Interview with Eric McElvenny of the Challenged Athletes Foundation

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In honor of the upcoming Empire State Building Run Up, we met with athlete Eric McElvenny to learn how he got involved in the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), what his favorite training gear is, and what inspires him to crush goals every single day.  The Empire State Building Run Up, now in its 40th Year, is sponsored by Marmot and The CAF.

PS: Hi Eric.  Thank you for your service in the US Marines.  During your third deployment, you faced an accident in Afghanistan that left you at a crossroads.  Can you touch upon this and what pushed you to train for an Ironman?

EM:  You’re welcome.  It was an honor to be a Marine and serve our country.  It was something that I had wanted to do since childhood and a decision that I made in the 8th grade.  It’s cool to grow up and do what you wanted to do when you were little.  While in Afghanistan in 2011, I stepped on an IED and triggered an explosion underneath me.  That led to the amputation of my right leg.  I set a goal to run an Ironman because it seemed like a huge challenge and I wanted to do something big to prove to myself that I can still be an athlete.

PS: That’s very powerful.  What were some of the initial struggles you faced training for the Ironman?  How have you continuously overcome training barriers through the years?  

EM:  Immediately after the injury it was difficult to accept the permanence of the amputation.   It was hard to believe this had happened to me.  My support network was crucial in pulling me through that.  My oldest daughter, Lupe, was only 5 years old when I was injured.  She didn’t care that I was missing a leg, she was just happy that I was home for Christmas.  She helped me realize that there is something positive in every situation and that it was my choice to focus on either the good or the bad. 

It’s hard to start something new.  I had never competed in endurance sports in my life.  I leaned heavily on people with much more experience then me. 

The biggest physical challenge came with the skin breakdown and infections that the prosthetic can cause over the course of a long training day or race.  I was close to giving up after another staff infection when my prosthetist, Peter Harsch, renewed my hunger.  

I sat down in his office “Peter, I don’t think Ironmans are meant for people without legs.” 

Peter: “Eric, if it were easy everyone would be doing it.”  

All of these things helped me to realize that I didn’t set that goal because I expected it to be easy.  Easy is not criteria for a decision.  I continue to try my best to focus on the good.  Things can always be worse and I’m grateful with what I do have.    

PS:  So true.  It’s admirable that you pushed through despite these setbacks.  

Tell us about your partnership with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF).  How did you get involved?  What are some things you do together?

EM:  Soon after I was wounded, I crossed paths with CAF at a surf clinic.  I learned a little about them, visited their office and shared with them my goal of running an Ironman.  The rest is history.  They began supporting me in different ways to reach that finish line.  From triathlon camps, to gear, to race registrations and their partnerships I was fortunate to reach the Ironman World Championships in only 22 months.  I would not have done that with out CAF.

Now CAF not only supports my athletic goals, but they provide me with the opportunity to mentor other disabled athletes and travel around to speak to and inspire all people while sharing the mission of Challenged Athletes Foundation. 

PS: We hear you’re a big sports fan!  Us too   What are some of your favorites?  Any you play now?

EM:  I love sports.  It’s a passion.  I feel at home on the baseball diamond.  I love the contact and strategy in football.  Rugby became one of my favorites in college and now racing has equaled it.  I never expected racing Ironmans to be as gratifying as it is.  The strategy, the athletes, the competition, pushing your body to limits that you weren’t sure it could reach….It’s all awesome.  I also have been fortunate to coach my daughter’s teams in soccer and softball.  Although it’s not the same as playing, coaching puts you right back in the game.  

PS: Absolutely.  It seems like everything you’ve been through as enabled you to be a strong coach.  It’s awesome that your love of sports, teamwork, and athleticism have pushed you to do so much.   

What are some race day gear that you can’t live without?

