Editor’s Note: “I was 2 weeks away from my 16th birthday,” 57-year old Jimbo Boyd of Alpharetta, Georgia, says. “Really and truly my life just had begun, and then my world changed forever.” Instead of allowing his injury to change him, Boyd changed the world of wheelchair endurance sports instead.
I Was a Heat Stroke Waiting to Happen
I’m originally from metro Detroit, Michigan. The second week of December, 1996, I decided to leave the snow and ice of Michigan and roll the Honolulu marathon (26.2 miles) in Hawaii. I could take a vacation in a warmer climate and do what I did best – compete in marathons. However, I overlooked one critical factor. At that time, Michigan weather was below freezing. In Honolulu, morning temperatures were in the 70s and later climbed to 80 degrees. I went a week early to try and acclimate to the heat before the marathon began. I didn’t realize this would be the most difficult marathon of the more than 1,000 wheelchair distance competitions in which I’d competed.
I was competing in an Invacare Top End racing chair. I started racing in marathons in 1981, and I’d been fortunate to travel all over the world competing. But at the 20-mile mark of the 1996 Honolulu marathon, I started getting dizzy. I knew my body was overheating. I had learned to recognize the effects of a heat stroke, even though I had taken in water at every water stop and poured much more water on my body than I drank.
Since I didn’t then and still don’t perspire, I’m very susceptible to heat strokes. I realized my body was starting to shut down.
Over the years, I’d learned how to control the effects of a heat stroke and how to prevent one from happening. But at this race, all my planning and preparation didn’t seem to be working. I knew I had another 10K (6.2 miles) to roll to finish the race. I was also a little disoriented. I knew I had to back off my competitive mode and my competitive pace and put my body in survival mode. I slowed down my pace. Then I got a little tailwind and rolled in to the finish line at a leisurely pace – only at about 50 percent of my normal pace. This was my 98th marathon, and I had learned a number of survival techniques if and when my body overheated.
As soon as I crossed the finish line, I got that tremendous feeling of elation and excitement that comes with finishing any race. I went to the medical tent and got some ice packs. I’m often asked, “After this race, did you consider ever giving up competing in wheelchair marathons?” My answer is, “Absolutely not!” I knew the reason I had overheated was because I didn’t properly acclimate my body to the severe change in temperature from Michigan’s cold weather to Honolulu’s 70 and 80 degree weather.
During my competitive years, I rolled in 108 marathons, about 1,000 10K races and probably 200 or 300 5K races. For me, wheelchair sports gave me a vehicle to overcome my disability. I was one of the first C5 quadriplegics to compete in a wheelchair marathon in 1981.
My First Marathon Opened Up a New World for Me
The first marathon I ever rolled in was held in Miami, Florida. The corporate sponsor was Jackson Memorial Hospital. Many wheelchair sports were and still are sponsored by rehab facilities. The race committee was made up of a group of physical therapists. At that time, no one had ever heard of a C5 quadriplegic racing in a marathon.
To get permission to compete, I had to go through a review.
As one of the conditions for me to race, I had to agree to let an EMS (Emergency Medical Service) vehicle follow me for the last 6.2 miles. If I had a problem, these medical people would be on hand to care for me, because the committee didn’t believe that I could push the entire distance of the marathon.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure either. However, I had a couple of things going for me. The course was flat, and the race was held in January in Florida weather that was cool – not hot or cold. Before the race, the longest distance I ever had pushed was about 20 miles, but I was fairly sure I could do it. Also, I had a quad friend of mine who was racing with me, and we encouraged each other. In 1981, wheelchair road racing was a fairly new sport, and the people who competed in these road races had great camaraderie.
In 1975, wheelchair marathoning and wheelchair road racing emerged as sports. A person in a wheelchair competing in a marathon was a very new idea. But since those early days, the technology in developing racing wheelchairs has exploded. After that 1981 marathon, I was tired. However, the excitement of having completed a marathon and realizing that I had an opportunity to be an innovator and a motivator were the factors that drove me to compete in marathons.
