Colorado Columbines Speech

On November 4, 2017, I was the keynote speaker at an annual awards luncheon for the Colorado Columbines Women’s Running Club.  This great group of women support each other and host runs throughout the year, and it was an honor to speak at this celebration.

 

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Me at the luncheon with a fall-themed cupcake

 

I wanted to give a little background, so my speech started with a summary of a blog I wrote in September of 2016 about the impact limb loss has had on my life – click here to read that blog posting.

I then went on to talk about the following (although I had written it out, I did stray from this slightly when I thought of things that seemed appropriate in the moment):

I was born missing a bone in my leg, and after seeing multiple doctors, my left leg was amputated below the knee when I was about 2 years old. With my condition, my parents had the option to either have my leg amputated and get me fit with a prosthetic leg or leave my biological foot intact and use a brace to get around. I have been asked on more than one occasion if I have ever resented my parents for making this decision. My answer is always a resounding “No.” Even though it was an extremely tough thing for them to do, they chose major elective surgery for their first child because they knew that it would give me the most functional life. You see, my parents were working with only 99 pieces of a 100-piece puzzle, and they were making the best of it.
Like my parents, I have always tried to make the best of my situation. When our “spirit plunger” (don’t ask) got stolen in high school, my friends and I painted an old leg in our school colors and introduced the “spirit leg” to Cheney High School – it lives on to this day. At the beginning of the school year or when we would have substitute teachers, I would rotate my leg 180 degrees so my foot was completely backwards and walk into class as though I had the worst sprained ankle the world had ever seen. For the record, this works best while wearing pants. During college, my leg often served as a pitcher for our beer, and bartenders would usually fill it up at least once for free. This definitely increased my popularity. All of this is because I was born with something “wrong” with me, but been able to make the best of it.

 

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Me standing at a podium while giving my speech during the luncheon.  My running leg is propped against the podium.

The message I would really like you all to take away from today is that everybody has something. By this I mean that everybody has something that is challenging them and everybody has something that is a strength, something they are good at. Whether the challenge is an obvious physical disability like mine, the loss of a loved one, a mental health disability, struggling with self-confidence, not getting enough sleep, or any of the other millions of possibilities, everybody faces some challenge at some point in their life. Similarly, everyone – and I mean everyone – has positive qualities and strengths as well. Strengths and differences are a natural part of the human experience, and we are all just out there trying to play the best hand with the cards we’ve been dealt. That’s exactly what my parents did and encouraged me to do when raising me, and I am so thankful to them for that.
My challenge, at least the one that’s obvious, is that I’m missing a leg, but I was also very fortunate to be born with a healthy sense of humor. We all do the best we can in life, and just have to hope and work hard so that our strengths are able to overpower any challenges we may face. Last night, I posted on Facebook asking my friends to share the funniest memory of me they had that involved my leg. I woke up this morning to over 30 comments from friends, many of whom I haven’t actually talked to in years. Some of them mentioned the spirit leg and the backwards foot walk. Others reminded me of the times we drank beer out of my leg, saved seats at a parade or movie with it, used it as a chair when there weren’t enough seats in the science lab, and hung it out the window of the car as we drove to our summer campout. My old PE teacher also reminded me of the time we were running the mile in high school and my leg fell off as I was rounding the final corner. According to him I tucked, rolled, grabbed, my leg and popped it back on and finished with a great time. Although I had forgotten this story, it was a great source of entertainment when it happened, and my friends and I laughed about it for years. From providing practical solutions to seating and savings spots for friends to generating laughter to providing a platform to connect with others, my leg has always been a positive source of energy for me, and I think that’s largely due to my sense of humor allowing me to see the best in a situation.

After this, I explained that even though I do have this positive sense of humor, I have struggled with my limb loss, and gave them a brief summary of my blog about body image from a while back – that blog can be found by clicking here.

I ended with my all-time favorite quote, which is attributed to a man named Charles Lindner, who is an attorney and an amputee just like me. The quote reads as follows: “A person has two legs and one sense of humor, and if you’re faced with the choice, it’s better to lose a leg.”

 

 

Reframing the Fail

To fall short, to be unsuccessful, to disappoint the expectations or trust of, to be deficient in – these are phrases Merriam-Webster uses to define the word “fail.”  Lack of success, a falling short, one that has failed – this is what the dictionary says it means to be a failure.  No offense to Merriam-Webster, who has been around since 1828 and is probably technically more qualified to define words than me, but I disagree with these definitions and want to reframe what it means to fail.  In my hypothetical world where failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to fail simply means that a person’s plans did not go 100% as that person desired.  However, rather than the failure being the end result, I want to propose that to fail is actually the beginning of an opportunity to be better – whether that’s a better athlete, writer, mother, teacher, wife, artist, human being, or any other descriptor used to categorize people – and that failure is actually the thing that opens the door to improvement.

