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Former Marine Eric McElvenny eyeing Ironman records

Courtesy of Eric McElvenny

SAN DIEGO -- Marine Capt. Eric McElvenny didn't know the fellow officer who walked into his hospital room one day.

McElvenny had just lost much of his lower right leg to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. In the days that followed in December 2011, he was shuttled from Afghanistan to Germany to Washington, D.C., and, finally, the Naval Medical Center in San Diego.

He was still bed-bound, unsure what life would bring as an amputee. When the unknown visitor walked into his room, the former rugby and baseball player at the Naval Academy wasn't feeling like the confident, in-charge Marine he'd been just days before.

"He introduced himself and then reached down and took off his leg and handed it to me and said, 'Hey, this is what you're going to have in a couple of months,'" McElvenny recalls. "And I grabbed it and -- wow. Because I hadn't noticed that he had one when he walked in."

The fellow Marine, Capt. Max Frank -- who'd lost his own leg to an IED earlier in 2011-- told McElvenny he'd learned to walk with his prosthesis 2½ months after losing his leg. "See if you can beat that," Frank told McElvenny. He added that he was soon getting fitted for a running leg, too.

That day, McElvenny could envision a world in which he wasn't confined to a bed, a hospital room and a reliance on others.

About the same time, McElvenny got an email from a friend in his battalion that said, "Hey, Mac, when are you going to run your first marathon?"

"He knew what would inspire me," says McElvenny, now 32. "He knew I needed a challenge."

With that, an idea was born. McElvenny decided to raise the stakes. He'd leap over the marathon and do an Ironman triathlon.

Now, 3½ years later, he has another goal: to be the fastest amputee Ironman ever.

Steady improvement

McElvenny now is retired from the Marine Corps in San Diego and juggles the demands of seminary study, Ironman training, motivational speaking and helping to raise two young daughters with his wife, Rachel, also a Naval Academy graduate and veteran.

He delivers a message of hope, perseverance and Christian faith in his speaking engagements.

Someday, perhaps, he'll be a pastor. Or maybe the seminary, his speaking and his Ironman quest will take him somewhere he's not yet dreamed of going -- just as he never envisioned being an amputee athlete.

Two months after losing his right leg (and also suffering severe damage to his left), McElvenny was in a prosthesis for the first time.

His next goal was to be walking with his new prosthesis -- without the aid of a cane or crutches -- when his fellow Marines returned to Camp Pendleton from Afghanistan in March 2012. He did it.

Then came his introduction to triathlon through the Challenged Athletes Foundation's Operation Rebound program for injured military members. He attended CAF's triathlon camp and did a sprint triathlon on Camp Pendleton that August. The next month he did the Super Frog Half Ironman in Coronado, California.

"It was long and it was painful," he says. His time: 6 hours, 35 minutes.

That October, McElvenny completed the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., beating his 4:30 goal by five minutes.

"I thought that was pretty cool," he says. "I ran a marathon within the first year of losing my leg."

He has now completed three full Ironman races -- including the Ironman World Championship race at Kona, Hawaii, in 2013 -- eight half-Ironmans and two marathons, and his times have steadily improved.

He's knocked 20 minutes off his Ironman time and is down to 11:34. His half-Ironman mark has dropped from 6:35 to 5:06. In his first standalone marathon, he ran 4:25. In his second, he ran 3:21. He knows he's making progress and admits he's getting smarter.

Ironman racing requires athletes to adjust as they learn how their bodies respond and perform during training and competition. As a newcomer, McElvenny has had to learn how to train, figure out transitions, come up with a nutrition plan and become an expert on bikes, shoes and wetsuits. Plus, there's the leg.

McElvenny's limb is evolving. Amputees, especially in the first years after surgery, have to constantly adjust their prostheses for running and cycling. The process can be painful and discouraging.

Sometimes he has to remind himself that progress isn't automatic.

He went into Ironman Arizona last November hoping to do 11 hours, but missed by 34 minutes.

"I was like, 'Man, why am I doing this? This is stupid. Why am I not getting faster?'" he recalls thinking. "Then I had to take a step back like, 'Wait a second. I only have one leg and I'm up running an Ironman. Just enjoy it. Finish this race and learn from it and keep pushing.'"

Aiming for records

As McElvenny prepares for his next two Ironman races -- Ironman Canada in July and Ironman Arizona again this November -- and thinks about his next three to four years of racing, he has two numbers in mind.

The first is 10:09, the fastest time by an American amputee in a full Ironman, set by Paul Martin in 2005 at Ironman Coeur d'Alene in Idaho. The second is 9:57, the amputee world record set by Brazil's Rivaldo Martins in 2005 in Germany.

Those are big targets for a man who has yet to break 11 hours, but they are in his long-term sights.

"That's what I'm shooting for," he says. "Keep working my way there. It's just not going to happen overnight."

Those who know the sport -- and McElvenny -- believe he can do it.

Bob Babbitt, an Ironman Hall of Famer who co-founded the Challenged Athletes Foundation and has covered the sport for decades, says, "Eric can get there. He has that type of talent."

Peter Harsch, who is McElvenny's prosthetist and a 14-time Ironman finisher with a personal best of 9:28, says his friend can get "a whole lot" better, considering the first few years in the sport come with a steep learning curve.

"It takes several years of dedication and consistency and frequency of building the engine, as we say," he says. Plus, the damaged limb is a challenge.

"As a new amputee, there's a lot of changes that the body goes through, a lot of changes," he says. "On the prosthetics end, it's taken some time. He's had some setbacks here and there with his limb changing and figuring out what his body can take and not take."

Lately, Harsch has come up with some new equipment that is fitting better and allowing McElvenny to improve his training. McElvenny is coming off a 5:08 time, his second-best half-Ironman time, in Ironman 70.3 Texas, and Harsch expects McElvenny's times later this year to drop significantly.

But the most important thing McElvenny has is motivation, says Harsch.

"Eric has that passion, that drive in his heart, that he wants to excel, push his body to the limit and really test his mind and his body," he says. "I think he's done that as a Naval grad, he did that as a Marine, and I think -- I know for a fact -- he has the dedication to want to figure it out, train smarter, train harder and to go out and race and be the best of all time in this sport. He wants to accomplish that and beat those world records."

Harsch says what McElvenny has done is significant.

"The average time for able-bodied athletes is 12½ hours," he says. "So Eric's looking at beating able-bodied athletes by 2½ hours."

Leader by example

McElvenny, who grew up near Pittsburgh, has been driven to succeed for most of his life, but the targets have shifted. In high school, it was sports. At the Naval Academy, it was rugby, mechanical engineering and a focus on getting into the Marine Corps.

Once a Marine, he chose infantry, then felt frustrated at not "getting into the fight" for several years.

In 2011, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he headed a four-man team embedded with an Afghan army infantry company in Helmand Province. He was there 3½ months, immersed in his mission and relishing the challenge.

It was on a routine patrol as Afghan and U.S. forces were pushing into a new area and trying to connect with the people living there that he stepped on an IED.

For about 15 seconds he was stunned, not quite sure what happened. He thought at first he might be dying, until the 21-year-old Navy corpsman in his team jumped on him, jammed his knee into McElvenny's femoral artery to slow the bleeding and began bandaging McElvenny's leg, telling him he'd be OK.

Seventeen minutes after the explosion, McElvenny was on a helicopter. Just over three minutes later, he was at a medical facility. Within 20 minutes of landing, he was in surgery. Then came his long trip home, a reunion with his family, and his eventual retirement as a Marine after six years, 11 months in uniform.

McElvenny's mission has changed now -- to becoming the best triathlete he can be. Since leaving the Marine Corps, he's tried several paths. He's still seeking his ultimate destination. But Rachel believes triathlon is what he needs to do.

Several times, in fact, Rachel has had to give Eric pep talks to keep him focused on triathlon when he's been discouraged that he's being selfish or wasting his time. "She pushes me," he says.

She says it's been important for his recovery to be passionate about something.

"It is just something that immediately clicked with him, and he really loved it," Rachel says of triathlon. "So I think with other aspects of his life, where he keeps changing what he wants to do, I let him do that, because I really haven't seen a passion for what he's in. But I see that with triathlon."

Eric is starting to understand that all the hours, the training, the travel and the expense of triathlon aren't wasted.

Just as Capt. Frank was able to inspire him, McElvenny has been able to help other injured servicemen, letting them know there's more to life than a hospital bed. That they can lead active, full, exciting lives.

"One of the biggest fears is fear of the unknown," he says. "I want to take away that fear."

Harsch says McElvenny is delivering an extraordinary message.

"He used his disability and ability, his mental and physical ability, to race Ironman, to encourage other veterans," says Harsch. "To many other people that see what he's doing, it's like, 'If he can do this, I can do that.' He's a role model for kids and kids with disabilities.

"I've seen it already. 'Wow, you can do that. Wow, OK, life isn't over.' You can live an active life. He has that mental capacity to push and to lead."