2014 was a good year for Helen Chapman. She smashed her marathon PB, met her running hero, Mo Farah, and clocked her fastest mile to date. But most life-changing of all, she became the proud owner of a new leg.
When she was 10, Helen was hit by a minibus after she had run into the road to escape a dog. Her injuries landed her in hospital for three weeks. However, it seemed she’d had a lucky escape, even when her fractured right ankle failed to heal properly and had to be re-broken.
Four years later, Helen noticed a reddish patch on her foot. ‘At first I thought it was a blister, but the skin started to grow inwards and became really painful,’ she remembers. It was an ulcer, which developed into severe osteomyelitis (infection within the bone), causing her foot to become deformed. ‘I couldn’t put weight on it and had to use walking aids,’ says Helen. ‘I started to gain weight because it prevented me having any kind of active lifestyle.’
Helen was in and out of hospital over the next few years. ‘I lost count of the number of surgeries I had,’ she says. It was after a failed skin graft in 1998 that amputation was first suggested. ‘It was scary, but I felt that enough was enough,’ says Helen. ‘I went into it with a positive attitude.’
Helen had a Syme’s amputation, in which the foot is amputated just above the anklebone. ‘When I woke up, it felt as if my foot was still there,’ she remembers.
She was given a prosthetic leg. ‘It was so heavy,’ she says. ‘I had to take it off every few hours to begin with because my stump ached, but eventually it began to feel like part of me.’
As a single working mum with a young son and daughter, Helen had little time to dwell on things or become depressed. ‘Learning to walk on a prosthetic leg with a pushchair in tow wasn’t easy, but I just got on with it.’
Helen’s accident had denied her an active youth, but in 2011, when her daughter, then 14, suggested they take part in their local Race for Life, she decided it was time to shape up. ‘I’d stumbled across some photos of myself and I was shocked at how huge I looked,’ she remembers. They power-walked the 5K race and it gave Helen the impetus to join a local gym that had a running group. ‘The first time I went out with them I did two miles,’ she says. ‘That made me wonder – what else can I do? I ran a 10K that autumn. I began to lose weight and enter more races. I came last a few times, but I didn’t get discouraged – it made me more determined.’ So determined, in fact, that she entered the 2012 Virgin London Marathon.
But Helen’s ‘everyday’ prosthetic leg was not designed for continual repetitive impact. ‘It fits over the stump like a welly boot – the foot doesn’t move,’ sheexplains. Running long distances was uncomfortable and the leg broke three times during marathon training, forcing her to power-walk the race instead.
But her efforts had not gone unnoticed – she was invited to a running clinic for amputees by the charity LimbPower. ‘It was a turning point,’ says Helen. ‘I met other people in the same position as me, learned about the Amputee Games, which I took part in later that year, and met a coach who advised me to apply for a specialist running blade.’
She approached the NHS but, to her dismay, was turned down. Helen was told there was no ‘clinical need’, despite the fact that running was causing pain and damaging her prosthetic leg. LimbPower stepped in, helping her write letters of appeal to the NHS and her local MP, and putting her in touch with other charities and organisations that could help.
While the NHS refused to budge, a specialist clinic, Pace Rehabilitation, assessed Helen and selected her as one of five amputees eligible for help with fundraising for a blade.
It took two years to raise the £5,500 she needed and in February 2014 Helen received her running blade. ‘I only had three weeks to get to grips with it before the Silverstone Half Marathon, and four weeks after that I had the London Marathon: I ran the whole way.’
Since she’s had the new blade, there has been no stopping her. ‘In my first cross-country race I went flat on my face in the mud at one point, but I loved it!’ she says. Then she tried a duathlon. While most competitors were struggling to change from run to bike shoes in transition, Helen had the task of swapping her blade for her ‘everyday’ leg. She also joined a team taking part in the 24-hour relay race Endure 24.
How do other runners react to Helen and her colourful blade? ‘I get so much support and encouragement. In the 24-hour race, speedy runners were telling me how inspiring I was as they whizzed past.’ Helen has also spurred non-runners into action. ‘I work at a local supermarket and I’ve had people telling me they’re going to get their running shoes back on, or dust off their bike, after seeing what I’ve achieved. I also want to prove to other amputees that it doesn’t have to mean the end of an active lifestyle.’
Helen has lost four stone since she took up running in 2011. She now runs with Colchester Harriers. ‘It’s great to be training with other people – and everything has improved; my technique, my speed and my distance.’ How has being an amputee affected her life? ‘It’s made me strong,’ she believes. ‘I’ve lost part of my leg, but there’s nothing I can’t do.’