It is a perfect early June day in southwest Montana. Temps are in the low sixties, last nights rain became snowcapped peaks in the mountains and it is simply gorgeous out! "Perfect weather for a good long run," I think to myself. In a few minutes I'll put on my running gear and head out, but I should finish this up while it's still fresh in my mind ...
Exactly a year ago I didn't own "running gear," definitely nothing with spandex in it. I've always been more of a hiker. That all changed last year at the Challenged Athletes Foundations annual Celebration of Heroes, Heart and Hope Gala held for the last 8 years in the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.
Let me clarify a few details. In October of 2011 I suffered a near fatal freak electrical injury that dropped me like a bad habit into 48 days of Burn Trauma ICU and months of hospital visits over the next two years. All in all, I've had 21 surgeries which included severe muscle loss to my left abdomen and left quadricep, removal of four ribs and an abrupt introduction into my new life as a below the elbow amputee with the removal of my left hand.
I was invited in the spring of 2013 to attend the Gala by Martin and Julie Franklin and the persistent voice of their son Mikey, "we have got to get Eduardo connected with CAF." After hearing about CAF for over a year I arrived to their premier East Coast event and fundraiser last year with no expectations other than the innumerable times I had now heard, "you have to go, you have to be in that room and feel it".
You know how when something is really, really good it often takes a reread or a second or third look to truly grasp and understand it? This Gala is such a force; such a high that I'm not sure one ever gets it the same way twice! Both times I have attended my experience was very different.
The morning run in Central Park before that evening's main event had me surrounded for the very first time by other amputees. I arrived excited, a little nervous, and naively wearing my prosthesis. I always wear my prosthesis; from the moment I wake up to right before bed. Moments before the run, sixteen year old CAF athlete Thomas Cain introduced himself. Thomas is also a below the elbow amputee and asked with zero judgment if I was going to run with my prosthesis on. "Yeah" I told him. "I do everything with it on." Within minutes my pale, scarred, thin forearm that hadn't had a good dose of Vitamin D in ages emerged naked for all to see. Within minutes I was building a solid heart rate and sweat was beading across my face. Within minutes I realized that Thomas and CAF had just gently pulled me out of who I used to be and somewhere under the leaves of Central Park I found ownership of my tragedy and ran on with a stronger, healthier me.
This year's event was a milestone. The Grand Ballroom was magnificent and buzzed with 850 attendees. Within a handful of hours the city that never sleeps and the city of dreams made dreams come true as paddle after paddle was raised bringing in a record setting $2.3 million dollars!
Peter Hochfelder has been my employer turned family friend and mentor for over eight years and as I sat at his table surrounded by his family and his fellow peers who came by the hundreds from Wall Street, private an public firms and offices from all over the 5 Burroughs as well as hundreds of others who traveled to NYC for this one event, I reflected with tears running unchecked across my face.
Earlier that evening I had walked onstage with other athletes and was applauded for our strength, our courage, and our resolve to never give up. Navy Lt. Brad Snyder told one of the most bittersweet success stories I have ever heard and had the whole room laughing in the palm of his hand. Celeste Corcoran took to the podium and showed us all what winning looks like a year after loosing both legs at the Boston Marathon attack. All of these moments had me and everyone else in the room convinced to look at the athletes as the focus of the evening and rightfully so.
But, as the auctioneer rallied an already electric room further and further I looked around. Behind the evening gowns, expensive suits and overwhelming amount of capital being raised I realized I had almost missed it, I had almost gotten it wrong. Scott Stackman, the event founder and chairman spoke to the room, sharing his recent experience running the 2014 Boston Marathon for CAF. His emotion and passion for the cause and the people was palpable and looking around at the faces of his peers and colleagues, it was contagious. Beneath the facts and figures and the beauty of the Grand Ballroom, these were 850 Heroes, individual Men and Women who where there to give, to make a significant life changing difference in the lives of another person.
I am that other person, I have received that CAF grant, I have worn that new biking hand and I have seen the Heroes that make this possible.
Since that first run I have now completed my first triathlon and followed it up with a 70.3 Ironman this past March. I plan to ride from San Francisco to San Diego this fall with a group of supporters and CAF athletes in an effort to raise funds and awareness in the Million Dollar Challenge. I also now own more spandex than I care to admit.