Kevin Counihan of Beverly, Mass. has been running competitively for most of his life. In 2010 he completed his eighth Boston Marathon, marking his 100th marathon since 2002.
While that may be impressive enough, Counihan is also a mobility-impaired athlete, having lost most of his right foot (all but the big toe) in a lawnmower accident when he was five. While in college in 1980, he also survived a near-fatal car crash that left him with serious knee, shoulder and arm injuries. But that didn’t stop him from competing in more marathons than most runners ever will.
Counihan and many other mobility-impaired athletes have been able to participate in marathons and shorter races through the support of the nonprofit group Achilles International, which is based in New York City but has more than 65 chapters around the world. Each chapter offers a community of support for disabled athletes.
In response to the three deaths and more than 260 injuries in the Boston Marathon bombings (including at least 15 amputations), Hank Art, a professor of biology at Williams College and a seasoned marathoner, along with other local residents, has begun gathering support for a Boston chapter of Achilles to help those who were injured recover and hopefully participate in next year’s marathon.
Art became interested in Achilles in 1994 when he first began running marathons. He noticed that there were often
"I was just incredibly inspired by that," Art said, "and would continually see them almost every marathon I was running."
Art learned more about Achilles from a Williams alumnus named John Reynolds while leading a series of safaris in Africa in 2007. Reynolds had run five New York City Marathons as an Achilles guide and was a good friend of Dick Traum, who founded Achilles in 1976. He wrote Traum a letter mentioning Art’s interest, and shortly after, Art received an application in his email inbox.
Beginning in 2007, Art has served as a guide for Counihan through eight marathons - four in New York and four in Boston. The pair had planned to run in their fifth New York City marathon in November, but the event was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy.
Both runners participated in this year’s Boston Marathon - Art independently and Counihan with another guide - and were both stopped before reaching the finish line (Art with less than a half-mile remaining). Several Williamstown residents also competed, but only two had crossed the finish line on Boylston Street before the bombs went off. None of the Williamstown runners were injured.
Art recalls standing with a large crowd of runners behind a police line near Massachusetts Avenue, as ambulances and police vehicles streamed toward the finish line. "And so we knew something terrible had happened," he said. "About ten minutes after we were stopped, the police said it was bombs that had gone off.
"I stood [there] for about an hour and just watched all these police vehicles and ambulances, and eventually got my gear out of the gear bus that was beyond the finish line," he said. "But I couldn’t really sense the magnitude of the thing because they had it all cordoned off. You couldn’t get to the finish line anymore."
After returning from Boston with his wife, Art contacted Traum, who he had met a few times, and asked if there was a way for people to donate through Achilles to support the recovery of those injured in the attack. Art was also interested in gathering the support of other runners and Achilles guides and wondered if there wasn’t way of making donations through the website.
Traum wrote back that he would do what he could, but that his biggest concern at the moment was setting up a Boston chapter of Achilles to help those injured in the explosions recover and participate in next year’s marathon. He was unsure how to proceed, however, since an earlier attempt to establish a Boston chapter about ten years ago had been unsuccessful.
Many of the victims in the Boston attack had been injured from the waist down by shrapnel and from the bomb and other projectiles that got in the way of the blast.
Knowing that, Art saw the need for the orthopedic community to be involved. "And I said, well, I don’t know any orthopedic surgeons in Boston or have links to the rehabilitation community there, but I know some orthopedic surgeons on this end of the state and we’ll see what we can do."
Over the next several days, Art remained in contact with Traum and connected with some local physicians. Jonathan Cluett, a Williams alumnus and a local orthopedist, "took an instantaneous and very sustained interest," Art said, "and sent dozens of emails and follow up emails to the New England Orthopedic Society, which happens to be having their annual meeting on Cape Cod in June." Cluett will speak at that meeting about the Achilles programs.
Cluett also has contacted fellow Williams alumnus Jeremiah Shuur, who is an emergency-room doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and Irene Davis, director of the Spaulding National Running Center, in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, to help gather support for the Boston chapter.
"At the same time, Achilles has hired two half-time staffers who live in the Boston area to coordinate trying to get a chapter up and off the ground there," Art said.
The new chapter will be based on the Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans, another program run by Achilles, which works in conjunction with Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland to support injured veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"They have this wonderful relationship with Walter Reed," Art said, "so that as veterans return they are made aware of what can happen, in terms of, do they want to get running again. And it’s as much lifting the spirit as healing the body."
"And I think it’s a great opportunity, great model, and it’ll get beyond just the people that were injured in the Boston Marathon," he said.
As part of the efforts in Williamstown, Tunnel City Coffee on Spring Street will be making Boston cream pies to order, with all proceeds going to Achilles. The pies (they are actually cakes) will be made from scratch at Tunnel City, and can be ordered until midnight on Tuesday, May 21, with pickup on Saturday, May 25.
Paul Lovegreen, owner of Tunnel City, and his pastry chef had been talking about doing a fundraiser for the bombing victims and donating the money to One Fund Boston, a campaign started by Governor Deval Patrick to help pay for recovery and medical costs following the bombings. So far, the campaign has raised more than $23 million, but it will end this June.
One person Art had been in contact with was his morning running partner Eric White, a retired orthopedist who lives in Williamstown. Talking to White at the coffee shop, Lovegreen mentioned the fundraising idea, and White suggested that the money could be donated to Achilles instead.
"That’s really better," Lovegreen said, "because now we’re even giving it to someone who’s doing a local effort for this. They’re runners, it’s a running organization that’s even going to reach out and help [victims] with other things."
Art said his motivation for becoming involved with the Achilles Boston chapter efforts came from a moment of reflection the day after the marathon.
"It struck me the next day, as I realized that as I was stopped four tenths of a mile from the finish line that Š probably most of the people who were injured would have been people that would have been there kind of celebrating and cheering me on as I came through, and all they were doing was standing there innocently, having a great time celebrating the runners and this great festival event, and it just all changed.
"And over the years, Achilles has been able to give me a lot more than I’ve been able to give them," he added. "But it all seems to be happening. It all seems to be really coming together."