My childhood was not like most. I was born with a compromised immune system, because of this when I contracted a deadly disease called meningococcemia at the age of four, my body struggled more than most to fight it off. This rare bacterial form of meningitis is most often fatal. One of the most commonly associated phrases with this disease is “healthy at breakfast and dead by dinner”. The day I contracted meningococcemia was much like any other. It was a cold winter morning, I was sick again, with symptoms that were quite similar to the flu. I was always sick, which meant my parents were not overly worried. Fortunately, they noticed the purple rash under my shirt spreading across my chest. They rushed me to Boston Children’s Hospital. If it were not for the amazing doctors, nurses, and staff at the hospital I would not be here today. 90% of children who contract meningococcemia die within the first 24 hours. I was one of the lucky ones, the rare 10% who live but with a cost.
For those that do not die as a result of meningococcemia, there are often extremely severe adverse effects: kidney failure, epilepsy, hearing loss, cognitive problems and severe scarring of the skin. However, the most common long-term sequela is the loss of all four limbs secondary to gangrene. I was lucky, the disease only took my legs, but the trajectory of my life was changed forever. At 4 years old, both my legs were amputated in order to save my life.
Growing up I was active with local town sports, but was not overly amazing at them. Prosthetic technology in the 90’s was not stellar, and I did not know any other amputees let alone para-athletes. In general my family was active, and we would often play outside, go on local hikes, and hit the nearby ski mountains in the winter. I was limited in both my ability to go the distance and the duration making the possibility of a walk around the block, much less ever being a runner the furthest thing from my mind.
Fast forward to my adult life, I truly started to find my purpose after college. I had spent most of my life wearing pants concealing myself from everyone around me. I was afraid of the stares and comments that I would get if I wore shorts or told people I was an amputee. While working out at the gym, on an extremely hot summer day, I finally decided I did not care what anyone thought and put on shorts for the first time in nearly two decades. As I hesitantly left the locker room, it finally clicked. No one cared about my legs in the slightest. There were no looks or comments. That big step of wearing shorts was one of the biggest moments of my life. For the first time, I had the confidence to show the world who I am. It was also a lot easier than swimming in pants!
With this first big step in life accomplished I decided it was time to throw off all the other shackles that I had mentally built around myself over the years of being an amputee. At this point in time, I could not even walk a mile. I am not sure where I found the brochure, but a flyer for Team in Training ended up in my hands. It was advertising a training program to hike the Grand Canyon while raising money for an amazing cause—The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society). I had no idea what it would entail to go for a hike in the canyon, but I signed up without a moment’s hesitation. Five months later after training with an amazing group of people, we arrived on the edge of the canyon and proceeded to go on a 15-mile hike that nearly destroyed me. I barely managed to crawl out of the canyon that day, I was exhausted and sore, my residual legs were torn to bits, but I was triumphant. I had proven to myself that I could overcome all of my notions that as an amputee I was not built for longer endurance events.
After I survived my Grand Canyon hike I quickly became hooked on the outdoors. I joined more Team in Training events and subsequently hiked Zion National Park (where I met my future wife), and Yosemite’s famous half dome. All of these adventures led to multiday treks through the Andes and summitting the legendary Kilimanjaro in Africa. The world was opened to me in a way that I had never previous thought was an option. Despite all these amazing trips and adventures I still felt like I was missing a major piece of the puzzle.
When I started hiking I could not walk a mile but I had always had this deep-set thought that one day I needed to run a marathon. Running for an amputee is very difficult. The “running blade” is a prosthetic foot that is not covered by insurance and can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a single leg, and I needed two. Running in an everyday walking foot is the equivalent of trying to run in a ski boot, which is to say extremely difficult albeit uncomfortable. Yet, I was determined to start somewhere. With no other idea on how to start I ran one minute per day for a week on the treadmill in my walking legs, and then two minutes per day on the treadmill, and so on. It took me over two months to reach a mile. Through all of this my residual limbs were subjected to constant chafing and skin break down. But I was hell bent on getting there.
I received my first set of running legs from an amazing company in Long Island: A Step Ahead Prosthetics. They took a chance on me when insurance wouldn’t cover the cost and donated my first pair of custom running blades. It is something I will be forever grateful for. It truly changed my life as an athlete. Building a prosthetic that is customized to my body is truly an art and not all artists are created equal. It is extremely time consuming and, in my case, as a result of the meningococcemia, I have very little tissue left below my knee and thus a very tricky fit. It can take months to make and ensure a complete fit, much less comfort. After what seemed like years, my running legs were finally ready. Second only to the birth of my children, this was one of the most exciting moments of my life. The first time I ran on blades was one of the most freeing moments of my life. The final shackle that I had imposed on myself, finally fell away. It was like I was floating through the sky as light-footed as a Pegasus. Because it was the smart thing to do, just a few weeks after receiving my legs I ran my first marathon in January 2014! It was stupidly hard. I had never run double digit mileage and I was brand new to balancing and moving on blades, but I made it. I crossed the finish line and erased so many years of painful self-doubt and lack of confidence.
As the years have passed my dreams and aspirations have grown ever larger. My first marathon that I barely survived quickly turned into a couple of marathons per year with steadily decreasing times. To date, I have raced on different continents and broken records. Now, however, it is circling back to where is all started, in the mountains. My first step into endurance racing was through hiking, and in 2023 I am returning to my roots. I am beginning what will be a multiyear project to climb the 7 Summits, the highest summit on each continent of the world (Aconcagua, Carstensz, Elbrus, Everest, Kilimanjaro, McKinley, and Vinson). Aconcagua was the first summit attempt I completed in February 2023, and will be followed by Kilimanjaro in July. In between these mountain peaks I also plan to continue my road running. I will be running The Boston Marathon in April and in August I plan to take on my first ultramarathon, the Leadville 100!
All these adventures are extremely time consuming, both in the training and execution. I would be lying if I said I had it all figured out. I am a husband and a father of three beautiful children, and I also have a full-time job. Training for these events is a juggling act that I have still not perfected. There are many early mornings before the sun comes up, and late nights after everyone has gone to bed. The days and weeks I am spending sitting on a mountain, while beautiful, come at a price of missing my family. I am excited most for Kilimanjaro this summer; we are planning on my wife and oldest son coming to hike with me.
The biggest encouragement I can possibly give to someone starting out is simply to begin. My journey started with a desire to better myself. I knew in the beginning that I could not go out and hike a huge mountain or run miles. I started with one minute a day. That minute can positively impact your life and have ripples that change your life in ways you can never image. One step became one minute, and one minute has been an endless journey of finding myself, crossing through boundaries, seeing the world, creating a family and inspiring others. My dreams a now my reality and the possibilities are endless. Sky’s the limit!