of me crossing the living room floor, hoping the few steps will be enough for Stephen to discern any significant alignment problems.

I work with my prosthetic sock fit, and it feels...good. Real good. Like...YAHOO I'M GOING TO WEAR THIS PROSTHESIS AT THE CHARLESTON MARATHON GOOD. There, one indefinite thing now made clear. I make the movies and send them to Stephen in HD, thinking he will view them on on computer, but I think he uses his smartphone and they are just too large to be usable. Later in the evening Jennifer converted the files to a smaller format, and Stephen was able to tell there were no significant alignment issues.

There is a tiny detail though: the vacuum pump operates with either a push of a button on the pump itself, or with a small fob that has a small display that indicates the vacuum level, battery charge, leak sensor, and some other details. The fob was not sent with the prosthesis, so there is not way to check what vacuum level the pump is set to or other details. This data will needed during the marathon and will become more apparent tomorrow.

*******

Jennifer picks up the IFOPA race singlet on her way home for me. A change of clothes, and off to packet pickup and the pasta dinner in North Charleston. The expo is held in a large tent; packets are not put together but it is not much trouble to pick up our race numbers, bus ticket for a return ride to the start, and our technical Charleston Marathon shirts. There are only small and x-large ones available; this should not happen, I suspect others traded sizes and we got whatever was left over.

The pasta dinner was also disappointing and I am glad the Kurpiels missed it. I don't mean to be so negative, but it simply was not very good. I hope they are able to do better at future races as this was one of the lessor dinners I have attended. The volunteers are cheerful and always appreciated for the work they do making any race a success.

While at the dinner I am texting Stephen; he makes some phone calls and finds he can send a fob via Delta Dash. There is a rub: I have to go pick up the package at Charleston International at 10:30 pm. There won't be anywhere close to 8 hours sleep tonight.

Jennifer and I decide to head home from North Charleston to Mt. Pleasant since we can't see spending 3 hours there waiting to go to the airport. I am feeling the first tentacles of fatigue come over me; I have been on the go almost all day and still have to go to the airport. Back home I lay out some clothing choices for the race and get most of the rest of my gear together.

I write some thank yous for the donations we received and then it's off to the airport. Jennifer drives which helps rest my legs and I am thankful for this. The package is waiting - Yay! - and then we drive the 30 minutes back home. This is not how one should be resting for the marathon but there really is no choice. Again, the only blame here is me for waiting so long to make a hard decision. Stephen and Jamey and the ProCare team have worked wonders to get me a great prosthesis in time for the race.

Sometime during the day I lost my anxiousness about all that had been going wrong since after the Kiawah half marathon. I found some peace with myself, knowing despite mounting odds no one was quitting. Not me, not my prosthetist, nor my supportive friends. Indeed, I was going to be on that starting line in the morning. I felt connected in a way that is hard to explain, as if out of so much chaos the universe had embraced me, all of this, this singular challenge that lay ahead. I would meet it; whether I finish it would, in the end, be up to me.

Cutie keeping me company during recovery
Just before midnight Stephen and I got my vacuum levels programmed with the fob and a good thing too, as they were set too low. At 11:38 I wrote to him, "It's a go then. Get some sleep yourself!"

I laid my head on my pillow, at ease with all I had been able to do for tomorrow, and feel asleep. I had vivid dreams, one was with our cat Cutie, her fur was somewhat matted but she looked me in the eye as she always did, and I petted her. Gone but not gone.

I slept until three minutes before my alarm would have gone off.

The gift had arrived dressed in morning.

Time to rise.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Gathering Clouds - Charleston Marathon Part I

Super Kids!
On Wednesday before the race, I participated in a discussion with 4th - 7th grade kids at Saint John Catholic School in North Charleston. I had been asked to speak by David Hill, who knows a coworker of mine, Betty Niermann. The kids are doing a LEGO robot design and research project where this year's theme is Biomedical Engineering. Greg, a MUSC Biomed PhD student spoke on fascinating research, and I gave a short talk on my injury and prostheses.

Unfortunately my high tech running foot was back at ProCare being updated, so I brought my older one for the kids to see. I believe they were most impressed with being able to see and touch it. I was about their age when my original accident happened, so we shared a connection in time. For some reason I was a little more nervous talking to these kids, but I think that was because I wasn't sure exactly what I should say to them about amputation. It was my intent to show it does not limit what a person can do, and because we look different it does not mean we are not human beings too.

