In 2013, Patrick Downes lost one of his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. Today, he completed his fifth Boston Marathon — this time, in the handcycling division alongside U.S. Army Sergeant Adam Keys, who lost both of his legs and an arm while serving in Afghanistan. Keys and Downes met at Water Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where they've both been treated for their injuries.
Downes joined Boston Public Radio to discuss today's race, his recovery, and his push to make the Boston Marathon more inclusive for handcyclists. Selections from the interview are below.
On competing in the handcycle division
A handcycle is just another way to complete the marathon. They come in different forms, depending on someone's injury level. They allow people of all ability levels to access a seat that's very comfortable for them and use their upper bodies to propel themselves — so you're using your arm muscles, your shoulders, your chest, your back. It's a preferred method for a lot of our wounded warrior friends because of all the injuries they've sustained to their lower extremities. Sitting in a push wheelchair just isn't all that practical for them over that period of time.
It's an accepted way to race in many marathons across the country, and yet it's sort of hidden. There isn't as much acknowledgment or respect. We've been having this conversation with the BAA for a couple of years now — that we have to celebrate these athletes and respect them like every other athlete out there. That means a wreath on the head, and the winner with their national anthem, and some logistical changes to make it more respectable for people with disabilities.
I get the sense [BAA organizers] value the tradition of the race. It's the best marathon in the world. It's the oldest. It has such prestige. I think those points are incredibly important. But over the course of history we change, and we adapt. People sometimes fight that change. But particularly with these wounded warriors, they didn't know change was coming. Everything changed: the way they see themselves, the way they relate with their families, the way they access the world, all that has changed. We have to change along with them.
When the bombs went off in 2013, they felt a kinship with our city that has remained. They want to come here not only because of this amazing race, but because of what it means and the solidarity aspect of being here with the rest of our city.
On racing this year with Afghanistan War veteran and triple amputee Sergeant Adam Keys
We rode together the whole course. He did a personal best time this year. It was incredible. He was thrilled. The guy just works his tail off, as does the rest of the [Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans.] Adam is a very special person, an incredible character. He was at Walter Reed for five years. When he came stateside he had all his limbs, and shortly over the course of time and infections lost both legs above the knee and an arm below the elbow. So when he rides the handcycle, he has a prosthetic hand attached to one side and he's pushing with the other. If you want to see athleticism or heart in its purest form, you check him out on Heartbreak Hill. The guy just puts his head down and goes. Once we crested that hill he was soaking it up, yelling at the crowd. It was such an honor to ride with him.
On the friendships he's formed with wounded veterans at Walter Reed
We have this dear friend at Walter Reed, Clark Cavalier, from the bayous of Louisiana. I would not have been friends with him, nor would he have been friends with me. Yet when we are at the gym together at Walter Reed, we are brothers. We push each other on, and encourage each other, and make fun of each other. It's just a special connection. That happened five days after the bombing. Guys came — walked into our room, rolled into our room with all sorts of medical devices and prosthetics — and showed us life was still possible after these injuries.
Tune in to the audio player above to hear the complete interview with Patrick Downes. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.