By Michelle Malia
Imagine yourself in a hip-to-toe cast, then in a wheelchair, then paralyzed. With each successive injury, your hopes of walking, of running, of racing seem to fade. So it’s amazing that after pushing through a decade-long marathon of medical problems—including all of the above—Somer Richter completed her first Spartan race, a Sprint in Austin, Texas, in May. She stepped onto the course on her own two feet around 9:30 a.m. that Sunday morning and crossed the finish line just shy of six hours later.
“It was just an incredible feeling,” Richter says. “If there was a fast-forward button in life, and back in that summer of 2001 I could have seen what I was doing today, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.”
Richter’s string of surgeries, hospitalizations, and setbacks started in 2001. She was 20 years old, and her shins started to ache. Having run and played soccer throughout her childhood, she suspected shin splints. But her boss at the post office wanted confirmation, so she asked Richter to get a doctor’s note clearing her to work.
The problem turned out to be far more severe. Richter’s left tibia was riddled with stage two osteosarcoma—bone cancer, and it was spreading into the soft tissue.
“I heard that and I thought, Okay, let’s deal with it,” she recalls. “That’s always been my attitude—let’s deal with it, and let’s move on.” Richter went through several rounds of chemo, and in November of that year, doctors removed nine inches of her tibia and replaced it with a cadaver bone. For the next three months, her left leg atrophied while locked away inside a hip-to-toe cast.
It took months of physical therapy to rebuild the strength in her left leg, and slowly, Richter relearned how to walk. She moved from the cast into a wheelchair, then to a walker. Then she began walking on her own again, and shortly after, she met her husband, Jason.
Things were looking up, but Richter wasn’t in the clear just yet. With extra stress from the cadaver bone, she developed arthritis in her left knee. She had to have a full knee replacement in 2005. Even worse, the chemo had left her with severe nerve pain. Her limbs hurt too badly to ignore.
To soothe her achy body, doctors inserted a nerve stimulator in Richter’s spinal cord, but it gave out. Desperate for an end to the pain, she and Jason found another doctor to replace the stimulator, but after the surgery, Richter woke up thrashing uncontrollably in the hospital. “I didn’t have any control over what my body was doing,” she says. “I was flipping in my bed.”
The nurses urged her to calm down. They didn’t understand what was happening. Eventually the doctor ordered an emergency surgery and removed the nerve stimulator the next day, and the day after that, a neurologist ran some tests and delivered the news: At some point, Richter’s surgeon had punctured her spine, causing a blood clot, a complication that had paralyzed her from the abdomen down.
Just like that, Richter’s challenges grew by magnitudes. She was paraplegic. She couldn’t sit up, she couldn’t walk, she couldn’t go to the bathroom. “A few days ago, I knew how to do this, and now I can’t,” she remembers thinking. “I couldn’t do anything.” Would she ever walk again? Her doctor’s response: “It’ll be a long, hard battle.”
Richter, now a Beachbody coach, spent countless hours in physical and occupational therapy relearning how to walk and in pelvic floor therapy relearning how to use the bathroom. She was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and for 18 months after she was paralyzed, she suffered more than 500 violent, stress-induced, non-epileptic seizures, some of them lasting for up to 30 minutes.
Richter’s dedication to her recovery paid off, and today she walks on her own, though she still opts to push the cart in the grocery store for extra stability.
Earlier this year, as a sign of triumph over adversity, she decided to join a group of her colleagues in a Spartan Sprint. Jason signed on to help. “I got her the right obstacle course racing shoes so she’d get traction, and we thought, well, she can’t go out there with her walker, a bunch of big wheels trying to get over everything,” he says.
Jason would be next to her the whole race, helping her up and over walls—Richter needed to be careful, since breaking her cadaver bone could mean amputation—and they decided she would also use trekking poles for added support. Her surgeries limited her movements in some ways, so if she couldn’t complete an obstacle, she substituted squats or pushups for burpees. She handled each Spartan obstacle the way she’d handled every obstacle life ever threw at her: She dealt with it, and then moved on.
It was slow going, and by the time she approached the finish line, she figured the rest of her team would be long gone. They’d finished four hours earlier, after all. But with just a few obstacles to go, she and Jason spotted the crowd at the finish line. One teammate rallied the rest of the team just as Richter and Jason started the final stretch.
She crushed the Hercules hoist, and Jason supported her through the rings. But when she couldn’t complete the rope climb, the entire team stepped up to do her burpees.
“It was incredible to see them all standing out there for me, for us, because we’re a team and that’s what team members do,” says Richter. She also acknowledges how much strength her husband provides. “It’s an honor to walk through life and walk through the Spartan race with him,” she says.
She finished the race feeling stronger than ever, and last month, she and Jason completed their second race, the Spartan Super in West Virginia. It took 9 hours. “We were the last two racers and pretty much everything was shutting down,” says Jason. But they’d finished—one step and one obstacle at a time.
Originally published at life.spartan.com