*******

Earlier in the week I exchanged some emails with Mike Lenhart, and we discussed the marathon and whether or not it might be wise to drop to one of the shorter race distances that day. This was something Jennifer and I had discussed and had been on my mind. The last injury and subsequent lack of training was not making for confident mental race preparation. I wrote this to Mike:

"To be 100% honest, I do not know if I can run the distance if I have issues with the socket much less off the abbreviated training. I probably won't know until Friday evening or Saturday morning which leg I will wear. I will be on the starting line, I know that. I think it will be a long day, my time will be very slow, but I don't care...I just want to cross that finish line now. I feel more anxious than my first able-bodied marathon since I know what is coming."

Mike had my best interests in mind, recalling how he and Scott Rigsby took over 6 hours to finish a marathon. Scott, a bilateral amputee, had issues during the race that caused setbacks for him on his way to his "unthinkable" IronMan dream.  Were I in Mike's place, I believe I would have offered the same advice to another runner found in a similar position, knowing what was likely best and what would likely happen.

*******

During this week before the marathon, a winter storm had hit much of the south; Atlanta was covered in snow and ice. There was some delay getting my leg to ProCare, despite my sending it on Monday via overnight delivery. We had some icing on bridges here, but along the coast the roads were generally clear. Stephen kept in touch with me as the package finally arrived Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 12. This would give them perhaps 12 hours to work on it and ship it back so I could have it on Friday before the race.

Little did I know things would get even more interesting.

*******

Made by ShowOffs in Mount Pleasant, SC
On Wednesday I heard from Ashley's mom, Carol. The weather in Atlanta was not forecast to clear in time for them to come to the race. This made me very sad, I had many times thought about crossing that finish line with my surprise - the IFOPA singlet I would be wearing - and seeing Ashley there.

It seems so many things were conspiring to tell me not to do this race. Not enough training; a newer injury behind my knee; my friend Ashley would not be able to come to the race; my running prosthesis - if it made it back on time - would be completely new except for the Nitro carbon fiber foot itself. What would I do if I put it on and something was terribly wrong with the fit? Could I run for a longer period of time I had ever done in my life?

Questions easy, answers hard is something I learned long ago. This answer would be twenty six point two miles long.

And I had not run one step all week.

*******

There was one very bright spot in this gathering gloom: our IFOPA donations were picking up momentum. Several people who had already given once came forward to help again. Most of the previous donations came from people I knew like family and friends. Now friends of friends joined our ranks. Jennifer began the snowball rolling and others joined in, Colin and Kristin Cooley, Ian Mountford, Lori Jomsky, Christopher and Crea Wilno, Tom DeSee and so many others took up the banner to help cure FOP.

It was an unbelievable display of human caring. It came to mind that there is no greater love between friends, many unseen, and no matter what the odds, they will stand at your side and never flinch. In fact, if they could they would take your burden and make it their own. We do our best, we depend on each other to do the same, and we will never, ever, give up.

My step-daughter Becca and her husband Chris Winn responded with their second donation to help cure FOP. This brought tears to my eyes...Becca and Chris will be first time parents in March. It's not like they have any money to spare with Baby Winn on the way in this economy, yet here they make another donation to help people they have never met. This act of love was nearly unbearable to me. It still is as I write this. 

My soul began to grow quiet. Whatever comes, we will not stop. Through all the unknown, the uncertainty, the possibility of failure, there would be no giving in and no giving up. With support such as this, I will be on that starting line and will go as far as my body would take me. I had no idea how powerful this knowledge would be.

Friday, however, would continue to test the will.

And it would not end there.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Prologue to Marathon Posts


I have tried to capture the days leading up to my marathon and then the race itself. I simply could not fit it all into a single post, and I know I still left many things out that come back to me in quieter moments. I could write a book. :-)

There are seven posts, and I will try to publish one or more a day starting tomorrow. I enjoyed writing these, and I am happy to be able to share this journey with you.

Your friend in running,

- Richard

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Quick note

It is going to take a few days to distill all that happened yesterday. So please bear with me as I try to put into words what was in my head and heart as I approached and ran the Charleston Marathon. It was a good day to run, one that I will replay in my mind for the rest of my life.

In the meantime, you can still help us with our goal to cure FOP here. Ashley is planning a 5k race in the Atlanta, GA area to benefit IFOPA in the spring, so if you can come I would love for you to meet her there.

Thanks for your patience!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Keep. Moving. Forward.

