The new year is here, and once again, the plans are being made. It’s possible for you to make a difference in your life through your personal fitness goals, but you have to make the commitment to yourself.
There are some who have personal challenges to overcome. I have my heart issues for which I am trying to find a balance. My resolution is to become a better slower runner and so far, I am off on the right foot.
This column is about Adam Popp who I had the pleasure to meet at the JFK 50-Miler and, hearing his story, I was inspired and want to share with all of you his thoughts. Adam made a decision not to accept his situation as it was but to make a change to what he wanted to be. You do not know what you can do until you try. Sit back and let Adam’s words be a source of inspiration.
On December 7, 2007 on his second deployment to Paktia Province, Afghanistan, Air Force Technical Sergeant Adam Popp of the 455th Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit was removing an improvised explosive device when one detonated, resulting in the loss of his right leg below the knee.
There are three sides to the story of Adam Popp: Before his injury; the seven years after his injury when he wasn’t running, but tried to find a new sense of self; and from 2015 until the present where he has taken off in many areas of his life.
At the 55th JFK 50-Miler, as Popp was approaching the finish line in 9:41:54, the crowd was in awe seeing him making his way to the finish line. Heads were turning. There were many questions.
Popp states, “In 2017 I learned that the race, for me, really starts once I get down off Weverton Cliffs. Navigating the AT section last year really taught me to be patient during this section, and don’t fall and get hurt, because there are a lot of rocks and places to do that. This year, I learned to save enough energy to finish strong. In 2017, the last 8 miles were a struggle for me. In 2018, I ran strong in those last 8 miles and felt a lot better than last year. So, taking this into account from 2017, I was 11 minutes faster on the C&O Segment, 9 minutes faster on the 8-mile road section, and was able to pass over 400 people (about half the field) from Weverton to the finish.”
Popp made it to the entry to the AT in a time of 26:18. The split at Weverton was 3:48:15. The Taylor split time was 7:31:11, and at Dam 4 the time was 8:13:36.
The competitive spirit remains as he comments, “I hope to continue to improve my JFK time and think I can do that, especially on better course conditions. I’m just now starting to see the benefits of consistent mileage over three plus years as is evident in my recent times. I think and hope that will continue for the next year or two before I start to plateau a bit. Also, I would like to run a fast 50-mile course to really see what I am capable of at that distance. This year the AT had different conditions. I replaced the sole on my running blade with a brand-new sole, which I think helped a lot. However, I still fell three times up on the AT section. I think it was inevitable, as I saw other runners around me falling as well. During one of the falls, I slid down the side of the trail on my back because of the packed snow, and thankfully, another runner helped pull me back up, which also helped me overcome the conditions.”
“My drive now comes from not taking things for granted. For 28 years of my life, up until my injury, I took running and many other things for granted. I didn’t like running. I didn’t train. I assumed that I could do this whenever I wanted for the rest of my life. In 2007 this changed and was taken away from me, or so I thought, in a split second. For the next seven and a half years I accepted this as reality until April of 2015 when I worked with my prosthetist and a physical therapist to try running again. So, to finally get this back after all those years and realize if you put time and effort into something, it pays of in big ways. This drive has spilled into other areas of my life and is a big factor in my accomplishments over the past three and a half years: Earning a graduate degree, running and triathlon success, traveling, working, spending time with family,” states Popp.
Popp shares words for the first timer: “For JFK 50-miler, and most things in life, the work and preparation you put into it ahead of time will reduce the pain and suffering during and after the event. I ran a half marathon in 2007, a few months before my injury, on low mileage and no training plan. I was significantly sorer after that race than any other race I’ve done, including 50 plus milers. It’s ironic to see now, that with proper training, you don’t have to feel like garbage in the following days after a race.”
“I always second guessed my decision to run JFK while on the AT, especially right before Weverton because of the terrain in that final stretch before the switchbacks. Coming off this section a lot slower than last year felt a bit discouraging, but at the same time gave me a good challenge to push myself to see if I could make up that time,” Popp adds
There is a mental preparation to running. “I think the best way for me personally to sharpen and strengthen my mental toughness is by racing. There’s a point in every race, no matter the distance, where you’re in a fight with your mind. You either back down or push through the pain. The best way I’ve found for me to tackle this is by racing and confronting that inner voice. Every time I confront it, it increases me mental fortitude a little each time.”
On the benefits from the military: “The personal gifts I’ve received from the military are countless. I think the two biggest benefits I am thankful for currently are self-discipline and adaptability. Discipline keeps me going when motivation and excitement are lacking; adaptability, which is a common theme in the military, has been my way of life since my injury.”
There are adjustments to be made to know the physical limitations. “I think I am better aware of these potential limitations each year and each time I attempt a big goal. I won’t truly know these limitations until I fail miserably at one of my goals. I am slowly moving the bar and attempting this ‘fail’ each year.”
He continues about being called an Ultramarathoner. “Not in a million years. When I started running in April of 2015, I thought a 5 or 10k was ambitious, and a marathon wasn’t even in the realm of possibilities. The longest I had run prior to my injury was a half marathon, so how would I be able to eclipse that as an amputee? I ran a marathon in November 2015 and thought that was the pinnacle. Then, in July of 2016 I learned through a friend about ultramarathons and had a new goal. Nineteen weeks later, in December 2016, I finished Brazos Bend 100-miler and wondered what other things I had been missing out on.”
“It’s easiest for me to compare times, but I’ve definitely had races where my effort and race felt as hard as I could’ve run, but the time didn’t reflect the effort. I think these races are the ones where I am most satisfied. In preparation for the JFK in 2016 and 2017, I was training for 100-milers that were in December, so I was on a training plan centered around those races. Those plans consisted of some high mileage back-to-back weekends in November at a slow pace/low heart rate. In 2017 I ran Stone Mill 50-miler the weekend before JFK, ran three days of 10-15 miles during that week, then ran JFK. In 2018 I changed my approach and I started running higher mileage earlier in the year (staring around June instead of September). This year I wasn’t on a specific plan, but trying to log as many miles as my body felt comfortable with and racing some hard miles more frequently. Three weeks before JFK I had a 97-mile week and the week of JFK I had a 78-mile week ending two days before JFK, took two days off, then ran JFK.
Popp shares words for others who are in his position: “Change takes a lot of time and a lot of effort—’nothing worth having comes easy.’ This is true for almost everyone. Oftentimes, we see the end result and don’t realize the work that an individual did to get where they are. I have been putting a lot of time and a lot of effort, almost every day since April 15th, 2015, to get to where I am today. I was so slow and out of shape then, but my current state happened because I finally started instead of pushing it off until later.”