Human Race: ‘I’m always looking forward’

Photography by Tom Watkins

Seven years ago, Royal Marine Andy Grant was on an early morning patrol in Afghanistan when an IED (improvised explosive device) went off, shattering his legs, peppering his body with shrapnel and changing his life forever.

‘I was screaming for help,’ he remembers. ‘My femoral artery was severed. I could have bled to death in six minutes. I owe my life to the people who stemmed the bleeding while we waited for the helicopter.’

When he arrived at the local hospital, Andy was put in an induced coma. Two weeks later, he woke up in Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham. The damage was severe: along with his badly broken legs, Andy had 25 separate injuries, including shrapnel wounds to his face, a broken arm and sternum, and widespread nerve damage. It was clear that his military career was over and a long road to recovery lay ahead.

Two years later, most of Andy’s wounds had healed, but his right leg was so badly damaged he couldn’t feel it, let alone use it for the active lifestyle he’d once had and still craved. So he took the decision to have it amputated below the knee.

‘I needed to move on,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t want to be someone who lived off past glories and spent their life saying, “When I was a Marine”.’

The amputation was carried out in November 2010 and Andy wore his prosthetic for the first time on Christmas Day that year. He was walking by the following Easter and, by summer, running on the beach with his dog.

Andy had never run a race before the explosion, but an unexpected talent was revealed when, in 2014, he took part in the inaugural Invictus Games – an Olympics-style competition for wounded service personnel: he won gold in the 400m and 1500m. But with a preference for longer distances, he decided to make an attempt on the below-the-knee-amputee 10K world record.

He joined Liverpool Harriers, where he rubs shoulders with elite athletes such as Olympic heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson. ‘The biggest competitor in running is yourself and that is so important,’ he says. ‘But it’s great to have clubmates to push you, and faster runners to target.’ Fitness and motivation are not lacking in Andy’s make-up but the stump left from the amputation has presented challenges. The shrapnel that tore through his body has left a lot of scars and he frequently suffers sores that can become infected. This necessitates rest – something that does not come easily to Andy, now 28.

‘Being part of the club and working with the coach, Tony Clarke, has given me structure again, and with my military background I really need that,’ he says. ‘I train six times a week, including really hard intervals, and a long run on Sundays.’

Andy’s running progress has been dramatic. His 10K PB dropped from 40:30 to 38:45 at the British 10K in May and then, in July, he ran 37:17, smashing the previous world best – set by Canadian Rick Ball seven years ago – by 38 seconds.

‘Breaking the world record was an incredible feeling,’ he says. ‘I knew I had it with about 800m to go but just kept pushing the pace. Achieving my goal was overwhelming for a while, but I’m always looking forward.’

Andy’s sights are now set on breaking Rick Ball’s half-marathon world record of 1:20:44 and his marathon record of 2:57:47. And, having discovered that 400m is the longest running distance available to him in the Paralympic Games, he plans to put pressure on the authorities to include longer running distances. ‘It would be great to be given a chance to represent my country, and there’s no reason to limit the distances the way they have,’ he says.

It was Andy’s competitive spirit that led him to the Marines in the first place. By his own admission, he was drifting through his A-Levels and contemplating university when he saw an advert for the Marines that read, ‘99.9 per cent need not apply’ – a challenge he could not resist. He signed up at 17 and at just 18 he had secured the coveted Green Beret, undertaking tours in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next two years.

The story of Andy’s remarkable recovery and unstoppable drive has inspired many – a documentary called Paragon is being made about his life and he is in great demand as a motivational speaker.

‘I’m trying to inspire people to take on new challenges and get outside their comfort zones,’ he says. ‘I tell them that 10 per cent of your life is about the situation you’re in and 90 per cent is about what you do about it. Anything is possible. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t do a 10K race when I had two legs. Then I’d have a target to beat now.’