Live Free Of Limitations: Brian Reynolds, Double Amputee Para Athlete
With the 2023 Boston Marathon Weekend here, I’d like to take time to feature para athlete Brian Reynolds as he prepares for his SECOND Boston Marathon! At age four, Brian had bilateral below-knee amputations and has spent his life weight lifting, running, and reaching summits all over the world. He raced in the 2022 Boston Marathon — a long-time bucket list item — and shared his journey to get there with me! The finish line of Boston isn’t where this story ends, though! Brian is headed to the seven highest summits and truly embraces living life without limitations.
Connecting with Brian Reynolds
Standing at Mile 25 of the 2022 Boston Marathon, I was recording a sea of racers with my iPhone as I anxiously waited for my friends on the course. Amidst the chaos, I saw a runner go down on the course. When I looked closer, I saw someone blocking him off as he was donning his prosthetic leg, which had fallen off mid-race. I saw other racers stop to check in on the fallen athlete, possibly sacrificing their race time to help someone in need. I posted the video on Instagram asking to find the athletes pictured so I could hear their story. In less than an hour (I kid you NOT!), Mike Wardian (@mikewardian) was recognized as the Guide blocking off the para athlete of whom Mike identified as Brian Reynolds (@brianreynoldsrunner)! A few days later, I hopped on a call with Brian to learn more about his story. The internet is a wild place of rapid connections and, for this, I am grateful to have been connected with Brian and have a chance to amplify his voice!
Where Brian’s Story Begins
“I guess it all starts when I was born,” Brian shares. He was born with an autoimmune deficiency–transient hypogammaglobulinemia–which essentially left him with “no immune system.” Because of his immunodeficiency, he got a rare bloodstream infection when he was called meningococcemia, which resulted in double below-knee amputations at age four. Growing up, Brian “played town sports, but never really excelled at any of them,” and he never really ran.
By the time Brian was in college, he confesses he was a gym rat. “I did power lifting, so I specialized in the bench press and deadlift… I couldn’t walk a mile, probably, if you paid me!”
A year or two after college, Brian joined Team in Training, which is a charity that works with Leukemia Lymphoma Society. Why? Well, he reflects, “What else am I supposed to do now? College is over. Life is kind of boring.” So he trained for a hike with them and hiked the Grand Canyon! From there, Brian was hooked and “serially continued to sign up for their hike program,” giving him the muscle foundation of cardio he was missing while benching and deadlifting more than his body weight.
Why a Marathon?
Brian had a marathon on his bucket list since high school, admitting “There’s absolutely no reason it should have been on my bucket list, really. It was just… one of those things.” Growing up in the Boston area, Brian spent his childhood on the sidelines of the Boston Marathon as a spectator or volunteer on Patriot’s Day. When Brian wasn’t out hiking with Team in Training, he was volunteering at water stops for the Boston marathon training teams.
In 2014, Brian did his first marathon “with almost no training at all.” He says, “It was just, like, 5K one weekend and did a marathon the next weekend,” essentially to knock it off his bucket list. Brian ran the 2014 Disney marathon, showed up, and “got through it” in around 4:30, but basically stopped running afterwards. With his bucket list item checked off, he decided to move on to other aspects of life by getting married and having a kid!
In the summer of 2014, Brian was fooling around on the treadmill with some buddies at the gym to see who could run the fastest mile. To his surprise, Brian ran a 4:48 mile. From there he figured well, shoot, “I guess I should see how running would go.”
Brian signed up for another marathon in 2017 and, with three months of training, went from a time of 4:30 at the Disney Marathon to 3:27 (woah!) — an hour off his personal time! Now, marathon running has taken Brian “so many places.” He reflects, “I’ve met so many awesome people and did so many awesome things.” He’s run marathons in Chicago (x2), London, Houston, Disney, and–last but not least–Boston. What a journey!
