By T.J. Cesarz – (email: [email protected])
Despite his successes as a runner, experts would certainly agree that Lance Benson’s technique is unorthodox. They’d probably say things like, “His center of gravity is too low,” or “He’s all upper body.” But, there is a good reason for these potential criticisms.
Lance Benson has no legs.
Now 33-years old, the Raleigh, North Carolina native was born without a left leg, and his right leg was deformed, as only the lower leg bones and foot developed. His parents consulted with specialists across the country. Most said that Benson would be wheelchair bound, but the experts at Shriners Hospital disagreed. Doctors amputated the deformed limb, and fit him with prosthetics for both legs at 1-year of age. With that decision, an outstanding, if non-traditional, athletic career was born.
To Lance Benson, getting around and playing with his peers on crutches was not a big deal. “I had never known anything else. I didn’t see myself as different, I was just the kid who used crutches to walk.” Getting involved in athletics was a little more challenging. Not wanting to sit in a wheelchair, Benson began racing 3- and 4-wheel ATV’s. Learning to control the unstable machines with no legs was a challenge, but enabled him to master a pair of skills that would prove invaluable in his next athletic venture: wrestling.
Despite not having legs, Benson had an accomplished career as a high school wrestler in North Carolina. A varsity competitor both his Junior and Senior years, he finished with a 20-8 record as a senior. The secret to his success? “From racing ATV’s I really learned how to use balance and leverage to my advantage,” says Benson. “My upper body strength was also better than most of my competition, because I obviously spent all my time training my chest, shoulders and arms.” His success on the mats would eventually culminate with a victory in the North Carolina State games the summer after he graduated from high school.
Next up for Benson was a trip to North Carolina State University. While enrolled in the tough engineering school, – he would eventually graduate with a degree in Chemical Engineering – he took up his next athletic challenge. Encouraged by a couple of friends he worked out with, Lance trained for and began entering bench press competitions. He excelled almost immediately, winning a number of competitions in the 123.5 pound weight class. His best lift was 342 pounds, well over twice his body weight. What makes these strength feats even more spectacular is that they were accomplished without the advantage of having his legs to provide leverage and a base to push off. “I really enjoyed the lifting because I had a lot of success,” notes Benson. “I was able to set a number of weight class records at the time. My goal was to be able to bench three times my body weight (approximately 370 pounds!), but I never quite made it.”
Lance Benson’s running career began after moving from North Carolina to Florida in 2001. While volunteering for Shake-A-Leg-Miami, a group that provides services and programs to disabled individuals and their families, Benson was encouraged to compete in a 5K road race by some of his co-workers. The question was, how? He had never competed in a wheel-chair, so with the help of friends, decided he could get it done by balancing himself on a skateboard where he could “pull” himself along with his hands and arms. “That first race was brutal,” remembers Benson. “I was competing on a regular skateboard, so keeping my balance was tough. I wore gardening gloves to protect my hands, but they tore through before the end of the first mile. My hands were a bloody mess when I finished, but I was able to get through it.”
Benson was hooked. After spending more time “running” on his board, he decided to make the ultimate jump for a runner, and signed up for the 2002 Miami Marathon. However, his job as a commercial real estate broker cut into his training time, and regrettably, he decided to back out of the race. He then set his sights on the 1/2 marathon at the Miami event in 2003. Still training and racing on his primitive skateboard set-up, he competed and finished, this time wearing hockey gloves to protect his hands. His career as an endurance athlete was born.
In anticipation of the 2004 Miami Marathon, Benson went to work to improve his equipment. Working with a couple of custom skateboard builders, he came up with a concept board composed of a balsa wood core encased in a carbon fiber shell. The board provided the stiffness he needed for speed and efficiency, but the main reason the 32″ long board was built was for comfort. “As I get older, I get wider,” laughs Benson. “The board is 14″ wide in the back where I sit, and tapers to 11″ in the front, making the ride a lot more manageable.” By adding a set of rollerblade wheels measuring from 90-100mm, Benson now had a racing steed that was set for the marathon distance.
As a marathoner, Benson has completed three Miami Marathons, (04-06), as well as the Los Angeles and New York Marathons. “Generally, New York in November starts my season,” said Benson. Despite battling a shoulder injury he finished the 2006 race in 3:48. His best marathon time was at LA in 2005 where he finished in 3:09. His long term goal? “I’d really like to go under three hours some day, but I’ll really have to step up my training, especially the mileage I do on the board.”
In the meantime, Lance Benson has other, more important goals. He is the founder of the Florida Chapter of the Achilles Track Club, an organization based out of New York City whose mission is to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics. He is also focused on telling his story to the thousands of individuals who now face the same challenges that he has overcome. “In a sense, I am lucky, because I have always lived with my disability,” says Benson. “It’s a lot tougher for individuals like soldiers who may have lost a limb in combat, or a person who was injured in an accident to make the transition from what you would call a ‘normal’ life. Everyone has a story to tell, and I am going to do my best to tell mine, because I think it will encourage others to do the same. The more success stories there are out there, the better it will be for those who have to adapt to a new way of life.”
To find out more about Lance and the South Florida Branch of the Achilles Track Club, visit the club website. You can contact Lance at lance_benson (at) cushwake.com .
By T.J. Cesarz