Four years ago, Rebekah Gergory and her 5-year-old son, Noah, were cheering for the runners at the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the terrorists’ bombs exploded. Rebekah’s legs, which shielded Noah from the blast, were severely injured. (Noah didn’t suffer any major injuries.) Over the next year and a half, Rebekah underwent 17 surgeries; and in the end, had to have her left leg amputated. Three months after she got her prosthesis, she returned to Boston, this time to run in the race. In this excerpt from her new book, Taking My Life Back ($20; amazon.com), Rebekah explains what that decision meant to her.
The process of getting in shape was a painful luxury. But when I made the final decision to amputate, I also made myself a promise that I would never let my disability define my ambitions. Even though I had only attended the 2013 Boston Marathon as a spectator, and in spite of my nonathletic past, I made a goal to return to Boston to run, and this became an important part of my new normal, a message to send myself. This was no time for a pity party; it was time to define myself as successful and recovered.
So on top of getting myself back in shape for life out of bed and on my feet, I began training to run the next Boston Marathon. I was supposed to wear the new prosthesis for only about an hour at a time until my leg adjusted to it. Right or wrong, I skipped that part. For weeks, after my gym workouts, I would hang out at the mall and watch people walk, making myself copy their movements. I forced myself to take steps as if both my legs were still there instead of shifting my weight to the side with each step and taking stress off the amputated leg. I ignored the pain and focused on walking with a natural gait.
Three months after the amputation, the limb was still painful and sore but I began jogging in short bursts around the gym and on the basketball court. I went through regimens of hop-and-skip exercises like those a football player or a boxer might use to gain strength, balance, and speed.
The resulting swelling at the amputation site kept me going to the prosthetist’s office once or twice each week so they could adjust the fit to minimize my pain enough to keep me moving.
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My first one-mile test run was a killer. But I practiced tuning out the discomfort and kept increasing the distance day by day. Two weeks before the marathon, I managed a sixteen-mile day! Oh, it was glorious to feel all that ground, all that distance, churning away beneath my feet. The memory of every day spent in a prone position or lying on my side trying to find a position that hurt a little less drove me to push for greater distance. The helpless feeling of lying with my leg elevated, luxuriating in my five minutes of Dangle Time, was still strong in my mind. [Editor’s note: After the attack, Rebekah had to keep her leg elevated around the clock, with the exception of a short break each day when she could let it dangle free.] I loved the way that every single footstep seemed to strike back at that helpless feeling.
I had no need to lose weight and I mostly like to eat healthy food anyway, so I didn’t really change my diet for the training. I did make an effort to be more disciplined about my food intake, but I confess I failed. Chocolate chip cookies have always been my weakness.
My old problem with asthma returned, aggravated by all the gasping and panting. It was clear that I was starting from scratch after a year and a half in bed. I would exercise for one or two hours, then do another set of exercises at home in the evenings. The moves had to be adjusted to the prosthesis. For example, I can’t bend as much as before, since my prosthetic leg doesn’t respond as a real leg would. Balance is a constant challenge. In doing squats, the angles of my leg and foot have to be exact. To run, I have to think of how to place my leg on every step a millisecond before landing.
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Marathoners talk about “hitting the wall,” referring to a point of exhaustion that makes a runner feel so empty it can stop them as surely as running into a brick wall. I hit the wall on that sixteen-mile day, but it wasn’t me; it was my artificial leg.
I was running on a prosthesis called a blade. It takes the pounding of the runner’s steps better because it uses its springy quality to propel you forward instead of using an ankle joint, which can be prone to failure from running long distances.
But even the cushioned impacts of running on the ankleless blade failed to protect my leg stump from the beating I was giving it, and on that sixteen-mile day my suture scars broke open inside the socket of the leg. This was a major setback. Running a marathon in that condition was out.
With only fourteen days left to go, there was no way to recover in time to make the whole run. Still, I felt that there were people who needed to see me do this, and I needed it for myself as well. Since it had been about 3.2 months since I had gotten the prosthesis, I picked a distance of 3.2 miles and asked the race officials if I could be allowed to run those final miles of the race. People have tried to jump into the final miles of the race before and risked being caught and disgraced. But the officials very kindly said it would be okay for me to do that.
So my trainer became Super Trainer by deciding to go to Boston and run alongside me, to be sure my morale stayed high and my determination did not falter. You see how lucky I was to have found a trainer like this, don’t you? What a gift to be on the receiving end of such kind support.
* * *
It was only a 3.2 mile run, far less than what so many others endured out there. But I felt a kindred spirit with those ultramarathoners who torture their bodies on hundred-mile runs through the desert. I’d reached the end in spite of all the difficulties, and the most important statement I made that day I made to myself. My purpose was to negate the disability that had been inflicted on me in a symbolic way.
A woman named Alyssa got it, in spades. She found the group of nurses and family who waited for me at the finish line, and waited with them for hours just to see me cross it, and she was soaking wet and crying when I saw her. We just stood and hugged for the longest time.
Not long after the race, she left her photo on my Facebook wall, along with a message:
“Rebekah, I know you don’t know me very well . . . [but if] April 15, 2013, changed your life in ways you could have never imagined, it also changed mine. I was going through a rough patch in life, nothing at all compared to what you and so many others faced that day. . . . You and all the other survivors touched me in ways I will never be able to express in words. . . . So to see you cross that finish line, Rebekah [two years after the 2013 Marathon], it was completely and utterly overwhelming. . . . I will forever think of you whenever I need to cross little finish lines of my own.”
This was a solid milestone for me and another reminder that my process of recovery and my way of trying to live a meaningful life were actually combining to make small but positive differences in the world.
Excerpted from Taking My Life Back: My Story of Faith, Determination, and Surviving the Boston Marathon Bombing by Rebekah Gregory with Anthony Flacco ($20; amazon.com). Used by permission of the publisher, Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved.