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A Runner for All Seasons: Amputee Ultramarathoner Amy Palmiero-Winters

Amy Palmiero-Winters in her element

Amy Palmiero-Winters in her element

At 38, Amy Palmiero-Winters is an ultra-marathoner, a long-distance runner who regularly runs 100 or even 200 kilometers at a stretch. During 2010 alone, the suburban New Yorker won or placed in several big races, running more than 209 kilometers in one 24-hour meet. She has been named to a U.S. national team, and also garnered the Sullivan Award, given to the top U.S. amateur athlete. Her achievements are all the more striking, given that Palmiero-Winters has what most would consider a major disability – although she would disagree with that. Palmiero-Winters is an amputee, who runs on a prosthetic left leg.

Even on rough terrain, Palmeiro-Winters’ gait is utterly even and assured. You would never guess that her natural left leg extends only to just below the knee. Below it is her “running leg,” a smooth plane of metal curving forward at the end. It looks a bit like a bird’s foot.

“People look at the shape of the foot and assume it has spring,” Palmiero-Winters says, running on a treadmill. “Do you see me bouncing off here? No. There’s no spring. It doesn’t throw me forward. All it does is absorb the shock when my body pounds down."

It’s not her only prosthetic leg; she also has a leg just for biking, as well as one outfitted with an athletic shoe for “running after my kids.” For everyday use, she has a leg that fits into sandals and low-heeled shoes. And there’s even a dress-up leg with a high-heeled strappy shoe. It looks completely natural, right down to the painted toenails that match those on her other foot.

Palmiero-Winters' left foot was crushed in a motorcycle accident in 1994. At first, she refused amputation. But it never healed properly and several years later, after more than two-dozen surgeries failed to correct the problem, her leg had to be amputated below the knee. She returned to running in 2000, but on an ordinary “walking” prosthesis, which caused further injury and pain.

Her life changed again in 2005 when she went to A Step Ahead, a custom-design orthotics and prosthetics clinic in Hicksville, New York, founded by Erik Schaffer. “She was running nine miles an hour on the treadmill for ten minutes and not even out of breath,” Schaffer recalls. “I didn't know what I had there, other than wow, she is some athlete!”

"He asked me what my goals were,” Palmiero-Winters says. “So, I told him, ‘I want to run a hundred miles.’ And he didn't laugh at me, he didn't think I was crazy. He just looked at me and said, ‘All right, then that's what you'll do.’”

Not long after, Palmiero-Winters moved to Hicksville, a suburb of New York City, to train with Team A Step Ahead, amputee athletes who are coached and sponsored by the company. Running on legs designed at A Step Ahead, Palmiero-Winters has since become a world-class athlete, with a host of “firsts” and trophies. A divorced mother, she often trains all night long, after the babysitter has arrived and her two young children are asleep.

Earlier this year, she won an Arizona Road Racers 24-hour-meet, finishing at 209 kilometers, 22 kilometers ahead of the next runner. That qualified her for the U.S. women's national field and track team, the first amputee on an official U.S. team. She also became the first amputee to finish the Western States Endurance Run: 161 kilometers on winding mountain trails that climb 5500 meters and descend 7000 meters.

Palmiero-Winters and Diego Barcenas playing soccer

Palmiero-Winters and Diego Barcenas playing soccer

During the day, Palmiero-Winters works at A Step Ahead, directing sports programs and coaching child and teen amputees like Diego Barcenas, who was visiting recently from North Carolina.

“I want them to know that the only obstacles we have are the ones we set for ourselves,” Palmiero-Winters said. She helped fit Barcenas with a new running leg, and kicked a soccer ball around on the field with him.

“I just really wanted to run again, do the normal things every kid does,” Barcenas said. “You know, I'm on the soccer team, and I'm going to try out for the basketball team. So I'm just going to try to live my life as if I have both my legs -- and I pretty much do.”

“Not only is he trying out for the teams,” Palmiero-Winter said, “He's doing very well with them. He's right up there with the other athletes. And we're not disabled in any way. We're just athletes who compete with prosthetics.”

Last summer, Amy Palmiero-Winters took part in a new kind of challenge, the "Spartan Death Race." A short race of only five kilometers, it included climbing up and down hills, over barriers, and along walls -- and crawling through dirt, among other things. She didn't win, but she said she had fun. “Whoo-hoo!” she cheered as she ran. “New York makes 'em tough!”