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Unstoppable: Edward Lychik, combat-wounded Army veteran and marathoner

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The crack of a recoilless rifle split the Afghanistan air, impacting the end of a U.S. Army convoy, filling the air with shrapnel, smoke, and billowing dust. The shell struck the vehicle where combat engineer Edward Lychik perched in the gunner’s hatch, rending it asunder, exposing the soldier who had been semi-safely ensconced inside moments before. There was a fleeting moment where he believed himself unscathed; over the first half of his deployment, he’d had not one but two run-ins with IED’s, and come out whole and sound both times. He wasn’t in pain – or he was numb, he couldn’t be sure which – and as the unit’s medic began to make his rounds, Edward reached down with one hand to feel for his legs, and in that moment, the world rocked on its axis; life would never be the same.

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“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

His reaching hand found blood and bone; his femoral artery was offering up his life in thick, pulsing spurts onto the remains of the vehicle. His left leg was catastrophically mangled and the right had a massive chunk of muscle that was simply gone. His eye and face were lacerated. His throat was on fire with the dry heat of the explosion and the grating of the dust cloud around him. Perhaps the lack of pain amazed him, or perhaps he realized he was slipping into a dangerous state of shock. But the medic – whose own hand had been hit by flying shrapnel – reached him in time, and fastened tourniquets around both thighs, saving his life. The rest would be in the hands of the doctors.

The next six days were a blur of transfers from the hospital in Afghanistan to Germany to Texas; in the end he spent a solid month in the hospital before beginning the painful process of physical therapy. At first he was overwhelmed by grief and shock: he’d lost his left leg, not only lost it, but suffered a hip disarticulation. Such an amputation is beyond devastating, because it involves the loss of all three major weight-bearing joints: the ankle, knee, and hip. Patients suffering these grievous injuries rarely regain mobility and often end up either in a wheelchair or with crutches, at best, and prior to the attack, Edward had been a runner and a fit 180 pounds. After, his weight quickly dwindled to a concentration-camp appearance of 115 pounds. Even as horror filled his every waking moment – the litany of “Why me?” had begun to sound in his head – the desire to run again whispered through his veins.

“Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.” George Addair

It began with a vision. Lying in his hospital bed, overcome by crippling pain and unspeakable anguish, Edward had a vision of himself running. He was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, and he was running through a blinding fog, and there was no doubt in his mind that he must make his vision reality. To do that, he knew he must change his reaction to circumstances. First, he began to eat more healthfully, and when he realized he had no choice but to be restricted to his hospital bed for the moment, he did what any goal-driven person would: push-ups in his hospital bed. Edward Lychik had a vision, and nothing was going to stop him from seeing it to fruition.

Edward Lychik immigrated to the United States with his parents from the Ukraine at the age of 8. Growing up in the close-knit Ukrainian community in Tacoma, Washington, he appreciated the benefits of being surrounded by love and caring, but he also wanted a chance to get out on his own and see the world. And so, when he was 19, he joined the U.S. Army. He went through Basic at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where he got his first lesson in overcoming personal limitations. He was a fast runner; the second-fastest there, in fact, with a two-minute mile of 11 minutes, 30 seconds. Running was in his blood.

After Basic, he was assigned to the 1/25th Stryker Combat Brigade Team (SCBT) as a combat engineer and stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. It was the dead of winter at Wainwright and temperatures plummeted to -50 degrees Fahrenheit; the post is the Army’s farthest North location and the home of the only Arctic SCBT. Edward had only been there for six months when his unit was deployed to Afghanistan, and with perfect timing, they arrived in the desert as the blistering heat topped out at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. From -50 to 120, the young soldier remained positive, enjoying his opportunity to experience the extreme climes of the world.

His leg was lost on his 21st birthday, September 30, 2011. When most 21-year-olds are out partying, Edward was serving our country, and when most 21-year-olds are watching their futures unfold before them in a dizzying array of possibilities, Edward’s leg was being removed by an Army surgeon as they rushed to save his life. No one would have blamed him had he allowed himself to spiral down into a pit of black despair, but self-pity is not Edward’s style, and so he cranked out push-ups in his hospital bed and pushed the staff to help him in his quest for a healthy lifestyle.

“Fall seven times and stand up eight.” Japanese Proverb

It wasn’t until the seventh time he told his physical therapist he wanted to run a marathon that she realized he wouldn’t be easily dissuaded. Although it was common knowledge a hip disarticulation amputation was synonymous with the death of an active lifestyle, she approached his prosthetist, Bob Keunzi, there at the Center for the Intrepid (CFI) at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, and asked him to do the seemingly impossible: build Edward Lychik a running leg.

No one but Keunzi knows how many times he went back to the drawing board, but after trial and error, after Edward tried countless sockets and legs, after numerous adjustments and alterations, a leg was born. It’s unique, one-of-a-kind, and a miracle of innovation. The socket is attached to a harness that fastens over his pelvis and a belt anchors it around his waist; the leg itself is an extra-long Flex-Foot Cheetah blade. Keunzi says some people have called it a peg-leg, but says, “It’s a pretty high-end peg leg.” Whatever label you want to give the blade, it provided the physical extension Edward needed to run again. It was Edward who provided the drive, strength, and focus. Within days of the first fitting, he was bopping around CFI, wearing a gas mask to build endurance, with visions of competition running in his head.

