‘I’m More Able With One Leg Than I Was With Two’

One man’s huge de­ci­sion and his plans to break a marathon world record

Runner's World (UK) - - In This Issue -

WHEN Char­lie Lewis opened his eyes and saw noth­ing where his leg once was, he felt he was free again. No re­gret, just re­lief. ‘I knew the am­pu­ta­tion would be the defin­ing mo­ment in my life,’ says the 32-year-old, whose lower right leg was re­moved on his 29th birth­day, in Jan­uary 2014.

‘It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoul­ders and I could get back to be­ing who I re­ally was. With­out sport and com­pe­ti­tion, my life just wasn’t work­ing. Run­ning isn’t a pas­sion for me – it’s a ne­ces­sity. I have to do it.’

Ten years ear­lier, Char­lie, from Lon­don, was liv­ing the high life in Val d’is­ere in France – snow­board­ing by day, par­ty­ing by night, tak­ing plenty of risks, as teenagers do. Life couldn’t have been much sweeter. Un­til the day he fell off a moun­tain. ‘It was the first day of snow for a long time and con­di­tions were sketchy,’ he re­mem­bers. ‘ There was a small slide of snow, I hit some de­bris and it sent me fly­ing. I rolled for about 80 me­tres and my board snapped. And then I snapped.’

With adren­a­line mask­ing the pain, the first thing Char­lie did was light up a cig­a­rette, even though his right leg was ‘fac­ing the wrong way. I was on the moun­tain for two hours be­fore I was winched off by a he­li­copter. It was only af­ter the first op­er­a­tion that the pain kicked in. And it never went away.’

Char­lie had hoped to be­come a pro­fes­sional rugby player. That dream was now gone. His leg was en­cased in a metal frame, but not long af­ter it was re­moved, it be­came clear the leg had not healed. Sev­eral re­con­struc­tions and many set­backs fol­lowed. In all he would have 15 op­er­a­tions on the leg.

In 2006, Char­lie had a metal rod in­serted and found an out­let for his need to be ac­tive – through cy­cling. ‘I rode a lot, be­cause I couldn’t run or swim. But I was also drink­ing a lot and on so many drugs, pre­scrip­tion and recre­ational, to try to mask some of the pain. It was hor­ri­ble.’

The fi­nal straw came in 2012 when Char­lie was rid­ing up Mont Ven­toux, a Tour de France climb that he’d com­pleted on five pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sions. ‘ The metal rod that was con­nected to the bot­tom of my an­kle went right through to my foot and was rat­tling around and hit­ting nerves. I sat on the side of the road and thought, “This is ridicu­lous, I need to have the leg off”.’ In­stead, he ended up hav­ing another fu­tile op­er­a­tion. ‘Sur­geons are in the busi­ness of sav­ing things, whether it’s lives or limbs,’ says Char­lie. ‘Am­pu­ta­tion is seen as a last re­sort, get­ting rid of a prob­lem rather than deal­ing with it. There was al­ways a sur­geon to prom­ise “I can save it!” They never un­der­stood that hob­bling from sofa to kitchen and back wasn’t good enough.’

Fi­nally, Char­lie met two sur­geons who un­der­stood his need to be free of his leg; they agreed to am­pu­tate. On the day of the op­er­a­tion, Char­lie marked the oc­ca­sion by paint­ing the toe­nails of his right foot in sparkly var­nish. When he woke up, the var­nish – and the leg – were gone.

‘It felt like I was start­ing my life all over again. It would have been easy to think of all the things I couldn’t do any more. But I don’t like the word ‘dis­abled’; it’s so neg­a­tive. I’m much more able with one leg than I was with two – and more able than most ‘able-bod­ied’ peo­ple.’

Shortly af­ter be­ing fit­ted with his first weight­bear­ing pros­thetic, Char­lie cy­cled up Ven­toux. Two days af­ter be­ing fit­ted with a run­ning blade, he com­pleted his first triathlon. In 2016 he ran marathons or half marathons in North Korea, Afghanistan and Le­banon, did triathlons in Spain and Italy, and a half Iron­man in Aus­tria.

This year, Char­lie had set his sights on break­ing the marathon world record for a lower-leg am­putee (it’s cur­rently 2:57:47) at the Lon­don Marathon. ‘But 35km into my long­est pre-marathon train­ing run, some­thing blew,’ he says. It turned out he’d in­jured a bursa (a fluid-filled sac that coun­ters fric­tion in joints) that had be­come at­tached to a ten­don be­hind his knee. ‘It was a mas­sive shame, as I’d put in so much hard work over the pre­ced­ing three months,’ he says.

He re­treated to Italy, where his girl­friend is a vint­ner. But sip­ping wine in the sun is far too easy. His re­main­ing 2017 hit list fea­tures a cross­con­ti­nen­tal swim in Is­tan­bul, an Iron­man in Mal­lorca, the Bagh­dad Marathon and the world’s long­est cross-coun­try ski race, in Swe­den.

‘I’m look­ing for­ward to my next chal­lenge, but I’ll def­i­nitely be com­ing back for that marathon record. I know I can beat it and I’ll keep try­ing un­til I do.’

‘I used to won­der why there were so few other am­putees run­ning. Now I re­alise it is be­cause it bloody hurts! It’s like run­ning in car­bon shoes and at times there is this ter­ri­ble, pound­ing pain. But I al­ways want to go faster and fur­ther – the plan is to race in ev­ery coun­try in the world. When I ran in North Korea and Afghanistan, I could see that the peo­ple who I ran with felt free, just like me. By run­ning, even for a short dis­tance, they es­caped. I truly be­lieve that if more peo­ple ran it would lead to a bet­ter so­ci­ety.’

‘I al­ways want to go faster and fur­ther – the plan is to race in ev­ery coun­try in the world’

BLADE OF GLORY Char­lie has his sights set on a marathon world record.

BENCH­MARK With his run­ning blade and bound­less de­ter­mi­na­tion, Char­lie has a new lease of life.

Clock­wise from top: putting on a brave face af­ter the op­er­a­tion; the Afghanistan Marathon; and Iron­man 70.3, Aus­tria

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