It was around 11 p.m. when Dave Ganas felt the headlights coming up behind him. The mechanic, driving home after a graveyard shift, slowed his motorcycle to 65, assuming the lights belonged to the Lathrop, California, police officer who often nodded as he passed, a mutual acknowledgment between two men alone on Highway 99 late at night. But Ganas was mistaken, and he scarcely had time to check his side mirror when the drunk driver hit him going more than 100 miles per hour.
In an instant, shrapnel from the bike’s rear wheel shredded Ganas’ right leg above the ankle. After lifting himself off the pavement, he cradled his dangling leg with his left arm, holding it tight. He called for help, and then dialed his wife to tell her he loved her.
The surgeons cut Ganas open from armpit to hip, stripping out his left latissimus dorsi muscle tissue and stuffing it into the void where his lower right leg used to be. But the transplant didn’t take, and within days, he could smell the rotting flesh. He gave the order: Take the leg.
A Slow Fall to Rock Bottom
Not surprisingly, tough times followed. “I felt very alone for the first four years after being amputated,” says Ganas, now 39. “Not being a veteran, there were no support groups, no counseling, really nothing.” Per his doctor’s orders, he took hydrocodone and Neurontin for the pain, and the drugged-up stupor robbed him of his motivation. He rarely left the house.
What Ganas didn’t know is that in 2009, the year of his accident, the FDA had already warned health care professionals that Neurontin use could cause suicidal thoughts. He also didn’t realize that his dosage was four times too high, so negative thoughts overran his psyche like a creeping vine. He recalls a day when his wife told him they needed to get out of the house together. After 90 minutes of pretend preparation, he looked at her, confused, and said, “I don’t know why I can’t leave.”
He felt weak and helpless. He needed something new, something to save him from what threatened to be a permanent state of melancholy. He started seeing a physical therapist and a mental health professional, and shortly afterward, he traded out his pills for a gym routine. Exercise didn’t totally dull the pain, but it gave him his mind back while helping manage depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Life Changed at the Finish Line
It was Ganas’ physical therapist who first told him about obstacle racing. Afterward, Ganas jumped online and began pouring over footage of veteran racer Hobie Call. He didn’t feel capable himself, but his interest in the sport held for two years before his wife finally said, “Why don’t you do a race, instead of just wanting to do it?”
He felt insecure about his abilities, but his wife signed them both up anyway. And in the summer of 2015, Ganas reluctantly ran the AT&T Park Sprint in San Francisco. “I was miserable, complaining about every obstacle,” he says.
But the moment he crossed the finish line, something shifted inside him. He felt himself being overcome with self-worth and optimism. “It was a sense of accomplishment I’d never felt,” he says. He thought back to the hospital staff telling him about the things he’d never be able to do, and the years of suffering he’d endured since. For the first time in as long as he could remember, the future seemed bright. “I started thinking about every race I could do and finish and get a medal,” he says. Racing would be his key weapon in managing depression and pain.
Looking back, he says that Spartan may have saved his life. Since that first race, Ganas has averaged one more every two months. He’s lost weight, built strength, and earned a double trifecta. But he’s had to work at it, too. There have been setbacks.
Not long after his first race, for instance, Ganas showed up at the Tahoe Beast eager to finish. But accident-related gastrointestinal issues and a 103-degree fever forced him off the course. He quit the race, took the gondola down, and headed to the North Lake Tahoe restaurant hoping for some miso soup to make him feel better.
As luck would have it, Ganas spotted Spartan founder Joe De Sena sitting across the dining room. He walked over and said: “Joe, I don’t want you to get up. I just had to tell you that racing means so much to me after losing my leg. If it weren’t for Spartan, I wouldn’t have gotten out of the house.”
De Sena jumped out of his chair and hugged Ganas. For 40 minutes the two men chatted, and afterward, De Sena gave Ganas a free pass for all 2016 races.
Winning One Day at a Time
Ganas still deals with daily pain. A stay-at-home dad with a 4-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter, he relies on crutches or, when he’s knackered from a gym session, a wheelchair. But he works out twice a day regardless, because embracing adversity keeps the negative thoughts at bay—as does racing: The encouragement he receives on race day is as good as any pain med. When he sees people talking to his wife about his prosthetic, he wants to tell them to come over and shake his hand. Adaptive athletes like him thrive on the same kind of encouragement as everyone else, he says—even if it sometimes feels awkward to give.
Being an athlete has empowered Ganas, and now, he likes to help other adaptive Spartans maximize their potential. He tells them: “Don’t let adversity control you and make decisions for you. If something scares and excites you at the same time, you should probably go ahead and do it.”
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