Meet the Only Female Amputee Runner in Ecuador

Ecuador 2015

By Vanessa Hua

December 28, 2015

Also published by The Establishment

Kathy Pico is hummingbird tiny, hummingbird fast. Growing up in Quito, the sky-high capital of Ecuador, she’d always loved to run. But by 18, she’d developed a mysterious, chronic pain in her left leg. She limped for years until, finally, doctors diagnosed a tumor in 2009, and told her she’d have to undergo chemotherapy and an amputation below the knee.

Kathy Pico doing what she does best.

Her boyfriend left her, and her family panicked. She’d long supported them by working as an accountant, and amputees in Ecuador struggle against stigma, their families often hiding them from public view. She told them she had no choice: “It’s not a cold, it’s cancer.”

Today, Pico—an effervescent 44-year-old with a shining cap of dark hair—is the only female amputee runner in Ecuador. She’s climbed eight vertiginous peaks, including Rumiñahui, Pasochoa, Rucu Pichincha, Iliniza Norte, and Cayambe, navigating fields of volcanic rock and snow.

Her climbs have helped raise money for the Range of Motion Project (ROMP), a non-profit organization headquartered in Quito that provides prosthetic and orthotic care. Eighty percent of amputees live in the developing world, but only 2 to 3% have access to rehabilitative care.

ROMP provided Pico’s running foot—in used, but excellent, condition—crafted from carbon-fiber composite and donated by a patient in Chicago. Dave Krupa, ROMP’s American-born founder, has joined her on training runs, where she inevitably turns heads. “People stop her to say, ‘Thank you for inspiring me to keep going,'” he says. “Kathy reminds us that we all have a spark within and sometimes we just need to fan that little flame and make it burn a little brighter.”

The Establishment recently caught up with Pico, who shared her story, her training regimen (should you want to follow in her footsteps), and her dream of running a marathon.

Pico: Climbing is very hard for me. When I climb, I am more aware that my body is not perfect, that part of me is foreign, but paradoxically, the voice inside me tells me I can. I’m a woman who likes challenges, and I do not like to give up. After I take the first step, I do not stop. Sometimes I have fallen, but I get up and continue.

Walking, running, climbing makes me feel free, free from cancer—free from crutches, free to decide where I want to go. And I’m connecting with nature. It’s an explosion of freedom, love, and passion. In those moments, I feel I am one with nature, whether the trees or the mountains. It’s like my cells are found in the essence of the mountains, trees, air, wind, and cold. The disease, mountains, and nature have made ​​me a woman of faith.

Every time I wake up, I am aware that God gives me another opportunity. I am happy I battled the disease and won. My prosthesis is my badge of courage.

During the week, I train Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 5:30 am until 7:45 am in the gym. I alternately work out my legs, chest, back, and butt, and always walk and jog on the machines. Saturdays, I jog in Parque Carolina, which has a perimeter of 4.4 km. Sometimes I go around once or twice; it depends on how I feel that day.

When I started going to the gym, people approached me and said I was giving them a lesson in life. Even strong men doing weights left their machines to come and congratulate me for breaking all the normal limits!

When I jog in the park, people applaud me when I pass by and in others I see renewed hope. It’s incredible. When I exercise, I cannot find anyone else with prosthetics, and that tells me that something is not right—I do not know if it’s the system or the people, but I know I’m changing perceptions.

Pico ascends Volcan Cayamba. Courtesy of Diana Anthony, ROMP’s operations manager.

After the cancer left my body, I decided to do what I had always liked to do. It was difficult because after chemotherapy, I was really ill. Adapting to a prosthetic is hard enough, but when I managed to walk, I was encouraged to achieve more things. Suddenly, I was jogging! When I went to the park and felt the morning breeze on my face, I felt more alive and vital than ever. I began to feel that the exercise was returning my health that I lost in the treatment. The human body is so incredible—when you’re accomplishing things, you want more and more. I have been healing my body with exercise and contact with nature.

I’d tell them they lost a limb, but not life. With that life, you have time to conquer everything you want. Most disability is in the mind, and now the technology is completely manageable. You must fight to obtain a prosthetic—sooner or later, you will get it if you are totally convinced.

The truth is that I no longer have difficult days. When I decided to undergo amputation, it was the last time I would mourn for something that I lost. If I could survive, I was not going to go back to mourning; I’d be happy for what I got. Sometimes, I am sad, remembering the seven months I was in bed, unable to do anything, but wait for the treatment to succeed. I missed window-shopping, getting ice cream and cappuccinos— all the simple thing. When I remember the state I was in, I jump up and do the things I was unable to do, and that encourages me immediately.

My dream is to do a marathon. It’s a dream that was born while I was fighting for my life. When I told my family, my friends, and my doctors, many of them said it was enough to survive, that I should be grateful and not expose myself to greater risks. But later, after medical check-ups, the doctors told me there are no restrictions in this regard, and to go ahead. I dream of running the marathon with a shirt that says on the back: “I beat cancer” and on the chest “God exists.”

I’ve been preparing by going to the gym, and meeting with a coach who helps me work on my muscles, strength, and speed. I also run on asphalt once a week and if I start climbing mountains once a month, I can achieve my goal. Climbing has given me a pulmonary strength I didn’t have before. In 2016, I’ll run in races of 10 to 20 kilometers, and in 2017, I think I’ll be ready for a marathon.

Vanessa Hua reported from Ecuador on an International Reporting Project fellowship.