Brian’s Road to the 2022 Boston Marathon
Brian was happy he got to the starting line of the 2022 Boston Marathon after an “injury rollercoaster” since 2020. Unlike many of his other races where Brian has qualified based on his time, he was invited by Boston Marathon to race in the para athlete division. Originally, Brian was planning to run the Boston Marathon in 2020, but you won’t believe what interrupted these plans. You guessed it — COVID hit and Brian had to put off the marathon, even though 2020 was meant to be the first year of Boston Marathon’s Para Division. Instead, Brian ran ~19.5 laps around his home in New Jersey on Patriot’s Day to achieve an unofficial marathon PR of 2:59, despite an unplanned 2,900 feet of elevation gain.
During the 2022 Boston Marathon, Brian reports his pacing was interrupted by Heartbreak Hill — the infamous, final uphill battle of the Boston Marathon — which “broke [his] heart halfway up.” The crowds in Boston lured Brian into a trap of running at a faster pace, but halfway up Heartbreak, his legs were screaming “NO.” He ended up finishing with a time of 3:18:21, placing second in the Para Division. After Mile 20, it was “a lot of positive talk” from his guide, Mike, to keep Brian going to the finish line. Brian shares he “had an absolute blast out there… and the crowds were everything I had hoped they would be.”
Heartbreak broke my heart halfway up… and the crowds were everything I had hoped they would be.
— Brian Reynolds, Para Athlete
Running with a Guide
Brian has been running with Mike Wardian “for a few years now.” They ran together in the Chicago Marathon of 2018 — another race Brian reports he was “not prepared for,” though it wasn’t quite the 5K to Disney marathon transition. Much of Brian’s training for Chicago’s marathon was on an ElliptiGO (pictured below) for 6 hours/day, which is great for muscle fitness, but not as good for “being used to the pounding of the road.” Despite this, Brian was on track for a 2:52 race pace when he fell at Mile 22 (a stark similarity to Boston 2022). His leg got caught in a pothole close to the curb, fell, and got a concussion! While he doesn’t really remember the last four miles of the race, Brian’s ElliptiGO training paid off, and he walked (ran?) away with an *official* PR of 3:03:22!
Disclaimer: Brian’s track record (pun intended, hah) of being “unprepared” for races sure hasn’t limited his success in any way, yet I don’t think it’s entirely recommended to train on an ElliptiGo for just an ol’ competitor. Way to crush it, Brian.
Since the Chicago Marathon, Brian and Mike have “met up all over the country during different traveling adventures.” As for the Boston Marathon in 2022, Brian was not aware he could have a support runner until two months before the race. He was initially hesitant to ask Mike to run with him because he knew “he had a lot of crazy adventures in April.” Running as a guide or support runner is a “totally different mentality” and “you have to be on your A-game because you’re out there supporting them.” Even if you’re not feeling 100% as a guide, you have to keep going. It’s not about you — it’s about the runner you’re supporting.
However, Mike ended up running with Brian — despite only having 18 hours between getting off a plane from Ecuador to arriving in Boston! Brian says “That’s just the type of person Mike is — he’s just in to help whenever he can and it’s pretty awesome,” further adding:
Running with Mike [Wardian] was absolutely awesome. He’s such a nice guy. He could have been in Boston running with the Elite field himself, but he chose to sacrifice having his own race to come out and support me. I think it’s so awesome that the pros are out there supporting the para athletes.
Brian Reynolds and Mike Wardian at the Chicago Marathon
Read more about guide and support runners at the Boston Marathon on the B.A.A. website here!
Competing as a Para Athlete
Creating a level field of competition is crucial for disabled athletes to be visible and compete. In general, Brian shares “there is very little competition for para athletes because there’s not enough races that would make them want to train for it.” Honestly, this isn’t the first I’ve heard this feedback from a disabled athlete and I think we still have a ways to go to equity.
There is very little competition for para athletes… there’s not enough races that would make them want to train for it.
— Brian Reynolds, Para Athlete
Having raced at London and Boston in the para divisions, Brian offered great perspective on potential improvements for the way para athletes are treated.
Firstly, Boston Marathon does not host an awards ceremony for the para division like they do for the open and wheelchair divisions. This means athletes do not receive a classic, golden olive branch wreath if placing in their division. In order to support full visibility and equality between elite, able-bodied, and para athletes, this would be an easy step in the right direction.