I recently listened to a Run This World podcast interview of Janelle Smiley, who is an adventurer, life coach, and all around badass.  Janelle has accomplished some amazing athletic feats, and one of the pieces of advice she offered was to fail fast.  What I gathered from this part of her interview was that the reason she is able to accomplish the level of badassery she has achieved is because she can take on an extremely scary goal, fail, process that failure quickly, and use it to her advantage.  (Click HERE to listen to the full podcast.)  This really resonated with me because I have recognized an ability to fail fast in myself, though I haven’t always viewed it as a positive.

When you fail fast and that failure was the end of something, that does nothing to help you make progress.  If, however, you fail fast and recognize the failure as the opportunity to dig deeper and find something more within yourself, that is when failing, and failing fast, can become something beautiful.

Today, I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, the very race I ran two years ago and missed my goal-time by 34 seconds.  When I ran this race in 2015, I was purely racing for time, and I so desperately wanted to break a 2:30 1/2 marathon.  Missing that by less than a minute was crushing, and I was upset that my watch told me I had run 13.4 miles rather than 13.1 – I immediately blamed my missed goal on the length of the course.  But, I quickly reflected and regrouped and promised myself I would hit the 2:30 time another day, which I finally did earlier this year, by over 5 minutes, at the Colfax Marathon.  Now, two years later, my goal for today’s race was to experiment with nutrition in preparation for my first full Ironman next summer and to try to keep my pace in the 11’s.  When I realized early on that the course was going to be longer than 13.1 miles and thus my official pace would not reflect 11’s even if I technically held that pace, I was briefly upset, but quickly reframed my perspective and the possibility of failure.  Rather than allowing myself to walk when I wanted, I only allowed myself to walk when I felt like that’s what my body needed because including my warm-up run and the longer course, I would get in a good, solid 14.5 miles of running today, which is more than I’ve ever done in one day before.  Although I knew I would “fail” at keeping the pace I wanted, I would gain confidence in my ability to run longer distances, and today, that was a win when it could have just as easily been a failure – same experience, different perspective.

Next time you feel like you are failing, take a step back and see if you can find the door that is opening to allow you to grow through that experience and see if you can fail fast, process, and reframe it as a win.

Sparking the Positivity Snowball

When Nicole DeBooom had me on her podcast, Run this World with Nicole DeBoom, we talked about being different and Nicole included “Rocking Your Differences” in the podcast title because that concept resonated with her.  If you haven’t listened to Nicole’s podcast, I encourage you to check it out.  She has interviewed many amazing and inspirational people since she started and I personally love listening to it while I run.  If you didn’t catch my podcast, you can listen to it here.  Since doing the podcast, I have had people tell me that, like Nicole, the idea of rocking your differences really resonated with them, so I decided to write a blog post about why it’s so important to me so I can dig in a little deeper.

It’s no secret that my leg was amputated when I was two years old, so I have always looked different than my friends.  My leg used to be flesh colored and filled in so it was generally the same shape as a biological leg.

 

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Young me at a Girl Scout function

 

When we went to watch the Paralympics in Georgia in 1996, I saw my first fancy leg, worn by a dancer who had red and gold fabric laminated into his socket.

 

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Me with the guy who inspired my fancy legs at the 1996 Paralympics

 

I immediately went back to my own leg guy and demanded that I have a fancy leg as well.  This was apparently a new thing, so my leg guys had to do some research to figure out how to cater my tween demands.  They knew better than to tell me no because they had been working with us long enough to know that my mom doesn’t take no for an answer if there’s any chance something is possible.  A couple years later… I finally got my first fancy leg.  One of my early fancy legs had the M&M characters boldly staring back at anyone who so much as glanced at my leg.  One of my co-nicknames with another friend named Emily was M&M, hence the choice of fabric.  Anyways, I loved that I got to have this unique opportunity to express my personality – an opportunity I had because of my leg – and this was probably the beginning of my conscious choice to really rock my differences.

Things spiraled from there as I settled into the first school district I would attend for more than a few years, and the district I eventually graduated from 6 years later.  My friends and I got extremely comfortable using my leg as a prop for our shenanigans, particularly once we were in high school.  I had a few friends who affectionately called me “Stumpy” and we would use my leg to play baseball in the hallway at lunch with a crumpled up brown lunch bag.  We would also stick my leg in snowbanks or behind car tires just to see how people would react.  Our two biggest pranks were to walk through the hall in opposite directions and then have one friend whack me in the leg with a drumstick and I would go down writhing in fake pain strategically near a new student or teacher and to enter a classroom when there was a substitute teacher or new student with my leg turned around backwards (this works best when wearing pants in case you were curious).

Looking back, I feel a little bad about playing these pranks on people, but then I reflect a little deeper and wonder if those very pranks were the thing that helped me connect with people more quickly.  My using my leg as a source of humor and entertainment, I was opening the door of communication between myself and the people I pranked, as well as my fellow pranksters.  Rather than feeling that my leg was a taboo or negative, these pranks allowed others to connect with me because of the very thing that makes me visibly different than them.