EM:  Race days are still chaos for me.  Essentials are my run and bike prosthetics, liners, socks, allen wrenches….all leg stuff.  For other gear, I love my Garmin forerunner 910XT sports watch.  It usually reminds me that I’m pushing too hard and I need to slow down if I expect to finish this race upright.  That’s my weakness.  On race day, I go too fast too early.  I’m learning though.

Another must-have for me is my wonderful family.  Maybe they wouldn’t want to be considered gear, but they are essential.  My wife is an amazing and a great spectator.  She makes it around the course to cheer me on with our 3 kids.  That’s not easy with a 10 year old, 3 year old and 8 month old, but seeing them cheer me on rejuvenates me.

PS: What are some rituals that keep you feeling strong and inspired daily?  

EM: I read the Bible and pray every morning.  It brings me comfort knowing that I’m not here in my daily struggles alone.  I have been blessed with an amazing life and an opportunity to inspire and influence others.  I have a wonderful family and I get to live out my passion for sports daily.  I’m grateful for all of these opportunities.

PS: Many of us at Paragon Sports are participating in the 40th Anniversary of the Empire State Building Run on February 1, 2017 sponsored by the CAF.  We hear you are too.  Any tips to getting up 86 flights of stairs?

EM: I am very excited to race up the 86 flights.  This will be my first time racing up the Empire State Building.  It’s an honor to do it and a feat that will quickly be considered an accomplishment and a great memory.

Tips:  It’s going to be difficult.  Know that fact going in and develop a mental plan.  When I’m training for any event, I take a look at the big picture and realize why I’m doing the event so when I’m extremely fatigued and in pain my mind has a good and natural place to drift off to.  For me, I’ve been picturing being at the top of the Empire State Building, sweaty and tired, looking out at the beautiful New York City.  When I’m ¾ the way up and there’s that voice in my head that is telling me to slow down or stop, I will picture myself at the top and push ahead. 

Also, don’t start too fast and just don’t quit.  Pretty easy tips to follow.       

PS: We’ll definitely be thinking about how good it’ll feel at the top!  Great tips.  

Lots of us are setting big goals for 2017 whether it’s to run a marathon, complete a triathlon, or simply to stretch more often.  What are your best tricks to creating realistic goals and actually accomplishing them?

EM: I give a lot of weight to the word “goal”.  To me, a goal is a commitment.  It is a promise to myself.  I dedicate myself to reaching that goal because it is a commitment.  My commitments take priority over other stuff.  If a goal is towards the bottom of a priority list, the work needed to reach that goal isn’t going to get accomplished.  I have a lot of “I want to do’s..” but when those “want to do’s…” become a goal, I am fully in.  

When deciding on goals, I choose things that are slightly scary.  After I lost a leg, the Ironman was scary.  How was I going to accomplish that?  I choose goals that are out of my comfort zone.  The realistic part comes in when you’re developing a plan to reach those goals.  When you set big, scary goals, you need some milestones in order to reach them.  Being realistic yet aggressive about how long it’s going to take to reach those milestones is where you can control things.  If you’re running a marathon in 2017, I’d suggest finding a 5K, 10K and half marathon nearby and strategically place them in your schedule as different milestones.    

PS: Do you have any mantras or inspirational quotes that you live by?  

EM:  “Click Click.” Back in high school, one of my football coaches, coach Kroskie, used to say “Click Click”.  Before a game, after your pads and helmet are on, the last thing you do before going on the field is fasten your chin strap.  “Click Click.” After that, it’s time to go out on that field and leave everything out there for yourself and your team.  Before a race or during a race when it’s starting to get tough, I verbally whisper “Click Click” to remind myself that it’s time to go out and battle.    

PS: Thank you so much Eric for sharing bits of your story and your training tips with our readers.  We’ll see you at the top of the Empire State Building!


To learn more about Eric McElvenny, where he’s training, and what he’s up to visit

To get more involved in the Challenged Athletes Foundation visit

To explore the Marmot collection at Paragon Sports, shop here: 

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