Little fun fact: Boston’s head wreaths legit come from Greece — a tradition originating in 1897 when members of the Boston Athletic Association came back from the first Greek Olympic Games inspired! Pretty neat. I’d like to see a para athlete get one of them… *wink.*
During the Boston Marathon, the B.A.A. housed para athletes in a different hotel than the elite athletes. In stark contrast, Brian sat next to Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge (current world record holder of the marathon at finish time of 2:01:09 in Berlin, 2022) at breakfast during the London Marathon. While Brian had “trouble eating breakfast because (he) was so excited,” this truly made him feel there was no difference between himself and the elite runners.
Brian highlights two things London needs to change: (1) They send the para athletes out an hour before the rest of the field and (2) There is no such thing as support runners, so para athletes run point to point on the course solo. Of note, Brian shared the Boston Marathon is not allowing support runners on the 2023 course for an unknown reason. Any further insight is welcome here!
Wheelchair Division Winners of 2022 Boston Marathon: Manuela Schär of Switzerland (1:41:08) and American Daniel Romanchuk (1:26:58)
What’s next for Brian?
First of all, Brian is competing at the 2023 B.A.A. Boston Marathon on Monday, April 17! I know I’ll be on the sidelines cheering for him… will you?!
Outside of running, Brian is working on climbing the seven summits! He already checked off Aconcagua in Argentina and plans to tackle Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in the summer of 2023, with plans to attempt a 10-hour round-trip on Kilimanjaro — a trek that typically takes 6-8 days. In 2024, he has his sights set on Mount Everest! Brian gets support from A Step Ahead Prosthetics for all his prosthetic needs. His prosthetist, Erik Schaffer, will work on designs for Kilimanjaro to prevent the loose rock shale from getting into his foot shell and a design for climbing Mount Everest to promote insulation of Brian’s residual limbs. In fact, Erik designed the first prosthetic leg for climbing Mount Everest, which was essentially a prosthesis with internal insulation that ended in a crampon. Can’t wait to see what Brian and Erik come up with!
When I asked Brian if he’s had any experience with ableism as a disabled athlete, he thought for a moment before sharing he’d be happy to inspire “other amputees to get out and do something.”
Honestly, I just have a different set of obstacles to overcome. Everyone has obstacles that they have to overcome, but mine just happen to be more visible than others.
— Brian Reynolds
If you know me, you know I can’t turn down a “getting to know you on a deeper level” conversation. I asked Brian these questions and am so grateful for the time he spent to share his story — both as it relates to his disability and his life at large. Not only is Brian an incredible athlete, but he’s also a kind human, husband, father, mountaineer, and voice for the para athlete community.
Q: Who are you outside of running? Describe your perfect day.
A: It usually starts with a workout – I’m pretty big into cross training. For instance, this morning, I rode for a half hour. I still bike and weight lift. During the summer, I swim. I’m mainly a father and a husband – that’s who I am outside of running or working out in general.
Q: What would be a quote or a motto that inspires you or you choose to live by?
A: The back of my running blades have it on there – Live life without limitations. I had that put on my running blades from the first ones I got.
Q: What are most grateful for in your life right now?
A: The opportunity to do as much as I’ve done. I feel I’ve done more in my life than many people get in their entire lives and every opportunity leads to a new one. It’s amazing to have so much support and ability to do things.
Good luck on all your endeavors, Brian! Thank you for this conversation!
- World Para Athletics Rules and Regulations (updated February 2023)
- Boston Marathon Para Athletes Eligibility Requirements
- Boston Marathon Para Athletes Divisions
- London Marathon Athletes with Disabilities
- Achilles International – support for disabled athletes
- Challenged Athletes Foundation – support for disabled athletes
Brian was born and raised in Boston. He now lives and trains in NJ with his wife and three kids. He contracted meningococcemia at age four, which resulted in the bilateral below the knee amputation of both legs. Ten years ago, Brian found running and the rest is history. He has now raced and climbed all over the world! Follow Brian on Instagram at @brianreynoldsrunner
Important Disclaimer: Brian has granted permission to share his photos and words in the context of this article only. Do not reproduce, replicate, or publish any contents of this article without consent of both the author and athlete. If you are interested in sharing Brian’s story, please contact me or Brian.