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Amputee aims at setting a record time for marathon

C.J. Howard lost part of his left leg to cancer, but believes a sub-3-hour performance is possible.

January 07, 2007|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Disease took the lower part of C.J. Howard's left leg three years ago, but it hasn't broken his spirit or slowed him down.

Despite an amputation below the knee forced by cancer of the heel bone, he will try to finish this morning's Orange County Marathon in under three hours -- a feat never accomplished by an amputee in any marathon and unlikely to be achieved by 95% of the 2,000 able-bodied runners in the race.

"That's pretty lofty ... a guy with one leg trying to run a marathon in under three hours," said Bill Sumner, the marathon's director. "But if you think you can, that's half the battle. And he really believes he can do it."

Based on his track record, it would probably be unwise to bet against Howard, 23, a former UC Irvine cross-country runner who shattered the world half-marathon record for below-the-knee amputees two years ago on his first try. "I don't see any reason why I can't," he said. "I've done the training. I'm ready."

Last week, Howard's training included a 24-mile flat run and a 13-mile hill run with climbs of more than 3,000 feet.

Howard was recruited to attend UCI out of La Crescenta High School in 2002 and appeared on his way to a four-year cross-country career for the Anteaters. Shortly after reaching personal bests in the 8K and 10K, however, he was sidelined by a nagging heal problem that proved to be an aggressive case of bone cancer.

As soon as he realized what he was facing, Howard began plotting a return to competitive running. His meticulous plan included a rare request of the doctor performing his operation. The surgeon had planned to amputate just above the ankle, but Howard had other ideas; months of research told him he needed more clearance to insert a prosthetic device suitable for running.

"The doctor kind of shook his head," Howard said. "Most people want to keep as much as possible."

The longer, springier prosthetic has helped Howard's running career and inspired no regrets.

"I think I've definitely made some very sweet lemonade out of some lemons," said Howard, who recently graduated from UCI and will begin teaching junior high social studies in San Jose later this year. "Running competitively and working toward all of these goals has helped my spirit and those around me. I know it has made this ordeal a lot easier on my mom and dad," he said.

Conditions for today's third Orange County Marathon, which begins at 7:30 a.m. in Newport Center and ends at the Irvine Spectrum, should be perfect for a world-record attempt.

"He has fallen into a perfect weekend," Sumner said. "If it's too cold, your joints don't loosen up. If it's too warm, you can get overheated. But temperatures are expected to be between 50 and 65 degrees during the race."

Whether Howard sets any records or not, he's likely to turn some heads today as he passes competitors by.

"Some people offer me words of encouragement when I run by," he said. "Some don't like being passed by an amputee, and that inspires them to run a lot faster. That's OK. If they are going to speed up and stay ahead of me, I'm going to make them work for it."


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