Feeling different can make you feel disconnected, but I think it can be quite powerful when you use as a means to connect with others.  We all have things about us that make us feel different or less than those around us – in that way we are all the same.  When we are able to use those differences to connect with others, we give ourselves the opportunity to create positivity in our world.  That positivity can then snowball as each person you influence goes out and connects with others.  This is the very reason I started this blog – to share messages of positivity and embracing the things that make you different.  I may not be able to directly impact some of the larger issues our world is facing today, but I can try to be a spark of positive energy and connectedness in hopes of creating the larger positivity snowball.  That is why I put myself out there for the world, and I just hope that is enough.

 

Race Day Flexibility

The Boulder Half Ironman this past weekend was my “A” race for the 2017 season.  It’s THE thing I’ve been working towards since coming back from breaking my rib late last summer.  I had other important races and goals this year, but nothing was as important to me as this race (as far as athletic goals are concerned).  Even my goal to run a sub 2:30 half marathon was just a step towards reaching my longer goals this weekend.  I put a lot of pressure on myself for this one and I’m pretty sure I drove Coach Mark crazy the day before as I was starting to completely stress out and melt down.  The effect of this stress was clear as I was trying to text him and couldn’t manage to put a coherent thought together without a typo (those of you who know me understand my obsession with grammar and spell check).  

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On Friday, Zach and I attended the athlete briefing, did our modified pre-race day workout, checked in our bikes, and then had dinner and relaxed the rest of the evening.  Friday was actually out 5th wedding anniversary and we celebrated by going to bed at 8:30 so we could be fresh to race the next morning.  

photo of Zach and I with our bridal party on our wedding

I slept off and on a few hours at a time and was already awake when my alarm went off around 5 am Saturday morning.  Zach and I were up and out the door in less than 30 minutes.  Our hotel was only 4 miles from the reservoir, so we figured we would get there with time to spare.  Unfortunately, there was something funky going on with how they were parking cars and traffic was basically at a standstill on the road to the reservoir.  We crawled slowly and made it to the reservoir around 6:15.  I hastily set up transition and then headed towards the water, texting my handler Sasha the entire time because she was still trying to make her way to the reservoir due to the traffic.  Luckily, we met up around 6:50 near the swim start and I ran through what I needed her to do to help me when I got out of the water and throughout the rest of the race.  My wave was supposed to start just after 7, but then they delayed the start due to the problems with people getting into the reservoir, so I ended up having time to do a warm-up in the water.  The weird thing with my nerves on race day is that I will throw up at the hotel the morning of a race, but I’m cool as a cucumber once I get to the start line.  This race was no exception and my friend Becky and I hyped each other up just before the cannon went off.

Becky and I in the water at the swim start - me smiling and Becky with her hand in the air cheering

My swim went as planned and hoped – it’s my strongest discipline and I swam straight and strong without going too hard.  I felt great getting out of the water and was so happy to have my friend Sasha there to help me pull off my wetsuit and throw on my running leg so I could make my way to transition. 

T1 (transition from swim to bike) went well and I was actually faster than planned getting through there.  I hopped on my bike without incident and set out for 56 intimate miles with my bike and the course. 

The waves after mine had been delayed an additional 10 minutes, so there was a huge amount of time where I was just alone on the road before the age group athletes finally started passing me.  It was sort of surreal, but I just kept reminding myself to stay in control and not push too hard because I still had a long haul ahead of me.  I rode smart and despite a left glute that was tight the entire ride, I finished the bike right around my more ambitious time goal. 

me on the bike during boulder 70.3

T2 (transition from bike to run) also went pretty quickly, but I forgot to throw on my running belt with my number.  Luckily, although this leads to a more difficult time locating race pictures, it does not lead to disqualification – thank goodness! 

The run ended up being my downfall, and not for the normal issues I have with my residual limb when I run distance.  Normally I deal with pain in my residual limb and issues with my leg falling off due to sweat, but my leg held up beautifully and the Certain Dri I used every day the week before kept me from sweating… so, my decline on the run was purely due to heat and issues with nutrition.  I knew between mile 1.5-2 that this run was going to be a sufferfest, but by mile 4 I knew I would be gutting it out if I wanted to finish.  I ended up walking a lot and my run time was almost 30 minutes longer than my goal, but I still managed to finish in under 7.5 hours.  I was feeling a little disappointed, particularly because the run is something I’ve been working so hard on for the past year, but then I went to the medical tent for ice to put on my knee and there were quite a few athletes there who hadn’t finished due to heat exhaustion.  So, even though I raced slow on the run, my flexibility on race day allowed me to race smarter and that is the reason I was able to cross the finish line despite challenging conditions. 

me on the brutal run

One thing that really rings true to me after this race is that we have to remember that obstacles – be that heat, nutrition, missing a limb, or something else – are only barriers if we allow them to stand in our way rather than finding a way around, over, or through them, and the only way to do this is to be flexible with our goals and readily forgive ourselves if we have to adjust those goals on race day.  This is true in racing, but I also think it applies to life more generally, so remember to be kind to yourself when you face challenges!

