Text by Ellen London | Photographed by Meredith Nierman | Audio Descriptions by NCAM
April 19, 2020
Imagine being a little kid, playing on the playground in the sunshine with your friends. And then, one by one they take off running, like kids do, chasing each other in a game of tag. Only, you can’t move. You stand there, alone, unable to run, unable to chase, unable to tag.
Because you’re an amputee, and you’re wearing a prosthetic leg that’s outfitted only for walking.
“That’s what it’s like, not being able to participate in sport,” said Adrianne Haslet, Para athlete and advocate for amputee rights. “Whether you’re a kid or an adult.”
Haslet, a former professional ballroom dancer turned runner who lost her left leg below the knee during the Boston Marathon finish line bombings on April 15, 2013, wears a sweatshirt festooned with a small round white pin, on which black letters read “AIR HUG.” She’s three weeks into city-mandated social distancing as a response to the coronavirus crisis, during which Boston residents are encouraged to remain at home for all but essential tasks: grocery shopping, picking up medications, caring for loved ones.
And exercise. Her blond ponytail is still wet from a post-run shower.
“It’s eerie to go out for a run in the city and be able to run down the middle of the road,” she said.
Up until a few weeks ago, Haslet was rigorously training for the 2020 Boston Marathon, which was originally set for Monday, April 20; the Patriot’s Day holiday throughout Massachusetts. But then, just 10 days before her “Longest Long Run” — the 20-plus-mile run that is the longest of a typical training cycle before athletes cut back on mileage in preparation for race day — the Boston Marathon was postponed to September 14, 2020, due to safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m healthy and home and have food in the fridge — so I’m ‘good,’” said Haslet. “But, is anybody really ‘good’ right now?”
To say that Haslet has faced and overcome adversity before would be a gross understatement. After rising to the top of the ballroom dancing world, the Seattle native lost her left leg while spectating the 2013 Boston Marathon. Just four days after that traumatic event, she vowed to run the Boston Marathon someday, verbally committing to the undertaking in a bedside interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Then, while training for the 2019 Boston Marathon, she was struck by a car in a crosswalk — once again on her left side. The injuries she sustained prevented her from competing in the Boston Marathon that year, but she set her sights on running the B.A.A. 5K, held the same weekend as the marathon. She completed that comeback race with panache.
Through it all, she has emerged as an outspoken advocate for amputee rights, lobbying legislators in Washington, D.C. to change the existing “one limb per lifetime” law in New York, which limited the number of prosthetics covered by insurance to just one per amputee. She has worked with Limbs for Life and the Range of Motion Project to raise money for other amputees to afford prosthetics of their own. And she is an ambassador for the Boston Marathon’s newly designated Para division — a first among the world marathon majors — for runners who use prosthetics.
So now, even after training “harder than I ever have, ever” for the last year in preparation for this year’s Boston Marathon, Haslet is taking the race postponement in stride. “We never get a redo on a training cycle before a race. To be able to see what worked last time, and what didn’t, and to try and be better. It never happens,” she said. “And how cool is it to train for this one Boston [Marathon] that’s going to be unlike anything else?”
In fact, she’s grateful that the delay gives her more time to train, and to advocate for rights and access for other Para athletes, an occupation that has become her life’s work.
“I loved the way that goal made me feel,” Haslet said of her heartfelt, albeit impulsive, commitment to run the Boston Marathon that day in her hospital room, while talking to Cooper. “I was viscerally aware that saying it out loud made me feel better — or, at least, as well as I could at that moment.”
Her father, who had flown into Boston from her hometown of Seattle with the rest of her family to be with her after the attacks, was in the background of the interview looking at her like she was crazy. She didn’t even know how long a marathon was at the time.
“I had written notes to get out of the mile in school,” she said. “I wore high heels.”
A few weeks later, after Haslet was discharged from the hospital and cleared to resume “normal” life, she worked with her prosthetist to secure a leg made for running. But that initial fire was diminished, at first, as she doubted her ability to run at all, let alone a marathon.
