© Susie Chan
The Marathon des Sables, Badwater 135, the Western States 100, Spartan Death Race – Amy Palmiero-Winters’ list of race finishes reads like an A-Z of some of the toughest endurance events on the planet – which would be impressive enough before you add the fact she’s a below-the-knee amputee into the mix.
After injuries from a motorcycle accident required her left leg to be amputated, Amy thought her running days were over – until she ran a half-marathon on a walking prosthetic and won her division. Since then, she hasn’t looked back. Amy holds the world record for fastest marathon by a female below-knee amputee (3:04:16 at the Chicago Marathon) has won a 24-hour ultra outright, completed multiple Spartan Death Races (setting a record for the longest barbed wire crawl at 7.5 miles) and was the first and only amputee to be named in an otherwise able-bodied USA National Team for the 2010 24-hour Running World Championships in France.
Throw in her 135-mile Badwater finish, 140-mile Marathon des Sables race and 100-mile Western States achievement and we’re only just scratching the surface of Amy’s lengthy list of endurance feats. Here, I’m thrilled that she shares an insight into her training and unbelievably resilient mindset.
You were a big runner before your accident – did you believe your running days were over once the doctors began talking about amputation?
Absolutely. In hindsight, my thought of never running again – my thought that if you didn’t have a leg you couldn’t run – was simply due to a lack of education. However, when you’re thrown into this type of a situation, there are no handbooks; there isn’t a lot of awareness out there, hence why I thought if they amputated my leg I would never be able to run again. Not only was I devastated at the thought of losing my leg, I was also confused. My parents were there with me and the devastation overtook them as well. All they wanted to do was fix their little girl and no matter how hard they tried, they could not.
In 2004 you ran a half-marathon on a walking prosthetic. This must have been very painful?
My original prosthetics were beyond painful to the point where I wouldn’t be able to train at all. I could only focus on running the race and healing in between races. In 2004, I ran a half-marathon and do remember that it was extremely painful. However, it is always painful to a certain point; I have just become very good at blocking it out. Sometimes the pain gets in my head and it does draw me in. It is then that I need to focus on why I am here, what I am doing, and who am I doing this for.
How has prosthetics technology developed and changed since then?
Technology, yes, has transformed and developed within prosthetics, much like any other area. However, in regards to the prosthesis that I wear, I’m actually wearing a foot called the VSP. The design I wear is the same design from the 1990s! In addition to that, the foot I use to run is also the same design from the 1990s, although when I workout I do utilize a new hybrid type of foot called the AllPro.
The most important aspect about wearing prosthetics is how the prosthetic fits onto your residual limb and interfaces with your body. When your prosthetic fits well, anything is possible. In reference to the types of prosthetic feet I utilize, as I said, they are the original designs from the 1990s and with that, it’s the socket/fit/alignment which truly is the critical aspect of the prosthesis and that is something that hasn’t changed.
You’ve said that the ultrarunning career of an amputee is short – can you explain why?
Every step I take with my prosthetic transfers pressure, torque, rotational forces and trauma up and into the distal end of my leg where the bones are amputated. There are no muscle masses, joints and bones to disperse negative forces. For instance, instead of having your foot, achilles, calf muscle, surrounding tissue and internal bones to absorb and reduce the torque/ground reaction forces generated from your foot hitting the ground, they are transferred directly up and into the amputated bones.
This trauma over and over again creates heterotrophic bone growth, nerve damage, tissue damage, and other internal issues. With ultrarunning it’s all intensified. Following an ultrarunning or endurance event, I will experience significant bone pain and phantom pain for at least a month, making it almost impossible to sleep. The repetitive pounding transferred into your joints really limits the lifespan of an ultrarunning career.
In addition to what the amputated side encounters, there’s also the remaining side, or the ‘sound’ side. The sound side takes on more load, resulting in increased damage to the existing foot, ankle knee and hip joint. In my case specifically, my sound side, my right leg, has had substantial surgical revisions of internal hardware over the years to allow me to continue my love of the sport.
You were the first female amputee to finish the gruelling Marathon Des Sables, which you described as tougher than childbirth. Just how challenging was it?
I absolutely love being a mother and everything that goes along with it, including pregnancy and childbirth, so for me, I’m extremely lucky in the fact that anything is tougher than childbirth.
The MDS was challenging for me in a way that most would not realize. The desert terrain was a combination of sand and rocks, which meant I couldn’t take a full running stride with my prosthesis. This transferred all of my weight into the posterior fibula head area of my residual limb. By the end of the first day, the area was already present with a blister. By the second day, an entire chunk of skin had torn free from the area. The area where the skin tore free was directly over a nerve bundle, which intensified the pain, so I was not able to get away from it at all for the remainder of the race.
