Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Palmiero-Winters Setting Trail Records on Prosthetic Leg

Great article on Amy Palmiero-Winters from the Milwaukee Journal
Ultra runner takes pain in stride on prosthetic leg

With her incomparable standards, Amy Palmiero-Winters rated her 50-mile run in the North Face Endurance Challenge in southern Wisconsin as very successful and relatively easy.

The 37-year-old from Hicksville, N.Y., set yet another unofficial record for 50 miles.

More important, she finished without blood dripping down her prosthetic left leg.

That represented a vast improvement in pace and discomfort from her first outing in a 50-mile trail ultra, in May, when Palmiero-Winters struggled to the finish line in Bear Mountain, N.Y., just 30 seconds before the 13-hour cutoff time, and "bloody as hell," in the words of the race director

Since then, with a series of awe-inspiring runs, Palmiero-Winters has not merely set records but created them, in categories for amputee runners that few ever pondered.

Her run on the Ice Age Trail on Oct. 24 established a new standard for 50 miles - 8 hours 43 minutes - breaking by nearly 90 minutes the unofficial record she set in September, in the North Face Endurance race in Washington, D.C.

In between, on Oct. 11, she became the first female amputee to finish a 100-mile ultra on the road, the 10th annual Heartland "Spirit of the Prairie" Endurance Run.

Palmiero-Winters was the fastest female in that race, with one sound leg or two.

"She's pushed the envelope way past what is conceived by the public," said Erik Schaffer, president of the high-tech prosthetic company A Step Ahead.

"She's setting a new first every time," Schaffer said. "There have been people with prosthetics who have done some long runs, but nobody is close to her worst time. We're trying to track it, but there's nobody doing what she's doing."

Her performances on the road have been mind-boggling. Her determination on the trails has been nearly incomprehensible.

Running on steep hills covered with rocks, roots and leaves, Palmiero-Winters has almost no margin for error. The ideal landing area on the narrow, hook-shaped blade that serves as her left foot is roughly one inch square.

Without an ankle, heel or calf muscle to absorb the impact, the shock of each hard step travels through the prosthetic into the tibia, fibula and patellar tendon in what remains of her leg, cut off about 3 inches below the knee.

Painful chafing

"If I step on a rock on the front of my running foot, it will hyperextend my knee backward," she said. "If I step on the back, it will throw my knee forward. And it's the same if I step on a rock to the right or the left of the foot. It throws me to the inside or the outside of the prosthetic leg.

"All that twisting and turning and rocks kind of throws you around inside the prosthetic. That alone creates a lot of pain."

As she runs, the size and shape of her shortened limb changes and loosens in the specially fitted carbon fiber socket. That causes the chafing, blistering, tearing and bone bruising that Palmiero-Winters suffered in New York.

"I have no idea how she was running," said Nick Moore, director of the five races that make up the North Face Endurance Challenge series. "It was impressive. She has unbelievable fortitude."

Eyes on Olympics

Mental toughness and a high threshold for pain have helped Palmiero-Winters run beyond what anyone with a prosthetic has done before. Her natural running ability puts her among the best runners in any category, and she expects to compete with them at the sport's highest levels.

Among her goals is the Badwater Ultramarathon, the 135-mile race through the blistering heat of Death Valley.

Before that attempt, Schaffer will have to tweak the ultra runner's custom-designed prosthetic to stop the heat transfer that burned her limb during an unofficial Badwater venture this year.

With a personal best of 3:06 in the 2006 Chicago Marathon, Palmiero-Winters holds onto the dream of qualifying for the Olympic marathon trials. USA Track & Field officials have said she would be allowed to compete in the qualifying trials if she can reach the entry standard.

Her immediate focus remains on ultras and the trails, where her love of running has been rekindled.

Stacking ultras in a remarkable run, Palmiero-Winters plans to finish the North Face Endurance series in San Francisco in December. Her next race will be her first 100-mile attempt in the woods, the Ozark Trail Endurance Run on Saturday.

Those are all races, distances and challenges that Palmiero-Winters never contemplated as a young runner with two sound legs.

She took the sport less than seriously, even after running a 3:16 in the Boston Marathon in 1993. A year later, a car hit Palmiero-Winters while she rode her Harley-Davidson motorcycle near her hometown of Meadville, Pa., Her left foot was crushed.

Showing what would become familiar fortitude, she ran the Columbus Marathon with the damaged foot in 1995, but the injuries required more than two dozen surgeries and eventually amputation, in 1997.

'A second chance'

That ended her running pursuits for more than five years but eventually brought an improved perspective and motivation.

"I didn't realize until after I lost my leg that I have a great natural talent and I never took advantage of it," Palmiero-Winters said. "When I woke up that one day, and realized, instead of losing my life, I lost my leg . . . it was about time I put the most effort I can into the things that I do.

"I did get a second chance."

She soon rekindled the desire to run.

"The feeling I get from running has never changed," said Palmiero-Winters, a single mother of two - Carson, 6, and Madalynn, 4.

"Running makes me happy and proud of who I am. Overall, it makes me a better person.

"I have two little kids. When I go home, I sure like that they think they have the world's fastest mommy."

A welder by trade, Palmiero-Winters now works with A Step Ahead, based in New York, and has started a nonprofit organization, ASPIRE, to help children and young adults who have lost limbs.

Those children, and her own, provide the inspiration that carries Palmiero-Winters through painful miles.

Thinks about backers

"For me to get through what I have to get through, and I do it every single race, I think of the people who support me and the people who stand behind me," she said.

"If I'm running one mile and something hurts, I'll think about my kids and how they cheer for me and their smiles. And the next miles, I'll think about one of the little kids I coach, who always says 'Remember the little engine who could,' and the next mile think of my godson, Drake, and then my little buddy Jake who's missing both his legs at his knee.

"At the prosthetic company, I'll think about the guy in the back and the guy who makes my leg and how hard they work so I can do what I do. I think about everybody in my life, and I get strength from them."

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