When Kathy Pico reached the summit of Ecuador’s Cotopaxi in September, she took a deep breath of sulfur-tinged air. The amputee, then 47, had been pushing herself so hard, moving for so many hours—and for so many years—that she finally allowed herself a moment of respite on top of one of the world’s highest volcanoes. She peered into the crater and then looked out over the sweep of land before her. “Miraculous,” she said. Nine days later, and thousands of miles away, she completed her first marathon, in Chicago, in six hours and seven minutes.
Pico’s journey started ten years ago, after discovering that the chronic pain in her ankle that had sidelined her for years was a slow-growing tumor. By the end of 2009, she had endured four rounds of chemo, which reduced it in size but didn’t eliminate it. She then made the decision to amputate her left foot above the ankle to fully eradicate the tumor.
The night before her surgery, Pico dreamed that she was racing in a marathon. She hadn’t run since she was 18, when the ankle pain began, and that had just been for fun; she had never competed in a race. After her surgery, Pico connected with David Krupa, an American prosthetist in her hometown of Quito, Ecuador, who outfitted her with a prosthetic foot. She was thrilled. But after her first step, she realized how heavy her new limb was and how weak her body had become from the chemo, early menopause due to the chemo, and the surgery. “I thought, ‘My God, how am I supposed to run in this?’” she says in Spanish through a translator. Pico spent two years in physical therapy, building up her muscle mass and getting used to the extra weight. She signed up for her first race, a 5K, in October 2012, although her prosthesis was only made for walking, and she had to take the three miles at a slow pace.
After a couple of years with her first prosthesis, Krupa contacted Pico about receiving a running blade through the Range of Motion Project (ROMP), an organization he cofounded that donates prostheses to South American amputees. “It was perfect,” Pico says. “Spectacular.” She began building up her stamina as a runner, racing through the narrow cobblestoned streets of Quito and scaling vertiginous alleyways.
In 2015, Krupa asked if Pico wanted to be part of a new initiative through ROMP, in which amputees from around the world would scale mountains and raise funds for prostheses. “I thought it would be easy, because I could just walk,” Pico says. But when she first tried climbing a steep hill in a park in Quito, her legs gave out. Her training partners had to push her up from behind to reach the top. The muscles for scaling mountains, she discovered, were different than those used to navigate hilly streets. A prosthesis adds another layer to the struggle, as the differences in the muscles used are even more pronounced. For amputees wearing a prosthesis, along with a mountaineering boot and crampons, every added ounce feels much heavier than the same gear would feel on a normal limb. “That’s when I found out that I really had to develop the muscles I had that were dormant,” Pico says.
To build these muscles, she started walking up and down countless flights of stairs and performing exercises to strengthen her glutes and back. She did more cardio, swimming, and cycling, and she made changes to her diet, eliminating fat and any processed foods, eating smaller portions five to six times a day, and dining on a regular schedule without skipping any meals. Gradually, she adjusted to the lower oxygen levels found at higher altitudes. “The first year was very difficult, very tiring, very emotional,” she says. “It felt like starting all over again.”
After a year, though, Pico felt the same passion for climbing that she felt for running. She ramped up her workout regimen, training at 4 A.M. before her job as an accountant began and picking it back up as soon as work was over. In the following two years, she scaled smaller peaks throughout Ecuador—Rumiñahui, Pasochoa, Rucu Pichincha, Iliniza Norte, Cayambe—but nothing as tall as 19,000-foot Cotopaxi. On September 28, 2018, Pico reached Cotopaxi’s icy summit with the climbing team from ROMP on their first attempt. “I got rid of my left foot so I could plant both of them on the ground,” she says.
Soon Pico was on the move once more. Crossing the finish line at the Chicago Marathon last October, Pico felt like she was moving through the dream she’d had nine years earlier. Thinking about that feeling again, she begins crying. “I never could have imagined I would be an athlete until after the surgery,” Pico says. Looking back, she says it was all worth it: the years of frustration and sacrifice, the relentless training, even the procedure itself. Her athletic accomplishments made it seem as though the prosthesis had become a part of her.
Pico recommends that all athletes starting a new sport gradually ease themselves into it. Begin with longer walks, then runs, before diving into mountain hikes or marathons. “The key is to have patience. Every dream that is built takes time,” she says.
Pico plans to continue running one or two races a year, including in the New York City Marathon this fall. And she will keep climbing mountains with ROMP and its team of elite amputee climbers, chasing the feelings that come with standing on top of the world and crossing the finish line. “The small moments in which we lose our breath—that’s what life is about,” she says.