As runners stretched their legs to gear up for the New York City Marathon, another team of racers checked the air pressure in their tires and made final adjustments to their spokes as they prepared to compete on their handcycles.
With the help of nonprofit Achilles International, a group of wounded veterans also had the chance to race in the marathon despite missing limbs or suffering from chronic illnesses.
Travis Wood, a former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant who served for 13 years, is one of the veterans who competed in the New York City Marathon on his handcycle last weekend, finishing the race in one hour, 34 minutes and 45 seconds.
“Being on this bike has a lot of power, has a lot of capabilities to help you, to heal you, to help you understand that your new normal is okay,” Wood told InsideEdition.com. “It has helped me mentally leaps and bounds, but more importantly, it has helped me emotionally, spiritually, and physically, and it’s helped me to understand that because I can’t do one thing, doesn’t mean I can’t do a new thing better.”
After being hit by three anti-tank mines in southern Afghanistan in 2007, Wood lost his right leg, his left foot, half of his small intestine, part of his large intestine, and part of his right lung. The attack also left third degree burns down the right side of his body and his spinal cord broken in six places.
“I wound up living in a hospital in Washington, D.C. for just under three years and I had a total of 84 surgeries to repair the damage,” he said. “With clothes on, it’s nice because I look normal. People see the prosthetic, but I’m kind of a human Picasso underneath.”
Despite not having feet to run in the marathon, Wood raced using his handcycle with the support of Achilles International’s Freedom Team.
“Whether they’re injured in combat or active duty or after retirement and are in some way challenged with a disability, we are here to help them meet their racing goals,” the organization’s director, Janet Patton, told InsideEdition.com. “Just this fall alone, we have had 100 Achilles Freedom Team athletes that have crossed a finish line."
Achilles International was founded for everyone with disabilities, but their Freedom Team, launched in 2004, only serves veterans wounded in combat.
“The biggest part of this team is their sense of spirit,” Patton explained. “They don’t let the little things get them down. They have such progressive attitudes toward life. They have such tolerance for different personalities, and how can you not learn from being around that? They’re such extraordinary individuals and they face adversity every day in their life.”
Ezequiel Sepulveda, a former corporal of the United States Marine Corps, became involved in the Freedom Team to keep his mind off the chronic pain caused by Inclusion Body Myosis (IBMI), a disease he caught at Camp Lejeune as a result of water contamination.
To treat his IBMI, Sepulveda receives eight hours of infusion therapy every two weeks.
“I was very athletic all of my life and then when the disease affected my body, because my body takes my muscles as being the enemy,” he said. “[Achilles] helped me realize I can be at home or in pain or I could be out, exercising and working with other veterans in pain and keep my mind off what’s going on.”
For Wood, it took several invitations from the Achilles Freedom Team while he was still in the hospital after being injured in Afghanistan for him to agree to join them.
“They came into my room several times and I shot them down a lot because I just did not want to leave my room,” he said. “And they kept coming in, coming in. They came and talked to me like a normal person instead of like a broken human, and I finally got convinced to go out there. I got on the bike and I just rode around the hospital, and it felt good.”
They then invited him to watch the team compete in the Boston Marathon two weeks later. Little did he know, he would also be racing.
“They just kind of threw [me] into it,” Wood said. “I was in no way trained for it but it was an incredible experience because it taught me my first step in perseverance and being able to step out of my comfort zone.”
He said he quickly learned how difficult it was competing in a marathon using only his arms, but found the results rewarding.
“It takes away the thoughts of your personal struggles that you’re going through, kind of gives you a little bit of a sense of freedom,” Wood said. “Going fast, being able to run with my arms gives me that freedom to be able to feel a little bit more normal, to feel like I can accomplish something that not a lot of people do. And it’s an incredible feeling.”
Based on his success competing in marathons with Achilles Freedom Team, Wood said he now hopes to pursue paracycling competitively and one-day make it to the Paralympics.
“I have goals and aspirations since I’ve met Achilles,” he said. “They taught me how to push myself beyond boundaries that I haven’t even thought of before.”