Additionally, on the first day I also went into anaphylactic shock within the first 3 miles of the race and had to gather myself to overcome the reaction I was having and not be pulled from the race. By the second day, four of my five toenails on my sound side foot had already separated from the nail bed. To me, the more frustrating aspect was not being able to run. Make no mistake, any type of terrain with a prosthetic can be difficult because you don’t have the articulation of your ankle to assist you or the ability to feel what you’re stepping on.
What were the highs and lows of your MDS experience?
Wow, did the MDS produced a gamut of highs and lows, as does every event I embark on. But the MDS hit all the highs and lows. Prior to the MDS we lost our mother, sister-in-law, and my father all within a 3-4 week span, so the ebb and flow of emotions were beyond heightened throughout the race, in tandem with the pain I was feeling, and on top of that a sense of disappointment as to how I was struggling.
Regardless, When it all comes down to it, it wasn’t about a finishing time or finishing place, it was about just getting to the finish line together as a whole. In addition, the amount of pain that I experience produces its own unique emotions. Those emotions are like little shovels uncovering the hidden treasures and/or demons of my past.
How did you prepare for the MDS?
Any race or event preparation has to be extremely efficient and creative since I work 60-70 hours a week in addition to having an amazing family. Because of this, I try and cram as much strength, endurance, cardio, and family into each workout. Historically, I always thought [it was about running] miles, miles, miles; after running for the USA in the 24-hour world championships, we ran Western States 100 and then the Badwater 135 and my time spent training never left me with the critical recovery time to perform like I wanted. This turned me towards CrossFit. I can work out for 1 hour, 5-6 times a week, and without a doubt be prepared for any race or task – 3000 burpees, 12-hour barbed wire crawl, 140-miles in the Sahara Desert… no problem. CrossFit trains my entire body and mind and make no mistake it is deep into the darkest hours of a race when I need that training the most.
For my first Badwater 135, I trained by running 100-115 miles per week and my finish time was 41 hours. One year later, training by doing an hour of CrossFit and sprints, my finish time was 36 hours.
Training for the MDS followed the same pattern, and that includes a lot of carrying kids! We focused on a lot of core strength with upper body strength and that definitely paid off as I used my trekking poles the entire time to take the weight off of my prosthetic side.
How did the heat of MDS compare to Badwater? And did you do any heat training?
Badwater is unlike any other heat out there. It is like being dangled in an oven set to 425F.
My heat training encompassed my tiptoeing into and out of pre-menopause. That alone helped me prepare for the heat in the desert as well as any other type of hot weather racing. In the end, the heat in the Marathon Des Sables was a different type of heat to race in.
What is it about these supremely tough endurance events that has you sign up?
In my heart I just want to make a difference and what a better stage to platform this on than some of the world’s most gruelling races. I love the challenge. I love to push myself and my abilities. I want and always strive to make my children proud. Why not? Why just skate by life on cruise control?
Children and adults need to know that they can do anything. That despite the obstacles they may face, it does not have to define them. You define you! Never give up. Never give in. Never stop trying. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Always follow your dreams despite how many times life knocks you down. I personally want to keep challenging and keep pushing the limits and pave my own path in this crazy world.
When you’re not close to a race, what does a typical week of training look like for you?
My training is the same all year round. Everyday life presents itself as a race! This type of outlook allows me to be ready for everything and anything! 6 day race… sure. 72-hour non-stop race… sure.
Whatever it is, I’m ready to go.
What kind of running do you do?
I wish I had the time to add mileage into training and get to the trails. With my fulltime job at the New York and Boston locations and my family, getting to go for a run would be a treat.
Prior to the MDS I did do a few runs where I attached a rope to my backpack and pulled the 7-year-old all over the place while on his bicycle. That, to me, makes for a great run and then we add in a stop for ice cream on the route!
Tell me about the work you do with amputees at A Step Ahead Prosthetics?
I am the director at A Step Ahead Prosthetics. I run both facilities and have a hand in making sure every patient is able to achieve their goals.
What’s left on your bucket list of races?
I always want to take on the next unbelievable adventure, especially ones others see as impossible. I really do want to go back to the Wasatch 100 and Leadville 100 as they have eluded me.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
My favourite training and racing items consist of a photo of my children attached to a glass heart charm that my daughter gave me. In addition to this, I will always race with charms/blow pops suckers, Vespa fuel, always a tank top with running shorts and my faithful Salomon sneakers. They are the only ones that keep the hardware within my real foot from breaking apart any further.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
Right now I do not have any sponsors except for my family and the many others throughout the world that simply believe in me and support all of my endeavours. Their believing in me is my biggest sponsor of all time!