After an injury left her paralyzed from the waist down, Hannah Gavios was determined to rehabilitate herself. Now, just two years later, she’s training to crutch the New York City Marathon on Sunday — and raising money for for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation while she does it. Ahead of the race, Gavios discusses her rigorous training schedule, the mental hurdles she’s had to overcome in the lead-up to the race, and how she plans to celebrate once she crosses the finish line.

The Lily: Talk to me about your injury and what the process of rehabilitating yourself was like.

Hannah Gavios: Two years ago I was in Thailand, and I fell off a cliff trying to get away from someone who was trying to harass me. I broke my back, had a fractured spine, and was essentially paralyzed from the waist down. I was unable to use my feet or feel the backs of my legs. As soon as I could, I started some very intense physical therapy and occupational therapy to try to get my life back and do all the things you normally do throughout the day. Things like changing your clothes, or going to the bathroom, or going to the grocery store.

I was able to gain a lot of strength back in the rest of my body to make up for the parts that are paralyzed. I still remain immobile in my feet — it’s a loss of sensation or movement. After physical therapy, I started going mountain climbing again and ice skating. I became a yoga instructor. I just sort of figured out different ways to relive my life with a few modifications. I still have a drive to run again, which is why I want to [run the marathon]. I’m hoping it’s something that can impact other people, too.

(Photo courtesy of Hannah Gavios; Lily illustration)
(Photo courtesy of Hannah Gavios; Lily illustration)

TL: What is it about the marathon that makes it a challenge you want to take on?

HG: Honestly, I just want to be able to say that I did it. I just want to give the message to everybody that anybody can do the marathon. It doesn’t matter what’s happened to you, or how you’re born — you can always find a way. I fell 150 feet. I just want to be able to climb up that mountain that I fell, and then go even further. I love to challenge myself and to see how much my body can handle. And most importantly, I want to spread awareness about spinal cord injuries.

TL: Talk to me about your training schedule. What does it look like?

HG: I’ve been working with a coach who has been guiding me. I went out for an hour [run] at first to see how I felt, and then I gradually began increasing time from there. He didn’t even want to know about my mileage until I got to three hours. Once I got to that point, things started speeding up, and I started getting more serious. I got better leg braces that were more supportive and I started investing in hand gloves. Lately, it’s just been me going for these big training sessions. Yesterday, my session lasted seven hours. The days when I’m not training, I’m recovering — stretching, doing yoga, maybe getting a massage.

I do some upper-body workouts, too, because a lot of [the crutching] is in my arms. I actually decided to do the majority of the marathon “swinging” instead of my regular walking, which is opposite-leg-to-crutch. Just because I’m faster at swinging. I’m using forearm crutches, and I’m leaning all of my weight into the handles so that both legs come off the ground and forward. But when I need a break I go back to regular walking, which feels like a little rest.

(Photo courtesy of Noam Galai; Lily illustration)
(Photo courtesy of Noam Galai; Lily illustration)

TL: What is the mental training for a feat like this like?

HG: It’s really just about training my mind to figure out how to deal with all that stress. When I’m out on a run, and I feel like I’m really struggling, I think to myself, “What if I just go 10 more blocks swinging and see how I feel?” And then I go 10 more, and realize I can do another 10 more. So I’m really working on taking it one step at a time, because the mind really does take a toll.

TL: Why did you choose Team Reeve as the organization you wanted to raise money for?

HG: The Christopher Reeve foundation is the most well-known foundation in raising awareness for spinal cord injury and recovery. My goal is to eventually get back on my feet without assistance, and to run a race without assistance, I figure this is the best cause to support. It’s the most reputable cause to support. Everybody knows about Superman, too!

But, to me, the cause is even more important than running the 26 miles. The most important thing to me is to raise awareness for spinal cord injuries. Getting the word out there and raising money is so important to me. It’s also been amazing to meet other people with spinal cord injuries. I’d like to be able to help those people out, as well.

TL: What do you hope to accomplish by completing the race?

HG: We have such a warped view of people with disabilities. We think that they’re so incapable, and that they’re not able to do things that “normal” people do. I want to give the message that you can do anything you set your mind to, and that it doesn’t matter if you have a spinal cord injury, or a prosthetic leg, or whatever. Anything is possible. I just want to inspire people who feel that they have limitations to not let those limitations define themselves.

TL: Any big plans to celebrate once you do finish?

Have a drink! [Laughs] No, but I’m going to Morocco at the end of the month, which will be a big celebration. I’m looking forward to relaxing and getting my free time back.

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