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Iron Man


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Photo by Joe Hodgson

One Man’s Leg is a memoir of Boulder County resident Paul Martin’s tragic misfortune followed by several superhuman victories: During a 1992 car accident, one of Martin’s legs was irreparably injured and doctors were forced to amputate just below the knee. Just three years later—like a force of nature—Martin completed the New York Marathon.


Today, he holds “the world-record in the Ironman for one-legged guys,” as he puts it, and he’s won both silver and bronze as a member of the U.S. Paralympic Cycling Team. He recently completed his first ultra-marathon, and he continues to compete around the world. The triathlon has officially been accepted as an event in the 2016 Paralympic Games, and Martin says he will pursue competing in an exhibition event in the 2012 London Games.

“I had no idea that I would be a better runner, biker, swimmer with one leg than I was with two,” he said. Despite the stress, pain and strain, this has been his “path to full self-confidence and purpose.”

Here, in an excerpt from One Man’s Leg, Martin talks about training, his first attempt at becoming a runner and his continued struggles with the appendage he calls Stumpie:

I was introduced to the sport of triathlon the following summer after picking up a triathlon magazine one day. I flipped through the pages and saw a photo of Cam Widoff crossing a finish line in a shirt that read Will Race For Food. This simple statement impressed me—triathlon must be a pretty hip sport.

My desire to complete a triathlon grew after I heard about Jim MacLaren. At 290 pounds, Jim played defensive end for the Yale football team in the mid-’80s. A collision with a Manhattan bus while riding his motorcycle led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee. The EMTs pronounced Jim dead, twice, en route to the hospital. Thankfully, he survived and went on to become a very competitive triathlete. Jim’s struggle expanded in 1993. While competing in a triathlon in Orange County, Calif., his bike, at full speed, broadsided a van that had illegally entered the course. Jim suffered a broken neck in the crash, rendering him quadriplegic. He now makes his way around in a motorized wheelchair, but his indomitable spirit is as mobile as ever.

Jim’s accomplishments awed me. Up until that time, I considered a marathon an incredible feat to tackle with a prosthetic leg. But an Ironman? It sounded so extreme. Still, it was motivating to know that the list of possible achievements had no apparent end. Jim became a role model and gave me confidence to begin training for some shorter triathlons.

I decided to buy a mountain bike to begin training for my first triathlon. When I picked up the bike I had ordered from the Cosmic Wheel in Ridgefield, N.J., I met Dr. Rob DeStefano, a chiropractor in nearby Lodi. Dr. DeStefano was talking about his own Hawaiian Ironman experience with the shop’s proprietor. I stuck my nose into the conversation, telling Dr. Rob of my triathlon ambitions, and mentioning Jim MacLaren. Rob was familiar with him from races they had both competed in on the Big Island of Hawaii. Without hesitation, he agreed to help me get started in the sport.

A week later I met Dr. Rob at the Hackensack YMCA for a swim lesson. He chuckled when I demonstrated my technique. One lap, a mere 50 yards, left me huffin’ and puffin’. He pointed out the gross errors, including a horribly inefficient and hastened stroke, a misaligned body and an improper kick. But by the end of the month, swimming two to three days a week, my ability improved, I quadrupled in distance and nearly doubled in speed.

Dr. Rob then set me up with a 12-week program to help me complete my first sprint triathlon. Sprint races vary in distance but typically involve a half-mile swim, a 10- to 15-mile bike ride, and a three- to five-mile run. I continued to swim at the Hackensack YMCA and usually ran and cycled on the streets near Weehawken. Central Park was only a 20-minute commute on any given weekend. I spent most Saturday and Sunday afternoons there getting ready for my first race.

I found the perfect event to test my new abilities in my hometown of Gardner. By race
day, my swimming technique was still weak, so I used a pull buoy to conserve energy. Flotation devices are usually not allowed in triathlon, but the sympathetic race director
let me use one.

The bike section felt good, and I passed several competitors along the way, including a high school buddy who was cycling for a relay team. Stomach cramps late in the race made for a difficult run, but once the pain subsided I reeled in a few runners who had previously passed me. In the finish line sprint, I matched a competitor along the last 50 meters before he got the best of me. My grandmother, aunt and uncle, and some friends were there to cheer me through the finish. I placed 44th out of more than 100 triathletes. I felt pretty damn good—despite a blistered Stumpie.

I had trained primarily for the run, which is the toughest discipline for an amputee. My running improved throughout that summer in both distance and speed. Mike and his head prosthetist, Erik Shaffer, made continual socket adjustments to help me run with less pain. “Pain free” running, I have discovered, may very well remain theoretical.

In the 18 months since I first ran on Mike’s treadmill, I had competed on a national level in track and field and had completed my first triathlon. I was mentally prepared for my next challenge: the 1995 National Amputee Track & Field Games being held in Boston at the MIT athletic facilities in June.