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Hard Work, Persistence, and Goal Crushing

 

One thing I remember clearly from my first race – the Bellco Colfax 5k – in 2013 is how utterly exhausted I was upon finishing.  Zach and I went to Denver Biscuit Company afterwards and all I really wanted to do was take a nap (even before devouring my sleep-inducing biscuit with sausage, maple syrup, apple butter, and a fried egg).  I had just started running about 2 months before, and my pace of 11 minutes per mile was the fastest I had ever run that distance before.  I was super proud of myself for what I had accomplished. 

If you had asked me back in 2013 whether I thought I would ever run a half marathon or hold anything faster than a 10 min/mile pace for anything longer than a mile, I would have laughed at the thought and moved on to a new subject.  However, time has shown that the 2013 version of myself was utterly and totally wrong because that 2013 version of myself discounted the value of hard work and determination.

me running my first 5k

Fast forward to 2017, and just last month I ran the Cherry Creek Sneak 5k at a 9 minute per mile pace (2 minutes per mile faster than I was in 2013?!).  Emily of 2013 would never have believed this was possible in a million years.  Then, to show 2013 Emily how wrong she really was, I ran the Colfax Half Marathon in under 2 ½ hours this past Sunday.  The work I’ve put in to getting faster at shorter distances has been physically painful, but my journey to be able to hold a steady pace for 13.1 miles has been a huge mental challenge. 

My goal since 2015 has been to run a sub 2 ½ hour half marathon (which would be a piece of cake for some people and fast as lighting for others – the point of this post is NOT to talk about what is fast or slow, but to celebrate the value of persistence and hard work).  In October of 2015, I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll in Denver and missed my goal by less than a minute.  Then, in 2016, I ran That Dam Run in Denver and was on pace for the first half (all downhill) and then struggled to get back to the top of the dam and finished in just over 2 hours and 40 minutes.  Three days later I got the flu and that turned into bronchitis, so it was a bad race for me in multiple ways. 

before (happy) and after (death) that dam half marathon, and a course map showing that it's pretty much all downhill for the first half and then back up

The highlight of 2016 for me was finishing the Coeur d’Alene Half Ironman, but I didn’t even go for speed because my goal was simply to finish.  Two and a half weeks later, I crashed my bike and broke a rib, landing me on a no exercise restriction for nearly 2 months.  Itching for a race, I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in Denver that October, and it took me over 2 hours and 50 minutes to finish.  It was probably the most painful race I’ve ever run and I wanted to quit around mile 6 because my fitness had suffered so much due to the rib injury. 

One thing that has been consistent for my half marathons is that I’ve had to walk and/or stop to stretch out my left glute muscle (it seems to have to work harder to advance my prosthesis forward).  This was true of the Rock ‘n’ Roll in 2015, and part of the reason I missed my time goal for that race.  However, I stuck with it and never let the fact that I missed my goal so many times stop me from trying again.  All that hard work finally paid off this weekend when I not only ran the ENTIRE half marathon (didn’t even walk through aid stations and no stopping to stretch), but I finished in 2:24:39 and got a new personal record by about 6 minutes and crushing my goal to run a half marathon in under 2 ½ hours.  This was a huge accomplishment for me, and it’s so important to remember all of the hours that went into achieving this goal.  For a year and a half I have been haunted by missing my goal by less than 1 minute, but this weekend I finally got redemption! 

My prosthetic leg with Colfax Half marathon hanging on it

So, my friends, remember that the people you see achieving their goals and dreams are not doing so by chance, but because of the time and effort they put into it that nobody sees – work hard, be persistent, and you just might surprise yourself with what you can achieve!

card Zach made for me that says "Congrat's on our Colfax half marathon PR!" and then on the inside is a picture of the back of his head and our cats with text that reads "the cats and I were talking... we think you should probably take a shower!"

 

Being a Test Subject – #itsforscience

This past Saturday I got to be the test subject for a study being conducted at Regis University in Denver.  I was their first amputee subject, so I got to be the guinea pig (which tends to happen a lot in my life).  This particular study was gathering data to show the differences between running on a walking prosthesis versus a running prosthesis.  They were testing muscle firing, so I had electromyogram (EMG) sensors stuck on various parts of my body.  They were also looking at biomechanics, so I had LED sensors stuck all over me as well.  Once they got all the gear on me, I looked like a human Christmas tree.

