Shattered Leg Won’t Stop A Dad From Running NYC

Sam and John Killian show off their finishers medals. Photo: NYRR Media

He’s doing it for his son.

From: NYRR Media

Sam and John Killian show off their finishers medals. Photo: NYRR Media

Not long after his son, Sam, was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, John Killian began running.

It seemed only natural. Duchenne, which affects primarily boys, causes a progressive loss of strength and is caused by a gene mutation that causes a lack of protein, and protein is necessary to repair muscle cells. Without it, muscles fail to regenerate. The anticipated progression, said Killian, is that kids will be in a wheelchair somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12 or 14.

Sam is just about to turn 10.

“I run to try to help keep Sam running,” he explains. So do two of his three other children: Abbie, 16; Nick, 14; and Ben, 12. Abbie and Nick already have seven fundraising half marathons between them, and in 13 marathons since 2006, Killian, 44, has raised an estimated $750,000 for Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, through its Run for Our Sons program.

But on Father’s Day 2010, his 18th wedding anniversary, Killian was on his way to a 5:30 a.m. group run around White Rock Lake near his Dallas home when his Chevy Tahoe was struck by a woman driving the wrong way on Interstate 30. His right leg, crushed under the dashboard, sustained compound fractures of both the tibia and fibula; the tibia was missing half an inch of bone. It was, in a word, pulverized. His left arm was broken, as were several ribs. A passenger in the other vehicle was killed.

“Luckily, the air bag hit me square,” he said, perhaps saving him from head injuries as well. And the oncoming car hit him on a curve so that the head-on crash caught the empty passenger side of his car with more force than the driver’s side. “I’m very, very lucky how it all worked out. My wife and I talk all the time about whatever the situation is, you just try to look for the bright side and deal with the tough stuff.” It’s a lesson, he said, that he and Stefanie learned from Sam.

In this case, the tough stuff included three months in a wheelchair before he was allowed to put even the slightest occasional weight on his halo-braced leg, and only then with the aid of a walker. The irony, he said, was not lost on Sam, who is still largely mobile but uses a wheelchair to go any great distance.

“I think he thought it was pretty cool to have me do a little of what he’s doing,” said Killian, who proudly lost a wheelchair race to his son.

So after four consecutive years of running the ING New York Marathon, Killian found himself last year in a wheelchair just past mile 18, cheering on some of his Run for Our Sons compatriots and, in a rare treat because he’s “usually a couple of hours behind them,” the professional runners. He says that after being a little down the day before, when he found himself missing the pre-race buzz, he had a surprisingly good time watching the race.

But not good enough to want to watch again this year. Instead, he’ll be running.

Cleared by his orthopedic surgeon, Killian began running (“mostly walking”) on June 1, and training on July 1, just over a year after the crash. After seven months in the halo and nine months of intense physical therapy, he runs every other day, and is up to about 30 miles a week. He knows he won’t approach his personal best, 3:46:51 (New York, 2008), and the training hasn’t always gone smoothly, but the thought of setting out across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge again for Sam – and for himself this time – makes the struggle worthwhile.

“I’m very committed to it this year,” he said. “Even if I have to walk and limp, I’m going to be there.”

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