William J. Kole
BOSTON — Jacky Hunt-Broersma runs like a woman possessed. And in a way it is: the amputee athlete is trying to run at least 102 marathons in 102 days.
Last month, just over two-thirds of her goal of setting a new world record for consecutive marathons, the South African native posted something on Twitter that got people talking.
“The first thing I did after my race today was take my leg off. Felt so good,” she tweeted. “Marathon 69 finished. 31 marathons to go.”
That was last month and he still runs, covering the classic 26.2-mile marathon distance day in and day out, rain or shine, occasionally on a treadmill, but mostly on roads and trails near his home in Gilbert, Arizona. If his streak remains intact heading into the Boston Marathon on April 18, it will be the 92nd marathon.
Unlike the 30,000 others running the historic race, Hunt-Broersma, 46, will have run a marathon the day before. Somehow, he will have to gather body and soul to run another day later. And another after that. And then eight more.
All in a sheet of carbon fiber that has been his left leg since he lost his actual leg below the knee due to a rare cancer.
“You make peace with the pain,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think my pain threshold is probably pretty high right now. It’s one step at a time.”
Boston is the only certified marathon he includes in his search. The rest you’re running on one of two loops near your house or indoors on a treadmill, a humdrum machine many runners derisively call the “treadmill.”
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In 2001, while she and her Dutch husband were living in the Netherlands, Hunt-Broersma was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer seen more often in children. Overnight, a golf ball-sized lump appeared in an old scar that had become tender. A biopsy confirmed the worst, and within weeks, her leg was amputated below the knee.
“The biggest struggle was accepting that part of my body was gone,” he said. (He’s since made his peace with it: A favorite T-shirt reads, “A zombie chewed it up.”)
Until five years ago, I wasn’t athletic at all, but getting started was expensive. Carbon fiber blades designed to perform cost around $10,000 and are not covered by health insurance. Survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three spectators and injured 260 others, encountered the same problem as they tried to reclaim their lives.
“Running really changed my life,” he said. “It helped me accept myself as an amputee. It gave me a feeling of freedom. I fell in love with the process of pushing my body further just to see what it could do.”
Subsequent marathons led to long-distance ultramarathons, including a 100-mile race. So when Hunt-Broersma learned that Alyssa Amos Clark, an able-bodied runner from Bennington, Vermont, covered the marathon distance 95 days in a row in 2000, an idea was born: She would do 100. That plan was thwarted this week when the runner Briton Kate Jayden completed 101 marathons in as many days, so Hunt-Broersma has a new goal: “Now I’m going for at least 102.”
“I was hoping it would inspire a lot of people to get out of their comfort zone and go a little bit further,” he said.
He was worried that his stump would become raw and sore, and the first two weeks were difficult. However, he has since adopted a sustainable pace, being careful to apply ice and massage the residual limb. When she swelled up, she switched to a running prosthesis with a little more room.
But there have also been mental challenges on the way to the 102nd, which began on January 17. In a recent outing, Hunt-Broersma, who has averaged just over five hours per marathon, felt close to collapse at 15 miles and burst into tears. Suddenly the whole odyssey was in doubt.
“I had a complete emotional breakdown. I was like, ‘I just can’t do this. What was I thinking?’” she said. “The trick for me is to break it down into little goals. Just go the next mile. And then the next.
Her support team is her husband and two young children, but she has also gained a huge following on social media.
This week, after recording the 85th marathon, supporters offered a virtual applause. “Looks like you eat marathons for breakfast,” one person tweeted. “In such dark times, thank you for being an inspiration,” another commented.
As she nears the end of her epic quest, Hunt-Broersma hopes to inspire singular thinking in others, regardless of their own physical challenges:
“You are stronger than you think, and you are capable of so much more.”
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