The title of this post is one of the mantras I use when the going gets tough on longer runs. Even if I am slowing down and losing race time, you don't get to the finish line unless you move toward it. So if I am tired and wanting to stop and maybe even sit for a while, I first try this: Keep. Moving. Forward.

The Charleston Marathon is in less than two days. I have decided to try not to talk about the things I have no control over, the things like lost training time I cannot change or fix. My goal remains to complete the race, and to do this I will need to run slow and see if I can indeed finish. A faster time will have to wait for another day, this day will be special in many other ways.

Ashley's mom Carol wrote to me concerned they will probably not be able to come for the race. It's a long drive in good conditions, but even a little ice on the road would be treacherous and there can be no chance for Ashley to fall getting in and out of the car. I often imagined how it would be to see Ash at the finish line, but there is another one we all want to see and you can help here.

This would afford me the opportunity to run the marathon on another day. I could drop to a shorter distance on Saturday, take some time to dial in my new prosthesis, and get the quality training I need to run a the way I feel I am capable of later. Yet even with these things considered I find I cannot turn back now, something inside compels me to Keep. Moving. Forward.

The one shoe I will be wearing on Saturday
There will only be one inaugural Charleston Marathon, the very race, if not the course, that I have long dreamed about. If I decided not to do it I would certainly carry that regret - and too many excuses - around in the baggage compartment. No thanks.

Tomorrow is going to be one busy day. Four hours of work, then hoping my new prosthesis makes it to me in time to test, make and send video of walking and running to the Stephen Schulte at ProCare for a quick visual assessment of my alignment, go to the packet pickup and pasta dinner, then home to make sure all race items are accounted for and perhaps time for a quick pre-race post.

*******

It is hard to believe that race day is nearly here, it has seemed like a dream in many ways. One I will wake up from to tell Jennifer, you won't believe this, I dreamed I was a one-footed guy trying to run a marathon on ridiculously low mileage and a brand new prosthesis. Thing is, I am wide awake and yes, I am doing these things.

I am lucky to be able to run again. More than that, how many runners get to experience running their first marathon twice? Running does love me, and I running. Just when I thought I could not love it more...an entirely new universe opens and embraces me. And for that I have few words, but plan to do the doing on Saturday.

Keep.

Moving.

Forward.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Cliff's Edge

I am severely under-trained for this marathon, never have I felt so ill-prepared for a race. My new running prosthesis has been sent overnight to ProCare for some adjustments as my Sunday 10 miler morphed into a sad 8 miler. I knew we would be pushing the envelope to get a completely new running prosthesis ready to go in a little over a week, but it was my fault for waiting so long to make this change. The guys at ProCare can work magic given a reasonable schedule and I feel certain as adjustments are made things will get much better; the reason I know this is because I have talked to other athletes and have seen what they can do.

Current back of knee injury
With a good fitting prosthesis this race would be very difficult; with a problematic one it will be awful. No doubt if this was a weekend 5k I would blow if off until later, but this my goal race and one I felt I had given myself an abundance of time to train for. That is true; I factored in around 4 weeks of downtime. Turned out to be at least twice that much of lost training, the inability to do key long runs and speed work that could spell failure on race day.

I fear this race, but more than that, I fear not doing it more. I am ready to accept what I must, but I must run as far as I can go.

I will be on the starting line for the Charleston Marathon this Saturday. I am running to help cure FOP in honor of our friend Ashley Kurpiel. Ashley will be at the finish line with her parents, and that is why I must finish this journey.

You can help here.

Thanks to everyone who have already helped and supported this effort. You are my friends. You are the heroes who will help beat FOP.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

To Life

My passionflowers

This past Sunday I was to run 16 miles to perform the acid test on my leg; if it started bleeding again I was going to have to bail on running the Charleston Marathon. My plastic test socket was never comfortable during the run and I could feel something wet against my skin only about 6 miles out.

Sweat or blood?

I knew sweat would definitely be inside the liner, but if I stopped and found blood I'd have to call Jennifer to come retrieve my sorry carcass. I decided not to stop...what would it really matter if I was bleeding now or after the 16? Either way I would be calling the race off, BUT if there was no bleeding I would have the semi-long run done and would still feel capable - in the most inadequate sense of the word - of doing the marathon.