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All wired up, hooked to the ceiling, and almost ready to start the running part of the study after at least 3+ hours of prepping for it

 

One of the things I have definitely come to learn through my experiences as a test subject is that science takes time.  The sensors didn’t always get picked up by the computer, etc., so we had to stop and readjust numerous times.  Of course the sensor that gave us the most difficulty was the one on my right gluteus maximus, so one of the students kept having to reach into my running shorts to adjust/replace those sensors – poor girl!  I was there from 9 am to about 1:30 pm, and ran less than 5 minutes during that time even though the entire purpose of the study was to look at running gait.  The students were extremely thankful that I was “nice” and “patient” – something they pointed out more than once, which leads me to believe that not all of their test subjects have these qualities.

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I have enough wires to work for the FBI or CIA, but they’re not hidden very well

Every time something happened to extend our time together or there was something awkward about the study (like a student having to reach down my shorts), I simply stated, “It’s for science,” and I meant it wholeheartedly.  Practical studies like this are extremely important for getting insurance companies to pay for running specific legs more often.  Although we all know anecdotally that it’s much better to run on a running prosthesis than a walking prosthesis, this research will lead to a published study that will have real and undeniable data showing the harm that can be caused by running on a walking prosthesis.  Having this published study to cite will be a great tool for prosthetists who work with patients who want to run.  So, no matter how awkward or time-consuming a study may be, it’s all worth it in the end… for science.

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Side-by-side shot of me running on my walking leg and my running leg

 

 

 

Cycling with a Leg Length Discrepancy

In addition to missing a bone in my leg, part of the condition I was born with means that my left leg is 7+ inches shorter than my right.  Nearly 3 inches of that difference is in my femur (the part of my leg between hip and knee), and that difference gets made up for in height by making the part of my prosthesis longer so that when I stand I don’t have one leg that’s shorter than the other.  However, a negative side effect of this is that it means my left knee comes up way higher in my upstroke than my right, which leads to me kicking myself in the chest – especially if I’m in any semblance of an aero position.

me on a bike at a triathlon before we had the new pedals
Cycling before major adjustments – as you can see, my knee is almost hitting my elbow and my thigh is hitting my chest

Not only is this annoying, but it also makes me less efficient on the left side.  Lucky for me, I’m married to a prosthetist who likes a good challenge, so we’ve been working for the past two years on coming up with a better system to help get more power out of my left side while also preventing me from kneeing myself in the chest my entire ride.

One of the main things we’ve done is shorten the crank arm on the left side.  This is basically the solution to the knee kicking chest issue because with a shorter crank arm, my leg doesn’t come up as high when I’m in the upward part of my pedal stroke.  However, this also means I have a shorter lever to push with on that side, so it does not help with maximizing power.  With the shorter crank arm, I was also having issues in the down stroke of my pedal, so we continued to search for something even better.

Last year, Zach found something called a CrankTip pedal, which goes in an elliptical shape as you pedal rather than a circular shape like the standard pedal.  The elliptical shape means that my left leg does not go up as far on the upstroke, but still goes down far enough to get optimal extension in the downstroke, and it goes forward when I’m at the 3 o’clock position, so it has allowed me to get more power out of my stroke while still saving my chest from that pesky knee.  Coupling this new pedal with the shorter crank arm has definitely given me a greater opportunity to get more out of my pedal strokes, and I think it’s even helped make me a little faster.

photo of pedal tracks for both standard pedal and crank tip pedal

It would have been fairly easy to justify throwing in the towel and to say this just isn’t the sport for someone with challenges like mine, but we didn’t.  My mom’s response to things that challenged me when I was growing up was never to suggest that maybe I couldn’t or shouldn’t do it, but instead to ask how we could make it work so I could do it, whatever it was.  I’m fortunate to be married to a guy with that same attitude who is always looking for solutions to help me – and all of his other patients – so we can try to figure out a way to make things work.  Taking a lesson from my mom and husband, rather than thinking “this will never work” or “I can never do that,” I think we should instead be thinking “how can I make this work for me.”  With this new mindset, we will likely see more positive outcomes when we face new challenges.

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Cycling after major adjustments – as you can see, my elbow is in less danger and I’m not kicking myself anymore

For a broader and more technical explanation of cycling after an amputation, check out Zach’s blog here.

 

Choosing Amputation – Alina’s Story

For this blog I interviewed my friend Alina Miller who elected to have her leg amputated following a traumatic injury.  Everyone’s situation and circumstances are different, but hopefully others might find Alina’s story helpful in their own journey whether that journey involves choosing between amputation and saving a limb or any other tough decision you may be having to make in your life.  Alina has come out the other side of her tough decision as such a strong and beautiful woman, and I am so lucky to call her a friend.

How did you sustain the injury that ultimately lead to your amputation?
In 2012 an arsonist set fire to my apartment building and I was forced to jump from the 4th floor to the concrete. I broke both my feet and back, badly.

