The Real Life Runner — A Quadriplegic Gives Me a Dose of Inspiration

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Erin Crowell -- The Real Life Runner

Two new contributing writers are joining the staff of Running-Advice.com. Today we debut a new weekly column called The Real Life Runner by author Erin Crowell. Erin is both a journalist and a runner. She will be focusing on how running contributes to our lives in ways greater than our health, lifestyles or competitive drives. She tackle topics such as how running can be used to make political statements, to raise awareness for causes, or to contribute to the rehabilitation of the body and soul. Erin lives in Traverse City, Michigan. Welcome Erin!

“Leave your worries, leave your fears
Leave the doubt you’re holding dear
Leave them there, love, by the door
They’re no good anymore”
– “Nothing for Granted” by Brendan James

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Erin and Grant

“I’m so sore today,” I say, taking inventory of my body – from my tight quads to aching calves. “I don’t think I’ll be able to run tonight.”

“Wahhh!” Grant says mockingly, a crooked smile on his face.

I should have seen that coming.

Grant likes to poke fun, but more so he likes taking any doubts or complaints you may have and throw them back at face-value; because they are exactly that: nothing more than doubt and complaints.

We continue walking through the local mall – me, decked out in a fanny pack that holds a bottle of water, towel and timer; Grant, leaning on his gait trainer that allows him to put one foot in front of the other.

For my friend Grant Forrester, a 24-year-old quadriplegic living in Traverse City, Michigan, there is no such thing as can’t.

Doing the Impossible
For years, I thought running a marathon was a far-flung goal, sitting somewhere on the horizon along with winning a Pulitzer.  That is, until I met Grant, a hometown celebrity in his own right, but who earned a new respect by his community when he walked the Meijer Festival of Races 5k at the 2011 National Cherry Festival. It was the farthest distance he ever walked in his life, finishing the 3.1 miles in just under four hours.

I love sharing his story with those who haven’t heard it…about “Team Grant,” the group of a dozen family and friends who accompanied him during those four hours.

So when a friend propositioned me on helping him with an upcoming book project that would have me running my first marathon, my initial thought was excitement, which was immediately followed by doubt as I pictured the number—26.2 miles—in my head…twice the distance I ever ran, which was in 2009 and left me with the inability to bend my knees for two days.

However, it didn’t take long before the hesitation and uncertainty was replaced by inspiration and determination…and the image of Grant, dripping in sweat, as he crossed the finish line of his own race.

My race pick landed on the Bayshore Marathon, happening Memorial weekend in Traverse City; and although Grant’s upcoming race is about 1/8 the distance of mine, his training is just as tough. This is evident on our weekly laps at the mall when, by JCPenney, Grant’s shirt is soaked through and his witty comebacks are limited to punctuated huffs.

Grant started training for his July race back in October by standing for hours at a time – pretty impressive for a guy who’s spent the majority of his life in a wheelchair.

When he was 15 months old, Grant was riding with his father down an Indiana highway when another motorist struck their car, sending Grant—still attached to his car seat—across four lanes of traffic and a median. His skull was cracked ear to ear and he spent nearly six weeks in a coma. At the time, Grant was just learning to walk; but the accident left him with spastic quadriplegia, which impedes voluntary muscle movement, making some tasks—such as showering, using the bathroom and dressing—impossible without assistance.

The Definition of Race

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Photo: Amber Elliott, Grand Traverse Photography

For many running “purists,” a race—whether it’s a 5k or marathon—should be run, not walked. Participation just isn’t enough.

A 2005 article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Running Debate,” explores the growing trend of walkers who participate in marathons, finishing these races in several hours.

“On Sunday morning at 5 a.m., about 1,000 very slow people will gather at the Ferry Building in San Francisco,” the author notes about that year’s marathon. “They will have as much as seven hours to go 26.2 miles — an ambitious venture for most mortals but a glacial pace for marathoners.”

The article reflects polarized opinions on who ‘should’ toe the start line.

I’m embarrassed to say I used to feel this way; and yet, a part of me still does when, after weeks of preparation, my pace is grounded to a halt by a group of walkers at the start of a 5K race.

Then I remember there’s probably some poor guy with a 4:58 pace and 6% body fat who had to sidestep around me.

Like any fitness goal, a race is all about relativity.

Stepping Up to the Challenge
I keep this humbling thought in mind as I reflect on my own marathon goal: to finish without walking or stopping. While doing either would disqualify me from having completed a marathon in my own mind, simply having that as a goal would make some elite marathon veterans snort.

For many, it’s surviving. For some, it’s enduring. For others, it’s conquering. Whatever silly reasons we put our bodies through hell, there is a commonality in envisioning something hard and stepping up to the challenge, regardless of fitness level.

Simply having a fitness goal speaks volumes nowadays. Exercise is no longer a necessity for survival, but a lifestyle choice. It’s why friends and family pat me on the back when they hear about my marathon goal.

“Wow, that’s crazy!” one says.

“I could never do that,” says another.

For the most part, this makes me proud, yet a small part of me is bothered by these remarks of self-doubt. I imagine a part of Grant feels the same.

It’s taken me awhile to put these feelings into perspective; and being a writer, I needed to put them into words (perhaps best placed on a tacky self-motivational poster). My best conclusion regarding pushing one’s body—particularly in regards to my own goal—is this:

Running is instinct. It has been hardwired into human beings as a means of survival. When circumstance is taken out of play, society is to blame for our lack of moving. Convenience, technology, and a perpetual onslaught of unhealthy habits have removed our desire—and most importantly, a necessity—to release the flood of endorphins, trigger a muscle twitch and set the lungs ablaze.

Running a marathon isn’t doing something impossible; it’s simply undoing what we have done to ourselves.

By all definition, Grant is a “victim” of circumstance, yet he still manages to get up and walk…a concept so simple, yet absolutely remarkable in its own right.

During one of our walks, Grant tells me about the time he walked across the Kresge Auditorium stage at Interlochen to accept his high school diploma, a goal he set back in sixth grade. Grant’s foresight…his ability to visualize what is capable surprises me every week.

I consider my walks with Grant a part of my own training as he serves as a constant reminder of accountability, a voice I hear in the back of my mind when the couch gets too comfortable or my legs start feeling heavy mid-stride on long mileage days. I didn’t train consistently for my half marathon – a choice I will not be making for the full.

If Grant can do it, why can’t I?

Like an athlete true to form, Grant accomplished one goal and didn’t hesitate to set another. Simply finishing was no longer enough. Grant wants to race, and while he’s not competing to beat others, it’s a race against time, boundaries and limitations.

The Athlete Within
As we near the end of his mile lap, I ask Grant how he feels.

“Alive,” he says.

I couldn’t agree more.

With each walk, Grant continues to chip away at his time. Sometimes it’s minutes, other times it’s seconds. Some days are slower than others.

When I look into Grant’s eyes, there’s a certain determination and stubbornness to them…something I’d like to believe exists in every athlete, from the first-time marathon finisher and 5K walker to the sponsored Olympian.

If there is a goal you have in mind—wherever it falls on your “impossible” scale—if you reach down deep enough, you can find that person who won’t accept excuses; because as my friend Grant says, there’s no such thing as can’t.

Erin Crowell, Travese City Michican, USA
Contributing Writer, Running Advice and News
www.running-advice.com

This story was originally published in the Northern Express Weekly (2/27/12). To read the first feature on Grant Forrester, “Nothing for Granted” (7/18/11), go to northernexpress.com.

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