Human Race: ‘I’m more able with one leg’

When Charlie Lewis opened his eyes and saw nothing where his leg once was, he felt he was free again. No regret, just relief. ‘I knew the amputation would be the defining moment in my life,’ says the 32-year-old, whose lower right leg was removed on his 29th birthday, in January 2014.

‘It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I could get back to being who I really was. Without sport and competition, my life just wasn’t working. Running isn’t a passion for me – it’s a necessity. I have to do it.’

Ten years earlier, Charlie, from London, was living the high life in Val d’Isere in France – snowboarding by day, partying by night, taking plenty of risks, as teenagers do. Life couldn’t have been much sweeter. Until the day he fell off a mountain. ‘It was the first day of snow for a long time and conditions were sketchy,’ he remembers. ‘There was a small slide of snow, I hit some debris and it sent me flying. I rolled for about 80 metres and my board snapped. And then I snapped.’

With adrenaline masking the pain, the first thing Charlie did was light up a cigarette, even though his right leg was ‘facing the wrong way. I was on the mountain for two hours before I was winched off by a helicopter. It was only after the first operation that the pain kicked in. And it never went away.’

Charlie had hoped to become a professional rugby player. That dream was now gone. His leg was encased in a metal frame, but not long after it was removed, it became clear the leg had not healed. Several reconstructions and many setbacks followed. In all he would have 15 operations on the leg.

In 2006, Charlie had a metal rod inserted and found an outlet for his need to be active – through cycling. ‘I rode a lot, because I couldn’t run or swim. But I was also drinking a lot and on so many drugs, prescription and recreational, to try to mask some of the pain. It was horrible.’

The final straw came in 2012 when Charlie was riding up Mont Ventoux, a Tour de France climb that he’d completed on five previous occasions. ‘The metal rod that was connected to the bottom of my ankle went right through to my foot and was rattling around and hitting nerves. I sat on the side of the road and thought, “This is ridiculous, I need to have the leg off”.’ Instead, he ended up having another futile operation.

‘Surgeons are in the business of saving things, whether it’s lives or limbs,’ says Charlie. ‘Amputation is seen as a last resort, getting rid of a problem rather than dealing with it. There was always a surgeon to promise “I can save it!” They never understood that hobbling from sofa to kitchen and back wasn’t good enough.’

Finally, Charlie met two surgeons who understood his need to be free of his leg; they agreed to amputate. On the day of the operation, Charlie marked the occasion by painting the toenails of his right foot in sparkly varnish. When he woke up, the varnish – and the leg – were gone.

‘It felt like I was starting my life all over again. It would have been easy to think of all the things I couldn’t do any more. But I don’t like the word ‘disabled’; it’s so negative. I’m much more able with one leg than I was with two – and more able than most ‘able-bodied’ people.’

Shortly after being fitted with his first weight-bearing prosthetic, Charlie cycled up Ventoux. Two days after being fitted with a running blade, he completed his first triathlon. In 2016 he ran marathons or half marathons in North Korea, Afghanistan and Lebanon, did triathlons in Spain and Italy, and a half Ironman in Austria.

This year, Charlie had set his sights on breaking the marathon world record for a lower-leg amputee (it’s currently 2:57:47) at the London Marathon. ‘But 35km into my longest pre-marathon training run, something blew,’ he says. It turned out he’d injured a bursa (a fluid-filled sac that counters friction in joints) that had become attached to a tendon behind his knee. ‘It was a massive shame, as I’d put in so much hard work over the preceding three months,’ he says.

He retreated to Italy, where his girlfriend is a vintner. But sipping wine in the sun is far too easy. His remaining 2017 hit list features a cross-continental swim in Istanbul, an Ironman in Mallorca, the Baghdad Marathon and the world’s longest cross-country ski race, in Sweden.

‘I’m looking forward to my next challenge, but I’ll definitely be coming back for that marathon record. I know I can beat it and I’ll keep trying until I do.’

‘I used to wonder why there were so few other amputees running. Now I realise it is because it bloody hurts! It’s like running in carbon shoes and at times there is this terrible, pounding pain. But I always want to go faster and further – the plan is to race in every country in the world. When I ran in North Korea and Afghanistan, I could see that the people who I ran with felt free, just like me. By running, even for a short distance, they escaped. I truly believe that if more people ran it would lead to a better society.’