Stefan Leroy’s first marathon was awesome.
No other word could describe the joy, the relief, and the satisfaction that crossing the finish line brought.
“I feel actually pretty good right now,’’ said Leroy after completing the Boston Marathon in 6 hours, 43 minutes, 49 seconds. “There’s been races where I literally want to take my legs off and throw them against the wall, and this one — perfect. I only brought my wheelchair, but I feel like I could put my legs on right now.”
“Not to keep running,’’ he added quickly. “Keep walking. I’m done running right now.”
The 24-year-old double amputee Army veteran ran with the Achilles Freedom Team, which serves wounded military personnel and veterans and facilitates their running experiences. He had raced Boston in 2013 and 2015 in a handcycle, but this time he covered the 26.2 miles upright on blade runners. When he crossed the finish line Monday, it was alongside his Achilles Team guides, David Cordani, president and chief executive of Cigna, and girlfriend Katie Smith.
“[The guides] made everything easy,” Leroy said. “I was just running. I wasn’t thinking about the road or anything. Everything went smoothly; I never stopped eating, never stopped drinking.
“I finished with dignity, had fun, and did awesome,’’ Leroy said, ticking off his prerace goals. “I don’t know what we got, but we did sub-7, which was definitely what we were looking for, and that was awesome. It was amazing. It was perfect.’’
. . .
Leroy was 21 years old in 2012 when he lost his legs while serving with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan. He was rushing to help stretcher an injured buddy, who had stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device, to a helicopter when he, too, stepped on an IED.
“Even if you’re not an amputee, everyone tries to stand back up,’’ Leroy said. “Because the blast blows you down, too, so it’s not just you got blown down because you lost your feet, you got blown down because of the force of the blast. Everyone tries to stand back up, but if you stick your actual bones into the ground, you know you can’t stand back up anymore.”
In Leroy’s sudden new reality, he had lost his left leg above the knee and his right leg below the knee. He was sent to Walter Reed Military Center in Washington, where he began the arduous process of recovery and rehabilitation.
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Monday there was bright sunshine at the start line in Hopkinton, and Leroy stood arm in arm with his friend and running companion Patrick Downes, the Boston Marathon bombing survivor he met at Walter Reed when both were recovering from their amputations. Both Downes and his wife, Jess Kensky, lost their left legs in the bombing.
Leroy began the race heading down the first downslope talking and laughing with Downes, his blades swinging out to the side as he settled into his cadence. He eventually struck up a pace of 5 minutes running, a minute and a half walking, Cordani said.
“He did really well, really even pace,’’ Cordani said. “The last mile, he wanted to run the whole last mile, and I had to shut him down again. I said, ‘I want you to enjoy the finish line,’ so we saved for the last 100 yards.”
It was the Achilles team, for which Cigna is a partner, that got Leroy started with handcycling just two months after his injury. He wanted to be physically active but was very limited.
“Initially, I couldn’t go in the water, and I couldn’t be on prosthetics,’’ Leroy said. “I had open wounds; that’s why I couldn’t be in the water. I couldn’t walk yet; with prosthetics, it takes a while to get to that stage, and then with all the breakdown of my soft tissue, I couldn’t. So handcycling was consistent . . . especially at a point where I didn’t know if I could in the future run at all, or walk at all.’’
Leroy was finally able to run in the prosthetics in January 2015.
“There’s a lap at Walter Reed that’s 1/27th of a mile, and I couldn’t go the full lap without walking,’’ he said. “So it was very tough. Run half a lap, walk, run half a lap, and you’re done for the first day.’’
Very quickly, Leroy was running a 5K, then a half-marathon, with Cordani as his guide.
Cordani, an endurance athlete, provides far more than companionship. He grabs water so Leroy doesn’t have to step on slippery discarded cups, he wards off overeager admirers, and he motivates.
“I always take my responsibility seriously,’’ said Cordani, who has guided 10 wounded veterans in long-distance races. “I’ve got to keep him safe, I’ve got to keep him hydrated, and I’ve got to keep enough nutrition and calories in him. I carry a small backpack with extra supplies for him, to wipe off his stumps, adjust if he gets hotspots or anything else on the stumps, patch those. I’m familiar with how to take the prosthetics off and adjust them. And then motivate him.”
Leroy hit the halfway point in 3:11:38, on pace to run under 7 hours, as he had hoped. His success in the marathon has him dreaming new dreams.
“I’m still kind of surprised how smoothly today went, and I definitely think I’ll be running another one,’’ he said. “My far goal — like a dream, like a bucket list goal — is to do an Ironman. Because today was kind of like, ‘Wow, I could do that.’ It’s not going to be next year, it’s a little farther down the road, but I can go do that.’’
Runners fight heat to cross finish line at 2016 Boston Marathon