Rebuilt to Run
Broken body can’t stop Orin Schumacher
By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
Orin Schumacher fell 50 feet from the Fight Song route at Smith Rocks in 1994 and thought he was going to die.
|photos by Alan Whalen|
His life flashed before his eyes. He saw his friends and family. He thought about the many things he’d done.
He never thought he’d be running in his first Nov. 1, 2009, New York City Marathon 15 years later.
But as Schumacher, who lives in Eugene and works as Lane County’s vegetation management coordinator, raced across the intersection of 4th Avenue and Union Street in Brooklyn, he was looking good. He had already completed more than seven miles and was on pace to break his personal race record of 2 hours, 42 minutes, 40 seconds. Thousands of other competitive runners trailed behind him.
Days before, Schumacher had been worried. His left Achilles heel had been hurting -— for the first time since he began running marathons two years ago.
“I’ve never had a problem before,” said Schumacher, 36, whose left foot was entirely reconstructed after his near-fatal rock climbing accident.
Although he’s healed from the devastating injury, Schumacher has never taken his recovery for granted. He knows that his injury may shorten his running career. His fiercely competitive instincts are now focused toward competing against the limitations set by his own body.
Before coming to N.Y., Schumacher had already completed three marathons on his rebuilt foot. Two were in Eugene. The other was the McKenzie River Trail Run, a 50-km ultra-marathon through the rugged, uneven terrain of Oregon’s Willamette National Forest.
The pain in Schumacher’s heel started in Eugene during a cool-down eight-mile jog a few days before he left for New York. He felt a tight, shooting sensation in his ankle. The problem reappeared two days before the marathon in New York City when he stopped short on a six-mile run through Central Park.
“I wanted to enjoy my pre-run in Central Park this morning and didn’t enjoy it at all,” he said after that run. “I ran right by Sunday’s finish line and saw it all, and I was ready to walk and just get on a plane and go back home.”
But Schumacher remained hopeful.
“I’m going to stay optimistic,” he said. “It will work. I’ll be fine on Sunday.”
Schumacher’s optimistic nature has served him well. He wouldn’t have had the running success he’s enjoyed without it.
The impact from the fall in Smith Rocks collapsed Schumacher’s lung, broke his wrist and all of his ribs on his left side, and ruptured his spleen. It also blew fragments of Schumacher’s left heel into his calf muscle.
“You couldn’t even see a foot,” said Schumacher.
The injury kept Schumacher bedridden for a year, he said. The soft tissue damage to his foot was so bad that doctors couldn’t operate on it for the first six months. One orthopedic surgeon at St. Charles Hospital in Bend even told Schumacher that he’d probably never walk again.
That was not an option for Schumacher. His life was rooted in the outdoors and an active lifestyle. He had to get better.
“It was a competition against people who said it wasn’t going to happen,” said Schumacher. “I said, ‘No, it wasn’t going to be that way.’”
Schumacher was right. In time he managed to recover fully. But years later he’s remained cautious about his injury.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been confident going into any marathon,” he said. But Schumacher said that when he limits his expectations during a race he performs better. Last May he finished 18th overall in the Eugene Marathon.
He considered the worst-case scenario with his Achilles heel. A ruptured tendon would prematurely end his participation in the world’s largest marathon, one that he trained for six months by waking up at 4:50 am, seven days a week.
It could also mean a permanent end to Schumacher’s running.
“If it starts getting really bad I’m going to throw myself off the Verrazano Bridge,” he said with a laugh.
Schumacher crossed the Verrazano Bridge. But he never made it to the finish line in Central Park.
His race ended 55 minutes and 35 seconds after it started, about 9.32 miles in, according to Schumacher’s Race Day Tracker, a chip worn by all participants in the marathon to log their time and progress throughout the course. The pain he had felt in his heel at that moment was excruciating. He was forced to stop.
“It felt like someone was holding a torch against my Achilles,” Schumacher said. “I’d be done for a career if I tore it. I had to make a choice. And I made the right one.”
Schumacher stopped at a medical tent for marathoners in South Williamsburg, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. There was nothing the medical staff could do for Schumacher. He took a bus back to Manhattan, where he was staying.
He was devastated. He felt like he did after the fall on Smith Rocks. But he insisted that he’ll recover once again. Last week he registered for the 2010 New York City Marathon.
Of course, there are other races to finish before then.
“I got Boston in April,” he said. “And, goddamnit, I’m going to tear that course apart.”
Shane Dixon Kavanaugh is a Eugene native currently living in Brooklyn and working as a freelance writer.