On December 7th, 2007, Adam Popp lost his right leg from an IED exploding underneath him while deployed in Afghanistan. In 2015, he found running. Within five months after relearning to run on a prosthetic, Adam ran a half-marathon, in seven months, a marathon, and in nineteen months, a 100-miler.
Jen: I’m going to start with a big thank you for your service.
Adam: It’s my pleasure and my honor — seriously.
Jen: What inspired you to join the Air Force, and in particular, working as an EOD?
(Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician)
Adam: My grandfather and his brothers all served in the military, but I didn’t know too much about it while growing up. It was an option I explored on my own. I spoke with my cousin, who was in the Air Force, and he told me the Air Force had a good quality of life. So I went to the recruiter from there and got three options based on my aptitude test, one of them being an EOD. This was before September 11th. Before anyone knew what an IED was.
Jen: So did the movie, The Hurt Locker get it right?
Adam: The movie is a lot of Hollywood. EOD Technicians don’t want to be hands-on with the device like the character is every time in the movie. We always want to use the safest option possible, which is usually by robot or remote-means. The movie made us look like cowboys, which is not the case, especially not in deployed environments where things can go wrong. The one scene that The Hurt Locker got right is where the main character is in the grocery store, listening to that elevator music after he comes back from deployment – he’s so bored, and he needs to get back to the action.
Jen: Were you a runner before the military?
Adam: In high school I played soccer and did the long jump and high jump in track. I did it for a letter. I was never really a runner outside of those sports. One of the main reasons I chose the long jump and high jump was so I didn’t have to run.
Jen: And so how much running did you do in the military?
Adam: Most members in the Air Force don’t run or focus on the physical aspects as much as the Army or Marines that do a lot of ground work. However, as EOD Technician in Air Force, we did physical training at least 3 days a week and most of those days consisted of running 3-5 miles. When I was in Japan on non-combat deployment, we had this really crazy running routine where we did hills and stairs. I was fast, usually the fastest guy in my unit, but I never desired to run outside of training.
Jen: Did you deploy to Afghanistan because of September 11th?
Adam: In a roundabout way. I didn’t deploy to Afghanistan until 2007. Before that, I was deployed to Iraq from 2004-2005. My deployment to Iraq, Afghanistan and the subsequent wars were all related to September 11th though. I was there for the EOD mission of disarming roadside bombs and removal of other types of ordnance off the battlefield.
Jen: If you could, take me back to Afghanistan, December 7th, 2007…
Adam: The night before December 7th, we were doing a route clearance mission. We stayed in a village that night and early the next morning we got a call from the Afghanistan police that they found an IED underneath the road. We took our robot down there and worked on the IED as best as we could. We ended up pulling the robot out because we couldn’t get everything from the culvert underneath the road with it. That’s when I went out there in the big green bomb suit and pulled everything out that the robot couldn’t reach and brought it back to the truck. When I went back to do a final clearance of the area is when the detonation happened. It was a secondary device, put next to the first device. I was awake through the whole thing – the explosion, in the air, on my back.
Jen: Adhering to medical advice, you didn’t run 7 years after your injury in 2007…
Adam: When I showed up to Walter Reed Medical Center they noticed there were screws in my hip that hadn’t set right from my previous surgeries during my hospital stay in Landstuhl, Germany. The femoral head in my hip wasn’t getting blood and it was dying. I had to go on osteoporosis injections. They told me that I couldn’t continue to do anything high impact because there would be a likelihood of that bone collapsing and I’d have to have a hip replacement.
Jen: Fast forward to 2015 – You said yes to running the 5k leg of an adventure race? What changed in your mindset about running?
Adam: I was the one who actually heads up that race for the EOD Warrior Foundation (Ski to Sea). Once I left the hospital, I became a peer mentor where guys coming in injured could meet up with me and I could guide them through what their months and years ahead might look like. On the third year of putting this team together there wasn’t enough snow to do the ski portion so it was changed to a trail run. And I decided to run. Earlier that year, I gained some clarity and changed a lot of things in my life. Running was just one of the things that spilled over from that clarity.
Jen: How did you relearn to run?
Adam: I’d been working with an amazing prosthetist and talked to him about putting together a running prosthetic. I worked through the alignment with him and once it felt comfortable, I worked with a physical therapist to analyze my gait. She put me on a harness (Solo-Step) with a rope that attaches to the ceiling and goes around a 100 meter oval track. My first lap felt really weird – I was kind of skipping. After that session, I was on my own. I went to a desolate parking lot on a military base where no one could see me and practiced running every other day for 5-6 weeks, 30 minutes at a time. I was really bad at first. I moved to a trail and high school track near my house once I started gaining more confidence.
