On October 20, 2018, at her first ultramarathon, the 40-mile Triple Lakes Trail Race in Greensboro, North Carolina, Jacky Hunt-Broersma faced the aftermath of two storms: Hurricane Michael, which had hit North Carolina just a week before, and Ewing Sarcoma cancer, which had resulted in an amputation of her left leg in 2001.
The course’s trails, ravaged by heavy rains and wind, were muddy, a challenge for any runner. For Hunts-Broersma, 43, the course proved especially difficult. Her prosthetic metal blade, made for the roads and not trails, slipped against the slick mud. She fell at mile 16, twisting her leg to such a degree that her blade crushed her knee, leaving it pulsing with pain.
“I kind of stopped and I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’” Hunts-Broersma said. With 24 miles to go, an injured knee, and steady rain miring an already difficult course, Hunts-Broersma found herself crawling down a small incline in pursuit of a finish line farther than she’d ever gone before.
A 40-mile race is no small feat, especially for someone who hasn’t always pursued long distance. Before her diagnosis of a type of rare cancer in which tumors grow in soft tissue or bone, Hunts-Broersma didn’t like running at all, but her husband, Edwin, had always loved the sport, especially ultras.
Having witnessed the element of community, after her amputation, she thought it might be fun to join him. Wanting to pursue the same joy she’d seen in the faces of other runners, she was fitted for a running-specific prosthesis and then hit the roads.
“It was hard in the beginning,” Hunts-Broersma said.
Her husband gave Hunt-Broersma a metaphor: running with a blade for the first time is like driving in a new-to-you vehicle. Learning the precise limits of your own frame and practicing enough so that the blade feels like an extension of your body, is crucial for success. “It was hard to find my footing and learn to pace myself.”
In time, Hunts-Broersma also found a renewed sense of strength in her body. While she had once avoided her reflection in mirrors and exclusively wore long pants to hide her prosthetic leg, running gave her confidence.
“I realized how strong my body is,” Hunts-Broersma said. “I am so proud to call myself an amputee.”
Soon, she was taking strides toward longer distances, increasing from 5Ks to marathons in just a couple years. After running races at each distance, Hunts-Broersma grew a bit bored of the roads and began to hunger for something new. When someone suggested trail running, Hunts-Broersma thought, “Yeah, trail running on a blade—probably impossible.”
Her reaction wasn’t unfounded. Alena Grabowski, an assistant professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado who studies running prostheses, noted that prostheses designed for trail running do not exist, making forays off-road particularly difficult for amputee runners. Additionally, she said, the cost of a running-specific prosthesis is exorbitant—$10,000 or more—so damaging one on rough terrain is a costly risk. “Most insurance companies only cover one prosthesis and fitting of that prosthesis per person,” Grabowski said.
Prosthetists, too, have discouraged Hunts-Broersma from parting ways with pavement because of increased risk for injury.
“A lot of times I’ve been told, ‘No, you’re crazy to be doing that,’ or ‘You can’t run trails,’” Hunts-Broersma said.
Instead of heeding their disparagement, Hunts-Broersma ventured to a local single-track trail one day and told herself she’d just give it a try. “I fell in love,” she says of the experience. “I’ve had to learn a totally different kind of running. I’ve had to be more alert and watch where I’m going. Because I don’t have an ankle, it’s quite brutal on my stump when I hit a rock or don’t maneuver around everything.”
Hunts-Broersma has adapted. To avoid rocks and roots that can hook her blade, she lifts her left leg higher when she runs on trails than when she runs on roads. She relies on her right foot for much of her stability, so is careful to purchase sturdy trail shoes.
When she first started trail running, she hoped to find a community of people to share the experience with, but instead felt alone. Because of the various barriers—cost, discouraging medical professionals, lack of trail-specific prostheses—not many other amputees are able to run off-road. Hunts-Broersma wasn’t able to ask anyone for advice, which is something she now seeks to change. Through Instagram, where she chronicles her training for her 18,400 followers, she hopes to show other amputees that trail running is possible.
After months of training, Hunts-Broersma’s first 40-mile trail ultra approached, along with Hurricane Michael. Though it was categorized as a tropical storm by the time it reached Greensboro, the area still received heavy rains and wind.
“My first thought was, ‘Please don’t cancel this race. I’ve trained for a 40-miler,’” Hunts-Broersma said, laughing.
Her sense of humor in the face of external challenges would serve her well during the race, where, because parts of the trail were impassible, the course was modified from a single loop to a set of three smaller ones. At first, Hunts-Broersma was able to navigate the trails just as she had in her training, but then it began to drizzle, making a set of small embankments impossibly slick for her metal blade.
“The only option was to sit down and bum-shuffle all the way down the embankment, get up, and go. I was like, ‘this is hilarious.’ It was so funny,” she said. “I was on a mission—I had to get to a finish line and I was determined to do whatever I had to do to get there.”
Hunts-Broersma’s tenacity during the race is consistent with who she is day in and day out. Her husband, Edwin, who has seen her run and race for years can attest.
“She doesn’t give up. She gets a lot of issues with her blade, that sometimes prevent her for running for a week, which messes with her training, but she keeps on getting back up and running again,” he said.
Because Hunts-Broersma logged such significant mileage over the years, the shape of her stump changed, which meant that her stump didn’t fit properly in the socket of her blade. This meant that any run more than 13 miles resulted in significant discomfort, though it didn’t deter her from training. Because the cost of a new blade was $19,000, she learned to push the pain to the back of her mind.
After crossing the finish line of her first ultramarathon, she immediately signed up for another, this time a 50-miler, which she successfully completed. She’s scheduled to run another 50-miler in the fall, her first 100-miler in April, and will also be the first female amputee to compete in the TransRockies Run, a 60-mile race over three days along rigorous terrain and steep inclines in Colorado.
To tackle these tactical courses, Hunts-Broersma has purchased a new blade with a split toe design, which helps with balance. When her new split toe blade hits a rock, it separates much like toes would and prevents her stump from twisting into a dangerous configuration. She also adapted her former prosthesis by stripping tread from trail shoes and adding it to the bottom of her blade so she would be able to better engage with the terrain.
“I’ve been getting so many messages from other amputees on my Instagram account asking, ‘How have you done it? What can we do?’” Hunts-Broersma said. She sends photos of her tread to other amputees so they can alter theirs and she hopes that soon prosthetists will research how to make trail blades, instead of calling the idea “crazy.”
As Hunts-Broersma conquers trickier trails and longer distances, she has overcome the doubt.
“In the back of your head, you still have thoughts of, ‘well, they said I couldn’t do this.’ What if I fall? What happens then?” she said. “I’ve fallen a million times and gotten up and carried on. It’s no big deal, it’s part of the learning process, and I mean even any able-bodied person has fallen on the trails, so it’s not just because I’m an amputee I’ve fallen. It’s part of trail running.”