On Track

With prostheses, Eugene Roberts runs again

May 05, 2001|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IN MANY ways, Eugene Roberts is like any other runner into his sport.

He loves talking about its nuances to anyone who will listen. He reads running magazines, talks excitedly about things such as finding the right inserts for his shoes, decreasing his time on his training runs, the importance of tapering off on mileage before a big race.

Part of his enthusiasm, surely, is that he's a reborn runner, having taken up the sport again not quite two years ago after nearly 35 years away from it. A former schoolboy cross-country runner, he now runs around his neighborhood, competes in races from 5Ks to half-marathons, does track intervals and hasn't ruled out taking part in this fall's inaugural Baltimore Marathon.

But there's something else that fuels his passion, and that's the fact that he's running at all. Eugene Roberts is a double-amputee with no lower legs and just one knee. He does all his running on two high-tech prostheses.

Roberts, 55, is a Vietnam veteran who lost both legs in 1965 during the war. He has always been athletic and still looks exceedingly fit in the wheelchair he gets around in.

We last heard from Eugene Roberts two years ago, when he was being fished from the English Channel. It was his second attempt to swim that body of water, and he was having a good go of it until weather conditions changed things. Making it across the English Channel wasn't going to happen that July day.

Never one to dwell on the negative, Roberts was already considering his next challenge. "I might do some running," he said soon after being pulled from the icy channel.

He had tried wheelchair racing, but it just wasn't the same as running upright along the roads. "I didn't really care for wheelchair racing," he says.

And he'd already found the key to even attempting a return to running. Roberts, who retired about a year ago from the Social Security Administration, was home watching television a few years back when something caught his attention.

"I saw that Nike commercial," he says. It's the one where the camera initially focuses on a woman runner's face as she races down a track. It pulls away until the woman's two streamlined metal prostheses are apparent. Roberts, who was using heavy wooden prostheses at the time, said to himself: "I want some of those!"

"I went to the [Veterans Administration], and they said there was new technology," he says. "The VA knew I was very athletic." Eventually, he got his new prostheses, which are incredibly light, made of space-age materials including acrylic and titanium.

"They were so comfortable and I was ready to start running then!" he recalls. But that was before his English Channel swim, so he continued to train for that instead.

But one month after his aborted crossing, Roberts took his new legs out for a first run.

"I went to the Milford Mill track," he recalls. "And I ran all the way around. It was difficult."

It took him 5 minutes and 30 seconds to complete the quarter-mile oval. Yet, when it was over, he got the same feelings that keeps all runners coming back for more: exhilaration and pride that he had accomplished his goal.

"It was rewarding," he says in his low-key yet emphatic way.

Conquering rough terrain

Roberts is the first to admit that his new hobby isn't always easy. Sometimes, particularly when running hilly courses, he will stumble and fall. But, gritting his teeth, he pulls himself up and continues.

During a recent, exceptionally hilly half-marathon in Pennsylvania, Roberts says, he had to call upon all his physical and mental toughness to get through it. He completed the 13-mile course in 3 1/2 hours, a rate of about 16 minutes per mile.

"It was a lot of hills," he says, recalling the race while in his northwest Baltimore County home. "I fell down four times, but then I got back up. I had leg perspiration, and I had to stop and wipe it. [But] the main thing was for me to make it."

For the young Eugene Roberts, running always came naturally. He grew up in the Forrest Park area of the city loving the athletic life.

"I ran cross country," he says. "I hated to run sprints, but I always loved to go out and run distances. In my junior year I won the two-mile championship for the city."

He also wrestled, played basketball, lifted weights. He was only a fair student, though, and hadn't thought too much about going on to college when he graduated high school in 1965.

"I said, `I had enough of school.' When I was about 8 or 10, I had an older brother in the Marine Corps. I remember seeing him come home in his uniform. I wanted to go into the service," Roberts says.

His timing could have been better; the Vietnam War was escalating. "Friends said, Man, you going into the service now? But I didn't know much about the war then."

He quickly learned. He was there for less than a month when he lost both legs in a mine explosion that killed five.

"I pretty well accepted it," he recalls. "I said, `I can't do this. I can't do that, but what can I do?' "

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