After his own near-permanent spinal cord injury, Julian Paterson decided to participate in the 2018 Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) to support the QuadPara Association of South Africa (QASA) and raise awareness around SCIs. He shares his story…
I’ve always been an active person and, from a very young age, I’ve much preferred the outdoors to being cooped up inside. I’ve also been more a water person than a runner, although I did get a scroll on my school blazer for cross country. Swimming, surfing and surf lifesaving played havoc with my promising rugby career, not to mention my academic one.
Later, diving would become my career as I obtained qualifications as a navy and commercial diver as well as a recreational diving instructor. My first ultra-sporting experience came with surf-ski paddling and canoeing where I have completed the Port Elizabeth to East London challenge several times and the Dusi, Fish and Breede marathons.
KAEM was life-changing
My sporting fitness lapsed a little while I built my offshore diving career until 2012 when I decided on a whim to enter the KAEM. I completed it successfully despite being out of shape. The experience was life-changing.
I entered KAEM again in 2015. However, a serious accident shortly before the race left me with a basal skull fracture, many broken ribs and a tension pneumothorax. All that from falling off a ladder! After two weeks in ICU, I began a long and painful recovery. I was very motivated to regain my fitness.
I started walking slowly around the ICU after all my drains and catheters were removed. I strongly believe it was the fitness I had achieved from KAEM training that saved my life.
A near-permanent SCI
In January, 2017, I was exercising at work offshore. While doing pull-ups, my left hand slipped and I landed badly. Due to my stubbornness and despite extreme pain, numb legs and shocks down both legs, I remained at work for three days. This was followed by a medevac to Lagos hospital in Nigeria where scans showed an unstable burst fracture in my L1 vertebra.
A bone splinter was lodged in my spinal cord. My good friend and spinal surgeon Dr Nick Kruger motivated for my emergency medevac from Lagos to Cape Town where he operated to stabilise my L1 and put the bone splinter back in place. Following the surgery, I had immediate relief from all nerve pain and was able to stand (supported) the day after!
I am told that I was extremely fortunate in that my horsetail (or cauda equina) starts a little higher than normal and that is what saved most of my spinal cord. I immediately started with physiotherapy and gradually enjoyed the return of leg strength as I shuffled further and further each day. Today, I don’t notice any strength deficit, although I have large numb areas around my groin and left leg.
Setbacks in recovery
There was a major setback when my wound became infected and required a complete washout and donor bone removal. Another surgeon friend, Dr Piet Polderman, came to my rescue and washed out the wound. Later, he would also remove a broken scaphoid bone discovered in my left hand.
It was the broken bone in my hand that had caused the fall in the first place. I am forever grateful for the skills and expertise received from both Dr Kruger and Dr Polderman. I have no doubt that I would not be where I am now if it had not been for these two very special people.
I had a bit of a dark patch and remained in hospital for two weeks. Although officially, it was to receive antibiotics, I know my mental state caused some concern. After a while, I got my emotional state back in order and moved on.
Shortly after my recovery, I learned of an old diving colleague Mike Heim, who had just suffered a near-fatal parachuting accident with extensive spinal cord damage. While he was undergoing treatment in the Aurora Hospital in Port Elizabeth, I visited him several times.
It made me more aware of how many people are affected by SCIs and how lucky I was to escape serious and permanent damage.
Midway through 2017, I set myself three goals. The first was to run five kilometres non-stop before end of November, which I achieved in October. Second, I wanted to regain my fit-to-dive medical certificate before the end of February 2018, which I achieved in January. Third, I wanted to cross the finish line of the 2018 KAEM.
It occurred to me that there could be an opportunity to use the KAEM as a platform to assist people with SCI; however, I had no idea where to go for this. I approached Mike and he immediately told me about QASA. I contacted Ari Seirlis and arranged to walk for QASA.
Day one: 27 km
We were extremely lucky to have a cooling breeze that made the walk possible with temperatures in the 30s. I decided to stick with my good friend Nadia Arndt and we completed the day together. Nadia is normally one of the race directors and she decided to participate this year for the first time.
Day two: 33 km
Another (relatively) cool day with temperatures touching the lower 40s, but again a breeze popped up from time to time to keep things under some sort of control. Again, I stayed with Nadia and this was to become our norm for the remainder of the event.
My back was starting to hurt badly, especially after reaching the overnight campsite. It felt like soft tissue pain from below my fixation. I fell asleep with no small amount of concern about my back pain.
Day three: 38 km
I awoke to a pain-free back. The night of lying on a hard surface seemed to have done the trick and I felt good. A small bit of Achilles tendon pain was forced into submission by my stubborn mind. It was a longish day and fairly hot.
I believe three days are enough time to expose any mental weakness and was happy when Nadia and I completed the day in under 12 hours. What a psychological boost! The notorious KAEM long day was next – 78 km this year. I again experienced a massively painful back before sleeping.
Days four and five: 78 km
Again, my back felt better by morning. It seems sleeping on hard ground outdoors is the correct therapy! Constant in my thoughts were how I can still walk when so many others can’t. Why must I complain when so many others with far greater challenges don’t. Yes, my legs and feet were in agony.
Yes, my damaged nerves were sending all sorts of sensations down my left leg. Yes, I doubted my sanity. Yes, I was scared of damaging my spine further, bearing in mind I was carrying a 12-kg pack. But, the inspiration I felt each time I considered all those supremely brave people who are not able to use their legs or arms yet carry on without complaint kept me going.
How could I be so arrogant as to allow myself the luxury of complaining? So, it continued. One foot in front of the other for over 26 hours until finally the finish. Mike Heim, who suffered a far worse SCI injury than I did, was in my head the whole day. Mike is an unbelievably courageous and positive man and his inspiration was a massive boost for me.
Day six: 48 km
This day has the potential to be a killer. It is an ultra-marathon on its own and comes after 176 km of tough walking already completed. This is mind game territory. To add to the suffering, the sun decided to make its presence felt with temperatures reaching well into the 40s. With an unofficial cut-off time of 13 hours, it was always going to be a tough day.
Later in the afternoon, it became apparent that Nadia and I would need to pull out some extra magic to get in by 19h00. My back was causing excruciating pain and mentally my strength took a nosedive when I misjudged the last leg of the day by about five kilometres. I dropped my guard as well as my “iron shirt”, as I call my pain off-switch.
I had no choice but to keep on pushing and we ended the day with a kilometre sprint to finish at exactly 19:00. With Nadia being married to the race director and founder, we wanted to avoid any question of special treatment. Finishing in time was of utmost importance to us. My back was unbelievably painful that night.
The soft tissue pain worsened by keeping still. The sensations down my left leg were also weird to say the least. Hot, cold, itchy and numb were all fighting for supremacy as my nerves played games.
Day seven: 26 km
The last day and once again my back sorted itself out after a night on the hard ground. The sun was in an aggressive mood with temperatures reaching up to 48ºC, but it was the last day and nothing could stop me now. Eventually I crossed the finish line in a total elapsed time of over 73 hours for the full 250 km. So ended my last goal for the year.
Julian completed the 2018 KAEM on Sunday, October 28.