“Don’t mind me being out of breath, I’m squeezing in a workout while we talk,” Brian Reynolds told me when I called him on October 18. It was 11 days after he set a personal and official bilateral below-the-knee amputee world record at the Chicago Marathon, clocking 3:03:22. Even with that incredible accomplishment, he’ll tell you he fell short of his goal. Brian, a 2006 graduate of Xaverian Brothers High School, is determined to hit a sub-three-hour marathon as a double amputee.
When Brian was four years old, he contracted meningococcemia, a rare blood infection. He lost both legs as a result. Embarrassment, he admits, kept him from trying out for high school sports, but his mother had introduced him to the gym in middle school and he says he never left. By college, he had taken an interest in powerlifting and shortly after was able to deadlift 485 pounds. When he wanted to build his endurance in addition to his strength, he signed up to hike the Grand Canyon with Team in Training, raising money in support of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Soon thereafter, running began to replace powerlifting and Brian’s unlikely road to the Chicago Marathon began.
It started with small steps. One minute of running a day, every day for a week...then two minutes...and so on. At the end of 2013 he received his first pair of specialized running legs and in January 2014, he ran his first marathon, the Disney Marathon, in 4:30. By his second marathon in 2017, he shaved an hour off his time and hit 3:27. “After that, I got more serious and I got a coach,” he said, and began training in earnest for the 2017 Chicago Marathon. It was going well until that summer when he needed a new pair of running legs. “I had a lot of fit issues, so I didn’t run all summer,” Brian said. “I did a lot of cross training, aqua jogging, and rowing. I got the running blades up and working on Labor Day weekend so I had only four weeks of run training before the Marathon.”
Even with the training deficit, Brian finished the race in 3:06:38. “That was mind blowing to me,” said Brian. “It really changed my expectations on the potential I had. Sub-three always seemed like ‘Okay, that’d be nice if it happened one day far in the future.’ My time got me an invite to the London Marathon, which is the Para Athletics World Cup. I took training to a whole new level then. I was up to 70 miles a week.”
And then, three weeks out from the marathon, Brian had to have emergency gallbladder surgery. Two hours off the operating table, he was home and working out again. “It was probably a mistake on the doctor’s part,” he joked, “but they assured me that nothing I could do would injure the surgical sites. I think in hindsight though that I pushed myself too far,” he said. “By the time I got to London, I was mentally tired, physically tired, not confident, and not feeling strong.”
He had what he calls a “terrible day” at London, despite setting a new personal record of 3:03:35 and winning the race for his para athletic category. “For the para athletes, they start you out 55 minutes ahead of the main field, so I ran the entire course, point to point, 100% solo. I was out there for 3 hours, 3 minutes, and 35 seconds alone. Also, I was mentally tired going into the race, it was a hot day, and on top of all of that I had no idea what my time was because you can’t wear a GPS watch. All of those things together made me mentally weaker than I normally am.”
The physical and mental beating of that race took a toll on Brian leading into his second Chicago Marathon. It was right at that time that he began gaining the attention of the national press for his success at London and his sub-three Chicago marathon goal. He pushed through and kept training, ignoring obvious signs of physical strain. By mid-June, he wasn’t able to walk due to overuse injuries. So once again leading into the Chicago Marathon, Brian couldn’t run. “Instead I trained on my Elliptigo (a cross between an elliptical machine and a bike) every day for at least three hours,” he said. “I mixed in swimming, the nordic ski machine, rowing, aqua-jogging, and weight training. I didn’t start running until right before Labor Day.”
To make up for lost time, Brian crammed in intense running workouts and didn’t taper them until five days out from the race, something that’s generally not recommended. Nonetheless, marathon day came and Brian felt good. “I had three amazing pacers. I was very confident in my fitness. The weather was perfect, mid-50s, cloudy, intermittent drizzle - but generally that doesn’t bother me. We were doing really well and we were on target to finish at 2:55.”
That was before the sharp right turn at the 22nd mile. It had been raining fairly steadily by then and the ground was slippery. Brian’s blade caught in a pothole, and he went down.
“It’s not something you usually hear in a marathon, but my leg got torn off, so I instinctively went to reach for it.” He tried to grab one of his pacers with his other hand, but he missed. With no hands left to protect his head, he fell down hard on his left side.
“The world was completely dark...it could have been one second or a minute, I don’t even know. The first thing I remember, runners stopped to pull me off the ground. I was super dizzy, couldn’t see straight, vision was going in and out, and I couldn’t really hear.”
It was a concussion, 22 miles into the race, but it didn’t stop Brian. He kept going. Slowly, his “shambling walk turned into a shambling run.” His legs were cramping. His hands were numb. A race volunteer offered to take him to the medical tent. “That was probably the sweetest temptation I’ve ever had in my life,” Brian said. “I took one look at him and kept running...I didn’t stop moving until the end.”
Brian intermittently ran and walked the last few miles, relying heavily on the support of his pacer, Jim Akita, the men’s track and cross country coach at Elmhurst College. Desperately gripping Jim’s hand, Brian made it through the 26th mile. With .2 miles to go, Jim told Brian to cross the finish line on his own. “He kind of steadied me and said, ‘You can run this final 0.2 miles; you don’t need me.’”
Brian did it. He crossed the finish line solo. Then, he said, “all the dizziness and nausea took over.” He sat down and found out his official time, 3:03:22...a new record, but not the sub-three for which he was training. He was both disbelieving that he finished at all and disappointed in not meeting his goal. He had planned that, upon completing Chicago, he would take a break from marathon racing to start training for triathlons, potentially going for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Now he says he’s thinking maybe he can “sneak in” another marathon in the spring. When asked where this determination in the face of such incredible obstacles came from, Brian replied, “It probably started at Xaverian.”
According to Matt Cavanagh ’96, Xaverian history teacher, “What struck me almost immediately about Brian was his tenacity to improve. He wanted to become a better writer, test taker, and improve his overall academic skills. The strength he is demonstrating today was certainly present when he walked the halls of Xaverian.”
“I have a naturally competitive spirit,” Brian said. “It’s not necessarily with anyone else, but with myself. It’s a drive to see how much better I can get, and it’s not just athletics, it’s with anything that I do. I can’t say there was one defining moment that made me that way, but I just know that I started to excel when I was at Xaverian.”
In the days since our conversation, Brian has been trail running in Las Vegas, running with Meb Keflezighi (New York and Boston Marathon champion and Olympic Silver Medalist), skydiving (yes, that’s right), and helping to spread the word about the importance of vaccinating by filming interviews for the National Meningitis Foundation, all in addition to working and being a supportive husband and father to his two young children.
Through his determination, perseverance, and inexhaustible desire to keep pushing his limits, Brian Reynolds has shown us so many ways to be strong.