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'I want to finish strong': Veteran with spinal cord injury to return to BOLDERBoulder this year

Mark Maloney trains with a Lite Run Machine
Posted at 4:32 PM, May 23, 2023

AURORA, Colo. — With just one week until the 2023 BOLDERBoulder, many are getting their final training sessions in before the big day. This is true for Mark Maloney, who did one final lap Monday with his trainers at the VA Medical Center in Aurora. He has been looking toward this BOLDERBoulder for a long time coming.

With a little help from his physical therapist and his certified nursing assistant, he hoisted himself out of chair, strapped into the center’s “Lite Run” walking system, and began stepping forward.

“I get emotional,” Maloney said, tears coming to his eyes as he recalled his journey to Denver7. “I feel very lucky.”

Maloney has action in his DNA. He’s an Army veteran, having served in Vietnam, and climbed the ranks of the military with his logistics work. He has also long been an athlete, with more runs and races under his belt than he can keep track.

Mark Maloney at BOLDERBoulder
Mark Maloney at the starting line for a BOLDERBoulder race before his crash

“I was very active from the age of 55. I started entering races, first to lower my cholesterol — and then I got to a point where it became addictive,” he said. “I was running two to three races a week fro a long time, and I was doing good.”

Three years ago, that track record was violently interrupted when a crash on his bike upended everything in his life. He had been riding through Garden of the Gods, Maloney said, and was en route back to his car when he lost control of his bike.

 “Something went wrong. I’ll never know for sure. I think it may have been low blood pressure, because my eyes closed. And then when I woke up, I felt like I was in ‘The Twilight Zone.’ I tried to apply my brakes, because I was heading for a series of rocks. And that didn’t work,” Maloney recalled. “The last thing I remember was hitting a huge boulder, smack in the face.”

Mark Maloney's injuries
Mark Maloney with severe injuries in his hospital bed, following a devastating bike crash

Maloney suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury, causing him to lose most movement in his arms and legs.

In a single moment, he had lost much of his independence and mobility. He had not, however, lost his sense of hope.

Our medical system has taken many steps forward for spinal cord injury patients, like Maloney, and the team at the VA Medical Center Spinal Cord Injury Unit has spent much of the last three years working with him to regain whatever movement he can in his legs and feet.

The unit recently received a “Lite Run” device — which looks like a large, electronic walker with connected pants — that uses air pressure to help patients take their own steps. Step by step, Maloney and the team worked toward the finish line they had set for themselves: A return to the starting line of the BOLDERBoulder.

Mark Maloney trains with a Lite Run Machine
Mark Maloney trains with a Lite Run machine at the VA Medical Center, preparing for his return to the BOLDERBoulder

“Mark was just talking about the race, and I was like — what if we did that again? What if we did it in some capacity?” said Maloney’s physical therapist Brooke Hjeltnes. “I think both of us had some emotion behind it — and talking about it now gives me goosebumps — but it’s just, that’s what you want to see for people after they going through a catastrophic injury. You want them to be able to return to what they used to love to do.”

Maloney was 84 years old when he had his accident, and is 87 years old today. Next week, he will be walking the final kilometer of the BOLDERBoulder, along with the Lite Run machine, his physical therapist, and a cadre of friends and family members cheering him on. It will be his grand return to the race, which he has completed four times before his crash. He hopes it sends a message to others — that no matter what life hands them, they can keep pressing on one step at a time.

“When you run a race… what you’re trying to do is finish strong,” he said. “I’m 87. That’s the way I want to look at my life. I want to finish strong.”

Veteran with spinal cord injury to return to BOLDERBoulder this year