Bruce Katlin Creates And The Running Artist

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Amputted Legs and Carbon Feet

I volunteered at this year's Hope and Possibility event with the Achilles Track Club. The Achilles' mission to "enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics, to promote personal achievement, enhanced self esteem, and the lowering of barriers between people."

On June 22nd over 3,500 people, 'abled' and 'disabled' ran 5 miles in New York City's Central Park. Of the 3,500 runners there was a large contingency of disabled military veterans. Some where racing on their hand crank chairs while others competed on their foot or two feet, depending upon their amputations. Of all the veterans I saw and or spoke with the first thing I noticed was their youth. Most where veterans of the current Iraq and Afghanistan operations. None appeared older than twenty-five.

'Bobby' rolled up to me at the sound stage at the end of the race in a traditional wheelchair which, must have been quite cumbersome to have pushed over five hilly miles. This was Bobby's first race and he was excited to see how his time compared to the running competitors."Do you know the first place winner's time for the runners?" He asked me. "No, I don't but I'll find out for you." I found out that the runner who came in first was a full minute ahead of Bobby's finishing wheelchair time as told him as much. His face fell in disappointment. "Really? Wow, I guess I have a lot of work to do on getting faster." I told Bobby that I though that he did a great job for this being his first time racing in the chair.

We chatted for a few more minutes where Bobby told me that he had his leg blown off in Iraq and that he just survived his sixteenth and final operation. I wondered which was worse, the loss of his leg or the 16 operations? Here was this kid who had lost his leg, went through who knows how much unbearable pain and he's smiling telling me his story. I thanked him for his service. He asked if I was in the military. "My only connection to the military," I responded that my father was in D-Day and that I watched the t.v. series Combat when I was a kid. Bobby was pretty impressed with the fact that my father was a part of what Tom Brokow named the "The Greatest Generation."

"I gotta' find my girlfriend now. Thanks for your help." I watched Bobby push himself up a small hill and wondered if he felt that his sacrifice and loss was worth it in the end. I didn't get to ask him but I did ask another maimed Army vet.

Tom was gathered by Tavern On The Green drinking pop and shooting the breeze with several of his friends and fellow disabled vets. He had a carbon leg in place of his left leg. I think that the science and technology is fascinating and I asked him how he liked the carbon fiber. "Well, I can't run on it yet. I used my chair today but I'm getting used to it."

"I'm sorry." I said referring to his leg.
"Don't be, I do it again in a heart beat. I helped my buddy."
"How is your buddy?"
Well, he's been in the hospital for a year and a half but he'll get out eventually."

Tom told me that he had trained to be on a special unit and that he would not be "allowed" to return to the work that he loves so much due to his amputation. "I'll probably get a desk job.

"I'm sorry."
"Hey, I told ya' don't be. I love my country and I'm doing something to protect it."

After we parted I made my way home feeling very sad and...well, just sad. I saw so many 'kids' without arms and legs. Some of them lost all four limbs and it was heart breaking. No matter what your politics are it's just plain heartbreaking.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Humidity, Humility & The Half-Marathon

Don't be fooled. That is not a smile on my face. It a grimace of the painful sort.

A week ago, Sunday July 27th was the 2008 New York City Half- Marathon. 10,500 plus runners hoofed their way through 13.2 miles starting with one loop around Central Park then all the way down to Battery Park. This was my last and final
race for the nine NYRR Member required races to qualify for guaranteed entry to the ING New York City Marathon 2009. And for myself and others this was by far one of the toughest races.

I ran the first two of the five borough NYRR Half-Marathon Grand Prix this winter in wind chill temperatures of 20 degrees with freezing rain pelting my face but that was paradise compared to last Sunday. At start time the temperature was in the 70's with the humidity at 98%. Light rain fell on scantily clad runners who ducked for cover under scaffolding erected in front of the Guggenhiem Museum. "Suckers." I was prepared with my two dollar plastic poncho and ran a pre-race warm-up around the reservoir. I was prepared for this race but not enough to reach the goal that I set for myself: to run faster than the last half-marathon I ran.

For the first 3 to 4 miles I felt great. In control and relaxed. Then the humidity starting to take its toll. I saw it on the faces of the other runners as we headed up hill, north to Harlem
Meer. I knew then and there that this was not going to be a fast race, even for the elite runners. Humidity feels like bricks strapped to legs and lungs. I started talking to myself: "Slow down, wait until you get onto Seventh Avenue then pick up the speed through Times Square. Oh no, the lactic acid is going to build up and then I'll have to stop and be picked up by and ambulance but my bags are at the finish line and...and then what if...? What if I drop dead?"

I used every affirmation and slogan that has worked for me in the past to get me through the self-imposed mental trough I put myself in. "I'm running, I'm running." "Just run to the next light post." "I am, I am, I am." "Just Be in one step at a time." I thought of the freedom of Erica who I wrote about in an earlier blog, her broad, electric smile bouncing atop sinewy free-flowing legs but it was too late, I was stuck in the thick morass of a negative meditation. By the time I exited the park with Seventh Avenue laid out before me with runners replacing thousands of cars and taxicabs, I was spent.

"Don't you dare walk now past all these cheering people. You can't walk, you won't walk. I can't believe I'm walking. How the hell did you ever run a marathon? You were a year younger. Shut up. The television cameras are broadcasting. Start running! Ah, there are the wet sponges they promised. Give me four of those kind volunteer. Oh, that feels sooooo good. OK, I'm back. I'm running, I'm running...I'm running slowly, slowly, slower, slow...I'm walking again. What the...?"

Making the left turn off 42nd Street onto the West Side Highway was a boost to my spirit. My Garmin GPS watch read that there was 3 miles to the finish line. It lied. Somewhere in Times Square it lost its satellite connection. A posted mile marker read Mile 9 You're Almost There! "Ha! I hate you Garmin, I hate you!" And just then, four rhythmic bodies moving to the hot and sexy groove of Caribbean winds were dancing in front of me. I remembered the three female and one male dancers from last year's race. Every inch of their
gyrating bodies sent out energy and smiles and it was almost spiritual. Yes, it was spiritual. "Thank you dancers. You have no idea how much you just helped me."

The mind is very powerful. Mine gave up long before my body. I started thinking about the marathon I was about to qualify for and "why in the world would anyone be stupid enough to run 26 miles?'. But I made a goal and a commitment to myself to finish this race and by God I was going to finish!

A half mile from the finish I gave it all I had and crossed under the banner at 2:05:04 way short of my original goal of 1:40. C'set la vie. At least I beat that old bag behind me. Of course, 74 year old Alfred Finger of Bronx, NY finished 1:49:56. Humbled once again.

I'm taking some time off from running for a little while. Today, I enjoyed my first Sunday morning in a long time not having to stretch and run 15 miles or more. I read the New York Times over frappe and bagels with Terry lapping in a very rare cool summer morning. Walt Whitman wrote in the Leaves of Grass {The Sleepers} And I am curious to know where my feet stand...and what is this flooding me, childhood or manhood...and the hunger that crosses the bridge between. I relate this stanza to my ongoing struggle with staying fit and accepting my own limitations. Acceptance + desire to improve = humility. Sure, I can stay fit by running just 5 miles instead of 15 but where's the glory in that? Let's try the math again.
Acceptance + desire to improve = humility = balance.

The fourth in the five borough Half-Marathon series is scheduled for my home borough of Queens, September 14th. If and only if I decide to register for this race I promise to stay long distance running fit, recognize my limitations and my potential and most importantly, to have fun.