“I got the leg just so I could say that I had tried it, and that running isn’t for me,” she said. “That was my goal, was to get out of running [the marathon].”
However, she was surprised to discover that the more she ran, the more she enjoyed running. “I kept trying it and trying it, and then I woke up one day and was like, ‘I kind of feel like going for a run today.’”
She decided to go for it; to train for the Boston Marathon. But she was unable to find a coach or training partners in her area who were also amputees.
"I was feeling really alone. I wanted to be better. That drive from being a ballroom dancer, and getting better with practice, was something that I really wanted, but it just wasn't happening with running."ADRIANNE HASLET, ATHLETE AND ADVOCATE
Or so she thought. One day, after months of training haphazardly on her own, she met some dancer friends for brunch. She confessed that she’d been running, and when they asked her how far she’d been going, she realized that she had no idea; she’d been running for an hour and a half at a time but had no sense of distance.
Haslet asked her friends: “Do you have a car follow you? How do you know how far you’re going?” They suggested using an app on her phone to log her runs with GPS. She downloaded it before her next run, and was shocked to see the result when she finished: she had covered 10 miles.
Haslet continued to log her miles alone, right up to the start line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts for the 2016 Boston Marathon. As she lined up in her corral, she listened to other runners talk about how they had slept the night before, what fuel they had on hand for the race, what their pacing strategy was, and how they had completed 20-mile long runs throughout their training. “I started to have a complete panic attack,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t belong here.’”
Her boyfriend at the time, who was also running, turned to her and said: “What will get you to the finish line is nothing compared to what got you to the start.”
“You’re right. I’ve been through hell to get here and this is nothing,” she remembered thinking. “And I walked, ran, jogged, crawled my way to the finish.”
She set her Personal Record that day: 10 hours and 30 minutes.
Even after covering the 26.2-mile marathon distance, she still didn’t know a lot about running. But she knew enough to know that, if she wanted to improve, she would need three things: a coach, a team, and a new leg.
Haslet was sitting on the tarmac at McCarren International Airport in Las Vegas, about to fly back to Boston from a speaking engagement, when she first saw it: a prosthetic leg, with a foot attached to the bottom of its curve. It was worn by a Cirque du Soleil performer, also in Las Vegas, in a video sent by one of Haslet’s Instagram followers. In the video clip, the performer sprints onto the stage and right into a powerful handspring.
“His run was level, perfect,” Haslet said. “I was moved. I wanted to get off the plane and see his show.”
When she reached out to the performer to inquire about the type of leg he was using, he responded immediately: it was called an AllPro, made by prosthetic manufacturer Fillauer. Haslet called her “leg guy” to request a trial, and two days later gave it a run.
The leg she had been using, and the one she wore to run the 2016 Boston Marathon, was a more traditional running blade; the style with a single curved hook and tread at the end. This style of running leg can be longer than the wearer’s hereditary leg — in Haslet’s case, 2.5 inches longer — to account for the compression when it bounces back, like a pogo stick. Because it’s longer, it requires Haslet to lift up her leg on that side an extra 2.5 inches for every stride.
“It’s hard to keep doing that over and over, and as you fatigue — which is common while running, especially long distances — it becomes even more difficult to pick that leg up, so you can trip over the blade,” said Haslet.
So, she was eager to try the new style that she saw in the Cirque du Soleil video, which features a similar sleeve attachment but also comes with a foot on the bottom. She put it on, and right away ran six laps around the block outside her prosthetist’s office.
“Normally there’s a real learning curve when you’re trying out a new leg,” she said. She felt faster and more confident in the new prosthetic.
Beyond the athletic benefits, she also felt safer wearing the new prosthetic. Whereas her walking leg has little spring or bounce-back, this one allowed her to move quickly. “If I needed to make a run for it — like in a crosswalk for instance — I could.”
