Q&A: Richard Whitehead

You have quite a varied sporting background, how did you get into running?

I was born a congenital above the knee double amputee. My parents saw sport as a means of integrating me into mainstream society and showing that being born without legs didn’t diminish me as a human being. I have always had a very natural athleticism and found that I had a talent for many different sports including swimming, ice sledge hockey and gymnastics. My parents took me to gymnastic classes to try and strengthen my muscles. I quickly began to learn how I could overcome the disadvantages that come with using prosthetics legs. Before turning to running, I found that I excelled in the swimming pool. Even without lower legs, I found that I was extremely strong and soon became the best swimmer in my class at school.

I took to running slightly later on in life and found that I had a particular talent for it. I applied my determination and natural athleticism to long distance running. I am currently the world record holder for leg amputees in both the half and Olympic marathon distances. I am also the first ever leg amputee to complete the marathon in under 3 hours.

What made you realise you wanted to compete?

Sport has always been a huge part of my life, right from day one. I have always had a natural determination and competitive instinct and therefore I always aim to be the best I can possibly be.  

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

Competing at the London 2012 Games was a dream comes true. I originally wanted to complete the in marathon event; however there was no category for leg amputees. I was also refused permission by the IPC to complete against upper body amputees. Instead of giving up, I decided to turn my efforts to the sprinting events on the track. I won gold in the 200m T42 Athletics event and even smashed the world record with a time of 24.38 seconds.

What is your training schedule like on a weekly basis?

Every day is different. In general, every week I do three track days, three gym sessions and seven long distance runs. The longest of which is around three hours long. What I do in the gym sessions depends if I have a sprint or a marathon coming up. So it really varies.

How important is nutrition to your training and what is your diet like?

My diet varies depending on my schedule – although as I train so much I’m lucky that I can eat as much of it as I like. So for long distances running I eat a lot of pasta. Hot or cold – it doesn’t matter. So ravioli, meatballs and spaghetti are all on the menu. I also pack in a lot of meat and fish. When I’m sprinting I eat salads and a lot of fruit. I like to mix my salads up so beetroot, olives, chicken, fruit all get a look in.

How do you reward yourself after races or tough training sessions?

I’m a bit of a chocoholic - so I love Dairy Milk now and again!

Do you think having a disability had made you more determined to achieve certain things and hit certain goals?

What my life has been about it accepting who you are and making the most of it. I have always been a determined person and wanted to reach the highest level in my sport. If you put your mind to something you can achieve anything.

What would you say to people who think their disabilities mean that they can’t compete or practice sport?

I am living proof that having a disability shouldn’t stop you from achieving your goals. I’m a strong believer in living a life without limits, what your life has to be about is accomplishing who you are a making the most of it. Once you’ve done that, you can push the barriers as far as they’ll go.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration or motivation?

I was inspired as a youngster by a Canadian athlete called Terry Fox. Terry became a single legged amputee after a battle with osteosarcoma – a type of bone cancer. After losing his limb Terry attempted to run from East to West of Canada. His strength and determination showed that with a big heart and the will to succeed you can overcome barriers put in front of you. So at the start of 2004 I entered the New York Marathon which would take place 11 months later. When I entered I had no running experience and had not even run one mile.

Tell us about your next challenge?

This summer I will be running a marathon a day from John o’Groats to Land’s End, supported by Virgin Media, to raise significant funds for Sarcoma UK and Scope charities. The run will last approximately 40 days and it is the latest in a long line of achievements. You can sign up to run with me for part of the run or make a donation to help me reach my fundraising target of £1million by going to www.richardwhiteheadrunsbritain.com