By Kelly Skinner
They are the lone runners putting in big miles on a snow day. They are the people who beat us to the gym in the morning—and are still there when we leave. They’re those cyclists who spend Saturdays pedaling to a different town, then back home again before the rest of us roll out of bed. Extreme athletes take exercise and competition to the max. They push the limit of what is humanly possible; then they get up and do it again. In terms of athletics, competition and everything we know about endurance, these competitors are an entirely different breed; one that is not only fascinating, but also inspiring. Here, we profile a few jaw-dropping extreme athletes who also happen to be DCs. And, it’s no surprise that chiropractic care plays a vital role in each athlete’s training regimen and overall success. While each excels in a different field, they have more commonalities than they do differences. Their insatiable thirst for life, their enviable tenacity of spirit and their wholehearted dedication to success aren’t just admirable, they’re extraordinary.
Ten years ago, as she flickered in and out of consciousness, Christina Neros overheard a doctor speaking in hushed tones to her mother. “We’re going to have to amputate the leg,” he advised. After a horrific car accident, the then DC student and avid athlete had cheated death by a small miracle. Her right leg was a prime candidate for gangrene and could potentially kill her if it wasn’t promptly removed. “I don’t think I could have lived without a leg,” Neros recalls. “My entire sense of self revolved around athletics. I had just started chiropractic school, and I kept thinking ‘How are you going to be a chiropractor without a leg?’” It was a series of thoughts like these that prompted Neros to reach out with a fractured hand, grab her mother by the shirt and exclaim, “With you as my witness, if I wake up without my leg, I will sue this hospital.” Then to the doctor, “I will haunt you.” Needless to say, Neros got to keep the leg after signing a waiver.
Today, the same woman who fought to keep both legs is determined to become the fastest female track cyclist in the world in the 200-meter velodrome event. Which is what, exactly? “It’s similar to Nascar,” says Neros. “Racers go very, very fast [45 mph] on a circular cement track anywhere from 250 to 500 meters around.” According to Neros, there are approximately 20 velodromes in the country. The track is slanted, so cyclists ride special bikes without brakes (if they stop suddenly, they’ll immediately crash onto the concrete) that are equipped with only a sixth gear. “It’s extremely fun,” says Neros. “It’s very calming.”
Neros currently trains on one of the steepest tracks in the country at the Dick Lane Velodrome in Atlanta. In her second year back, Neros races a minimum of two races a week. And even though her specialty (the 200-meter) takes 12 seconds, her training commitment is upward of 20 hours a week, with her longer rides consisting of 30 miles on the track (equivalent to 100 miles on the road). “I train six days a week. I’m in the gym three days a week. The goal is to hit a 350 lb. squat by this spring.”
Neros initially fell in love with cycling when she was a grad student in Oregon. “It was a natural fit,” she smiles. “The hills out there were lovely. I met a few folks who got me into [velodrome racing], then, 18 months later, I had the accident.” Neros had only competed in one race at that point, which raises the question: Why are you pushing for this so hard?
“I’m reclaiming everything that was taken away,” she says simply. Neros made multiple attempts over the past decade to get back on the bike but, every time, she was met with failure. “At the end of the day, it’s just fun to ride and, when you train, it’s a powerful feeling. There’s nothing more fun than to be able to hit the gas and ride 40-plus mph with nothing between you and the cement but spandex.”
Neros is two seconds off the Olympic Trial cut, which will require an enormous time drop (nearly 15 percent off her current time) but, after all she’s been through, she knows that nothing will get in her way. “The biggest thing to overcome is the level of pain associated with the training and that’s where I have an edge. I think with any elite athlete, you have to overcome the pain. I had a head start on that by getting over the pain associated with my accident in a way I never could have before.”
Also in Neros’ favor is her rock solid support system, also known as Carson Panella, her fiancé. “He’s the most significant part of my training. I would not be able to do this without his support; he puts in so much of his time to make sure I have what I need and that I’m doing what I need to do to reach my goals. Plus, he’s got the same need for speed.” The couple lives together on an 80-ft. houseboat and, in the mornings, it’s not uncommon for them to hop on the jet skis and crank them to 75 mph.
“I believe that we have unlimited potential. I believe, as a society, we limit ourselves so much. Knowing that my mind is unlimited and that our bodies are far less limited, that’s what motivates me.”
Ashli Linkhorn, a frequent training buddy of Christina Neros’, had a huge obstacle of her own when she signed up for her first Ironman—an ultimate triathlon that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon. Linkhorn was an avid runner and a strong cyclist but swimming was a different story. “My initial thought in doing an Ironman was that I didn’t know how to swim,” she laughs. “I literally didn’t even know how to blow bubbles.” A friend of Linkhorn’s eventually helped her face her fear of water after two other friends declined the offer. “It took a couple of months just to go more than one length of the pool.”
For Linkhorn, who had been a fair-weather runner in the past, Ironmans and hardcore workouts were a foreign concept prior to two years ago. “I just wanted to be healthier,” she says. “I think you start to get into your early 30s and you think, ‘Wow, I don’t want to be fat; I don’t want my patients to have a doctor who’s out of shape.’ Then, I think once I got started [running more actively], it turned into ‘How can I push myself further?’”
I asked Linkhorn why she loves an event that’s as excruciating and as merciless as the Ironman. She whispers the question back to herself. “Why do I want to go that far?” Her voice trails off.
“It’s exhilarating,” she says. “Whether it’s training or the event itself, when you’re doing this, you feel like a superhero. It’s a phenomenal stress reliever and it’s a great challenge.”
With a teaching gig as an adjunct faculty member at Life University 20 hours a week and with her private practice 30 hours a week, running is Linkhorn’s ultimate escape. “I constantly have to be on my toes; I feel like I’m ‘on’ all the time. Doing my own thing is meditative in a way, even though running for three or four hours seems counter-intuitive to resting.”