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Alina’s apartment that was set on fire – her window is on the top right of the building

How long did you try to save your leg and when did you decide amputation was the right path for you?
In January of 2016 after 3 years of surgeries on the left foot, I opted to have it surgically removed below the knee.

What was the experience of trying to save you limb like for you?
I didn’t realize it until later but I was just in a limbo. Constantly preparing for, or recovering from a surgery. At my initial injury, I lost a ton of weight and went down to 87 pounds, I struggled to gain it back over the next few years. For one of my surgeries I got osteomyelitis and was on a PICC line for 3 months. It was the sickest I have ever been, I lost all energy to even stand up. I slept on the couch because it was too much effort to move from the bed. With each surgery, my foot gradually became more and more either nerve sensitive or nerve dead, and was wrapped with scar tissue. I spent all of my early twenties on crutches and in a fracture boot. My then-boyfriend (now husband) was incredibly active when we first started dating but once moving in with me he gained a bunch of weight from living the sedentary life. We went on vacations, but he had to carry me or we had to sit constantly. If I pushed it, any activity meant I had to suffer the consequences later. So say I went on a walk with my mom, that meant I was going to be swollen and couch-bound the next day.

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Alina the day after her accident

When/why/how did you decide that amputation was the best route for you?
When considering my 8th surgery, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. My toes were so wrapped in scar tissue that my pinky toe was rotating out and sticking out of the side of my foot and I had developed ANOTHER bone spur in my Achilles tendon. We were about 8 months away from my wedding, so I decided to go ahead with the spur removal and pinning my toe back in place (so I could wear shoes), with the plan that a year after my wedding and honeymoon I’d have the amputation.

How did you feel once you made the decision to amputate?
Initially it was a horrifying prospect, but then I spent the year doing research. I spoke to new people, learned their experiences (like you, Emily!) and did everything I could to be an informed patient. I gradually began to feel excited, like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It felt like there was a chance, a place in the world for me.

How did you feel when you woke up after the amputation?
Joy. I felt calm and happy going back and felt the same way waking up. My nurse happened to be the same nurse my friend had a few years ago so we took a selfie together upon me waking up. The first day was great, I had visitors and ate lunch and was happy. The next day was another story because the nerve block wore off and I became a different person. I was in so much pain I couldn’t settle down, I was in constant motion and could not stop crying. It took 2 hours and 3 different types of medication to bring me down again, after which I was exhausted. I could have gone home, but I asked to stay in, knowing if that happened again at home it’d be an emergency. They installed two more pain blocks, one on the side of my groin and the other under my left butt cheek before I went home and that helped a lot.

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Alina soon after waking up from her amputation surgery

How would you compare your pain level post-amputation to your pain level during limb salvage?
100% less pain. The first month I was in pain, but it was the nerves acting out from losing my leg. I felt like there was a lighter being held under my toes, 10 seconds of blinding pain. I got what I call “zingers” lightening pain running up my leg. But after that first month, it quickly got better. I’m 13 months out now and have no pain. Occasionally I get a zinger but it’s a total blip on the radar.

Are there any activities you’ve been able to do as an amputee that you couldn’t do during limb salvage?
Literally everything. Since becoming an amputee I’ve wakeboarded, snowboarded, rock climbed, hiked, scuba dived and I even started beekeeping! Things as mundane as being able to walk the grocery store with my husband are possible when during limb salvage that would have put me out for days. When we’re invited to go out with friends I don’t have to hesitate and wonder if I can keep up. Shoe wear is even less on an issue because I’m not in a big ankle foot orthosis.

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Alina tending to her bees

Are there things you wish you could do that you can’t do because you’re an amputee?
The only real inconveniences that I worry about are going somewhere tropical and sweating to the point of having an issue keeping my leg on. The other one is swimming. At the pool it’s not that big a deal but I’m not sure what I will do at the beach, you can’t really leave your prosthesis just sitting on the beach while you crawl in. Maybe I’ll have my husband carry me?

What has life been like since deciding to amputate?  
It has had its ups and downs. I assumed since I was an elective amputee my residual limb would be an easy fit, but that hasn’t been the case. The end of my limb is very square and needs extra attention. I routinely have issues getting fully into the bottom of my socket, causing suction bruises at the end of my limb. I developed a really deep painful spot on the left outside of my fibula and we realized recently that my tibia and fibula compressed inward a bit, and now the screw used to fuse my bone bridge onto my tib/fib is protruding out of the bone a good centimeter. It’s causing incredible pain and so it needs to be surgically removed. It’s not all a walk in the park but when your socket fits, it’s magic.

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An emotional day when Alina got her very first prosthetic leg

Do you ever regret your decision to amputate?  If so, when & why?
Never. I don’t even regret the accident, honestly. I was on a sucky life path before I had to jump from that window and now I feel like I am totally as I was meant to be.

