For 34 years, thousands of runners have taken on the Marathon des Sables, a grueling 140-mile race through the Sahara. Considered the world’s most difficult ultramarathon, des Sables takes place over the course of six days through Morocco’s unforgiving Sahara.
Temperatures often go over 120 degrees, and racers have very limited support – athletes carry all of their supplies (including food) in backpacks and camp out in the desert. Rocky outcrops, endless stretches of hot sand, scorpions, venomous snakes and some of the steepest dunes in the world push athletes to the brink of their physical and mental strength.
At 46, Amy Palmiero-Winters is not what most picture when they think of an athlete, but for the Hicksville, N.Y. native running has been a lifelong passion: an escape, a comfort, a calling. So, when a careless driver crashed into her motorcycle 25 years ago and crushed her left leg, she did everything she could to save it.
She couldn’t imagine not running. But three years and 25 surgeries later it became obvious that her leg would never truly recover. Palmiero-Winters underwent a below-the-knee amputation and for three more years she couldn’t run. She almost gave up on her calling.
But hardships couldn’t keep her from running. In fact, it may have pushed her closer towards it. “Sports gave me self-confidence. When something bad happened to me, I went out for a run. It kept me from any darkness,” Palmier-Winters told The New York Times. The bad things included financial struggles that forced her to quit college, a bad marriage, an alcoholic father who abused her mother, the accident that cost the athlete her leg, and being sexually assaulted as a teenager.
After recovering from her amputation, she tried running again. Despite struggling with low-tech prosthetic legs, in 2004 she placed second in the Silver Strand Marathon. She was five months pregnant and used a prosthetic leg designed only for walking. Next year she placed third at the New York City Triathlon and won her division at the World Triathlon Championships. And then finally, she secured a high-tech leg from A Step Ahead Prosthetics. Palmiero-Winters started breaking records and establishing world firsts.
Today, she’s Director of Operations at A Step Ahead Prosthetics, holding 11 world records and countless awards, including the prestigious James E. Sullivan award, which recognized her as the world’s top amateur athlete nearly a decade ago. She also holds a coveted ESPY for being the world’s top female athlete with a disability. But as her latest achievement at the Marathon des Sables shows, she’s nowhere near done.
Nowadays though, it’s less about proving she can do anything she wants to herself – it’s all about inspiring her children. She raised her 15- and 13-year-old children by herself and these days she’s a superhero to her fiance’s 9- and 7-year-old kids too. In fact, she trained for the Marathon des Sables by working out and running with 7-year-old Chase on her back, per the New York Times.
She ran the 140-mile race with a note pinned to her 19-pound backpack: “Good luck. I love you. Don’t die.” It was written by her 13-year-old daughter.
Her fellow competitors were in awe as Palmiero-Winters finished the 6-day race with flying colors. Despite an allergic reaction just hours into the marathon, despite her prosthetic getting stuck, despite her skin peeling off inside the prosthetic with three days left to compete, and despite falling down and wanting to give up.
Palmiero-Winters was determined to finish and be an inspiration to others, drawing her own inspiration from an eclectic array of figures. From Eminem and Dr. Dre, whose music she ran to, to Finding Nemo’s Dory.
“Just keep swimming,” she told herself with every painful step– and she did. “When I fall, I laugh, I cry, I get back up, and I keep going.”