I was running three or four days a week; Stumpie couldn’t handle any more than that. I would run on the Hoboken High School track a couple of times a week and a day or two on the road. I was also making many trips to the prosthetic shop to try to find an answer to my blistering problems. We were making gradual progress.

My duties at work lost their priority. I was putting all my creative energy into training. That was all that mattered to me. And the training began to pay off.

In Boston, I set a new national 1,500-meter record with a time of 5:20:88. I also ran the 400-meter and managed both a second place finish and a personal record time of 64.95 seconds, not particularly fast. In the 100-meter race, not having yet mastered my new sprinting leg, I tripped on the prosthesis right out of the starting blocks, but still managed to set another personal best of 13.93 seconds. Again, not too fast. I didn’t even qualify for the final heat of six runners. Still, I was developing a passion for mastering the run.

For the remainder of the summer I focused on the race Mike Joyce had predicted less than two years before: the New York City Marathon. A newly found friend became a motivator and mentor: Kathy Holmes, who was a member of the Somerset circle of friends I had entered by way of the ice hockey team and who had run the race the previous year, 1994, dared me to match her courage. The seeds of 26.2 miles of self-induced punishment were sown. To help guide my training she bought me a book for my birthday, Making the Marathon Your Event, by Richard Benyo.

Distance running was teaching me a great deal about prosthetic equipment. The more I ran, the more often I had to make the two-hour trip to the leg shop. I discovered that skin breakdown problems were caused not only by pistoning but also by the changing shape of my stump. Training resulted in a loss of body fat, even in Stumpie. This meant a change in shape and socket fit.

Suspension was a huge problem now that I was running the longer miles. I found a partial solution in a clear silicone liner that Erik thought we should try. The primary suspension problem was the introduction of air into the 3S, eliminating the intimate vacuum fit and causing enough pistoning to create abrasions and blistering. I wore an off-the-shelf silicone liner—a tube with a closed, cupped distal end—over my 3S. We cut a hole in the end for my pin to protrude to the shuttle lock. Its flexibility allowed for a tight fit up through my mid-thigh, thus preventing air from entering the 3S while still allowing sufficient flexion at the knee; this key innovation would contribute to my early distance running success.

Marathon day: Nov. 12, 1995—cold and rainy, 29 degrees Fahrenheit at the start. Sixty-mile-per-hour winds blew across the Verrazano Bridge, the first quarter mile of the marathon. I was dressed in mid-thigh Spandex shorts, a cotton T-shirt, nylon shell, official John Hancock cotton race hat and cotton gloves. Jurassic run wear but, hey, I was a rookie.

My hockey buddy, Jack Barr, had also accepted Kathy’s challenge. He joined me for the race along with Joan Nevin, a volunteer from Achilles Track Club. I would be running the race as a member of a club that had been founded to promote physically challenged runners and wheelers.

The three of us took our own sweet time preparing for the start of the race and, as a result, ended up in the back of the pack…of 27,500 runners! The organizers had recommended self-seeding, whereby a competitor places him/herself within the masses according to his/her anticipated race pace. We failed miserably in this regard. We reached the start line 20 minutes after the gun fired.

Plastic bags by the hundreds, which athletes donned to stay dry while waiting for the gun to fire, blew by and got entangled in many racers’ legs, causing some to stumble and fall. We managed 9-minute miles for the first part of the race by bobbing and weaving our way through the melee. By Mile 4 we increased our speed to eight-and-a-half-minute miles, then to eight-minute miles by Mile 7. As I ran, the constant pounding and slightly less than perfect socket fit inhibited circulation, causing increasingly intolerable pain. At Mile 8, I had to pull over to remove the leg to restore desperately needed blood flow. The pain forced me to remove the leg more and more frequently as the race progressed.

At each pit stop, the same pair of women passed us. We would return to battle to regain the lead, each of us making some type of “you again” comment. (One of the women researched my name and contact information through Achilles after the race and wrote weeks later, praising of my efforts. In fact, Sarina Glaser kept up the correspondence and remained a self-proclaimed “No. 1 Fan” for quite some time.)

The run up First Avenue was fabulous. Millions of people were cheering for their friends and family members as well as for total strangers. We heard “Go Achilles!”—The official cheer for any challenged runner—over and over again. In classic rookie fashion, Joan and I had each written “Go Paul” on our shirts to spark a bit of encouragement from the spectators. It
actually worked.

The race crossed the East River again, this time eastbound, on the Willis Avenue Bridge. There, at Mile 18, I hit the infamous “Wall.” This unwelcome threshold is reached when the muscle glycogen stores, then blood glucose, become so depleted that further energy must be supplied through food intake. Otherwise, muscles will begin to cannibalize and the central nervous system will experience severe fatigue. Jack humbly held himself back. Joan, too, could have maintained a quicker pace but chose to hang back with us. The Wall slowed our troop of three from what had been a nine-minute pace to a struggling 12-minute pace.