In the heat of Linkhorn’s training for her first Ironman, she was working out 20 hours per week with two days devoted to an hour of core training on the TRX Suspension Trainer for injury prevention. “Now that it’s cold, I’ll be on the trainer or spin bike for an hour to an hour and a half a week, I’m probably running 30 miles a week.” Linkhorn credits work on her styrofoam roller as the single best injury prevention tool.
“Essentially, I do the same things I tell my patients to do,” says Linkhorn. “When I’m encouraging my patients to do corrective exercises, they don’t have a lot of room to say, ‘I don’t have time.’ If I have the time to put in 20 hours a week to train for an Ironman, they know that they certainly have time for 20 minutes a day.”
Linkhorn is currently training for Mountain Mist, a rugged 50K ultra-running race through trails in Alabama, the Augusta half marathon (which she’s excited about because she knows some of her students will be there) and the broiling, end-of-summer Ironman Louisville (for the second year in a row).
Her first attempt at the Ironman Louisville last August was the event that Linkhorn refers to as her greatest accomplishment. When I ask her about how it felt finishing that race, she starts to cry. “It was exhilarating,” she recalls. “It was just the biggest rush of excitement, and I think the other thing, too, was that so many patients and students who knew I was doing it kept sending texts and Facebook messages before and after the race. It’s interesting how many students and patients were tracking me on the Ironman website. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve influenced them enough that they’re cheering for me from a distance.’”
“To finish it was just amazing. It was 14-and-a-half hours and to do it—and know you were giving the best possible effort you could give—was such an incredible feeling. Because I knew so many people were watching me, I ran the entire marathon. I absolutely refused to walk.”
Even though it was an excruciatingly hot day, even though someone dropped her running shoes at the wrong checkpoint, causing her to waste 40 minutes looking for them and forcing her to run in the race director’s shoes for the first four miles, and even though the hills were merciless, Linkhorn finished the race in high spirits, and is ready to do it all again. And again. And again.
When you talk with Leo Kormanik, he seems like your typical 28-year-old guy. He’s humble, friendly and good-natured. He makes jokes and talks about his upcoming graduation from Life University. It’s only when he alludes to his daily workout routine that it really starts to sink in: this is not your typical guy and he is not, by any stretch, your typical athlete. A runner since the ninth grade, Kormanik ran his very first marathon in 2008 and (on his first try) missed the Olympic Trial cut by a mere 29 seconds. “That’s a pretty good debut time,” he shrugs. “Ever since then, I knew in the back of my mind that I would end up back at the marathon a little later in my career.” That time is now. After two years of coping with various running injuries, Kormanik is back on the road, running anywhere from 10 miles to 20 miles per day, training to make a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. “In order to run a really fast marathon, you’ve got to maximize your speed in other events, so this season has really been all about getting faster in the 5K, the 10K and the half marathon, just to kind of set me up for a fast time at the trials,” he says.
With 30 hours of class at the time of this interview, it would seem that between studying and classwork there’d be no time to train at such a high caliber. But, when you’re as fast as Kormanik, a rigorous training routine can be done in under two hours. For instance, if he’s doing a 12-mile run for the day, it will only take an hour and 20 minutes. Then, when you tack on core work and stretching, it evens out to a very manageable amount of time. “I’ve gotten it down to the point where it doesn’t take me that long to cover a long distance, which is why I can go to school full time, have clinic full time and still have somewhat of a life. Yet, I can still train at a high level because, if you give me two hours, I have enough time to run 13 or 14 miles.”
On the days when Kormanik’s workout ranges between 11 and 13 miles, he’s running at a 6-minute and 30-second pace per mile. But on his “harder” days, he’s running a 4:45 pace at a six- or seven-mile range. “Basically I’m running 90 miles a week with my longer runs at around 18 or 20 miles,” he says, “and one day off every two weeks.”
One would think that with such a rigorous routine paired with the demands of a full course load at school and a double major (Kormanik is working on his Doctor of Chiropractic degree and his master’s in sports chiropractic), would be unmanageable. But for Kormanik, running is part of the solution. “For me, I guess the main thing is that I just really love it. I mean, I sit in class and I kind of can’t wait for the end of the day when I can go out and run. It’s not a grind for me; it’s something I love to do very much. I love the idea of going out there, just being at peace with nature, and just kind of pushing the limits of my body. It never gets old because there are always more challenges, there are always more races, and there’s always something else to think about,” he says.
Usually marathoners really come into their peak in their late 20s and early 30s, which is why Kormanik is focusing so hard on the marathon now. To prevent injury, he’s lessened his weekly mileage from 120 miles a week to something closer to 90 miles a week. “At the beginning of last year, I really rededicated myself to training. I decided that I still had a lot of passion for this sport and that I really wanted to meet the goals I had set for myself a couple of years ago. When I started back training in January (2010), I did it with the intent to just go as long as I could go being injury free, which I’ve been able to do by cutting down my miles. So even though I’m not running as much as I have in the past, I’m running a lot faster than I ever have and I think that’s because I’ve stayed injury-free for so long.”
This year, nothing’s set in stone for Kormanik. “It kind of depends on where life takes me,” he says. “I’m thinking about doing the U.S.A 15K Championships in March and I’d like to get on the track at some point and run a really fast time in the 10,000 meters, but, as far as specifics go, the goal is just to train for the 2012 Olympic Trials.”
From there, the semi-pro shrugs and says, “The hope is to keep pushing, to keep running and get fitter so that eventually I can get that big sponsorship, to get the shoe companies to sign me on. That’s what everybody’s chasing after.”