Athletics: 26 miles for man but one giant leap for blade runner
AFTER a summer of being wowed by athletes billed as 'superhumans' at the London Paralympics, the sight of Simon Baker running in Monday's Dublin City Marathon will probably not turn as many heads as heretofore.
Yet the race's first 'blade runner' is attempting to do much more than run 26 miles on a carbon-fibre racing leg.
This time last year Baker was a 45-year-old smoker, an amputee who, despite completing several challenging physical achievements since losing half a limb in 2004, was not even a serious jogger.
Now his burning desire to be the guinea-pig for what he hopes will result in Ireland's equivalent of Oscar Pistorius or Jonnie Peacock at some future Paralympics has given him a unique marathon mission.
A 12-foot fall on a building site in 2004 changed his life but Baker has since used physical challenges to restore his physical and mental equilibrium.
"After my accident, I had eight operations and 22 weeks of lying in bed," he explains.
"I was a plasterer for 20 years but haven't been able to get a job of any kind since so I didn't just lose my leg, I lost my whole identity and sport has helped me reclaim it."
In 2008, he completed the Dublin Marathon on crutches in six hours and 42 minutes. In 2010, during a six-week course in white-collar boxing, he got to train with Olympic gold medallist Michael Carruth.
Last year, he did a five-and-a-half-day fundraising walk (again, using crutches) from Dublin to Limerick.
When he returned to his home in Castletroy with no skin on his palms, his partner Gillian Moloney begged him "no more" but the Englishman, who has lived in Ireland for 15 years and regards it as home, sought further challenges.
He went on to set up Ireland's first amputee football team and now his desire to inspire others to become Ireland's first competitive 'blade runner' sees him take another giant sporting leap.
One of his own inspirations is Canada's Rick Ball, who set an amputee world marathon record of 2:57.47 this year.
The huge difference is Baker's starting point.
"If an average Joe like me can run a marathon on a blade after just nine months' training, then what would be possible for young Irish amputees?" he muses. "What could they do given similar support and opportunities?
"This isn't about me," he stresses. "This is about starting an Irish blade runner project and the huge potential there for young amputees.
"After losing my leg, I found that anytime I was encouraged to play sport it was in a wheelchair and I couldn't understand that.
"Obviously, there are money and expense issues but surely it's better for us to get up and be moving about? That's why I set up the amputee football team."
Baker's upbeat personality and indefatigable powers of persuasion have helped him amass a highly qualified support team.
Through the Independent Disablement Services clinic (IDS) at Cappagh Hospital, he secured a high-tech running blade, made by German prosthetic leaders Ottobock, worth an estimated €20,000.
He already had a personal trainer in Jason Kenny but also persuaded Alan Ward and biomechanical experts Dr Ian Kenny and Drew Harrison at the University of Limerick to come on board and his personal crusade could yet lead to a long-term blade runner project at the college.
Yet even Baker admits that, at times, they have struggled to rein in his enthusiasm.
Adapting to a blade involved constant testing and re-casting.
Imagine the blistering sometimes involved in breaking in a new pair of shoes and transfer that to his truncated limb.
Running with a blade also forced other major biomechanical adjustments and realignments of his body.
"It took me nearly two months to be able to do even a few laps of the track and about four months before I was comfortable running on it," he reveals.
Yet, in less than a year, Baker has already clocked 55 minutes for 10km and one hour 24 minutes for 10 miles.
His favourite post-race party trick is letting people see if they can bend his space-age prosthetic.
"It's funny because it doesn't actually bend, it needs the full force of your body to make it react so it is not springy at all, like people imagine."
Ironically, a shin injury to his 'good' leg has restricted his training to just swimming and the exercise bike recently.
Baker admits this setback has caused reservations amongst his mentors about going ahead with the marathon at this point.
They had similar reservations about him doing the half-marathon in Dublin's preparatory race series but he cheerfully informed them he was going ahead by ringing them from the start-line and finished it in 1:48.
"Yes, I have an injury that's curtailed my training but I'm making no excuses. My aim at the start was to run a marathon in under 3:30. That may not be possible on Monday and if I have to stop it'll break my heart, but I've promised them I'll listen to my body.
"I won't be the only one on the line with a disability," Baker insists. "There's over 14,000 running it and I'll bet 11,000 of them are doing it for a reason.
"Most of them will have problems; ESB bills they can't pay, mortgages, health issues, unemployment. Everyone has a disability of some kind they're trying to overcome. The only difference is that you can see mine."
For further information, see www.outonalimbproject.weebly.com