Amy Palmiero-Winters: Running for Her Life

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On June 26, Palmiero-Winters became the first amputee to complete the Western States Endurance Run, commonly listed as one of the five toughest races in the United States. Photographs courtesy of Amy Palmiero-Winters.

On a racetrack in France, people are sobbing and throwing up. Bloody footprints dot the course, and in trashcans under wads of gauze and bandages lay fugitive human toenails. The runners still slogging along in the grisly 18th hour of the World 24-Hour Championship, Brive, look, for the most part, a little...absent. Glassy-eyed, sick, and staring into the middle distance. There are a few exceptions; Scott Jurek, the U.S. 24-hour champion, downs a cup of vegan rice noodles as he flies by at an eight-minute-mile clip. A Japanese man named Shingo Inoue laps him, already at mile 131. And slowly, gaining doggedly on the field, is a one-legged woman with quiet, steady eyes.

The calm, jogging woman is Amy Palmiero-Winters, and she knows how to endure. A 37-year-old single mother who spent 18 years working as a welder, Palmiero-Winters is known in the sports world not only for the obvious—her world-class performances despite running with one natural leg and one carbon-fiber leg—but for having a mental game beyond the lot of mortals.

"Without a doubt, she is mentally the toughest person I've ever seen," says her prosthetist, Erik Schaffer, CP, president of A Step Ahead Prosthetics & Orthotics, Hicksville, New York. "I work with some unbelievable athletes from all over the world…but the levels where she's competing are way beyond the prosthetics field." Schaffer, who supported Palmiero-Winters at Brive through her 19th-place finish, insists, "She's got focus that's so strong, so controlled, that whatever is fueling it, I would never want to mess with it."

Despite her overwhelming training schedule and full-time position at A Step Ahead, Palmiero-Winters says her first priority is always her children, Carson and Madilynn.

Until you meet her, it's easy to think of Palmiero-Winters herself as someone you wouldn't want to mess with—a hard-ass, an iron-sided monster of endurance. The former high-school track champ was a Harley-riding 21-year-old when a car broadsided her motorcycle, sending her through 30 misguided limb-salvage surgeries and then years of unsuitable prosthetic care after her amputation. Palmiero-Winters kept running through it all, first limping out practice runs on a crushed foot, then clocking a four-hour marathon on a fused ankle, then winning the Paratriathlon World Championship on a basic walking prosthesis. Though she's now an internationally ranked athlete, she still works full time and trains mostly at night, sometimes running 70 miles before going to work in the morning. But for all her implacability, she says the source of her power isn't hardness, but heart.

"Everybody has something they love in life," she says, "and after my accident, I really had a choice—nothing I did was going to bring back my leg, so I could either fall into a pit of depression or move on. I love running, so I decided it would be much nicer to move on…. Now I'm a mom and raise two kids on my own, so what I do is for them. I want them to grow up limitless, and the more barriers I overcome, the more they're going to know they can do with their lives. I need to work to provide for them, and I want them to never be without their mom because of my running life, so when I have to train without them, I wait until they go to bed and our babysitter comes over, and then I run. It's what I have to do. It's no big deal."

Working-Class Tough

Palmiero-Winters was raised working-class tough, fixing up dirt bikes and go-carts and running mostly for transportation. After a year of college, she took a break and started working at a carbide plant. A few months into the job, she was riding her Harley 883 with friends when a driver pulled out in front of her. Palmiero-Winters' left foot was crushed in the accident. Doctors wanted to amputate it, but she wanted to give her foot a chance.

At the Arizona Road Racers 24 Hour Run to the Future, Palmiero-Winters ran 130.04 miles in 24 hours and clinched a spot on the U.S. national team.

For the next three years, Palmiero-Winters worked and ran on the mutilated foot. It atrophied, going from a size 7˝ to a size 4˝. Finally, after her ankle had fused completely, she volunteered for amputation. "I sat down with my doctor, and he apologized for not cutting it off the first day," Palmiero-Winters recalls. As a farewell to the limb, Palmiero-Winters took it on a final run—the Columbus Marathon, which she ran in 4:03.

For Shame

As soon as she could stand after her amputation, Palmiero-Winters was sent home from the hospital, and after a single fitting, she was told to pick up her leg. The SACH-footed limb was denied as not medically necessary by her insurance company, however, and she had to pay for it out-of-pocket before she could pick it up. She had no physical therapy, peer counseling, or gait training, and the socket was a terrible fit.

