Meet ultra-walker John Racovali – two years after surgery

Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation

I’m an active person who grudgingly conceded loss of function to a wearing left knee. By grudging I mean I had to stop running in 2009, but completed Ironman Lake Placid wearing a DonJoy carbon brace and walking the marathon portion of this triathlon. Two attempts at Ironman Canada in 2012 and 2013 ended with my failing to finish. By 2013, my left leg was so badly bowed it was affecting my lower back, which was almost always sore.

I decided to proceed with a total knee replacement in December 2013 with Doctor Richard Jenkinson at the Holland Orthopedic Clinic in Toronto. I did it to save my back, I did it so I could regain my fitness, I did it so I could preserve my health into my 60s and 70s.

When I began to regain consciousness in the recovery room, the anesthetist leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘Now the work begins.’ I’ve thought of her many times since. For the first month, my wife Susan Typert handbalmed my inflexible leg in and out of the car. It was four months before I could bend my stiff knee enough to pedal one full circle on a stationary bike. That summer the farthest I could ride was 30km before my knee seized with fatigue – pretty discouraging after pedalling 180 km in an Ironman.

By summer 2015, I was able to do three progressively longer triathlons; The longest in Kingston, Ont was a 2km swim, 45 km bike and 15km walk in 5 hours and 30 minutes – and, jeez, I was a lot slower than when I first did this race in 2008. But I was thrilled that I could move for 5.30 without issues in my new knee.

It’s been such a gift to walk without a brace and pain, to not have to ice afterward or take anti-inflammatories. I’ve enjoyed it so much that this summer I stopped competing in triathlons altogether and began taking advantage of my new knee in trail races. I line up at the start, look at the young excited faces around me (I’m 59) and think, ‘You’re the oldest guy here; you’re already a winner.’ Of course, they leave the walker in the dust once we go!

Since last October, I’ve walked three 26km trail races and, feeling encouraged, registered for my first 50km ultra-marathon in Haliburton Forest in September 2016   — the biggest challenge yet for my titanium knee.

In the Ontario ultra and trail race series, the toughest course is Haliburton Forest, 800 acres of unrelenting hills that have you picking your way over rocks, roots, logs, mud and wading through creeks.

My plan was to hike 50 km at a steady 5km an hour pace and finish in about 10 hours. The critical part of the training came on consecutive Saturdays, adding time and distance until my training partner Mike Starmans and I reached 7.5 hours and 35 km in one outing. That final long walk two weeks before the race didn’t go well and I grew worried that pushing beyond my comfort zone was going to backfire.

Come race day, about 200 people gathered in the darkness at 6 am — our headlamps casting eerie shadows — and bowed our heads for race director Helen Malmberg’s prayer. Helen said when you are at your lowest point in what will be a long day remember that humans, like the wolves in the forest, are social animals — find your pack and the pack will pull you through.

And that’s the way it played out. For 10 hours and 16 minutes, Mike and I put one foot in front of the other, regardless of terrain, regardless of thirst or hunger, regardless of whether it was dark or light, rain or sun, hot or cold. Mike and I walked (hobbled when we cramped) and walked. And when we were faltering at 35 km, we found our pack, a group of young ladies chattering in the woods — “Ewww, look your knee is so swollen!” And talking with the girls got us to within 5 km of the finish before they bounded off.

In the last 2 km, fatigued and filthy but with the finish line in sight, I felt my father, who had passed away in 2010, watching over me. I gave thanks to dad for keeping me safe in the bush. I gave thanks for this rare gift of a new left knee and a second chance to do the things I love.

And, for the first time since my surgery in December 2013, a quiet satisfaction: ‘Yes, John, the pain, the walker, the canes, the drugs, the unending physio and the constant stretching — you did it all.

‘And look what you have done.’

Pictured:  John Racovali (left) and training partner Mike Starmans.
Photo credit: Dave Sweeney