The day after Mike Dimas had his left leg amputated below the knee, his sister Yolanda sent me an email from his hospital room:
“I told him that if by June he was up and around, I was going to enter him in the lottery for the Houston half marathon.”
That was April 24. Mike had been in the hospital for 22 days, fighting a painful and emotional battle with necrotizing fasciitis. When the bacteria were finally out of his system – after countless excruciating hours in a hyperbaric chamber and three surgeries – doctors told Mike he might lose his leg.
“I said, ‘After all the work you did to save my foot, you’re going to cut my leg off?’ ” recalled Mike, 45. “They looked at me and said, ‘We weren’t trying to save your foot; we were trying to save your life.’ ” At that point, the idea of being mobile at all, much less walking 13.1 miles, was all but unfathomable.
So as her brother began his second night with only one leg, Yolanda willed herself to look forward: “I can only imagine how much we’d all be crying if Mike was able to do the half,” she wrote to me. “Don’t want to rush him though.”
Mike had never been a runner. Not a walker, either. But Yolanda, a longtime coach for Luke’s Locker, knew how empowering crossing a starting line – and, if you’re lucky, the finish as well – can be.
“I wanted to give him a goal,” said my longtime friend, with whom I reconnected when I was training for my own first half marathon years ago. “We were all afraid.”
Less than two months after Mike left the hospital, Yolanda put his name, hers and that of another sister, Liz Santos, into the drawing for the half marathon – which would take place, by the way, on her 50th birthday. They had an understanding: If all three were selected, they’d all do it. If not, none of them would.
The morning of the lottery, Yolanda sent a text to Mike at 5:15: “Pack your bags. We’re going to Houston.”
That same day, Mike was fitted with his first prosthetic. So, he says, “It seemed like a pretty good sign the half marathon was something I needed to be doing.”
Throughout the next six months, Yolanda made a point not to set up a schedule for Mike. Instead, she’d just ask periodically how everything was going, or how many miles he’d last walked.
The only time they walked together was New Year’s Day.
“That’s when I realized how hard it was going to be for him,” Yolanda said. “When he walks, he has to be aware of everything going on with the prosthetic. He has to stop every few miles and do maintenance.”
Early in his healing process, people told Mike there would come a day when losing a leg wouldn’t be all he thought about. Maybe that would be true for someone else, he’d tell them; “not for me.”
“I was wrong,” he says now. “They were right. It’s no longer the thing that dominates my life or dominates my day.”
Sunday morning of the race, Mike woke up at 2 and started getting dressed, thinking it was hours later. He was nervous, Yolanda said; she was trying not to cry.
Mike, for his part, insisted that first and foremost, “We were celebrating Yolanda’s birthday. I wanted to make sure people understood that. I didn’t do this to try to be inspiring or to prove anything to anyone.”
But people were inspired; how could they not be? There was the police officer who came running up to them and said, “Best of luck to you, man,” and shook Mike’s hand.
When he and his sisters reached the water stops, volunteers would read his name on his bib and chant, “Mike! Mike! Mike!” Yolanda says.
Every few miles, she’d start looking for a place for Mike to sit down so he could change the liners in his prosthetic. Around Mile 10, Mike said he almost gave in to his fatigue. But he kept going.
At just over Mile 11, Yolanda put the distance remaining in perspective: “That’s just two laps around NorthPark.”
“I said, “We’ve got this,’ ” Mike said. “ ‘Let’s go.’ At that point, we were side-by-side with the full marathon people. We heard more music, and we realized we were going to finish. We had our own energy, just the three of us.”
He remembers turning a corner and seeing friends and family – including their wildly excited 5-year-old nephew – at the finish line. He felt a “well of emotion.”
“I can remember walking across it and turning to Liz, but the memory seems very surreal,” Mike said. “It was like, ‘Really?’ As surreal as it was to cross the start line, it was that surreal to cross the finish line.
“I’m not the only person who walked the half marathon that day,” he said. I’m not the only person who’s walked one ever. It’s a very personal journey. It was me walking that marathon. Yes, I have challenges, but everybody has challenges.
“Everybody’s journey is their own. For me, going 13.1 might as well have been going 100 miles for what it did for me, for the accomplishment in my mind. It was much more emotional, more of a psychological win than anything else.”