adapting: a q&a with brian reynolds
Meet Brian Reynolds, the double-amputee athlete setting world records for running. We sat down to talk about life in the adaptive community, running, and what record he plans to break next.
You contracted Meningococcemia (a rare form of meningitis) at age four, causing you to have to amputate both legs. What was it like dealing with such a big life change at such an early age?
I have always said that if it had to happen, being young is the best way. I hardly remember life with legs so it made the transition far easier than it is for people who are amputated later in life. Seeing as I was only four, many of my hospital and recovery memories are hazy. Despite prosthetics not being nearly as advanced in the early 1990s, it never stopped me from leading a normal life. I was also lucky to be in a school where all the children knew me both before and after I was sick so they never really questioned me or bothered me about my legs.
How has the world of prosthesis/ the adaptive community changed since you were a kid?
The prosthetic world has changed drastically in the past 25 years. My first set of legs though little and adorable looking did not give me much in the way of technological advancement. They were heavy and clunky. My legs now are much sleeker and lighter. Made of carbon fiber and titanium, the components are all made specially to help me walk and move more efficiently. The foot that I am currently using on my walking prosthetics is designed to give me a slight spring which helps compensate for the ankle motion and muscles that I am missing.
I think some of the biggest changes are in the adaptive community. In the 1990s it was harder to find information about opportunities for challenged athletes. I grew up not knowing any other amputees or the possibilities in the world of prosthetics. With the help of the internet, adaptive athletes are able to connect and share information with each other far easier. Advancement in prosthetics also paved the way for amputees to compete in sports with greater ease. Despite these advancements, it is still difficult to obtain the necessary components. Unless an amputee is independently wealthy, they often need to apply for grants to get parts meant for sports. Insurance companies only cover prosthetic parts meant for everyday walking. Seeing as each prosthetic is completely customized to the patient, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars. This leaves some of the best technology inaccessible for large parts of the amputee population. It would be wonderful to see insurance companies covering these parts in the future so that all amputees regardless of their level of activity can lead a healthy and fulfilling life.
You mentioned you were a big powerlifter when you were younger. How were you first introduced to the sport?
The summer before starting high school my mother signed me up for the local gym. Three days a week she would make me wake before dawn to go and lift with a trainer. I was rather unwilling and grumpy about it at the age of 13. Little did I know that this would be the start of a lifelong passion for fitness. Though it started slowly and reluctantly, by my sophomore year of high school I had become a gym rat. I did not start lifting heavy until I was in college. It was at that point that my prosthetist was able to make legs that could better withstand the rigors of heavy lifting. I spent four years in college training as a powerlifter and got steadily stronger. After graduating I did compete in a competition.
I think that if I was to ever go back to powerlifting I would be far better at it now that I know more about proper ways to train. After years of running and strengthening my legs I have a lot more muscle in key areas that would help with heavy lifting. In fact, although my upper body is markedly smaller than my powerlifting days, I weigh the same because of my increased leg mass.
How did you transition from being a powerlifter to being a runner and what made you want to shift directions?
When I graduated from college I was a little directionless as many new graduates are. I had wanted to pursue a career in the medical field for a long time but was unsure of how to take the next step. I decided to start with becoming an EMT. One of the instructors of the class was training with Team in Training which is part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The team he was on spent every weekend hiking local mountains and trails building up endurance. This would culminate with a hike in the Grand Canyon. It seemed like an amazing cause and a great way to meet people so I joined without hesitation. This was the start of my shift to endurance.
At the end of the season I quickly signed up for another event, this time to hike in Zion National Park. While hiking there I met a woman on top of a mountain. She was hiking with Team in Training as well but from a different chapter. While we were in different areas of the country we kept in touch. She challenged me to start running with her and held me accountable. It took me a long time to build up the endurance. I ran on the treadmill one minute per day for a week. Then two minutes a day for a week and so on. It took me between 8-10 weeks to reach a mile. This woman continues to challenge me every day. We have been married for 5 years. I do not think there would be a story of me running without her continuous support and encouragement.
You train for your marathons a bit unconventionally. Why cross training over just building up running endurance like most people?
As a double amputee, I have found that the pounding of running takes a greater toll on me than most people. Coming from a heavy cross training background, I have always appreciated strengthening the body in many ways. I tried training for a marathon in the traditional manner with high mileage and I learned the hard way that I cannot sustain the volume of running necessary to compete at a high level.
