The first thing Bonner Paddock said to me when I told him I wanted to talk running was, “Oh good, one of my least favorite things in life.”
He was joking. But, as is usually the case, there was truth in the jest. How could there not be? Paddock has cerebral palsy (CP), a congenital neurological disorder that limits the body’s movements. In Paddock’s case, the affected area runs from his lower back to the tips of his toes. His muscles have a reduced range of motion and don’t relax, making his walking stride heavy and rigid.
“Here’s how I like to explain it,” he said. “If I were a bicycle I would have use of four or five gears, versus the 21 you have.”
In the morning, every morning, when he gets out of bed, he’s in pain — the bones in his feet creaking and cracking as he takes his first tender steps. The surprise isn’t that he counts running among his least favorite things. The surprise is that he runs at all.
I don’t want to tease you with suspense here, so let me get right to this: It’s possible you’ve heard of Bonner Paddock before. He was the first person with CP to climb Mount Kilimanjaro unassisted, as well as the first person with CP to complete the Ironman in Kona (HI) — astonishing feats when you consider how difficult each of these is for people who have full use of their bodies.
Paddock got his start as an endurance athlete the way many of us do, through hubris. Encouraged by a CP charity to sign up for a race they were putting on, he chose the half-marathon distance, for which he prepared by, get this, running twice. Once he put in a mile, the second time he went a little further. You know where this story goes… pain and suffering. In Paddock’s words, it was a “terrible first experience” with running.
“However,” he said, “it was also one of the most important days of my life.” He ran the race with Steven Robert and met Steven’s son Jake, who had a severe case of CP. The brief encounter with Jake (“Everyone calls him Jakey”) made a big impact on Paddock, an impact that was magnified the next morning when he learned that Jakey had died during the night.
Paddock was near tears when he recounted that morning for me. “I was in so much pain [from the run] that I called in sick to work. Then the phone rang and that’s when I got the news.”
It was after this call that Paddock committed himself to running and endurance athletics as a way of supporting children with disabilities. The next year, he signed up for a full marathon, followed by his Kilimanjaro summit, which raised more than a quarter-million dollars. In 2012 at Kona, he raised more than half a million. Besides the fundraising, which now occurs through his charity, the OM Foundation, Paddock began to learn, during those years, about running in terms of training and nutrition and, eventually, mental health.
Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It also continues with a single a step. And another, and another. “One more step,” has become a motto for Paddock (it’s also the title of his book). He uses it as a shorthand for perseverance in the face of life’s difficulties, an attitude most marathoners come to cultivate in the long late miles of a race. No matter how tired you are, or how much pain you’re in, you can always take one more step. And one more, and one more… is the idea.
Paddock’s second meaning for the phrase is less common and, to my mind, more profound. It is an expression of gratitude. “One more step” recognizes the blessing of physical movement. “It is a gift to be able to take a step when many cannot,” he told me. Instead of lamenting what his body can’t do, Paddock praises what it can. It takes real courage to see the gift in something that causes you so much pain.
That insight alone might have made running worthwhile for Paddock, but there’s something more direct he gets from it now, too. Running might, in some ways, still be among his least favorite things, but it’s also something he’s learned to cherish. He unplugs when he runs. No phone, no social media, no music.
“It’s my only quiet time,” he told me. “The only time I can just think.”
I can’t say I expected him to tell me this, but I felt somehow reassured. Reassured, I think, that running wasn’t only a means to an end for him, but also an end in itself, a gift that had not become a burden.
Next year will be the 10th anniversary of Jake Robert’s death. After three years of rest and recovery following the damage he did to his body during the Ironman, Paddock has recently begun training for a marathon in Jake’s honor.
This summer, this post and a series of other narratives were made possible by ASICS and the release of the GEL-Quantum 360. Learn more here.