It’s called the Arctic Enema. Those ferocious – or crazy – enough to compete in a Tough Mudder event know it for what it is: heart-stopping, hypothermia-inducing, frigid, murky water. Competitors immerse themselves, swimming under a board to reach the other side. Then there’s electricity; the course designer must have a serious electrocution fetish: belly-crawling while being zapped across your backside during the Electric Eel, the infamous final obstacle, Electroshock Therapy, which involves finding your way through a veritable forest of dangling (live) wires, and the mystery obstacle, Dark Lightning. In Dark Lightning, a sound system fills the air with the roll of thunder while you crawl in pitch blackness, in an enclosed space, underneath, yes, more live wires. Then there are mud, water, and towering-tall obstacles: Tough Mudder plays on our most instinctual fears, and those who compete and complete it are some of the baddest of the badasses. Not only is it hard, it’s painful; at 12 miles long and 28 terrifyingly creative obstacles, could you do it?
23-year-old combat-wounded veteran Edward Lychik did it. In fact, he participated in the 2012 Austin Tough Mudder a scant 3 weeks after getting his prosthetic. You see, Lychik has just one leg, his right one, because his left was lost in Afghanistan in 2011. His amputation was a hip disarticulation; leg amputations move in stages, with each stage involving the loss of a single weight-bearing joint. The more you lose, the more challenging the recovery and the less likely you are to return to any semblance of normalcy. Lychik lost all 3 weight-bearing joints – ankle, knee, and hip – a loss surgeons say is 100 times harder to deal with than below-the-knee amputations. A hip disarticulation messes with actions the average person takes for granted, such as balancing while sitting, and it isn’t uncommon to see patients end up in wheelchairs, inactive for the remainder of their lives. Of course, Lychik was not, is not, an average person. Overcoming the crippling chronic pain, mental and emotional anguish, and daily frustrations no doubt brought on by tackling even the simplest tasks takes a special brand of toughness. But Lychik has Tough with a capital “T” emblazoned across his very soul.
When he was 8 years old, his family immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine. He grew up in Tacoma, Washington, in the bosom of a tight-knit community, and although there is strength and comfort to be found in such a life, Lychik wanted to experience the world at large. And so, at the age of 19, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He attended Basic at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where he says he first began to understand his limitations and what it would take to work past them. After Basic, he was assigned to the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team and stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, the Army’s farthest North post. Lychik remembers the -50 degree chill with what seems to be mild amusement and says it was a bit of a shock, 6 months after arriving in Alaska, to be deployed to the 120+ degree sweltering heat of Afghanistan. Much like everything in his life, he took the colossal climate changes in stride and settled into life in the ‘Stan with ease.
Lychik made it halfway through his deployment. He served as a combat engineer; on a typical day he would drive a Husky leading a convoy, working the Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), methodically clearing a path. He’d been hit with explosives twice in the first half of his tour, and those experiences had proven to be a case of simply shaking it off and moving on. But on September 30, 2011, it was to be a far different day; it would be the day that forever changed his life.
September 30, 2011, was Edward Lychik’s 21st birthday. Most Americans spend their 21st birthdays with some sort of celebration of the right to drink alcohol and a marker of reaching yet another milestone of maturity. Lychik was serving our nation for his 21st birthday, giving of himself to keep you and your family safe back home in the States. Because it was his birthday, the guys in his unit gave him what would turn out to be an unwittingly backhanded gift: riding in the final vehicle of the convoy rather than his usual lead-vehicle Husky. He was turning 21, and he was about to face the Grim Reaper.
They were hit with a recoilless rifle. Often used as anti-tank weapons, many recoilless rifles are lauded for long-range accuracy, reusability, and sheer brawn. Although they’re sometimes confused with rocket launchers, they’re different; they fire modified artillery shells from rifled barrels. If you want to blow away a tank or an 8-ton Husky, a recoilless rifle will do the trick. And on Edward Lychik’s 21st birthday, a recoilless rifle was aimed directly at his legs.
He was sitting in the gunner’s hatch when he was hit, and for one wild moment following the initial impact, he thought he was fine. He was numb; there was no pain. Dust filled the air, reducing visibility, and his throat burned with dust and smoke. The unit’s medic had taken shrapnel to his hand, but he began to triage injuries and immediately focused on Lychik as their most serious injury. With a bleeding hand, the medic snugged tourniquets onto both legs; the left leg was hopelessly mangled and pumping blood at an alarming rate while the right was missing a Christmas-ham sized chunk of muscle. There in the Afghanistan desert, on his 21st birthday, Edward Lychik slipped into a floating, blessedly painless state of shock and watched his life slip away.
The next 6 days were a flurry of hospitals, surgeries, and transfers. From Afghanistan to Germany to Texas, Lychik was in the eye of a medical hurricane; one that saved his life by sacrificing his left leg. He remembers the pain as unbearable and the mental processing of information as baffling. Believing it had happened at all felt impossible, but there it was, empty space where his leg once existed. He went from a healthy, fit 180 pounds to an emaciated 115. Anger and sadness surrounded him, but then he began to fight back.
First, he began to eat carefully; he became health-obsessed. He was doing push-ups in his hospital bed and pushing his physical therapist to get him running again. She told him he had to re-learn to walk first; she knew patients suffering hip disarticulations such as his rarely, if ever, ran, at least not to the extreme he was talking about. He wanted to do marathons (that’s 26.2 miles for the non-runners).
At first he worked with prosthetist Bob Keunzi at the Center for the Intrepid (CFI); it took approximately 7 sockets to get through the initial changes of swelling and muscular development. It also took 7 requests to his physical therapist to convince her he meant business when it came to his running aspirations, and the collaboration to create a unique running blade for Lychik began. Finally, after countless tweaks for rubbing, pressure, and other issues, he had his one-of-a-kind running prosthetic: the socket has a harness that fits snugly over his pelvis and a belt to anchor it around his waist while the leg itself is a variation of the famous Flex-Foot Cheetah running blade. Keunzi says “Some people would call it a peg leg. It’s a pretty high-end peg leg.” However you care to describe it, the running blade is an innovation of epic proportions. Within days of his first fitting, Lychik was jogging around CFI wearing a gas mask to build endurance. Lychik doesn’t know the meaning of the word “limitations.”
At the 2012 Austin Tough Mudder, Keunzi worried “they would have to haul him away in one of those first aid carts.” But Lychik persevered. He’d almost immediately clocked an 8-minute mile in his new running leg, this after having been the second-fastest runner in Basic with an 11-minute two-mile run (and two legs). He got through the electricity-filled event and moved on to others, including the Seattle Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and the 2014 Boston Marathon, a race considered the pinnacle event of the running world. At Boston, he ran with the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation in memory of the 8-year-old boy killed during the 2013 Boston bombing; he ran 26.2 miles in 4 hours, 44 minutes, and 25 seconds, a speed many two-legged runners can’t match. In Seattle, he ran the same mileage in 4 hours and 7 minutes.
Although Lychik considers himself a solitary runner, he is not a solitary man. He works hard inspiring others in their daily lives both within and without the running world, visiting schools and giving motivational talks to a variety of groups including Bank of America and a rock concert for the troops. His connection with children is impossible to deny once you’ve seen their eyes glow with awe at his presence, and when you speak to him, it’s impossible not to be struck by his casual charm and desire to draw others out. He may not have set out in life with the goal of becoming a motivational speaker, but that is clearly the path he is now running down at full speed.
During his recovery, Lychik had a vision of himself running in heavy fog wearing a black hooded sweatshirt. He held on to that vision, and, with greater speed than any specialist believed humanly possible, he was not only running again but participating in marathons and Spartan events. He speaks of the importance of determination and focus, saying people tend to focus on what they can’t do rather than what they can. He could see his leg as a burden, he says, and leave the prosthetic in the closet to gather dust, but he chooses to see it as a tool. He chooses to see it as a way to reach others, to spread a message of encouragement and goal-driven success. He chooses to see it as a gift. Edward Lychik is an American Hero for today, a sincere badass whose drive is infectious, and we salute his strength and perpetual smile. Hooah!
Runner’s World magazine is having a cover contest, and Edward Lychik is a part of it. It would be an amazing and patriotic message if the national magazine put a veteran on their cover, let alone a combat-wounded one focused on spreading such a positive message of his own. Lychik has taken unheard-of strides – literally – as an amputee, and his inspiring story gives hope to untold numbers of veterans, amputees, and average citizens. Vote daily for Edward at: http://covercontest.runnersworld.com/entry/1077/. The military community is massive, and we are more than capable of rallying around one of our own. Public voting closes on August 15, 2014, a date looming in the all-too-near future, so vote!
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