What would you say to someone who is trying to decide between limb salvage and amputation?
This comes up a lot for me and I always find that if a person is even considering amputation, if it is even remotely a thought, then amputation is likely a good bet. Everyone is different, but for some, this is the right choice. There is such a misconception that amputation is a failure or a death sentence. With modern medicine, this is completely untrue.

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Alina wake boarding after her amputation

 

Why I Run

I originally wrote this for the Achilles International-Colorado blog in October, but I wanted to share it on here as well.

We were in the first quarter mile of a Monday evening Achilles workout in Wash Park and I turned to my running buddy Jessica and asked, “You know when I like running?”  She turned to me and responded, “When the weather’s nice?” “No,” I said, “I like running when I’m not running.”

That statement pretty much summed it up for me; I hated running. I tried to run when I was in middle and high school, but running on a stiff prosthetic foot that’s designed for walking is no easy feat. Not realizing what a big difference a running prosthesis could make, I designated myself as a non-runner and accepted the fact that I’d never be a runner like my mom who ran cross-country for Colorado State or my aunt who completed two Ironman Championships in Kona.

Then, in late 2010, everything changed when I got a running leg. I started running with my then boyfriend (now husband) and I couldn’t believe what a difference the new leg made.

I wasn’t doomed to be a non-runner for life, I just hadn’t had the proper equipment!

My excitement was short-lived, however, because I started having piercing pain in my residual limb about two months later. After seeing numerous unhelpful doctors who had never seen an amputated leg like mine before, I finally hunted down the surgeon who did my original amputation in 1986.

I was in luck because he was at a hospital in Pennsylvania and was willing to look at my leg, x-rays, and multiple other medical documents in order to provide a second opinion about what a doctor in D.C., where I was living at the time, had suggested as my best option.

It was determined that I had a neuroma (basically when your nerves bundle up into a painful ball and send shock waves of pain up your leg when pressure is applied to it—a situation that is inevitable when you wear a prosthetic leg) and I needed some bone shaved off the bottom of my tibia because it was quite sharp and causing my skin to be in a constant state of anger.

So, there I was, in my first year of law school and about to spend my Spring Break on Percocet and unable to wear my prosthesis for at least 2 months.

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Me shortly after my revision surgery in 2010 – I was loopy on pain meds

The next two years or so were filled with ups and downs as we struggled to find a comfortable solution for fitting my “new” residual limb. I struggled with new kinds of pain and it seemed like the surgery had only moved the sensitive places on my residual limb rather than eliminating the pain. I was frustrated that I had gone through the surgery and months of recovery without seeing any positive gain. I exercised less and complained more. It had a deep impact on me and I started to feel like I didn’t really know who I was anymore.

Fast forward to March of 2013. I had moved to Colorado and my friend Jessica convinced me to walk a 7K with her. I hadn’t attempted running since 2010 because I was afraid that the increased impact on my residual limb while running was what had caused the neuroma in the first place, but I knew I could walk that distance. The excitement of race day got to me and I decided right then and there that I wanted to give running another shot.

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Jessica & I after the Running o’ the Green 7k, which we walked together in 2013.

When I first started running, I ended up walking most of the time, but Jessica stuck with me and encouraged me to push myself a little more each time. I found Achilles and we started “running” with them consistently on Mondays. There are many weeks I would have skipped running altogether had it not been for Achilles. Knowing that I have a group of people who expect me to be there and support me no matter what really helps keep me motivated.

When I first started “running” with Achilles, I probably walked over half of the 2.5 mile loop around Wash Park, only running in short spurts because that was all I could handle. On a Monday Run in October of 2014, Jessica and I were tired from the Hot Chocolate 5K the previous Sunday so we decided not to push ourselves too much at the Achilles run. I could hardly believe it when we ran the entire 2.5 mile loop without a single walk break and we held a pace of 10:27 minutes/mile. After 6 months of consistency, I felt like I’d overcome some invisible barrier that was holding me back from being a real runner.

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Achilles friends, Ethan, me, Jessica, Sasha, and Jessica after the Hot Chocolate 5K in Denver, October 2014

What’s even better is that I finally felt like I could call myself a runner! My neuroma has not returned and my residual limb has started building muscle, which has actually made my prosthesis fit better. Rather than causing pain, running has actually decreased the pain I tolerate on a daily basis because of my prosthesis.

The bottom line is that I hated running for 6 months, but kept with it anyways because of the support and encouragement of my friends at Achilles. Without them, I never would have overcome that invisible barrier and I wouldn’t be able to call myself a runner today.

I run for the typical reasons people run (fitness and so I can eat more pizza), but I also run because there have been times when I couldn’t.

Do What Makes YOU Happy

Last Friday some coworkers and I were talking about the fun things we had planned for the long weekend and they laughed when I started listing things I was excited about accomplishing with the extra day off work.  The one that particularly got them was that I was excited to finally have time to draft some waivers for upcoming LIM359 events.

