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A runner with or without feet

George Lonergan had driven nearly 50,000 miles on his snowmobile over a 30-year period, something you might have done as well if you lived around the Adirondacks.

And 49,999 of those miles were wonderful.

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It was Dec. 15, 2013. George, his brother, a cousin and some friends had driven on their snowmobiles to a favorite spot for some food. Afterward, they were driving in the dark on a trail that led back home. A snowstorm made it hard to see. George missed a turn.

He didn't see the boulder until it was right in front of him, too late to turn away. He remembers the awful sound, but what he remembers next isn't what you might expect.

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"I just lay there," George said. "I knew I was breathing. I wasn't in pain."

That's when he saw his dad standing over him, impossible, you might think, since his dad had died seven years earlier after a short battle with cancer.

"He was there, healthy and looking like he did before he got sick," George remembers.

His father told him to go back, that it wasn't his time.

When his father became ill in the spring of 2007, it forced George to consider his own health. George had just turned 40. He was overweight and underactive.

"My dad passed away that June, which is kind of when I started serious running," George told me.

He began enjoying it almost immediately. He found peace on his runs and the motivation he needed to lead a healthier life.

He ran his first race in the spring of 2008 when his family went to Connecticut for an Easter visit. His sister wanted to run a 5K that weekend, so he joined her and his brother-in-law. At the start, they lined up at the very back of the pack.

In the early moments of the race, his brother-in-law told him to "take off," and he did. He passed hundreds of runners, finally finishing in 30th place.

From 2008-2013 he raced routinely, competing in distances up to the half-marathon and consistently winning age group awards.

By the end of 2013 he wanted to try a marathon, so he began training for the 2014 Buffalo Marathon, but a boulder behind a blind turn changed his direction.

They found him there, lying in the blood-matted snow. He had a broken shoulder, broken ribs, and a punctured lung, but that wasn't the worst of it. His left leg was shattered below the knee, but not as badly has the right one was.

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They got George to an ambulance in time to save his life, but not his legs. His right leg was amputated below the knee within hours. Nine days later, so was his left one.

Runner is a title not easily earned. You have to deal with conditions that others would prefer avoiding. You have to embrace discomfort, knowing it comes with the territory.

But once you've earned the right to call yourself a runner, it becomes a part of you, harder to sever than flesh and bone.

Like all injured runners, George wants to run again.

When we corresponded, he told me his goal was to run by the end of this year. He was considering an optional foot assembly on a prosthetic, a spring that acts like an ankle. "I miss my ankles most of all," George told me.

His goal is an aggressive one. At this point, he doesn't have the comfort level to do much more than walk on the prosthetics, but giving up isn't something George does.

George is a runner, with or without feet. He is driven to get what he wants and still gracious for what he has. He is tenacious in his pursuit but patient in his heart. These are the qualities of the world's best runners, and of George.

I hope there will be a video clip when he crosses that next finish line. I want to see the joy on George's face.

But even more, I want the world to see the power of the individual. I want them to see what happens when we are true to ourselves even in unthinkable hardship.

Some people believe that we live in an unfair world, but those people are missing the point. This is a life of perseverance, of learning from struggle, and defining ourselves in the process.

Dave Griffin is the Times' running writer and coordinator of the Flying Feet Running Programs. His column appears every other Sunday. Email him at dpgflyingfeet@aol.com.

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