Three weeks after the completion of the running leg, Edward competed in the 2012 Austin Tough Mudder. Those who know the event either love it or hate it (or hate to love it); it’s a 12-mile, 28-obstacle course riddled with live wires (all the better to electrocute you with), seemingly insurmountable walls (all the better to make you fall to your painful demise with), and freezing water, mud, and, of course, running. It is a true test of strength and plays on instinctual human fears, and the two-legged competitors struggle, but Edward Lychik took it in stride. He got through it and came out the other side looking forward to his next race. Edward is, after all, a badass.

Today Edward Lychik has competed in numerous races including marathons (those are 26.2 miles, for the non-runners out there) and a Spartan race he barreled through while wearing a gas mask. He ran the esteemed Boston Marathon in 2014 with the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation in honor of the 8-year-old boy who lost his life at the 2013 Boston bombing, an experience he says was unlike any other. “Imagine,” he says, his voice swelling with awe, “a whole city coming together for one cause.” He had the course entirely to himself for a large portion of the race, and he slowed his pace to high-five spectators, raising his arms in acknowledgement of their cheering support. But that’s what happens when you combine Army Strong and Boston Strong, you get Wicked Strong; you get Edward Lychik, an unbreakable man with an unparalleled drive to succeed and to encourage others along his way.

“We become what we think about.” Earl Nightingale

Edward is shaping his future as a motivational speaker. He believes determination and focus are of the utmost importance; he rightly states the majority of people tend to focus not on what they can do, but on what they cannot. Their burdens tend to eat up their vision, and they need to learn how to use positive imagery and goal-driven determination to achieve their dreams. The first school he ever spoke at was his younger brother’s, but it was not the last; this coming school year he hopes to have a full plate meeting and motivating children of all ages. But he doesn’t just want to help our nation’s children discover and fulfill their dreams, he also wants to help adults; veterans, runners, and the average person, alike. He’s spoken at Bank of America, to the troops at a rock concert; in the course of our conversations he displayed his talent for drawing people out, somehow managing to get more out of me than most people garner in a lifetime of attempts.

Help Spread Edward’s Message

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” Booker T. Washington

The national magazine Runner’s World is having a cover contest. There were over 1,500 entries, and within the first two days, Edward Lychik had zoomed up through the ranks. But the way Runner’s World has their site set up, it is only the top ten whose names are easily found, and at last count, Edward was number 16. Public voting ends on August 15, 2014, but until then, you can vote daily at: http://covercontest.runnersworld.com/entry/1077/. If hearing Edward’s story hasn’t convinced you the 23-year-old combat-wounded veteran deserves a Runner’s World cover at the very least, you weren’t listening. His story is one of achieving the American dream, experiencing loss, heartache, and devastating grief, and fighting to overcome it. His story contains pain and horror; his story progresses with tenacity, triumph, and courage. He is the young man you want your child to look up to and emulate, and he has a soldier’s strength and heart we should all strive to achieve.

His passion is contagious; he tells me our actions should be “all in love with the person you are capable of being and the impact you are capable of making.” Our limitations, he says, are nothing but a state of mind we are more than capable of overcoming. We need to learn to love what we have, rather than lament what we do not. And, perhaps most of all, we need to adjust our mindsets. He could see his leg as a burden. He could leave his prosthetic limbs in the closet to collect dust and allow himself to be ashamed of it, or he can use it. He can see it as a tool, a gift, and go out and inspire others. That is what Edward Lychik does. He sees a catastrophic injury as a chance to help others; where others would wallow or be drowned in bitterness, Edward grows stronger. He is the epitome of inspiration and strength, and deserves the resounding support of the entire nation.

To Edward Lychik: thank you, from a grateful nation, for your sacrifices, your service, and your perpetually positive outlook. Army Strong is a phrase custom-made for you. To Runner’s World: as a runner, a military journalist, and a subscriber for more than a decade, I am confident in saying you could not have a more inspirational and deserving cover model than Edward Lychik. He is everything Runner’s World has set out to be: undaunted by life’s trials and tragedies, indescribably strong, tenacious, and burning with the desire to encourage and uplift others. He is unstoppable. He is a soldier. He is a runner. He is an all-American Hero. Hooah, Edward Lychik; run on.

Author's Note: Support Edward! Share this article and share Edward Lychik's voting link for the Runner's World cover contest. You can vote daily; voting ends August 15th, 2014, but you can always contact Runner's World and tell them why you think this courageous veteran should be on their cover! Vote daily at: http://covercontest.runnersworld.com/entry/1077/. Follow Edward Lychik on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/EdwardLychik. Follow Edward Lychik on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Runedwardlychik. We need a veteran like Edward on the cover of a national magazine like Runner's World.

Get to it; vote and contact Runner's World to let them know Edward deserves this cover. Contacts for Runner's World include judges Tish Hamilton, Bart Yasso, and David Willey, and email rwdcustserv@rodale.com. Their Facebook page is at: https://www.facebook.com/RunnersWorld and Twitter: https://twitter.com/runnersworld. Make some noise!

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