Sunday’s running of the New York City Marathon marked the 25th anniversary of the most amazing finish in the history of the race.
Not to mention the slowest.
Bob Wieland crossed the finish line near the 98 hour mark, just over four days after he began the race. But Wieland had a good excuse for turning in such a slow time.
He has no legs.
As far as he’s concerned, he didn’t finish last, either. “I finished ahead of 300 million Americans who never finished the race!” he told Dave Ungrady of the New York Times recently.
That’s just one example of the remarkably positive attitude displayed by Wieland, who makes his living as a motivational speaker. “I lost both my legs,” Wieland often says, “but I didn’t lose my heart.”
Wieland’s odyssey began in Wisconsin 65 years ago. While attending the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, “I was one of the top left-handed pitchers in the state of Wisconsin,” he told Thomas McGlinchey of the Montgomery News. “I was either ranked number one or two, depending on who you talked to.”
Wieland had attracted deep interest from MLB scouts, but before he could sign a contract, he had to sign a contract of a different sort.
“All of a sudden I got a letter in the mail saying ‘You’re going to be inducted into the military,’” Wieland told McGlinchey. “I said, “What? Don’t you know I’m Bob Wieland, and I’m getting ready to play professional baseball with the Philadelphia Phillies?’ And they said, ‘We don’t care who you are. You’re now an American soldier.’”
In June, 1969, Wieland’s unit walked into a booby-trapped minefield. While running to give first aid, Wieland ran over an 82-millimeter mortar round. A round that size can destroy a tank, let alone a man’s legs.
Wieland was designated Dead on Arrival at the hospital, and placed in a body bag. Then, “By the grace of God, a miracle,” he told McGlinchey. “Instead of keeping the body bag zipped up, they unzipped it. I must’ve had one last gasp of breath or something twitched in my leg.”
Fortunately an attentive nurse saw the movement. Wieland was resuscitated, and soon wrote a note to his parents: “Dear Mom and Dad, I’m in the hospital. Everything is going to be OK. The people here are taking good care of me. Love, Bob. P.S. I think I lost my legs.”
Even without his legs, Wieland realized that he had been given a new life. “When they pull you out of a zipped up body bag, you certainly are going to count your blessings everyday,” he told McGlinchey. “If you don’t, you’ve got the IQ of a grapefruit.”
And so began Wieland’s second athletic career. He began lifting weights during his rehab, starting with five measly pounds. Eight years later, he set a record in the US Powerlifting Competition.
And not in the handicapped division, either. All of Wieland’s competitors had two legs. Wieldand broke the record three more times, but each time his record was disallowed because he was deemed to have an unfair advantage.
“If it’s such an advantage to bench press without legs,” Wieland asked McGlinchey. “how come all the other lifters don’t go to the hospital and have the operation?”
In 1982, Wieland began a Walk Across America. On his hands. He raised money for the Red Cross and World Vision. He reached Washington, D.C. in three years, eight months and six days.
“In the press conference,” he recalled for McGlinchey, “I said, ‘I hope it was an encouragement to you, Mr. President.’ He [Ronald Reagan] didn’t say anything. He started crying. It was pretty touching because he was never at a shortage of words, but he didn’t know what to say. It overwhelmed him.”
Wieland’s next feat was the 1986 New York City Marathon. “I felt like I got lost in the shuffle,” he told Ungrady. “I was like a turtle among 25,000 people, determined to get to the finish line.”
He covered his hands with four layers of energy absorbing materials, and size-one Adidas shoes with leather soles. He’d plant his arms, swing his torso back and forth to take a step, and then repeat the process. For four days.
He would nap about two hours a day, and talk with veterans and people familiar with his incredible story.
After going through all that, Wieland returned and completed the 1987 race in “only” 81 hours. The highlight? A group he met in Harlem at two in the morning.
“They said, ‘Hey, bro, you put on a show for us, we want to put on a show for you!’” Wieland told Ungrady. “They were singers and rappers. It was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. They said, ‘You’ve been encouraging us, we want to encourage you.’”
Wieland just keeps motivating us. He’s completed four more marathons, remains the only double amputee to complete the Ironman Triathlon Course in Kona, Hawaii, and served two years as the strength and motivational coach for the Green Bay Packers. In 1994, People Magazine named him one of the Six Most Amazing Americans of the last 20 years.
Currently, Wieland is in the middle of riding his hand-powered cycle across America. Three times.
As he recently told Rene de la Cruz of the Apple Valley Review, “Success is never based on where you start; it is based on where you’re going to finish.”