It was both what Mike Hanson suspected and what he didn’t want to hear. That the sharp pain in his right foot near his second toe, which appeared on an easy 5-mile run after 20 weeks of solid marathon training, was probably a stress fracture. But as his doctor explained, stress fractures often don’t show up on X-rays at the onset of pain; he’d need a follow-up exam a couple of weeks later to confirm a diagnosis. The problem was, Grandma’s Marathon was just two days away on June 20, 2015—and Hanson was on track to qualify for the Boston Marathon, a lifelong dream.
The question for Hanson wasn’t whether he’d still try to run; it was, how far could he go—now with two bad feet. He depended on his right foot, his good foot, to pull his left foot and leg along after a disabling accident more than four decades ago; an accident after which Hanson was told he’d never run again.
Hanson was a senior in high school in 1972, living on a dairy farm with his foster parents in rural Wisconsin when he tripped over a log while deer hunting, his 20-gauge shotgun firing and sending a bullet through his lower left leg, “nearly blowing it off,” he says.
Severe damage to his tendons caused his toes to curl up underneath his foot, shrinking it four sizes. Eventually, his orthopedic surgeon would insert steel pins in his toes and fuse them together to keep them flat, but that would also prevent them from flexing. “My doctors said I’d always walk with a pronounced limp and that running would be impossible,” Hanson explains.
This, to a then 17-year-old whose sense of peace came from running down the open roads of the country, whose achievements on the high school cross-country team made him feel worthy when his own mother told him he’d never amount to anything in life, could have been devastating. But it just made him grittier. “Back then, my motto was ‘Don’t tell me I can’t do something because I’ll do my damnedest to prove you wrong,’” Hanson says. “I still, to this day, am always trying to prove to myself that I can be better.”
For many years after the accident, Hanson wore custom-made orthopedic shoes to fit his different sized feet, until in 2008, one of his doctors fitted him for an orthotic, which he could slip into a tennis shoe to hold his short foot in place. “Once I started wearing tennis shoes, I’m gettin’ in my head: I’m gonna run.” Never mind that his team of doctors still said that running was out of the question.
On March 9, 2009 at age 53—a day Hanson will never forget—he laced up his first pair of running shoes in more than 35 years and set out to run two miles around his neighborhood in La Crosse, Wis. He took off fast, as if he were still 16, and thought he’d pass out after about a block, but by walking some, he made it. The next day, he slowed his pace and ran the two-mile loop without stopping.
Before long, he announced to his wife, Cindy, who he calls his “rock, nurse, supporter,” and to his family, that he would run a marathon. They were on board as long as he promised to stop running if his bad foot got worse. It didn’t, but it took him four years to get to the start line of his first marathon healthy after working through a chain of overuse injuries to his good leg and foot.
“If you were to watch a slow-motion video of me running, it’s kind of frightening,” Hanson explains. “You would think that my good leg would just bust, there’s so much torque on it.”
Despite his awkward running form, in 2013 Hanson completed 26.2 miles in just under four hours. Although he was proud of his accomplishment, he knew that he could improve with better pacing and fueling. In 2014, he ran a second marathon in 3:42:43—a 15-minute PR, and not too far from a Boston qualifier (BQ) for his age group, 55 to 59, which “lit the fire to keep training,” he says. Plus, the following year, he’d move up to the next age group, 60 to 64, for which the Boston qualifying standard for men was 3:55. He was confident he could run a time well under that mark.
While Mike Hanson had been training for his second marathon, his daughter, Debbie Hanson, inspired by her dad’s running, ran her first half marathon, following a program that coincidentally shared their family’s last name, the Hansons Method. Her success with the program spurred her dad to try it, too, and in January 2015, Debbie and Mike decided they’d train for Grandma’s Marathon together. Mike also hired a coach, professional runner Katie Kellner, through Hansons Coaching Services.
Despite the tough BQ-focused training plan topping out at 64 miles a week, Kellner said that Mike never once complained about his foot and leg issues. “One of the reasons that I love coaching is that my athletes constantly inspire me in my own training,” Kellner says. “Mike was one of those athletes. There were definitely times during tough workouts of mine when I thought, ‘If Mike crushed his workout today, then I can crush mine too.’”
When Mike’s foot starting hurting the week before the race, Kellner and Mike’s orthopedic surgeon—who had finally stopped telling him not to run—supported Mike’s decision to at least start the marathon, but to stop as soon as he felt serious pain. Unfortunately, that pain began at mile two when Mike felt a pop in his foot. He turned to Debbie and stoically said, “I think it just broke.”
“What do you want to do?” she asked.
“Well, it hurts, but it’s somewhat bearable. We’ll just continue on and see how it goes,” Mike said.
They tried everything to mitigate the pain. They slowed their pace. Mike shortened his stride. They ran on the shoulder of the road where it was softer. But his foot continued to throb. He thought about dropping out at mile six, but decided against it.
“My dad is super stubborn,” Debbie says. “I knew he would go until he absolutely couldn’t run anymore.” Around mile nine, Mike had a little talk with himself. “I was thinking, ‘We’ve done all this training and my daughter is right here next to me. I’ve gotta finish this.’”
So they trudged along, Debbie encouraging him the whole way. With their family cheering for them near the end, the Hansons crossed the finish line hand-in-hand in 3:46:03, a BQ for Mike by nearly nine minutes.
The next day, with a black and blue foot twice its normal size, Mike learned that he’d broken his second metatarsal, which would require wearing a cast for seven weeks, but the BQ was worth it, he says. In early September, Debbie, then 34, also nabbed a BQ at the Minocqua Marathon with a time of 3:26:07. The Hansons would head to Boston together.
By the time the leaves changed from green to gold in early October, Mike’s foot had healed up and by December, he and Debbie were training again with Kellner, logging miles down snowy country roads—this time, with no stress fractures.
On April 18, 2016, the Hansons crossed the historic Boston finish line healthy, strong, and “Just the way we started our journey—side by side,” Debbie says. In fact, Mike re-qualified for Boston at Boston, which he ran again in 2017. In a few months, he’ll start a new marathon training cycle to try to qualify for Boston 2019 with his long-time mantra, which he’s passed along to his children and grandchildren—You only can’t if you don’t try.
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About the Author
Cate Hotchkiss is a freelance journalist, essayist, and marathoner who lives in Hood River, Oregon. She’s on Instagram @catehotchkiss.