"I ran the way you do when you're a kid. You just run. You're not thinking about going faster; it's just what your body does."ADRIANNE HASLET, ATHLETE AND ADVOCATE
According to a spokesperson for Fillauer, the design was inspired by a child who was an amputee and who also did not have fingers, and needed a foot that allowed him to walk, run, play, and “bounce.” The foot attachment provided the flexibility and “ankle” motion that those with lower limb loss often miss, without having to switch legs between activities.
Haslet wrote to Fillauer to ask if anyone had ever run a marathon in the AllPro. They responded that no one had.
“Cool, I’ll be the first,” said Haslet. “I’ll be the guinea pig.”
Next up was finding a coach, and some friends with whom to train. Both fell into Haslet’s lap in early 2018, when Boston was all but shut down by a large snow storm. Haslet took to social media to see if anyone had tips for places to train indoors. “I was determined. I no longer cared about finding other amputees to run with; I was just going to run as fast as I could.”
It was Shalane Flanagan — four-time Olympian and American running legend — who responded, directing her to Coach Dan Fitzgerald of Heartbreak Hill Running Company. Coincidentally, “Coach Dan” was leading a workout the following morning at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury, an indoor track facility. On Flanagan’s suggestion, Haslet signed up for what was to be her first-ever track workout.
She showed up at the track early, not knowing what to expect from a running workout. Would they be doing pushups on the track? Lifting weights?
“Coach told me to follow the ponytail of the pacer in front of me,” she said. “To go when she goes, to stop when she stops.”
After a good workout, thumping music and high-fives from the other runners, she was hooked. She joined Coach Dan’s running team, The Heartbreakers, and resolved to be more outspoken about her training, regularly posting about it on social media and talking about it in the press and at speaking engagements, so that other amputees could see what was possible, and that they were not alone.
This year’s Boston Marathon was to be a particularly historic one in the running community, and for Para athletes like Haslet in particular, as the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.), the race’s governing body, announced the addition of an official Para division, thereby becoming the first major marathon in the world to include competitive divisions for classified ambulatory Para athletes.
The new division will include athletes with upper and lower limb impairment, as well as vision impairment, creating opportunity for invitational entry to the race. The division will also feature $16,500 in prizes for the top three male and female finishers within each respective classification category.
The creation of the new Para division was years in the making, but began to coalesce when the B.A.A. hired Marla Runyan as its Athletes with Disabilities Manager in August 2017.
Runyan, who is legally blind, was the first U.S. Paralympian to also compete in the Olympic Games. A 5-time Paralympic gold medalist and holder of numerous world records among visually impaired athletes, Runyan is no stranger to the Boston Marathon, having finished as the top American woman, and fifth woman overall, at the race in 2003.
Bringing her unique perspective as a former professional athlete to the table, Runyan guided the B.A.A. to rethink what was then called its Athletes with Disabilities program, effectively splitting the program into two distinct strands: a competitive strand with divisions for Para athletes, and a participatory one with adaptive programs for athletes with eligible impairments.
“The continuum of athletic abilities and motivations in the Para athlete community is as diverse as it is in the general community,” said Runyan. As such, she felt it was important to offer multiple opportunities for elite and non-elite athletes to experience the race.
"So often when we talk about Para athletes, we talk about them as 'inspirational.' But they're aspirational. They're competitive, elite athletes."Marla Runyan, B.A.A. Para-Athletics Manager
“Just like any competitive high performance athlete, those in the [Para] division always want to get better, always want to get faster, to reach their goals, and then to set the next goal,” she said. “That’s who the [Para] division was built for.”
At the same time, Runyan hoped that the new division would create a platform for other athletes, who may not yet be at the elite level or even involved in the sport, to work toward. “We are going to see the next generation emerge,” she said.
When it came time to share the news of the Para division, Runyan and her B.A.A. colleagues invited Haslet, along with world record holder and double-amputee Marko Cheseto, to help make the announcement, during the festivities at the 2019 Boston Marathon.
For a year since then, Haslet has set her sights not just on being among the winners in the marathon’s Para division, but the winner of her division, as an effort to further elevate the profile of Para athletes and raise awareness for amputees’ rights.
