At the 2013 Boston Marathon, Patrick Downes and Jess Kensky, newlyweds and avid runners who lived nearby in Cambridge, Massachusetts, stood near the finish line on Boylston Street enjoying the day and cheering on the runners.
When the bombs exploded, both lost their left legs below the knee.
Last January, Kensky made the agonizing decision to also have her right lower leg amputated after it failed to heal properly. The Boston Globe reported extensively on the process she went through as she made her decision.
Now, a year after that difficult surgery and nearly 33 months since the bombings, the pair is set to race the Walt Disney World Half Marathon in Orlando on Saturday. With a prosthetic leg, Downes, 32, will cover the distance on foot, while Kensky, 34, will power a hand cycle.
After the unexpected challenges of the past year, Kensky told Runner’s World, racing 13.1 miles this weekend will be a bittersweet occasion.
Downes began using a running blade late last spring. He said returning to the roads was emotional. “Personally, it felt good,” Downes said. “It was a way for me to challenge myself.” But his wife wasn’t able to get out there with him, and that was hard. “It’s difficult when you’re at different places along the way during recovery,” he said. “She loved to run way more than I did.”
Around the same time, Kensky was learning how to walk on two prosthetics. In June, Downes ran and she walked the Hope & Possibility race, a five-miler in New York City’s Central Park, hosted by Achilles International, a nonprofit group that helps provide athletic opportunities for people with disabilities.
But come fall, when she tried running for the first time, Kensky experienced complications from the prosthetics. She underwent multiple surgeries in November to address them. Only on Monday was she finally able to stand upright again.
“I thought it would be like getting back on the bike again, but it wasn’t,” said Kensky, who currently resides at the Naval Support Activity Bethesda naval base in Maryland with Downes while she receives treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “But I should progress faster this time. Still, my mobility feels very fragile.
Before, I was young and healthy and fit and hearty. Now it takes one little blister or something not fitting well that takes me back again.”
In light of all that they have endured, being able to line up alongside thousands of other participants at Disney World feels like a milestone.
“It’s really nice to be treated like an athlete instead of a patient,” Kensky said. “I’ve been a full-time patient for many years now.”
Though she hopes one day she’ll be able to return to running, Kensky said she’s enjoyed throwing herself into different activities like hand cycling and swimming.
“I loved [running] so much before,” Kensky said. “It was so freeing and peaceful. Now, it feels very restricting. All the things I enjoy about running don’t exist yet in this new body. I’m not saying they never will. [With swimming and hand-cycling], I get to take everything off, and I can just be me again.”
Downes and Kensky are amazed by how much the other has accomplished in the past two and a half years.
For Downes, the half marathon marks the farthest distance he will complete since the bombings, and Kensky is proud. “I’m really excited to see Patrick achieve one of the goals he set for himself,” Kensky said. “For him, running is showing that [the bombings] didn’t take away from who he was. Being able to do it again is very important for him.”
Saturday’s race will be the first time Kensky has hand-cycled a race since she and Downes completed the Boston Marathon on wheels together one year after the attacks. Downes knows it’s not easy. “I’m so in awe of what they do,” he said. “It requires such incredible upper body and cardiovascular strength. I see it as just as much of a physical feat as running it.”
The pair said the people they’ve met at Walter Reed—members of Wounded Warriors and the Achilles Freedom Team, a race training group for injured military veterans—have proved inspirational, serving as examples for what life can look like after amputations.
“The things they are able to accomplish push us,” Downes said. “I don’t think we would be out there without their guidance and leadership and friendship.”
Completing a half marathon—and having fun doing it—is a small step toward regaining a normal life, one that isn’t consumed by the effects of the bombings. “I do look forward to a time where the bombing is in the background,” Kensky said, “when it’s a part of our story, but not the focus.”