Understandably worried about my concept of “fun,” one of them pressed me on the issue and asked more generally what it was I did that made me extremely happy – essentially, what gave me joy in life.  At the time, my response was swimming, but as I was doing laps in the pool later that evening I really thought more intently about this question and came to a realization about myself that perhaps I knew, but hadn’t quite conceptualized in a concrete manner before.  It’s not one physical activity that gives me true joy in life, but rather the ability to impact the lives of other people in a positive way.

While some people may look at my life of working a full-time job, chairing the boards of two nonprofits, and training for triathlons (in addition to being the best wife and cat mom I can be) as boring or lacking in fun, it’s truly the life I enjoy because I know in my heart that it’s the life I love.  Of course drafting waivers is not “fun” in the conventional sense, but having a positive impact on the lives of other people energizes me and gives me true joy in life, and drafting waivers is just part of the deal.

I feel very fortunate to think that I’ve found my purpose in life, and even though others may think I’m a little strange based on my idea of “fun” on a long weekend, I can live with it because I know in my heart that this is what makes me happy.   Whatever makes you happy – be it hiking, dancing, reading, or some more nebulous concept like me – do whatever it is with pride and remember that you have sole discretion to decide what “fun” looks like for you.

P.S.  I love my coworkers who I had this conversation with and don’t blame them for laughing at me given my response at the time.  🙂

3 Life Lessons I Learned in the Saddle

While swimming this past Friday evening, I got to thinking about the lessons I’ve learned from horseback riding and triathlon and how those lessons have a broader application to daily life.  Here are 3 of the lessons I learned in the saddle – either on the back of a horse or on a bike or both – and how I think they have helped me in life more generally.

  1. Nothing can replace time in the saddle. When I was riding horses, there were people who would hardly ever ride, but then they’d show up for an event and get upset when their day went horribly.  What this taught me is that nothing – not money, not popularity, not smarts, not wit – can replace the hours of time you spend in the saddle.  Only by putting in the time and work will you improve and set yourself up for success.  Getting through law school and the bar exam was a beast of a journey over the course of about 4 years, and I believe that having this knowledge of what it means to work hard and that it’s a necessary part of success definitely helped me remain grounded and focused during that time.
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Me & Rocky at Championships for Pony Club Games, 1999

 

  1. Do your best to be prepared. For horse shows back in the day and for triathlons now, I keep a list of every item I need to pack & then I pack it the day/night before.  I’ve found that this helps ensure that I don’t forget anything and also decreases the stress on show/race morning because I already know I have everything I need in one place.  Of course things don’t always go perfectly – which I’ll talk more about below – but by making a concerted effort to be prepared, I think things tend to go more smoothly.  For me, it’s not just about race morning because I have a fairly busy life working a full-time job, training 6-7 days per week, serving on the board of 2 nonprofits, being a wife, and trying to keep up with everyday tasks.  In order to give myself the best chance to get everything done, I keep lists and pack my breakfast/lunch/workout gear in specific bags the night before so I can wake up the next morning and just grab everything and head out the door.  This is especially important during the triathlon season because I often have workouts before and after work, so I potentially have as much as my purse, swim bag, breakfast, work clothes/makeup, lunch, and running gear with me when I head out the door in the morning.  By being prepared, I decrease stress and increase the chance of getting everything done.  Furthermore, I’ve been able to incorporate these skills into work, particularly with my lists – I seriously don’t know how anyone gets through life without lists and I encourage anyone who hasn’t tried using lists to give it a shot and see if it helps you stay more organized and get more accomplished. 
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On the 56 mile bike course in Coeur d’Alene, 2016
  1. Don’t implode when things don’t go as planned. No matter how well you prepare for something, there are almost always factors that are out of your control.  It’s pretty much impossible not to learn this lesson when you ride horses because no matter how well you plan everything, nothing is going to save you when a plastic bag flies into the ring and spooks your pony who takes off at the speed of light with legs flying into the air.  This is a lesson I learned very early because of horses, and a lesson I’ve carried into triathlon and life.  The most important thing in this moment is to take a deep breath and reevaluate what’s happening so you can move forward and hopefully salvage whatever you have left of the situation.  Rather than having a pity party for yourself, try to focus on what you can still accomplish despite the new challenges you are facing.  I think this skill definitely transfers to life in general because every time we start to think we have things figured out, a monkey wrench gets thrown right in there.  For example, I was devastated when I broke my rib last year because it meant I wasn’t going to get to race at Nationals in Santa Cruz.  I cried very briefly when I called my coach to tell him the news, but then I dusted myself off and used the time period I wasn’t allowed to exercise to focus on projects at work and Zach and I used the trip to California to reconnect with some friends and play tourist in wine country.  I truly believe I was better equipped to handle this entire situation because of the skills I’ve acquired in the saddle.

What are some life lessons you’re learned through sport?  I’d love to hear about them, so please share in the comments.