My pace waned throughout the run until it reached "excruciatingly slow" on the dial, right next to "dead stop." And I did stop a few times, feeling a sharp pain and discomfort and wondering what I was doing to myself, and how in the hell was I going to run 26.2 miles in such a state. Random thoughts criss-crossed in my mind. I thought of my friend Ashley. I remembered waking up in the recovery room. I thought of how much work and time I had put into this effort. A vision was conjoured up of my dad and our walks to "the rock" in western North Carolina. Inside I could feel the dirt beneath the feet of a boy running through the woods.

Was I to abandon if I could not run as fast I as capable of even if this run went well?

I made a peace with myself, that if I was not bleeding I would do what it took to run this marathon, something was tugging at my soul that it would not be about the finish time, but the time running and seeing that finish line.

Nobody said it would be easy.

*******

It took over 3 hours to run the 16 miles. I ran 13.1 miles 3 weeks prior in under 2 hours.

But I was not bleeding.

*******

I write this from the ProCare lounge where I am hanging out while my first new test socket is being built. As mentioned in a prior post, I have changed prosthetists. Stephen Schulte is methodically working to build a state-of-the-art running prosthesis that I will almost certainly wear in my marathon attempt. Any athlete knows it is usually a very, VERY bad idea to change equipment right before the main event; many a runner have spoken the words "woe is me" or more likely "$*&^!" for changing shoe models days before a race.

This is to say I know the danger I am courting, but it is a risk I have to take. I know my current socket is trouble, it proved that at Kiawah. Even if my new socket feels good right away, from experience I know small imperfections may not show up for a week or two; but in 9 days and a few hours I will be somewhere on the streets of Charleston or North Charleston running my first marathon as an amputee.

Perhaps I will look back in the time to come and say: "Richard what a fool you were to think you could run on that low mileage and on a brand new prosthesis in a marathon! Idiot."

But the gamble I am willing to take, and put my very body on the line for, is to remember hearing this for the rest of my life: "Richard Blalock, from Mount Pleasant, has just finished the Charleston Marathon!"

I will see my dear friend Ashley there. My sweet wife Jennifer will be waiting for me. And the only time that matters will be the here and now.

To life.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Changes

This post is difficult to write. Difficult in that I have thought about what I'm about to tell you for a long time. I kept thinking things would be resolved and get better and I'd not have to do this. When you've been with someone from the start and find things just are not working out, it makes for a hard decision; one I have found nearly as difficult as deciding to amputate my foot in 2009. It many ways it feels like a divorce.

First I want to say without reservation that I deeply appreciate all that my friend Larry Wiley has done for me at Floyd Brace. I know without any doubt that helping me reach my running dream has been as important to him as it has been to me. Never have I felt I have imposed on him and I know he genuinely has his patient's best interests in mind. From being there at the hospital when I had my surgery to traveling with me to the the Getting2Tri National ParaTriathlon Training Camp, Larry has been there every step along the way.

As I have pushed forward with my training with an eye on the Charleston Marathon, I have had many problems we've tried to resolve. Unfortunately, I have not been able to train consistently because of many issues as I've written about on this blog. Now in a tenuous position of being undertrained in a race that hates those who do not respect the distance; it even hates those who do respect the monster, it is an equal opportunity teacher. You will hurt, some more, some less. I have always hurt doing a marathon.

I have decided to change prosthetists. There, I've said it. Larry has taken me as far as we can go, and now I have to go further. I must be able to train on a consistent basis to achieve my goals, and I have decided after many months of gut checking introspection to become a patient at ProCare Prosthetics in Buford, Georgia. Many amputees will recognize this company as the one who has helped many high level athletes reach their incredible goals, like Scott Risgby, Jason Gunter, and Rajesh Durbal.

From before my amputation, I was told from other amputees that prosthetic fit is all-important and that I shouldn't let loyalty affect my judgment in prosthetic care. This is much easily said than done and I have struggled with it time and time again. I do know, however, it must be done, and the time is now.

I love the people at Floyd Brace and will miss the visits there as a patient. To see a child's face light up when Maurice Johnson simply walks into a room is a testament to their caring. God knows I appreciate that. To see how many employees and their families have begin their individual journeys back into health and fitness is something that their patients will benefit from...indeed, actions always speak louder than words. Thank you for all you have done for me, and know I will forever be grateful for your help.

As I enter the next phase of my amputated life, I will never, ever, forget those who helped me get here. Growing pains are difficult in everything we do, it is the struggle toward our goals that we engage in every day. There are things we must never let go, and others that we must change to move forward.

For me, that time is now.

Nobody said it was easy
Oh, it's such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be so hard
I'm going back to the start

                             - Coldplay "The Scientist"