By Tula Batanchiev
Running the ING New York City marathon on Sunday, Smithtown resident Michael LaForgia hoped to beat his best marathon time—4 hours and 55 minutes. With a finish time of 6 hours, 20 minutes, he didn’t meet that goal but was elated nonetheless. The Big Apple race was his first marathon as a double-amputee, after contracting bacterial meningitis in 2005.
“I really, really wanted to do better, but considering where I’ve come from and the condition of my right leg, I’m pleased that I finished,” LaForgia said. He trained for 18-weeks, much of the time in the predawn hours running though Eisenhower State Park and Bethpage State Park as well as competing in shorter races with custom-fabricated carbon graphite prosthetics courtesy of Hicksville-based A Step Ahead, a prosthetics company.
Five years ago, his sudden contraction of bacterial meningitis almost killed him. Celebrating the New Year of 2005 in Maine with his wife, Donna, and two of his three children, LaForgia, now 44, awoke in the middle of the night with an excruciating headache, nausea, and chills.
The next night, back at home, LaForgia was rushed to the emergency room, and experienced septic shock and multi-organ failure. Blood clots materialized throughout his body, obstructing blood flow to his hands, feet, and the tip of his nose, which all began turning black. At Stony Brook University Medical Center, LaForgia was put in a medically-induced coma for 10 days and given antibiotics.
However, doctors had to amputate a portion of LaForgia’s right leg and part of his left foot. He spent two months in the hospital recovering and five months in rehabilitation. Unhappy with the mobility of his right leg, LaForgia made the difficult decision to amputate below the knee in 2006.
But, as a longtime marathoner and tri-athlete, within six months, LaForgia was back on his feet, running, cycling, and running short distances. He soon became determined to complete in a marathon again.
“It’s a chance to go back and really achieve what I did back then. It’s a feeling of going full circle and full recovery,” said LaForgia, vice president and IT program manager for Chase Auto Finance.
After his diagnosis, LaForgia reached out to the National Meningitis Association, a nonprofit charity, and began volunteering. Using the marathon to raise money for the organization, LaForgia admits that it has been a powerful experience to meet others who have been affected. “One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is pay back a little bit and do something in their honor,” he said.
Training for the marathon was rigorous but he was helped by Erik Schaffer, president of A Step Ahead, who has designed LaForgia’s prosthetics since 2005 and as recently as a week ago . Before every race, LaForgia changed legs, from his walking prosthetics to his running ones, making him three inches taller than his usual 5’11’’.
“I promised him if we go through this, that I’d get him up and running,” Schaffer said. “Then he did one race after another race, and he proved himself to me. I’ve supported him ever since.”
Schaffer and his staff help more than 100 patients worldwide. As a member of Team A Step Ahead, a program that supports patients who compete in a variety of sports, LaForgia received advanced training from coaches and physical therapists, including Dave Balsey and Phil Kreuter, who ran the ING Marathon alongside LaForgia on Nov. 1.
LaForgia, who was offered an 8 a.m. start on Sunday morning chose instead to begin the race at 9:45 a.m., for the “full crazy experience,” he said. The duo had to stop roughly every 7 miles so LaForgia could empty the prosthetics’ wetsuit-like liners, which filled with about a half cup of sweat, slowing his pace. With the frequent stops, Kreuter carried LaForgia’s equipment, such as extra socks to stuff in his lining when his right thigh muscle lost volume from running.
After struggling through wind at mile 15 on the 59th Street Bridge—the hardest part of the race in his opinion—LaForgia kept an 11-minute pace until the 20th mile in the Bronx, where he admitted to losing steam and had to stop frequently.
But that didn’t stop other runners from cheering him on, which happened hundreds of times throughout the six hours. One particular runner, who was wearing pink pants without shoes or socks and dribbling a basketball, yelled out “You’re an inspiration,” to LaForgia as he passed. It kept him going, he said.
Tears streamed down LaForgia’s face as he crossed the finish line. Reflecting on completion of a race that was five years in the making, he said, “I could make it back, 6 hours or not, and that was special to me.”
After weeks of training, LaForgia isn’t certain if he’ll compete again. “It takes time away from my family and I need to reevaluate that,” he said, although he also hopes to complete an Ironman triathalon—2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a marathon run—some day.
What’s to stop him, really?