“The Para division is a huge ‘get’ for [Para athletes]. And that wasn’t lost on me,” she said. “If I get on the big stage — the Boston Marathon — and I make the most of it, insurance companies can’t ignore that.”
Haslet’s drive to compete in the Boston Marathon was inspired just hours after she first crossed the historic finish line in 2014, having joined the race with a bandit bib for the final stretch down Boylston Street. She and her twin brothers, who completed that final block with her, were in the lobby of the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in downtown Boston, the same hotel where most of the elite runners stay for the weekend. It was there that Haslet first met Flanagan, the legendary American distance runner who would become her idol. Flanagan was fresh off a seventh-place finish, having led the pack of female competitors through the first 19 miles of the race.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh, that must have been really hard to make it to the front of the crowd and then stay there,” said Haslet, laughing. “I thought it was so cool that she [finished the race] so close to the front. I didn’t know anything.”
Later that night, Haslet Googled Flanagan and poured over her exhaustive running resume, including an Olympic silver medal, several American records, and a second-place finish at the 2010 New York City Marathon (a race she’d go on to win outright in 2017).
“I thought: ‘I want to do that,’” Haslet said, adding that the competitive spirit she learned from professional ballroom dancing kicked in. “If she can do it, I can do it.”
At the time, amputees could compete in the wheelchair division, which was already well-established at the Boston Marathon and most other major races, but there wasn't a separate division for athletes who run with a blade, colloquially known as “blade runners.” In fact, Haslet was unable to find a race anywhere in the country — not even a 5K — where blade runners had their own division.
“I knew I didn’t want to try to take on Tatyana [McFadden] with my ballroom dancer arms,” she said, laughing, referring to the Russian-American athlete who competes in a wheelchair and has won 17 Paralympic medals and numerous World Marathon Majors, including Boston and New York, repeatedly. “That wasn’t how I ran. I was a blade runner.”
She trained for and raced the marathon again in 2018. There wasn’t a designated Para division that year, so friends and family tracked her and her competitors through the race app “for bragging rights” before the historically bad weather, including extreme wind gusts and pouring rain, forced her to drop out of the race at mile 10.
Undeterred, she set her sights on returning to the race the following year.
"Maybe my dream isn't worth it. Maybe I can't do this. But I probably can — and I like proving people wrong."ADRIANNE HASLET, ATHLETE AND ADVOCATE
And then, in January 2019, while crossing Commonwealth Avenue to meet friends downtown, Haslet was hit by a car and tossed into the air before landing on her left shoulder and prosthetic leg, two car lengths from where she started. Just weeks into training for the 2019 Boston Marathon, her dreams had come to an abrupt halt on the pavement.
While being treated at Boston Medical Center, she received flowers from the B.A.A. and its mascot, Spike the Unicorn, with a note that read: “All of us at the B.A.A. and the Unicorn believe in you!”
Still recovering, Haslet met with the B.A.A. to talk about her comeback race, which would be the 2019 B.A.A. 5K held the Saturday before the marathon. A few weeks later, she emerged from the hospital wearing a sling to support her left arm — and received the news from the B.A.A. that they had created an official Para division for the 2020 Boston Marathon. She called Coach Dan immediately, in tears, and celebrated that night with friends over champagne.
After sharing the news about the new division on social media, she started receiving videos from her followers featuring parents telling their kids — many of them amputees, too — that they could one day win the Boston Marathon.
“It’s like those videos you see of parents surprising their kids with a puppy, or a trip to Disneyworld, where everyone is crying and freaking out and so happy,” she said.
She still gets training videos from these children and their parents online. “They’re, like, nine years old, and they’re going to smoke whatever time I do [at the marathon]. I can’t wait to see it. It’s amazing to be able to provide that platform for them, and hopefully show parents what their kids can do. And show the world what people can do.”
While the Boston Marathon has been postponed until September 14, 2020, the race still lands ahead of the other World Marathon Majors, including the London Marathon, which was also postponed amid coronavirus concerns. That means the Boston Marathon will still be the first major race to feature the new Para division.