There are quite a few levels for quadriplegic marathoners, much like there are age levels for runners. The classifications are very medical specific. Although we compete together, there are many races between different classifications in every marathon. When I started racing, the quadriplegic division was in its very infancy.
In the beginning, I guess I saw myself as a trailblazer in this a new sport for quadriplegics. I started helping design racing chairs, specifically for quadriplegics, promote wheelchair racing and promote and sell the chairs. I worked with manufacturers to improve the chairs and helped design other adaptive equipment. The evolution of racing wheelchairs and wheelchairs being changed and adapted for many other wheelchair sports has been amazing.
As a Teenager, I Learned the Hard Way
During my freshman year in high school, I was 15 years old and very athletic – wrestling, playing football, snow skiing and participating in many winter sports. On July 1, 1974, the weather was hot, and we were anticipating the July 4th holiday. I had jogged a few miles in our neighborhood with some friends. We cooled off by going to my house and jumping in our above-ground swimming pool. The swimming pool was 7 feet on the deep end and 4 feet on the shallow end. The pool didn’t have a diving board.
When my parents weren’t around, my older brothers Ron and Gary and I improvised. We’d dive off the roof of the house into the swimming pool. Since the swimming pool was about 4 feet off the ground, and the roof of our patio was about 8 feet off the ground – the drop was only about 4 feet – definitely not a scary dive. We had made the dive over and over again – always diving into the deep end of the pool. We’d do a shallow dive, so we wouldn’t go straight to the bottom.
On this day, I ran down the roof, dove and overshot my landing spot.
Instead of hitting in the deep end of the pool, I went over the deep end and head first into the shallow end of the pool. Although I had my hands out in front of my head, I didn’t have them rigid enough to help break my fall. When I hit the bottom of the pool, I had a nice clean dislocation of my fifth vertebra.
No one else was home except a friend of mine, Roger King. When my head hit the bottom, I blacked out. Roger just thought I was playing and acting silly. When he saw the bubbles coming up after I had expelled all the oxygen in my lungs, and I still hadn’t come up yet, he realized something was wrong. He pulled me out of the pool.
In the 1970s, hardly anyone knew how to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Roger screamed for help, and a neighbor who was a retired nurse ran over and began to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Soon the fire department, the EMTs and the police were all in my driveway. I was carried to Botsford General Hospital in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
Luckily, when I arrived, this hospital had a neurosurgeon from France on call. Because the neurosurgeon saw I didn’t have any bone fragments, he decided not to operate. Instead, he put me in traction, immobilized my neck with a neck brace and told me, “There’s a very small chance that you’ll ever walk again.”
At that moment, I realized that I was very fortunate to be alive. Anything I’d be able to do later would just be icing on the cake.
I knew my accident could have been far worse than it was. My family and friends were a fabulous support group. My high school friends visited me all day, every day around the clock. The hospital even allowed some of my friends to come in at 2:00 am when I was in intensive care. My attending physician understood how important peer support was for my recovery.
One of the worst times was on my 16th birthday, 2 weeks after my accident. All my friends were getting their drivers’ licenses and doing all the things that 16 year olds do, but I was in intensive care in traction. My birthday that year was one of the low points during my recovery. I had a girlfriend, and she was incredibly dedicated and faithful to help me recover. She really helped me through some tough times. I spent 8 weeks in intensive care, immobilized in traction, which was a horrifying ordeal.
Next, I was sent to a Detroit rehabilitation facility for 3 months of rehabilitation. While I was going through rehab, I learned about wheelchair sports and athletics. As part of my therapy, I started swimming and competed. I also got into competitive table tennis and participated in track in an everyday wheelchair. Then, I began to modify my wheelchair to make it go faster. At that time, in 1975, wheelchair road racing was on the horizon, but it hadn’t fully emerged yet where I lived.
A Sport Becomes a Profession for Jimbo
My first road race was a 10 mile event. Since I finished the race, I felt like I’d won it. I began to analyze a marathon and decided it was four, back-to-back 10Ks. When I boiled the marathon down to four consecutive 10Ks, I decided that the marathon was doable.