"I could not understand," she says. "I wanted to go back to running—running was the only thing I wanted to do—but they amputated my leg too long and I couldn't fit running components underneath it.... I would try to run on the prosthetic I had, and I ended up getting a bone infection and losing more of my leg. I went back to the guy that made my leg and said, ‘Look, I lost more of my leg—don't you think you need to make me a new socket?' He said ‘No, it's fine—you're just shorter. You don't need a new socket....' I ended up trying about five different prosthetics places. It was almost like once they had your money, then they were done with you until you needed another leg."

In the meantime, she paced onward, getting married, working, and eking out some happiness by racing.

"I finally found one guy outside of my town who really did try," she says, "and he got me a shock absorber for my leg. I started running 5ks and 10ks.... But my socket fit wasn't quite good enough to allow me to train—I would blister and [get] all kinds of sores on my legs if I did—so I would just run the races."

Then, in 2005, five months pregnant, she entered her first triathlon. Within six months, she qualified for the Paratriathlon National Championships. She arrived at the race with her walking prosthesis, duct tape, socket padding, and a Dremel tool.

"That was the first time I'd ever met other athletic amputees," she remembers, "and they were like, ‘You're going to run in that?'" In her hodge-podge setup and postpartum body, Palmiero-Winters scored third place, and then went on to win the Paratriathlon World Championship in her class a few months later.

She didn't rest on her laurels. After nine years of searching for the right prosthetist, she took the advice of another athlete and made an appointment at A Step Ahead. For the first time in her life, a prosthetist asked Palmiero-Winters what her goals were, and Schaffer didn't blink when Palmiero-Winters said she wanted to run 100 miles. With Schaffer's athlete-centered care, Palmiero-Winters pounded out her first marathon as an amputee in 3:24. For both Schaffer and Palmiero-Winters, it only made sense for her to move her family near the facility. She soon became clinical director of both Team Step Ahead and Junior Step Ahead. Schaffer, also a driven perfectionist, continually upgraded her equipment as Palmiero-Winters upgraded her training. Her next race was a 3:04 run of the Chicago Marathon, the best-known time for any amputee, male or female.

Going the Distance

Since moving to New York, Palmiero-Winters has logged thousands of miles of training runs on its trails and roads.

The new position at A Step Ahead opened Palmiero-Winters to new possibilities. Thanks to almost two decades of breathing carbide fumes, her lungs had begun to spasm when she ran too fast, but with her expertly designed equipment, she could now tolerate the overwhelming endurance demands of ultramarathon training. With the help of Schaffer, Aldelphi University exercise physiologist Bob Otto, and sports nutritionist Pam Nisevich, RD, of Swim, Bike, Run, Eat!, Yonkers, New York, Palmiero-Winters developed a new regimen. In 2009, she competed in ten ultras, finishing the year by qualifying for the U.S. National Ultrarunning Team, the Western States Endurance Run, and a lane at Brive. So far in 2010, she has already been awarded the Amateur Athletic Union's Sullivan Award for being the nation's most outstanding amateur athlete, won an ESPN ESPY award, and became the first amputee in history to complete the Western States 100.

Relentless

However, her singular drive—to not only run relentlessly, but also to serve while doing it—may actually stunt her performance. As of press time, Palmiero-Winters was preparing for what might be the toughest race of her life, the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, held in Death Valley in mid-July. Otto warned her that to succeed she needs to curb this aspect of her training.

"I think it's a disservice to ourselves and everybody else if we do not try to give back," she explains. "I speak to a lot of organizations, and I get called to do marathons. Instead of hiding out in my hotel and resting beforehand, I'll go to a school or hospital and speak to kids about obstacles, setting goals, having something you like to do, and following your dreams. Then, I'll meet with a little kid, usually one in a wheelchair, and ask them to be my teammate for the race. I push them, and they have the job of coming up with some athletic goals by the time we reach the finish line. I do it hoping that I'll give them that one race that will help spark their interest and help them move on in life, be confident, and not let anything stop them."

Though Otto admires what Palmiero-Winters does, he says the amount of charity work she does leaves her overtrained and under-rested, and the Badwater course will brook no compromise. She paced the course last year for a friend, and her experience there proved that she'd have to be at the absolute top of her game to avoid serious injury—or even survive.

"The last time she was on this course, she ran almost 100 miles while she was developing third-degree burns on her residual limb," Otto warns. "She has the ability to block out pain and everything else, and that may ultimately lead to her demise."

Palmiero-Winters concedes that she needs to be careful, but says that she won't back down far: "I do this for the little kids who have lost limbs, to show them what's possible, and for the person I pass by on the street. We all face obstacles—mine is an obvious obstacle, but at the end of the day we all face something. You might not love running, but when you see me out there, you see me facing my obstacle every day and you know I've overcome it. I hope it will give you the courage to believe in yourself and follow your dreams—we are all really limitless."

Morgan Stanfield can be reached at

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