I run for the church ladies who tell me to “Go, girl!” in their Sunday best, Bibles in one hand and free hands reaching toward the sky. For the bus driver who honks as I pass and gives me a thumbs-up when I look over. For the steady flow of strangers whose subtle smiles remind me of the depths of kindness.
New Yorkers aren’t usually such enthusiastic cheerleaders for the average runner, but I’m not the average runner. I have 1.3 legs and run with a hot pink and black sports blade in place of my left leg, which was amputated above the knee after a traffic accident.
Sometimes, the attention pushes me to go a bit farther. Other times, I wonder what narratives are being projected onto me. That I’m a veteran who lost a leg in battle, rather than during my junior year of college? Do they think I’m a Paralympian, when, really, I’m not very fast, and I’m definitely going to walk those next few blocks?
Would they ever guess the truth? That with much of my left leg gone and my right severely injured, walking a few blocks was a major accomplishment at one point in my life?
There’s this memory that comes to mind for me often: It’s like a dream, both vivid and murky, but I know it takes place sometime in the months after the accident when I was still relearning how to walk. I’m about five blocks from a restaurant where I’m heading for a date with a longtime crush, who finally kissed me one night in the hospital, well past visiting hours.
I’d left my dorm room in my nicest dress — pink and brown and floral, a beloved Anthropologie sale rack find — confident that I could walk to the restaurant. But now I’m late, and I can’t move any faster: I’m in too much pain. I don’t remember how, but I must have gotten there eventually. What I do recall is that, later that night, at home, when I pulled off my prosthetic leg, my stump was bleeding. I was devastated. It was only a few blocks.
Nearly 12 years on, I’m training for the New York City Marathon.
I started running as an amputee seven years ago, when, on a whim, I swung by a running workshop for lower leg amputees held at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan and organized by the Challenged Athletes Foundation. I didn’t know what to expect, but what awaited me surpassed even my wildest expectations: Little boys bounced forward on their blades, stumbling over themselves with unadulterated joy and determination, and strong, fit adults, men and women alike, who’d even gone on to participate in Ironman triathlons.
In my flats and my regular prosthesis, I was totally unprepared, but it didn’t matter: I was welcomed, encouraged to join. So I did, pushing my everyday prosthetic leg forward, languid and heavy like it was under water. It wasn’t ideal, but it was enough. I ran like that for months, until I got my running blade.
It’s lighter than a normal prosthesis, which can be weighed down with a cover that makes it look more like a flesh-and-blood leg: Its top component, a cup of sorts that holds my stump, was built to fit snugly, so I don’t kick it off. Its knee locks, unless I push the blade back at a certain angle, signaling it to bend. The blade itself is like a pogo stick, made of carbon graphite, propelling me forward with every beat on the pavement.
It’s been a frequent companion with me as I’ve worked through hard times, through heartache and loss, and through two uprooted years living in another country.
Now, back in Brooklyn, my runs are growing longer, and the summer slog — 10, 11, 13 miles in the heat — is finally paying off. Some weeks ago, when the temperature dipped into the 60s, I completed an easy eight miles, even tacking on another one for good measure.
A dear friend, who’d spent a large part of her life grappling with illness and knew what it meant to be young and to face a long road to recovery, once gave me the best advice.
“Seeing yourself heal is pretty amazing,” she wrote barely a month after my accident, and just a couple of years before her death, “I know it seems impossible right now because you have a long way to go, but it’s already started, and as time goes on, just watch how rad it is to discover what your body is capable of.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Running tests my endurance, and my patience. But more important, it has been a constant reminder than I can push myself harder than I’d ever dreamed. I’m still plagued with certain worries — about my one good knee, or a permanent injury, or even not making it to the finish. But with every passing day, I’m grateful for what my legs give me — a chance to move forward.