Every runner knows the mantra “push through the pain.” It’s what gets us through the most challenging parts of our runs, workouts, and races. But for lifelong athlete Mike Atherton, pushing through pain meant more than just finishing a 5K — for Mike, it was about regaining his mobility, his pride, and his life.
On May 9, 2009, Mike went out with his family on his in-laws’ boat out for what he thought would be a relaxing day on the water off the coast of Florida. Without warning, there was a horrific explosion, and the boat was quickly engulfed in flames.
Mike was rushed to the hospital, where doctors were able to save his life — but not without amputating portions of both of his legs and his lower left arm. After the traumatizing accident and grueling surgery, Mike remembers lying in a hospital bed, not knowing what his future would hold. He had always been an active person; now, he wondered if he would ever even walk again.
But his doubts quickly turn to determination: Mike committed himself to walking again, though he knew it wouldn’t be easy. After many hours of physical therapy, Mike was walking again, regaining a taste of the mobility he had once enjoyed before his accident.
But, of course, Mike wasn’t satisfied with just walking. He wanted to run again, and he set a new goal for himself: the Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll Dallas 5K. Through support from Toyota, and by using grants given by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Mike was awarded a new pair of running legs to help him achieve his 5k goal.
Even eight years after his accident, running a 5K would be no easy task for Mike: he would need to train hard to rebuild his endurance and strength, all while regaining his balance and finding a new stride with his prosthetic legs.
Learning to run on prosthetics would be an arduous process for anyone. For Mike, this was further complicated by his multiple amputations, and by the fact that one of his legs was amputated above the knee and the other below, necessitating different mechanics for each prosthetic leg. Just to find his balance and take a few strides was a significant victory, and it gave Mike a new lease on life: “I kept pushing myself more and more,” he said, “and thought ‘I can keep going, I can keep going.’”
Mike spent months training for his race and found happiness and meaning in each little accomplishment. “It just felt like I was getting my life back,” he said.
Still, fear of falling and failure wracked him. Fear, of course, is its own kind of pain: to push through it is mental rather than physical, but Mike knew he could overcome it nonetheless. Falling, though it might bruise to his ego, wouldn’t take him down — he knew how to get up. And not finishing simply wasn’t an option.
Mike would be running alongside his 15-year old daughter, Maddie, who would be encouraging him the whole way. His family had always been a source of strength, but Maddie in particular had boundless faith in her father’s determination: “He definitely has that mindset. If he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it.”
Leading up to the race, Mike had told his family and some friends of his goal of running this 5k race. In the days prior to the race, however, Mike had the chance to chat with a group of people from Toyota where he shared his story of his injury, his recovery, his new found mobility, and the fortitude, and resilience it took to find his place in sports again. Upon seeing the reaction of the people in that room, Mike knew that this race was about more than just finishing—it meant he could inspire people across the country who never thought they’d be able to reach a goal such as the one he was aiming for the following day.
On the day of the race, Mike knew that his determination and his months of training would yield a victory. Under the hot Texas sun, Mike and Maddie took off at a vigorous pace. Soon, however, Mike was overcome with pain and fatigue, forcing him to slow to a walk. Failure to finish seemed like a real possibility. But the survivor in him wouldn’t relent as he remembered the room full of people he inspired the day prior. Mike pushed through his pain harder than he ever had before.
He took off running again — and didn’t stop until he crossed the finish line.
Through unbelievable strength of body and mind, Mike pushed through profound pain. Crossing the finish line wasn’t just a great accomplishment: it also gave Mike a new sense of his future, no longer uncertain, but filled with opportunity.
“Because of my mobility, I’ve been able to train and push myself and set more goals and do more things,” Mike said. “And it’s really been a huge part of getting my life back.”
This post is the first of a two-part series brought to you by Toyota, helping challenged athletes “Go Places.” In a partnership with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series, Toyota strives to help challenged athletes accelerate their journey back to athletics and life. We are honored to feature Mike’s journey as Part 1 of 2 in Toyota’s continued involvement in its “Let’s Go Places” mobility program.
Read and watch Part 2 of the series: Quadraplegic Athlete, James Sa, Takes on His First Half Marathon.