When Steve Martin runs a half marathon on two prosthetic legs, he needs to be careful not to move too fast downhill. Otherwise, he risks keeling over.
Water-break areas can be treacherous. The moisture on the pavement from spills can undermine his footing.
Then, there is the pain that never relented during Saturday’s 13.1-mile course at the Rock ’n’ Roll Seattle Marathon. His back locked up. His hip ached, and two ribs were out of place.
“I’m trying to get them back in. But it’s tough,” Martin said at the start of the race.
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Martin, a 43-year-old law enforcement officer from Arizona, is a man determined to run.
For Martin, this is a once-joyful act that became a difficult endeavor in the aftermath of a 2008 bomb blast in Afghanistan that blew him out of a Humvee. At that time of the blast, he had taken leave from his stateside job to serve as a State Department contractor. The explosion shattered his legs, broke his ribs and nearly claimed his life.
More than a year after the bomb struck, when Martin’s legs did not heal, he made the difficult decision to have them amputated below the knee. He learned to walk on prosthetics, and even trudged through the Bataan Memorial Death March, a marathon course in New Mexico
But Martin, a track athlete in high school, was not satisfied.
He had specialized running legs manufactured from carbon fiber of the same strength used in airliners. Yet, when Martin first fastened on running legs, he managed only an awkward jog of about 100 yards. Then, he would stop before he got so off-balance that he risked a fall.
All that changed three years ago, when Martin spent some time with Bryan Hoddle, an Olympia teacher and coach who has gained a national reputation for the prowess and passion he displays in helping amputees run.
Hoddle flew down to Arizona and evaluated Martin’s gait. Hoddle suggested a series of stretching exercises as well as other adjustments like leaning forward more as he took his steps.
“He taught me how to let my prosthetic legs do what they are designed to do – and stop running like I still had legs,” Martin recalls.
Hoddle’s talents earned him the job of head coach for the 2004 U.S Paralympics Track and Field team that competed in Greece. In recent years, Martin has flown around the country to help improve the mobility of men and women injured in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hoddle also serves on the board of the Invictus Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit that assists service members and veterans grappling with post traumatic stress disorder and other mental wounds of war. Hoddle says Invictus plans to help finance some of his work with veterans.
“What I’m really trying to do is give them hope – and if they have hope, they will run,” Hoddle said
On Saturday in Seattle, Hoddle was on hand to run the half marathon, helping Martin to loosen up prior to the start of the race, and then jogging alongside him through the course.
For this race, Martin had strapped on a prosthetic developed by Ossur that included a treaded foot emblazoned with a Nike swoosh.
When standing still, the prosthetic legs are so unstable that Martin needs to lean against someone else for support. But once the race started, he covered more than two miles of territory before back pains prompted him to walk a short distance.
Again and again, Martin ran until the pain forced him to walk for short distances. To try to help, Hoddle recommended that Martin shorten his strides.
“Good job, stay in the groove,” Hoddle said as he urged on his friend.
Prior to Seattle, Martin’s personal best for his post-Afghanistan half marathons was just over three hours. His goal has been to cut his time to less than three hours, but that appeared in doubt as Martin walked up a final hill near the finish line.
Then Martin took off running one last time, his fastest bursts of speed of the entire course.
His final time on Saturday: 2:59:59.
“It was a good day,” he declared.
“How crazy is that? “ Hoddle said.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org