"Every day is an opportunity to better yourself.”
In 2007, Adam Popp was injured by an IED in Afghanistan, resulting in the amputation of his right leg above the knee. At the time he was an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team Leader and a 12-year combat veteran of the Air Force with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Eight years after losing his leg Adam felt ready to attempt running again, and in December 2015, Adam became the first above-knee amputee to complete a 100-mile ultramarathon within the 30-hour cutoff.
He placed 2nd at the 2017 Boston Marathon in the Mobility Impaired division and was the first amputee to finish the race, as well as the first amputee to complete the JFK 50, the oldest ultramarathon in the United States.
In the photos, Adam is wearing items from our Summit Tri Collection »
But, Adam never really thought of himself as a runner,
even before that fateful day in Afghanistan.
In high school Adam played soccer and competed in long jump — events that didn't involve too much running. Then in 1997, he enlisted in the Air Force, where of course he had to run for fitness, but he still didn't find it all that enjoyable.
“It was like, stay in shape. And I would always make it a point to beat people in my unit, which was usually never a problem,” Adam says. “I could run decently, but I never trained, I never tried to pursue that.”
Eventually, Adam became an explosive ordnance disposal specialist, a member of the military's version of the bomb squad, and soon he deployed to Afghanistan. On December 7, 2007, his life would be changed forever when his team was called to disable an IED spotted underneath a road. They removed as much of the device as they could using a robot, but Adam would have to put on a bomb suit to remove the rest by hand. It was after, when he was making a final sweep of the area that a second device exploded.
Adam suffered a number of injuries and doctors would ultimately amputate his right leg above the knee. He spent a little more than a year undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and was finally fitted with a prosthetic leg.
It would be nearly 8 years before running came back into Adam's life.
It wouldn't be until 2015, when running would start to become an important part of Adam's life and it all came about while involved with a group of wounded veterans. Adam had organized their entry as a team in the EOD Warrior Foundation’s “Ski to Sea,” a Washington State relay race involving skiing, road running, biking, canoeing, and kayaking. It wasn't their first year participating in the challenging event, but it would be different from any other year. Previously, Adam had had always begged off of doing the skiing or running legs of the race. But in 2015, there wasn’t enough snow to hold the ski portions of the race, and the race replaced one of those legs with a trail run.
“I always had a hard enough time finding runners anyway, and now I had to find two, so that was a catalyst, for OK, I’m going to try this out now,” he says.
Adam agreed to take on the trail running leg, even though it had been nearly eight years since he had done anything of the sort. The first order of business, he knew, would be to quickly find a prosthetic running blade — and teach himself to run on it.
Five weeks before Ski to Sea, Adam was fitted with a running blade at Walter Reed, followed by 30 minutes learning to run in a harness at the facility. Then, he would be on his own. Needing a stable, even terrain to learn to run on the new blade, Adam began running laps around a parking lot at Fort Myer, purposely avoiding the Washington & Lee High School track near his home. He didn't "want to fall in front of the high school kids.”
Today, Adam is not only first in many of the races he enters,
he’s sometimes the fastest.
In 2019, Adam set the overall course record at the Colorado Kickers for Kids trail marathon and came in first overall against able-bodied athletes. In search of more challenges, Adam began competing in Paratriathlon, and in 2018 won the ITU Paratriathlon World Cup in Sarasota, FL. In 2019, Adam finished 5th overall in the ITU Paratriathlon World Championship in Lausanne, Switzerland and 3rd at the CAMTRI America’s Championship. In his short ITU career, Adam has racked up five podium finishes in nine races. For 2020 Popp is switching to triathlon full time, targeting the World Championships in Italy (where he placed fifth in 2019) and the ITU CAMTRI Americas Championship (he placed third in 2019), as well as WPS Montreal and U.S. ITU National Championships.
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Photos by Adam Pawlikiewicz