It wasn’t the Boston marathon and it wasn’t a medal finish, but it was just as significant.
The day before the 2012 marathon, Montrealer Chad Loeven completed the Boston Athletic Association’s 5 km run. He crossed the finish line behind his three boys, and his wife Melodie – a leading marathoner featured elsewhere on this blog. It’s not a cliché to say this one was just about finishing, and not about where he finished.
In the spring of 2009, Loeven was in the front passenger seat when an oncoming car crossed the centre line of a New Hampshire road and hit his vehicle head-on. His lower leg was shattered, and doctors prepared him for a possible amputation. Fortunately, they saved the leg — but it would take six surgeries and two years before he could walk again.
The BAA 5k represents the closure of one of the most difficult chapters in Chad’s life. Here’s the Good4sports Q+A about this most remarkable day and race.
G4S: When you approached the finish line of the BAA 5k run, what were you looking at and what was going though your mind?
CL: I made it! Without stopping! On the one hand my 11 year old zoomed ahead and left me eating his dust, on the other hand I actually made it to the end running the whole way. I was quite surprised how big the crowds were and how enthusiastic they were cheering us on, a nice touch that gave a taste of what it would be like for those running the marathon the next day. Over the last 100 meters or so I did step on the gas to the extent that I could to try to pass a few people.
G4S: 35 minutes earlier, you were waiting for the start gun. Only those who have raced understand the peculiar feelings that come over a runner when waiting with thousands of others to set off. There’s usually anticipation, doubt, and then we go. Where did your inspiration and drive come from with those first steps?
CL: I really had very low expectations. Since the accident, the most I’d done was a couple runs of less than a mile on the beach. So I was fully expecting to have to walk-run most of it and just enjoy a nice spring day. My wife and our 3 kids were all in it as well, a family tradition. I knew the big boys would zoom ahead and try to beat each other. Charlie, our youngest at 11, was nervous about whether he could do it so I figured he and I would be bringing up the rear, but in the end he zipped along ahead as well.
G4S: What was the most challenging part of the run?
CL: It was actually right at the beginning. My leg is very stiff so it took a while just to loosen up. Then there were the crowds. Until everyone started spreading out there were parts we were all cheek by jowl, you couldn’t avoid jostling each other. Then on the second corner there’s an uphill part I really slowed down on near the first mile marker. I thought I was done at that point and would be walking most of the rest, but it was literally downhill all the way from there and I hit my stride after that.
G4S: What surprised you most about completing the course?
CL: That I did the whole thing without stopping or walking!
G4S: Some people zone out when they run. Others compute math problems. Where did your mind go as you ran?
CL: Before the accident, I would occasionally run 10K before work, and usually plan my day/week in my head while I ran. This time around I was paying a lot of attention to my body, I kept expecting my leg to give out or the pain to become intolerable, but it didn’t. Once Charlie pulled ahead of me, I paced myself against various people ahead of me. I won’t hide that it felt pretty good when I passed someone who looked reasonably able-bodied!
G4S: This run took place almost 3 years to the day after your horrific car accident. Your leg and ankle were shattered. At one point, doctors warned of a possible amputation. Eventually, after six operations and countless hours of therapy and treatment, you regained your mobility. How did you cope with the fear/possibility of losing function in the leg?
CL: It took two years before I could even walk. Just getting to that point felt like a huge accomplishment. Really, when you go for so long facing the possibility of losing a leg and the most likely outcome is chronic pain, limited mobility and a severe limp with a cane, just being able to walk up the street with a normal gait feels like heaven. Being able to run again, even in the limited fashion I did, is a very happy bonus.
G4S: You have three active boys, and a wife who is a marathoner. How did the sight of their mobility affect you during your convalescence?
CL: The support and assistance of my family made all the difference. The statistical outcomes of my kind of injury are terrible, and it’s not just medical. Depression, addiction, job loss and divorce are major risks. One or more of those are likely results for a majority of people who suffer this kind of leg damage according to one study I read. I’m sure the family support I got was a big factor in my recovery and in avoiding those outcomes.
G4S: At what point did you decide that you were going to run again?
CL: Mel decided for me! She signed us all up, and I’m very happy she did.
G4S: What gave you the idea to run the BAA 5k?
CL: I ran the BAA 5K just weeks before my accident, so it seemed like closure to come back three years later and run it again.
G4S: How did you train for the run?
CL: I was a ‘weekend warrior’ before the accident, I never saw the inside of a gym. I was active playing squash and hiking and occasionally running in the mornings before work. After the accident, I needed to do very structured physio and exercise just to keep my leg from seizing up and to keep a minimum fitness level. Mel arranged for personal trainers, and even when they weren’t around I had a daily routine I would follow. I wasn’t always diligent in keeping it up, but overall I did pretty well. It’s easy with the pain and limited mobility to succumb to inertia and push it off but at the same time I really felt a difference in my mental state and physical well being when I kept up a regular exercise routine. It’s common for accident victims like me to have substantial weight gain post-accident because you can become so sedentary. I was able to keep my weight pretty close to what it was pre-accident. I never used to think about what I ate but now I do make a point of eating (a little) healthier so that helps as well.
G4S: What was the most difficult part of building the strength to run the distance?
CL: Over the last year or so I’ve just been progressively walking more. I started again doing some hiking, and some of the hikes were tough. The first time I did a real hike up a (small) mountain I limped back to the trailhead and literally passed out stone cold from exhaustion and pain. It was shocking how much strength and stamina I lost after the accident, at first even going up the steps in my house would exhaust me. It was misleading how I could feel quite good physically just walking around after a while, but hit a wall by doing something a little more strenuous, like a hike.
G4S: What served as your motivation while training?
CL: I’m thrilled every time I recover a bit more of my ‘old self’ and can do again something I used to do and take for granted. There’s no better motivation than that, and being able to do things with your family again.
G4S: How has your leg responded to stress of that race?
CL: Surprisingly well. My recovery gets quicker each time I do a new level of physical activity so I take that as encouraging. One problem I have is that I don’t have solid, contiguous bone in my tibia. Essentially the top of my tibia is resting on the stump, glued by scar tissue. There’s no guarantee at this point that it will ever fuse. So as you can imagine physical activity like this causes a lot of flexing and irritation around the main injury site. The body’s a remarkable thing though in the way it compensates and adjusts to the degree it does.
G4S: What’s the value in having completed the run?
CL: If I can do 5K, why not 10? It’s one more step to recovery, and a big one.
G4S: How does running fit into your future plans?
CL: Unless one day an MRI shows my bone has fused I probably shouldn’t make running a regular sport. I’ll more likely do stuff like say biking or kayaking that put little or no stress on the leg. But I definitely plan to be at Boston next year, and do the occasional run for fun.