After my experience in the 2018 London Marathon, I reevaluated how I wanted to proceed with training. I knew that I did not want to train in a way that left me so broken. I was exhausted all the time and could not maintain my weight. I felt frail both physically and mentally. I had basically defeated myself before I even began the race. When I began training for the Chicago Marathon later in 2018 I knew I had to do it differently. I went back to my roots and began to train more with weights, biking, and swimming. The biggest difference though was being able to use my ElliptiGo bike. I spent hours training every day with the ElliptiGo because it strengthens the same muscle groups needed to run.
When I arrived at the starting line for Chicago this year I felt stronger than I did for all of my previous marathons and I had run a very low amount of miles. I knew from the first miles that it was a day to set records and a massive PR. I was on pace for well under three hours when disaster struck at mile 22.
You had a slight mishap at the Chicago Marathon this past year when you tripped and lost your blade. Many people would have just stopped running then and there. What made you keep going, despite the unfortunate fall and the (later discovered) concussion?
Mile 22 of the marathon was rather unfortunate. I was definitely starting to tire at this late stage of the race. Making a right-handed turn I tripped in a pothole and fell hitting my head pretty hard. My entire world went dark. I am not sure how long I was out for but the first thing I remember is my pacers helping me up and getting me moving again. I was nauseous, dizzy, had blurry vision, and my hearing was like a badly tuned radio. Those first stumbling steps forward were some of the hardest of my life.
I like to think that my life perfectly prepared me for moments such as these. There have been some many obstacles in my path that I have had to circumvent to get to where I am now. When I first started running I did not have the traditional running blade that amputees use now. I had to use an everyday walking leg completely unsuited to the task. It left me chafed and bleeding often down to the bone. Through the past years of running, I have had abscesses and infections that need to be surgically drained. Leading into the London Marathon I had emergency abdominal surgery less than three weeks before the race and before Chicago, I had a left leg injury that prevented me from running for nearly the entire training cycle. All of the hurdles I have had to overcome have left me with such a high level of grit, perseverance, and determination to prove to myself I can keep going.
When I started moving again in Chicago all of these moments flashed through my head but one made the difference more than anything. Moments before I started running I had video chatted with my son who is three and a half. He said “Go Dada! I know you are going to win!” There was not even the slightest chance I would let myself stop with that type of motivation and support. Although it was not the result I was hoping for, by some miracle I still managed to finish with a PR and a new world record.
Next up for you is a triathlon. How has training been different (or similar) from your marathon cross-training?
I have started training with a new coach for my triathlons. Both of us believe that after I get used to the varied workload I have the propensity to be very good at the sport. While I was already incorporating biking and swimming into my training I was not doing true workouts. It has been a bit of a learning curve for me but I am finally starting to get stronger in the water and on the bike. We have backed off the running a little seeing as that is the discipline I am best at and we are pouring effort into getting stronger in the other areas.
While I have seen some great improvement there is certainly a long way to go. My first triathlon is in March and I am still swimming with a buoy between my legs and I am still building the necessary leg strength to pedal hard. There is nothing like a deadline to motivate me to put in hard work!
You are training hard and often. Just like a pair of shoes, I’d imagine your blades get worn out after a certain number of miles. How often do you have to get new running blades?
It is still hard to tell how often my blades get worn out. I do track my yearly mileage and I try to make notes on how they feel over the course of a year. I am pushing boundaries in running that not many amputees have crossed. This means it’s an experiment and learning curve for both me and my prosthetist. Having said that, I got new blades right after Chicago this year because mine were not functioning well anymore. They had roughly 1,500 miles on them and had carried me to three world records! I can only hope my new ones treat me so well!
What’s one thing you hope to have taught your kids through your experiences with health and fitness?
My journey in athletics, health and fitness has been long and varied. I hope there are more twists and turns to come! I hope that my kids learn to lead a healthy and active life. It has given me so much that would never have been possible (such as my wife). Athletics has taught me persistence, and determination. It has taught me to be strong in the face of adversity. These are lessons that can be applied through so many different spectrums of life.
To see more from Brian Reynolds, follow him on Instagram: @Brianreynoldsrunner