Aaron Hale: 'The gift is being here and getting to run'

Aaron Hale with his fiancée McKayla Tracy after finishing the Boston Marathon. The couple are set to marry later this year. Aishwarya Kumar

2011: Kandahar, Afghanistan

Aaron Hale watched as his robot did most of the work to disarm a pressure plate full of explosives. Despite the machine's efficiency, the Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team leader had to go down a hole to diffuse one of the bombs.

The last thing Hale remembers was being punted into the air and the lights going out as he landed on his knees and elbows.

Another bomb had sat 20-30 meters from his position, undetected by the team.

He immediately patted himself down, trying to make sure his limbs, fingers and toes were intact. Everything was "still attached" to his body. He imagined he couldn't see anything because his helmet had covered his face.

A few weeks later, he was declared completely blind.

2017: The Boston Marathon

"If you guys don't mind, I'm going to collapse on the floor now," said Hale, as he walked into Mandarin Oriental Hotel, holding on to fiancée McKayla Tracy. As he walked to the finish line at the Boston Marathon, more than a few fans were tearing up. The 39-year-old Hale finished the race in 4:35:52, his guide (and ultra-marathon runner) Frank Fumich running alongside him the entire way.

Fans around them broke into applause as they made the victory lap to the hotel.

"He did it; what an amazing guy," a kid in the stands said, looking at Hale.

Tracy whispered to Hale the names of people they met and the scenes happening around them, holding his hand throughout. He lost balance on one of the stairs up to their room and said, "Just kidding" -- and Tracy rolled her eyes. Hale's dry humor is something else. After running for that long, he did not look anything close to being tired. He was chipper, cracking jokes and giving Tracy hugs.

"The gift is being here and getting to run it, being back on my feet," he said smiling. As he talked, he held his medal in his hands, rubbing it to get a sense of what it looked like.

The journey has been rough, and finishing the race was a cherry on top, he said. His face was scarred from the explosion he survived, but his smile was ear to ear.

"I slowed him down. He was fabulous out there," said Fumich.

2000-04: Italy

Up until 2006, Hale was a Navy cook, catering for troops in Italy.

"I wanted to do something a little more direct than my cushy European job. So, I volunteered to go to Afghanistan," Hale said.

It was in Afghanistan where he met a team of EOD technicians and spent time learning about bomb disposal. He was hooked. He knew it was his calling. Soon after he returned from Afghanistan, he switched from Navy cooking to Army bomb squad. He trained for a year, from 2007-08. In 2008, he became a soldier.

Right before his deployment to Afghanistan in 2011, he spent two weeks in Washington, D.C., with his parents, sisters and son. He saw his son, Cameron Hale, turn 1, and his dad entertain the guests in a Mickey Mouse costume.

"I'd say that was the best and last page in my photo album anybody could've had," Hale recalled.

2017: The Boston Marathon

Sporting a bright orange jacket, Hale looked calm a few hours before Wave 3 kicked off at 10:50 a.m. He was running the marathon for the Team with a Vision charity. He had his morning cup of coffee to get him started and looked ready, said Fumich.

"I am ready to get it going," Hale said.

He wasn't talking much, but he reflected on the hard year he has had to get to the starting line. When Tracy said goodbye to Hale earlier in the morning, she felt immense pride. He had worked for this moment, and just a year ago, they weren't sure if he would ever be able to run again, let alone run a marathon.

"And here we are at the Boston Marathon," she said, beaming.

2015: Florida

The explosion had taken Hale's sight eyes, affected his smell, broken most of the bones in his face and head, perforated most of his eardrums and burned his face.

"Thankfully, I hadn't lost any limbs," he said.

His rehabilitation process mostly consisted of learning how to lead his life without his sight, learning how to use technology to his advantage; but, even then, he knew he didn't want to get stuck on his couch. He couldn't play an active role in the military anymore, but he wanted to be an instructor at an EOD school. He spent a year and a half as an instructor at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. It was during then he started cycling, running, climbing and white-water kayaking -- anything he could do to get outside and feel purposeful. He joined an all-wounded veteran's team and climbed an 18,000-foot mountain in the Peruvian Andes.

In order to climb mountains, he had to stay in shape. He found his passion in running. Before he knew it, he had registered for his first marathon. And before he had run his first marathon, he had registered for four more.

"When it comes to running, I tell people one of the toughest things is finding a partner to go running with every time," Hale said. "And one of the best things is that I've got a running partner every time I go running."

He ran four marathons within four months in 2014 and qualified for the Boston Marathon, which he ran the following year. He was one week away from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was also at the same time he reconnected with his childhood friend, Tracy. Life was getting back on track, and he was smiling more.

One week later, he was in the hospital in Florida with a headache that felt like "somebody was crushing his head to pieces."

Tracy was by his side, moving from California to take care of him. He was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.

The infection had left him completely deaf. (The bacteria combined with the antibiotics are so powerful that they can take one's hearing away.) After months of communicating with Tracy via letters written on each other's palms, Hale had multiple surgeries to get ear implants. Finally, he could hear, though it was limited.

The infection also affected his sense of balance. It was months before he could walk on the treadmill without having to hold on to the handlebars for dear life.

"This infection made the biggest hole on his body, and so for him to be running the Boston Marathon is huge from just where he was in early 2016 with his body," Tracy said.

Why did he want to run again? It was plain stubbornness, he said.

"I wanted to be able to say that I wasn't defeated," Hale said. "I also want my son to be able to look at me, point to me and say, 'That is my father. He can do anything.'"

In September 2016, he ran his first marathon -- his hometown marathon at Akron, Ohio -- with limited hearing and poor balance -- and attained his personal-best record. In the process, he also qualified for Boston 2017.

2017: The Boston Marathon

Hale is already looking ahead. The 14-year veteran wants to participate in his first ultra-marathon, possibly the Tallahassee Distant Classic 50K.

When Hale and Tracy aren't planning marathons or mountain climbing, they are running in their chocolate fudge business -- E.O.D. Fudge. Tracy is the vice president of the organization.

"Through the meningitis and hearing loss, I've gained a deeper understanding of unwavering love and dedication to a relationship and ultimately a marriage," Tracy said. "Boston is a huge milestone for Aaron and the epitome of what is means to come back from a devastating illness."

The couple is getting married in October. "It's going to be a great year," they said at the same time.