By Josh Jacques
When Beth Sanden, 60, traveled to Antarctica in February, she used her 43-pound handcycle to complete a marathon.
More importantly, she finished her 13-year journey to accomplish the unthinkable — to become the first athlete with a disability to finish a full marathon on all seven continents.
In early 2002, Sanden, a fitness coach, was competing in a 50-mile bike race to help progress her Ironman training. Suddenly, she hit a patch of broken asphalt and water.
“There was a curve to the right,” Sanden said. “I hit that patch of asphalt, my bike shot out from underneath me, and I flipped over, landing between my shoulder blades. I was rendered a paraplegic.”
After being in a body cast for six months, doctors realized that she had about 35% movement in her right leg and 10% in her left. Crushing two of her vertebrae in her thoracic spine, it was time for her to get accustomed to a new version of “normal.”
With the help of her husband and triathlete friends, Sanden was encouraged to get in the pool.
“They said, ‘You know what? She can still use her arms,'” Sanden said. “So they threw me in the pool and said ‘Start swimming…Let’s go!’”
Sanden learned how to strap her legs together to allow them to float, and just like that, she was back in training mode.
Eighteen months after her accident, and with the help of a brace and a walker, she walked again for the first time. Today, she can get around with a cane and her brace.
A Coach to All
As Sanden adapted to her post-accident body, she got involved with the Challenged Athletes Foundation — an organization that supports people with physical challenges so that they can still lead active and competitive lifestyles.
The Challenged Athletes Foundation helped her by providing equipment and grants for her to be able to participate in races.
One of the first races she participated in, in her new body and with her new gear, was the San Diego Triathlon Challenge. That’s where she saw a woman with no legs and just one arm complete the race. That pumped her full of a new kind of energy and motivation. She started volunteering with Challenged Athletes Foundation, and became a certified coach, where she not only coaches disabled athletes of all age and levels, but able-bodied athletes as well.
“It is so rewarding when you can give back to people,” Sanden said. “It’s my way to pay it forward.”
To Endure is to Feel
Paying it forward and looking forward, Sanden got to attend to some unfinished business as well. She competed in the 2010 Boston Marathon.
“I missed it when I was hurt,” Sanden said. “It took me that many years to be able to build up that endurance to the point where I could do a marathon again.”
At the end of the historic race, a Chinese diplomat saw her celebration with her husband and invited her to come participate in the Great Wall Marathon.
At that time, Sanden recently got function of her right leg again, which allowed her to climb the stair portions of the race with the use of her walker and brace. When not on the stairs, she used her handcycle to complete the race along a dirt path right next to the Wall. It took her 7 hours and 20 minutes to hit the finish line.
Following that race, Sanden’s friends encouraged her to do all seven continents, so she kicked up her training another notch.
With miles upon miles traveled, Sanden was able to cross off the U.S., China, Africa, Australia, South America, and Europe, but she saved her toughest for last: Antarctica.
Getting it Done
Waiting for an opening to fly into Antarctica, Sanden went shopping one afternoon. When she returned to her hotel, she was told in the lobby to hurry and get her stuff, because conditions for getting to the White Continent were ideal, or so they thought.
By the time her group got to the airport, there was a storm with fog blanketing the area around the runway. That made it impossible for the plane to be able to land. After four days, several runners packed up and went home. Not Sanden.
“I was not going to go home until I got this done,” Sanden said. “I was willing to wait.”
When she arrived on the ground in Antarctica, it was 12 degrees. She slept in a tent.
“That was an adventure in itself,” Sanden said. “They were serving us dinner in our tents because it was so cold out.”
The morning after she arrived, she woke up at 4:00 a.m. for her 5:30 a.m. race start.
She had a friend put custom made snow tires on her handcycle. The arctic terrain complete with black ice made the course tough, but of course, it was the bone-chilling temperatures that topped the list of concerns during the adventure. The freezing temperatures loosened Sanden’s handles in the middle of the race, but luckily, an aircraft mechanic came to her aid.
Sanden crossed the finish line in 10 hours, 57 minutes, and 55 seconds.
“It was an amazing, hard race,” Sanden said.
In completing all seven marathons, she was able to prove something to herself, and to all of the athletes that she coaches.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are or what goals you set,” Sanden said. “You’ve got to keep your eye on the mark.”
Perhaps an adventure always on the list is the key to a life well lived. If so, Sanden has that down and then some.