Training, endurance, and the right prosthetic get amputee across finish line in Philadelphia Marathon

When he started his first marathon, Yangzi Jiang didn’t want to know too much about the route through Philadelphia.

“I got a text last night from a friend who ran a race in Philadelphia a few years ago. There is quite a hilly section in Fairmount Park,” he said in an interview on Friday. “I just want a fresh look, a fresh mindset.”

Taking on new challenges has been something Jiang has been doing since he was a teenager, when in 2010 treatment for osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, required the amputation of his right leg below the knee. The surgery made him more athletic than he had been before. Been before. He struggled in high school and as an adult he embraced kayaking, rock climbing and backpacking.

By Sunday afternoon, Jiang was hurt and exhausted, but he had completed his first marathon. Before the race, he hoped to run the 26.2 miles in five hours, a time good enough to qualify for the paraplegic division of the Boston Marathon. His last time: 4 hours, 42 minutes, 52 seconds.

“It went great,” he said. “I’ve never been in so much pain, but mentally I feel great.”

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Jiang was one of 24,000 runners who took part in the Philadelphia Marathon on Sunday. In its 27th year, the event has involved as many as 30,000 participants. The smaller group of runners this year reflects precautions related to COVID-19. Last year, the pandemic brought the event to a complete standstill.

At Jiang, the pandemic fueled a passion for running.

“Quarantine, COVID last year has helped me to really better rethink what is important to me, what means a lot to me,” he said. “This time I really enjoyed running. I’m not doing this for a high school team. I really do this for myself.”

Finishing a marathon became a goal, he said, because he knew it would be so hard.

“I think running is something I’m uncomfortable with,” said Jiang, 26. “Marathons are an important challenge that can help me overcome this fear.”

Training for the marathon took two months, Jiang said, and in the weeks leading up to the race, he typically ran five mornings a week in Charlotte, NC, where he works from home as a software engineer. Participating in this weekend also meant finding the right gear.

Jiang tried running in high school, he said, and got a prosthetic running in his senior year, but the fit wasn’t exactly right.

Running with a prosthetic limb requires a particularly tight fit, Jiang said. If the socket, which fits on his leg and connects to the prosthesis, does not fit well on his body, an activity such as running can become painful and even scarring after half an hour. He found out how bad it can be after using his old blade, which didn’t fit properly, for a run about two years ago.

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“After my 5K race two years ago, I had minor bruises on my bones, some blisters,” he said. “I had to walk on crutches for three weeks after that.”

Having a custom socket a year and a half ago helped, and he uses a vacuum system to ensure a secure fit between his leg and the socket. But despite that, changes to the shape of his stump over the course of Sunday’s race prevented the socket from sitting perfectly. He had to stop three times to remove and reinsert the prosthesis, and twice more to adjust it. During the run, sweat accumulated in it and had to be poured out, and a buildup of lactic acid and circulation problems between miles 22 and 23 required a stop and some worry.

“I just couldn’t move my leg for two minutes,” Jiang said.

He is in the process of getting a new socket that can change shape over the course of a race to suit his body.

He wanted to participate in the Philadelphia Marathon, he said, because of the city’s importance in his childhood and recovery from cancer. Jiang’s parents came first from China to Houston and then to Philadelphia to seek the best treatment for his cancer. After surgery and six months of chemotherapy at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, Jiang stayed in the United States and attended Delaware County Christian School in Newtown Square. He graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina in 2019.

He raised $1,300 for the American Association for Cancer Research, the race’s sponsor. The organization had 268 people participate in events this weekend, including 8K and half marathons, raising $388,699 from 7,000 donors, said Mitch Stoller, AACR’s chief philanthropic officer.

“People who honor their mothers, their fathers and their relatives,” Stoller said. “I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about people who want to give back and fund our work.”

This weekend marks the first time Jiang has raised money for cancer research, he said.

“I’ve been thinking about how I can give back to people who have been through cancer, to families who have cancer patients,” he said. “This is something that I might not really need to become a doctor for to try these things, do something challenging and also raise money for cancer research.”

Whether the Boston Marathon is in his future was an afterthought on Sunday afternoon. Jiang longed for a cold bath, he said, and some food.

“Right now I’m focusing on how much pain I’m in,” he said. “If you ask me in a week, I’d probably say yes, I’d do it again.”

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