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Amputee Chris Koch longboards to his ninth marathon finish in Dubai

When his shoe came off and got caught in a wheel, Koch took a spill, but popped right back on and finished the race

Chris Koch just rode his longboard to his ninth marathon finish at the 21st Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon on Friday. After a couple of long flights, he is already back home in Calgary and recovering nicely from the bruised ribs he sustained when his moccasin got caught in a wheel and sent him briefly to the ground.

Chris Koch approaching finish line of the 2020 Dubai Marathon. Photo: Kam Kvern

“I was down for two seconds, tops,” says Koch, who popped back onto his board and finished the race, and says he didn’t notice his ribs were sore until later.

Though technically not an amputee, Koch, who started racing in 2016, likes the phrase because it’s short. He was born without fully developed arms or legs to a farming family in southern Alberta, but was never treated as disabled by his family, and has lived an (almost) entirely normal life. He worked on the family farm, travelled to Ottawa for university, and then made his way back to Alberta, where he shares a house with his cousin and her husband. His speaking career now keeps him on the road most of the time, and more and more races are inviting him to participate, sometimes paying his expenses and sometimes not. His message is encapsulated by the phrase “If I Can.” “The ‘If I Can…’ motto has morphed into… a message that I deliver via the videos on YouTube as well as speaking at schools, conferences and various other events and venues,” Koch says on his website.

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Chris Koch in Dubai, with the Burj Al Arab in the background. Photo: courtesy of Chris Koch

Koch’s longboards, which are made by Arbor, are his primary means of transportation, as well as what he uses for racing. He has tried prosthetics, wheelchairs and motorized scooters in the past, and though he admits each have advantages and disadvantages, he has always come back to the longboard. His training, especially at this time of year, consists largely of stairs: “I have a partially developed leg and foot, and I can climb up stairs with that,” Koch explains. “I stand up on my right leg, put my left side on the stair, and go up that way. Then I scoot down. I’ll go up and down the stairs 20 times, or 40 times, or 80 times. I’m on the road so often, sometimes it’s easier to get up and go into the hotel stairwell and train there. It’s a substantial part of my training.

“Just before leaving for Dubai, -28 C was the warmest it got, for a week,” Koch says. “I got a membership at the Repsol Centre here in Calgary, which has an indoor track. I prefer to be outside for boarding, but it’s been so cold! I found that going around the track, I wasn’t wearing through the sole of my shoe as I would be outside. I’ll probably do that on a regular basis.”

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Chris Koch just after finishing the Dubai Marathon. Photo: Magi Rizkallah

Koch’s time in Dubai was 4:15:25. He earned his PB of 3:54:16 at the Servus Edmonton Marathon in August, 2019. He say both Edmonton race director Tom Keogh and Calgary Marathon race director Kirsten Fleming have been incredibly supportive, and that more and more marathons recognize what he can bring to a race and are keen to have him participate.

Koch wears a custom-made, rubber-soled leather moccasin on his right foot, to push himself along. But so far he hasn’t been able to find the ideal style or fit of moccasin. The ones he has used tend to wear out quickly, don’t provide enough support for his ankle, and sometimes become loose during a long race, as happened in Dubai on Friday. There is some potential interest from the big shoe brands, and he’s hoping to find a better solution soon. If it hadn’t been for the issues with his shoe, Koch says, he would have gone sub-4 in Dubai.

Chris Koch with Akhil, who reunited him with his lost moccasin at the 32K mark. Photo: courtesy of Chris Koch

The main issue that prevents him from going faster in races, however, is his concern for the safety of other runners: “If a runner trips over my board, they’re going to re-evaluate whether I can race or not,” says Koch, “even if it was 100 per cent the runner’s fault… I’m hyper aware of what’s going on, my head is on a swivel, and I do everything I can, like starting at the back of the pack. I could go out with the wheelchairs or the hand cycles, but they are faster than me, and the elite runners will be coming up on me, and I definitely don’t want to get in their way. I’m just happy starting at the back of the pack. If I come out with a PB, awesome. If I don’t, I enjoy the challenge and the atmosphere.”

Koch says he enjoyed the wide expanse of the course in Dubai, but he still stayed to the side of the course, and luckily no one else was affected by his spill. (It was also quite dark when the race started, at 6 a.m.)

Koch finds that people are eager to help when he needs it. In 2018, when he set off on an 18-day trip from Calgary to St. John’s, relying on the kindness of strangers to give him rides (“I don’t call it hitchhiking,” he says), he met the Kvern family, who gave him his very first ride of the trip. The Kverns live in Dubai, and hosted him there on the weekend.

“My family could have treated my disability like a total tragedy, but instead chose to take it all in stride and make the best of the situation,” Koch says on his website. “After all, I still had a good head on my shoulders… and with that, anything is possible.”