And Haslet will be ready. She’s taking Boston’s current self-isolation period seriously, going for runs solo and wearing a mask whenever she leaves the house, including to run.
“Right now, it’s taking it one day at a time. Self-care as much as possible, staying connected with friends,” she said. “And if anything else happens on top of that, it’s just icing on the cake.”
She takes comfort in regular video chats with her Heartbreaker teammates, as well as training guidance from Coach Dan, who’s been helping the team to navigate the disappointment and general anxiety with daily workouts.
“I just hope that we can get back together as a team for the whole training season,” she said. “Because I need it. I need to train with a team. I’m not good at training on my own.”
Haslet has some apprehensions about training through the summer, which will put particular pressure on her prosthetic. The silicon that wraps the inside of her prosthetic traps perspiration from the lower part of her knee, where it attaches to her leg, thereby causing it to fill with sweat while she works out, becoming heavier and more uncomfortable as the workout goes on. Sometimes, at the end of a workout, she’ll have a full pitcher’s worth of sweat to pour out of her prosthetic. That could be a reality at the marathon in September, too.
“I’m not opposed to pulling over on the side of the road and emptying out my leg and then keeping going,” she said.
And if the cameras catch it, that would actually be a good thing.
“Other [blade runners] would be like, ‘Yes! That’s what we have to go through!’ And if I’m fast enough, it won’t matter anyway.”
Swelling can also be a big problem, especially when training. Haslet has to stay on top of regular foam-rolling, stretching, and icing, not just to avoid injury but also to ensure that her prosthetic still fits properly. The latter is particularly important because she wants to complete the full training cycle using the same prosthetic to show other aspiring runners that they don’t need unlimited funds to train at her level.
Haslet has a One Fund, an account from the One Fund nonprofit that was set up in the days after the bombings to provide donations directly to the survivors and their families, that helps her to afford her running prosthetics, which are not covered by insurance.
"They're considered a luxury. Ninety-nine percent of amputees are not going to buy a running leg. They're going to save that money for a regular walking leg that they're going to need later on. I'm not immune to paying — physically and mentally — the price of what that costs."ADRIANNE HASLET, ATHLETE AND ADVOCATE
“Access to sport is just as fundamental as access to information and education,” said Haslet, thinking again of that kid on the playground who is stuck in place while her friends run off to play without her. “Sport is its own education.”
So often when we talk about sports, she said, we focus on the physical feats instead of the mental benefits that come from regular exercise, time spent outdoors, and the spike in feel-good endorphins. For someone with a disability, who may have been through trauma and/or may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, “You really need to get moving,” said Haslet. “It’s awful to be left with your own thoughts, and your own trauma, and feel like you’re alone.”
“Sport is the number one thing that can bring us all together,” she continued. “When you’re standing at the sidelines of a race, you end up talking to people next to you and you don’t even know them. And when you’re in a race, you run with people you don’t know, and there’s such a camaraderie there. Cheering for people who are overcoming something mentally and physically to get to their goal, whatever that is — whether it’s to win it or just cross both the start and the finish lines — I think there’s something really beautiful about that.”
As for what others can be doing to help support Para athletes, Haslet suggested showing up early to races to cheer on the wheelchair, Para, and other “early start” divisions. Get to know those athletes and follow their careers, which races they’re competing in, how they’re training, the equipment they’re using. “The more that we collectively learn about those around us, it means that people are being seen,” she said.
When the gun goes off for this year’s historic 2020 Boston Marathon in September, signaling for the competitors in the first-ever Para division to get underway, “It will be a celebration,” said Runyan.
“The athletes will take it away; it’s up to them now. They’re the ones who are going to run the race and come to Boston and teach the world what’s possible.”
And Haslet won’t just be able to join those athletes as they take off the starting line.
She hopes to be leading the way.
Editor’s Note: The author is a member of The Heartbreakers running club.
Audio descriptions provided by Bryan Gould, Director of Accessible Learning and Assessment Technologies at WGBH's Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM).