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Interview with Beth Sanden

This competitive athlete talks about the accident that changed her life and why it didn't stop her quest to finish marathons on all seven continents, including Antarctica.

San Clemente’s Beth Sanden, a retired nurse, had never run even a 5k race until she was 44 years old. On a dare, she did a sprint triathlon and she was hooked, soon doing full marathons and grueling Ironmans – a 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride, all followed by a marathon.

Then, a bike accident during a race left her partially paralyzed. It did not sideline her, however, and today, at age 59, she’s not only a trainer for Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, but an active challenged athlete herself, raising money and awareness through the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

“This is my way of paying forward, because I had so many people who helped me get back on the road,” she says. In fact, she’s back on the road and completing marathons and triathlons by using a hand cycle for much of the biking and running.

And that road has taken her around the world on her quest to complete marathons on all seven continents. She’s already completed five, with Europe about to fall at the end of March. She’s run atop the Great Wall of China, at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, and even trekked to Machu Picchu. Of course, she’s left the toughest for last: Antarctica. And though it will serve up some brutal and substantial challenges, Sanden is determined.

“I hope it helps people become aware of people with disabilities and realize that we can do a whole lot more than what a lot of people think we’re capable of. A lot of overcoming a disability is just getting back into the game of life, and your sport,” she says.

We sat down with Sanden to ask about her life in sport, and beyond.

How did you get injured?
It was a 50-mile bike race near Temecula. I was in the front with a group and we were going down a pretty steep hill. There was a right turn with a lot of broken asphalt and water, but no one was there to warn us. I was on the outside in the turn, so when I hit that, my bike went out from beneath me and down a ravine and I landed flat between my shoulder blades on the asphalt. I shattered T 6-7 of my thoracic spine [which runs from the base of the neck to the bottom of the rib cage]. When I came to, there was a paramedic fireman at my head and another at my feet. He saved my life, because I had this feeling of a fist in my back and I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get my legs moving. So I started to wiggle around, but he stopped me.

You spent 14 months in rehabilitation, but you walked 14 months after your accident?
Yes. My right leg came back, but it’s weak. My left leg is pretty much paralyzed. I walk with my right leg and my left is like a clock pendulum. I just swing it forward from my hip.

How did you first begin racing?
About 16 years ago, when I was 44, a client of mine dared me to do a triathlon. I was helping him strengthen his knee after an operation for a triathlon. I didn’t even know what a triathlon was. I asked him how long he had to run. He said 52 miles. After swimming and riding his bike for 224 miles. He was doing an ultra marathon Ironman. I thought he was crazy.

But you did the triathlon anyway.
I did a sprint triathlon in Huntington Beach. It was the first time I had really swum in the ocean. I had an old mountain bike. Then I sort of jog-walked the three-mile run. But during the race, competitors had their ages written on the back of their legs, and there were people much older than me riding by me and beating me. So then I dared some friends and clients to do some 5ks and 10ks. Then we started getting into marathons and triathlons, and eventually Ironmans.

That takes a lot of training, and you had a family, right?
Yes. I had two small kids and a husband who all supported me. Often I’d be in the pool at five in the morning, then I’d get the kids to school, then I’d go to work, then I’d do a long run with the kids riding bikes alongside me after work. I’d ride once a week, then do long rides and runs on Saturday and Sunday. My husband would pick up the slack. It was pretty full-time.

And you did some impressive races as a non-challenged athlete.
I did a lot of races, yes. And leading up to my injury, I did the Ironman California in Oceanside [2.4-mile swim; 112-mile bike ride; 26.2-mile run] and my time in my age group qualified me for world championships in Kona. I did the Kona Ironman. I was also really excited about doing the 2002 Boston Marathon. I had qualified for that in the same time. But a week before I was to go to Boston, I broke my back.

So in triathlons and marathons you now ride a hand cycle, which you pedal with your arms. But did you get right back into racing after your accident?
No. I came home after three and a half months in the hospital, but I still had to wear a body brace for six months. My Ironman friends and my husband saw that I was getting pretty frustrated and worrying about raising my kids and what I was going to do with myself. So they came to me one day and said, “You don’t have your legs but you still have your arms and you can swim.” I told them they were crazy. I couldn’t swim. But my husband loaded me into the car and took me to the pool where a paraplegic swimmer friend strapped a pull buoy in between my legs. We did 500 yards the first try. So I thought, “Hey, maybe I can do this.”

And you started racing again.
Yes. Next, my friends got me to do a three-mile swim. Then they got me to do a San Diego triathlon through Challenged Athletes Foundation. At first, I said, “No way.” But all of the sudden I remembered a challenged athlete I had seen years before in a triathlon pedaling his hand cycle up a steep San Clemente hill, past bikers who were pushing their bikes, and I thought, “I really can do this.”

Now your goal is to complete marathons on all seven continents. You’ve accomplished five, with the last two being Europe and Antarctica.
Yes, I’ll be doing Rome, my sixth continent, in late March, but really, I’m more focused on Antarctica, which I’m scheduled to do this winter. The race starts at a Chilean research base and the race is over tundra, snow and ice.

Is the cold a concern?
Yes. It might get to 20 or 30 degrees below, and that scares the heck out of me because cold affects my body dramatically. There’s a circulatory problem because of the spinal cord injury and because of nerve damage, I spasm a lot. My left leg will start “dancing” and I can’t control it. So I found hunting clothes made for people who hunt in cold weather. There are pants and socks that are heated with a 12- and six-volt battery.

Let’s talk about the other continents you have checked off. First, the Great Wall Marathon in China, which few people get to do; how did you get entry?
In 2010, when I finally did the Boston Marathon on my hand cycle, I blew kisses to everyone at the end and it got on a couple of blogs. Some Chinese diplomats saw that and decided they needed that kind of person to do the Great Wall Marathon. So I was invited by the Chinese government, which runs the only marathon that actually takes place on the Wall itself.

Was it difficult?
It was. I did a five-month intense training program. I would tackle Salt Creek stairs a lot, which has 154 steps. I’d go up and down those stairs four to eight times a day, four days a week. I did it with a walker, my brace and a knee strap, which allows me to pull my right leg up and forward with my arms.

So how was the marathon itself?
I did 14 miles of the race on the wall with my hand cycle, but had to climb a lot of stairs. It took me about five hours to do those 14 miles. It’s a part of the wall over two hours’ drive outside of Beijing, and it’s not as nicely maintained as it is in Beijing, so we had parts that were crumbling. And it was a lot of climbing. There were only about 45 people who did it, too.

In Africa, you did the Kilimanjaro Marathon, at the base of the famous mountain.
That was tough. I was staying at a coffee bean farm on the mountain and the night before the owner treated us to a nice big dinner. But I got food poisoning and I was up until 3:30 in the morning, in the bathroom. They knocked on the door at 4 a.m. for the race. But there was no way I was travelling to Africa and not doing the race. So I had a bag of peanut butter pretzels from Trader Joe’s and some Coke and just went for it. On the course, they had people handing out Coke and every time I was offered one, I took it. The last three or four miles were the worst: all uphill. My arms were spent.

And for South America you chose Lima, Peru, in 2013.
I picked Lima mainly because it’s a flat marathon, but you do it up around 3,500 feet. So I trained in Big Bear a few times. In Lima, there were about 10 disabled people who raced and they had old, old equipment. They had rubber glued on top of rubber on their tires. They had chairs that didn’t fit them. Some of the hand cycles were from the 80s. I felt pretty ostentatious with my hand cycle. So I kept in touch with some and was able to get them newer equipment through donations. I also did that for challenged athletes in Africa.

You also work with Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Yes, they get equipment, coaching and things like race entry fees and transportation to people. Under that you can do various things, such as Race for a Reason, which I’ve done for six years and am doing the Antarctic Marathon for. I raise money to help other challenged athletes who want to race. The funds will go to people like wounded soldiers or others who want to do marathons or triathlons. For instance, in 2012 when London had the Olympics and the Paralympics, CAF actually helped fund about 25% of those athletes that went to the Paralympics, either with equipment or entry or flights.

You also offer your training services free to challenged athletes and have some amazing success in that area. Can you share the story of Umida Lesicko, the young challenged athlete from Uzbekistan who went to the World Paratriathlon Championships in London last year?
Umida, which means “hope” in Uzbekian, is truly amazing. Uzbekistan is a very poor agrarian society that was formerly controlled by Russia. When Russia pulled out, they left a lot of nuclear waste in their soil and water, and because of that there’s been decades of babies with deformities. But because they’re an agrarian culture they need able-bodied people to help in the farm. So they would throw a lot of these deformed kids in a shack to die because they couldn’t use them on the farm. So a few decades ago, American missionaries established an orphanage to help these babies. Umida was one of those babies, literally found living in a shack. She had survived for seven years and was a wild thing. When the missionaries found her, she didn’t know how to talk, her hair was wild, she wasn’t clothed, and she couldn’t walk because she was born without a lower left leg and she only had thumbs and webbed fingers. They took her to the orphanage, shaved her head, clothed her, and fed her.

How did she end up here?
My friend Désirée went over to volunteer with the orphanage the same week Umida arrived. She found her crying in the corner. At the same time, there were other kids outside playing with what she thought was a crude-looking bat. She suddenly realized that it was Umida’s lower leg prosthetic that someone had carved out of wood. So she got it back for her. Umida and Désirée fell in love. So Désirée brought her here and was able to get Umida a good prosthetic and a couple of surgeries for her leg and hands. She went back to Uzbekistan, schooled her and spent three years officially adopting her. She finally brought her back to the U.S. And Umida is incredible. She’s now 22, works at a restaurant, speaks three languages, and has been doing triathlons for quite a few years.

That is amazing. And how about you? After you check off the seventh continent, Antarctica, what’s next?
Right now I’m only thinking about completing Antarctica. So I don’t have any other goals. But I’m sure I will.

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