It was in this section of the race that I learned how wondrous an orange slice can be, how splendid its juices running down my throat can feel, how much energy one slice can provide. The sustenance came from the volunteer aid stations every mile along the course. Each pit was staffed by 20 to 25 God-sent individuals distributing water, Gatorade, oranges, bananas and energy bars.

Until then, the crowds had graced us with desperately needed enthusiasm and encouragement, but on the other side of the bridge in the Bronx, the sidelines were considerably thinner than they had been on Manhattan Island.

On the streets of this northernmost New York City borough, the race took a very hard right turn, causing a bottleneck in the flow of runners. Jack pulled off to get a banana and that was the last I saw of him for the remainder of the race. He had a more aggressive goal than I did, so I was relieved that I was no longer holding him back.

From the Bronx, we headed south onto Manhattan Island and into Harlem, at approximately Mile 20. By then, Stumpie was bummin’ hard and I had to stop at least once every mile. I stopped at one park bench for nearly two minutes—two minutes that passed much too quickly. Then Joan and I went on. The crowds became thinner still and the surrounding athletes thinned also. It became a mental feat just to keep moving.

Miles 20 through 23, the toughest of the day, drilled down Fifth Avenue through Harlem. This was an interesting section of the race, highlighted by the wonderfully welcomed smiles from the elderly ladies and little kids who probably witnessed the rite annually. In the heart of that infamous part of town, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I had less than 10 kilometers to go, a standard run on any other day. But it wasn’t any other day. I was nearing the end of my first marathon, and Stumpie was killing me.

The inspiration to keep moving actually came from the other runners. All around me I could see that their legs were burning and their feet were getting heavy—but they were still running.

Paty and the others had planned to meet us again at the entrance to Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 102nd Street. That corner would be a natural energy boost for all the competitors. The park marked the beginning of the end, and all the spectators from First Avenue had meandered west to catch the big finish. …Just past Mile 24, I heard them all hollering my name as Joan and I came into view. Paty kept waving her big, happy sign. They were all glad to see me upright and likely to finish. I plodded along at nearly an 11-minute-mile pace. We’d have just two more miles to go when we got back into the pack.
I pulled off the road and sat on a wall with Paty and Kathy. I removed not just my leg but also the liner and 3S. Stumpie was so tender. Regardless, we laughed and cheered and began a premature celebration. Although I was in no hurry to put that damned leg back on, I re-donned the equipment, post-hug, and pulled myself together to get out there for the last of the punishment.

With only minutes left in the struggle, my psyche strengthened and I began to feel wonderful. The pace picked up as we passed a slew of runners through the southern progression of the park. We briefly ran along the westbound half-mile stretch of Central Park South, the section of 59th Street adjacent to the southern edge of the park. I became incredibly energized. I was running at nearly a seven-minute mile pace! I had to bark “On your left!” time and again to clear a path. When we turned north back into the park, we had just 0.2 miles left. The crowd had been cheering incessantly since our entrance at Mile 23. The finish line bleacher seats came into view. Beautiful…

There it was, the finish line of the New York City Marathon. I kicked it in for an honorable finish, remembering Kathy’s advice: “Make sure no one’s around you when you get to within 30 feet of the finish line and put your arms up in victory. You’ll get a great finish line photo.” I slowed it up to a standstill until the immediate crowd surrounding me dispersed. Then I howled and threw my arms toward the sky and proceeded at a trot across the white line. Despite coming up 30 minutes short of my goal, a victorious feeling overwhelmed me from the inside out. And the finish line photo was perfect.

I received my finisher’s medal and, like everyone else, plodded along in euphoric discomfort toward the family and friends meeting place another three quarters of a mile through the park.

On the way, a park bench lawlessly invited me over for a reflective moment. I ignored the “No Crossing” tape and accepted the invitation.

Joan asked if I was OK and I told her that I just needed to be alone for a short while. When she had gone, I sat and cried for a good five minutes. A race volunteer approached and put her arm around me for comfort. I assured her that I couldn’t be happier. She smiled and left me to my thoughts.

I had just completed a marathon—in New York City. It was an accomplishment I had never considered pursuing in my 10-toed days. The finish line, earned through hard work and determination, taught me a lesson: From that moment on, I knew that anything I wanted to do, in any field, for any reason, was possible. If I dedicated myself to any reasonable goal, I could ultimately achieve it.

It occurred to me then that I was not only “as good” as I had been before the amputation; I was better. This accomplishment would be the launch pad to a future of unrestricted possibilities. But the first step, no trivial task, was to get off that bench.

Paul Martin’s memoir, One Man’s Leg, can be purchased on Amazon.com. You can find his second book, Drinking From my Leg, there as well. For information on Martin or to have him speak at your event, visit onemansleg.com.

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email no info send march17th/09

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