My fastest marathon was 3 hours 19 minutes. Able-bodied runners can cover that distance in about 2 hours 20 minutes, and others finish in 3 or 4 hours. First place wheelchair road racers can cover that same distance in about 1 hour, 20 minutes, 1 hour and 30 minutes or 1 hour and 40 minutes – rolling at a 3 minute mile pace for the entire marathon. For me, this is mind boggling. I roll at about a 7 minute, 15 second or 7 minute, 30 second mile pace.
Although I’ve won many marathons in my division, remember, very few competitors are in my classification in any race – perhaps only 15 or 20 people worldwide in marathons. In any given race, only two or three competitors may be in my classification. I consider myself a weekend athlete.
Marathoning not only takes a toll on the athlete’s body but often takes a greater toll on a racing wheelchair. When I took my racing wheelchair in for repairs, I noticed that Sportaid had a job opening, and I had just finished a 4 year college degree in business. I applied for the job, and I worked in that profession for 32 years. I gave the racing wheelchair company a lot of credibility, because I was a wheelchair athlete as well as working for a wheelchair company.
I knew from personal experience what could make a racing wheelchair better, and why our company’s wheelchairs were some of the best.
Putting Jimbo Back Together After Years of Racing
I took an early retirement about 1-1/2 years ago. Like my racing wheelchair needed repair after racing so much for so many years, my body also needed repair. Just as tennis elbows are medical problems for competitive tennis players, rotator cuff injuries and tears are common medical problems for wheelchair road racers and marathoners. I began to have chronic aches and pains in my shoulders and couldn’t sleep very well at night. My problem started with bone spurs in my shoulder. Eventually, I tore my bicep and rotator cuff. No one major event caused this damage – it was the sum total of all the races I had competed in that caused the damage.
When I began having pain 24/7, I finally decided I needed to go to the doctor. In 2012, I had my first surgery on my rotator cuff and bicep. The surgery wasn’t successful, but I don’t fault the surgeon, because I know I did too much too soon to recover properly. I discovered that not using my arm was really hard to do. But luckily, surgical procedures have changed dramatically since my first surgery. I decided to find a specialist who repaired shoulders, rotator cuffs and biceps. The surgeon I found has developed a surgical procedure that anchors the sutures of the procedure much better than in the past. This Arthrex Surgical Anchor is a corkscrew type anchor that goes into the bone. Each anchor has four sutures coming off it to help hold the muscles and tendons much more securely.
The doctors made eight arthroscopic entries to insert these anchors to repair my shoulder. Although I’ve had to have more bone spurs and more debris removed from my rotator cuff, the procedure was very successful. After the surgery, I spent a month in a rehab nursing home, had my arm in a sling for 6 to 8 weeks and then had 3 – 4 months before I regained my ability to transfer. Now, I no longer have pain related to my tendon muscles and my rotator cuff.
Editor’s Note: Jimbo says it is ultimately thanks to his physician Dr. Khan, and his innovative medical approach, that he continues to maintain this independence. “I’m truly held together thanks to Dr. Khan and Arthrex,” says Boyd. Learn more about his procedure and recovery here.
Since I feel I was one of the people on the leading edge of wheelchair road racing, I’d like to offer some advice for the racers who follow me.
- Be careful on uphills, since this is the greatest point of stress on your muscles, shoulders and rotator cuff.
- Learn to listen to your body, and interpret what it’s telling you. Muscle fatigue is common. However, a sharp pain that feels like a knife poking into you is your body telling you that you have a problem. Then you need to go to the doctor.
- Stretch before and after a road race to keep your muscles, tendons and rotator cuff healthy.
- Spend plenty of time warming up and cooling down.
- Don’t overdo it. I probably pushed more marathons than I should have.
- Learn to do things in moderation.
Jimbo has been featured in local news outlets for his mentoring work with aspiring wheelchair racers. See more on his work in this area at:
About the Author:
John E. Phillips For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.