Lack of limbs won't keep Chris Koch away from Dubai Marathon

The Canadian will ride on top of a longboard during the event on January 24

Edmonton Marathon taken by my buddy Tyler Sirman. Photo by Chris Koch. (to go with Melanie Swan story)
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Chris Koch was born with no arms and no legs. Yet it's clear there's no room for pity in his company, nor sadness or resentment in his demeanour. Rather, Koch is all smiles as he prepares to take part in a marathon this week in Dubai, his ninth overall, which he'll seek to complete on top of a longboard.

Physical challenges

Raised in a simple farming community in Alberta, Canada, he has become an inspiration to many across the world for his indomitable spirit. Koch, 40, explains his condition as there being "no known reason why I was born like this; it's just a one-off". He completed the Edmonton Marathon last August, his eighth such event, in less than four hours (3:55.24), and hopes to achieve a personal best at the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon on Friday. The flat course will be to his benefit, but the sheer feat of the task cannot be understated. Koch says it takes him about 400 per cent more energy to perform everyday activities than someone with arms and legs, and a marathon is no different.

Koch has a partially developed right leg and foot, which he uses to propel his longboard. He has enough use of his arms to drink water during a race, which he does independently, although by the end he says his dominant side is "tired and sore". That is inevitably overshadowed by the feeling of crossing the finish line. "Whether you've achieved a personal best or it's your slowest race yet, it's such a cool feeling," he says.

Most recent pic from training on the indoor track at Repsol Centre in Calgary. Photo by Chris Koch. (to go with Melanie Swan story)
Koch training on the indoor track at the Repsol Centre in Calgary. Courtesy Chris Koch

Koch also revels in the support he receives from other runners, from elite athletes to those at the back of the pack. He is aware of the potentially powerful impact his participation in marathons has. "If runners on the course or others see that a guy without arms and legs is doing marathons and it motivates or inspires them, it's an awesome by-product," he says.

I was never treated like a person with a disability or referred to as 'that boy who's missing arms and legs'. I was just Chris.

Strategy is everything, for his own safety and the safety of others who may trip over him and the board. "Because I'm so low to the ground, I have to have my head on a swivel and be hyper-aware of everyone around me," he explains.

When he passes other runners, he must be "very vocal and give them a wide berth", he says. Runners wearing headphones or earbuds pose a problem because they can't hear or see him well, meaning he is on high alert from start to finish.

He admits his finishing time is affected by the obstacles he faces en route as he avoids starting with the elite runners, who may be impaired by his presence, or the wheelchair and handcycle racers because they're faster and he fears he will get in their way.

“I’m happy pacing the runners at the back of the pack and then making up ground when everyone starts to spread out,” he says. “For me, it’s more about the experience than being fast.”

Mental strength 

Stamina aside, the ability to complete a 42-kilometre race is very much a mental game, but then that is Koch's forte. "If you've prepared properly, the body is capable of achieving some pretty impressive things," he says, his inspiring philosophy being that life is truly what we make it. "That goes for pretty much anything. Whatever we're experiencing is as amazing or horrible as we decide it is. If I lead a miserable existence, bitter and mad because I was born missing arms and legs, that's on me."

Leading up to a marathon, Koch gradually increases his distances on the longboard and tapers off as race day draws closer, akin to his fellow competitors. Although it may seem incomprehensible, he also loves to climb stairs – which he calls “an awesome workout” – hopping on his one strong leg and foot. “I’ll go up and down 20, 40, 60, 80 flights of stairs. I’d love to come back and do the Burj Khalifa stair climb one day,” he says with a grin.

Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Chris Koch. (to go with Melanie Swan story)
The 40-year-old is a fan of stair-climbing. Courtesy Chris Koch

Back home, he continues to work in the farming and ranching business, which includes driving a tractor and feeding animals, and says he feels very much connected to his roots. He also spends as much time as he can doing motivational speaking gigs and, of course, marathons.

Supportive family and positive outlook

Koch loves to joke that pity had no place from early on in his life. "Within hours of when I was born, my grandma was informed that my parents gave birth to a healthy baby boy; however, I was missing both arms and both legs," he says. "Without any hesitation whatsoever, she simply said: 'Bruce [his father] never did finish anything he started.'"

Koch displays extraordinary positivity in the face of what could be seen as one of the biggest physical disadvantages a person can face. And the jokes keep on coming. When asked his age, he quips: "I'm 40. I'll be 41 next month. I know you're likely thinking, 'Wow. I thought you were younger.' After all, I am short for my age."

On a serious note, he says being raised in a family who never treated him differently, and who took it in their stride rather than treating it as a tragedy, had a huge effect on him. But there is part of his resilience that comes from deep within. "It's partly nature and partly nurture," he says. "I'm an inherently happy-go-lucky person. I also have amazing family and friends. I was never treated like a person with a disability or referred to as 'that boy who's missing arms and legs'. I was just Chris.

“I was also never discouraged from trying new activities or participating in various sports. It was always just: ‘Let’s figure out a way to make it happen.’” 

As a child, Koch was adventurous, trying everything he could, including street hockey. He used a skateboard to get around the hallways in school, but wore artificial legs all the time from about grade 7 onwards. It wasn't until eight or nine years ago, when he was on a trip to Florida, that the longboard became his primary mobility aid. "The first time on the new board, I was cruising for about 10 or 15 minutes and stopped to take a little breather," he says. "I looked back, saw how much ground I had just covered, and realised I was able to get farther faster and more efficiently on the board."

He hasn't worn artificial legs since. "I've tried prosthetics, wheelchairs, motorised scooters and the longboard," he says. "When I weigh up the pros and cons of them all, the board has the most upside."

Koch says this has been his "normal" for his whole life, simply figuring out different ways of doing things. He zooms into photos on his phone with his mouth, balancing the device on his right arm while swiping with his left.

"Some people are ashamed of their freckles, that spare tyre around their waist, but if you're worried about how you look, you're cheating yourself out of opportunities. If you want to figure out a way bad enough, you make it happen."