Jen: Do you think being in the military has helped your discipline and training as a runner?
Adam: The sweat you put into pre-deployment training saves you blood during the deployment. It’s the same type of mentality I take with my running – if you really bust your ass during the training, you’ll see great dividends and not suffer as much during a race.
Jen: What needs do you have to deal with during an ultra as an above-knee amputee, beyond the usual misery?
When I started training for my first 100-miler, I reached out to a few people including Chris Moon (Running on the Sun) trying to understand what the takeaways are from racing with a prosthetic. I was given some tips on how to keep from blistering early on, changing my liner, socks, keeping the prosthetic from rubbing, etc. I also received advice on how to navigate nutrition. I burn a lot more calories than a two-legged person; 70% more calories and 20% more oxygen for an above-knee amputee. During a race, amputees may have to deal with their residual limb fluctuating in size (larger or smaller.) When this happens the individual may have to adjust for that to avoid rubbing, pistoning, blisters or even their prosthetic falling off.
Jen: What makes an above-knee amputee runner unique?
Adam: Stability, especially on trail. It’s hard enough as an above-knee amputee to run on a road, let alone on trail with rocks and uneven terrain under your prosthetic that can cause your knee to collapse. If that happens, there’s nothing to catch you. A below-knee amputee can stumble or stub their toe to catch the side with their prosthetic, but for me, I hit a rock wrong or catch my toe, I fall. Elevation is also harder because on the right side I don’t have a calf, hamstring or quad that can do a ton of work to climb and navigate terrain. It’s kind of dangerous, actually. This past fall I did a 50-miler, and leaves had covered the rocks and roots on the trail. I fell at least 20 times during that race. For me, it’s typical to fall at least once every 20 miles. I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess. The cardio, the nutrition, everything is multiplied as an amputee, and then multiplied again, the farther distances you go. For all those difficulties is why there aren’t a ton of us out there.
Jen: Do you find you are more susceptible to injuries in your left (remaining) leg?
Adam: My brain has trained itself to push off a little more on my toes to get over those roots and rocks to keep from falling. That repeated movement and overcompensating for my prosthetic after 70-80 miles seems to really cause issues with my ankle.
Jen: Do you use different prostheses for road vs. trail?
Adam: I don’t. There are settings I mess with on the knee of the prosthetic to make it more stable. If I’m running on the road I can make it unstable, which is faster. When I go to trail, depending on the terrain, I’ll back it down because it’s more stable, but not as fast.
Jen: What is your go-to shoe for ultrarunning?
Adam: I ran in Merrill’s last year, but after they discontinued the shoe I ran in, I moved to the Hoka One One Clifton and Challenger.
You ran and finished your first 100-miler, Brazos Bend, 19 months after learning to re-run. What did it mean to you to cross that finish line?
Again, it points back to if you put the hard work in ahead of time you can achieve big things; Setting goals so big that you have to grow into them. It translates to a lot of different areas in my life. When I started my running journey 18 weeks prior, there was no way in hell I thought I could do something like that. It showed me bigger things could happen if I continue to push past what my perceived limits are. It was eye-opening to me on a grander scale than only trail running. It makes me want to continue to push, to see what else is out there.
Jen: You’re finishing up a Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling. Can you speak a little to that?
Adam: I want to put an educational, therapy background with my personal experience. I want to work with someone’s sense of passion and purpose with non-traditional therapy, such as running. I’ve seen the benefits first hand through things I did when I was in the hospital (skiing). You’re getting so much more out of the activity than just going to ski. You’re connecting with other people and learning about yourself. It’s therapy without the therapy.
Jen: You finished 2nd in the mobility division at the 2017 Boston Marathon. Will you run Boston again? I will, but not this year. The next year or two (March-Oct.) I plan to focus on triathalons where I’m able to compete against other amputees. I think another reason why you don’t see a lot of amputee runners/ultrarunners is because the races are lacking in competitive categories. As for upcoming ultras, I’ll probably run JFK 50 again, but nothing on the books yet.
Jen: Both 100s you’ve done have been loop ultras. Do you have your sights set on any point to point 100s? Is that a reality for you?
Adam: That’s kind of what my next idea is. A little harder, a little more elevation, point to point. I think it is a reality.
On December 7, 2017, Adam ran “36 hours of Jack” in Missouri and finished his second 100-miler, 10 years to the day after losing his leg. For 3-ish hours of his run, he was paced by his fellow Air Force teammate, Eric, who was also the first to tend to Adam after the IED exploded underneath him back in 2007.