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Broken Airman relearns walking, runs marathon

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Peter Dean
  • 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
On the morning of October 4, 2010, an enjoyable commute to work came to a crashing halt for motorcyclist and Air Force Reservist Tech. Sgt. Thomas Cowan.

Cowan, the developmental and training flight facilitator for the 920th Rescue Wing, said it was a beautiful morning, so he just jumped on his motorcycle and headed to work. But after driving only about one mile, things went awry. As he crossed into an intersection, Cowan, who had the right of way, noticed an SUV beginning to turn in his direction. Unfortunately, the SUV's driver did not notice Cowan - until it was too late.

"I couldn't slow down because I would have T-boned him; I couldn't speed up or he would have T-boned me" Cowan recounted. "I was committed to the wreck, so I kind of aimed the bike to hit him caddy corner."

"It kind of happened in slow motion, the Spiderman hairs came up on my neck," he said. "I watched as my bike just crumpled into his radiator. I pushed up with everything I had and jumped up across his hood landing on all fours."

Cowan spent the next eight days in the hospital, undergoing surgery and missing priceless family memories, including his son's thirteenth birthday.

He and his family soon learned that he suffered from a broken leg, pelvis and hip.
"That day, they put a rod from my knee cap to my ankle, anchoring it with some screws," Cowan said. "A couple days later, I was in surgery again."

This time he ended up with a plate in his pelvis and a five-inch screw in his right hip.
The recovery for Cowan was long and painful. He spent many hours with physical therapists and doctors, but he endured and pushed through the discomfort.

"I couldn't sleep. Every time I moved, pain shot through my body," Cowan said. "At first, I needed help with everything, going to the bathroom, bathing, getting dressed; I mean, I need help with EVERTHING. I was in a wheelchair for six months."

After about a month, his physical therapy started.

"I'd hated to see them coming," Cowan said of the physical therapists. "Talk about pain, when they worked my leg up and down, side-to-side, I would be gritting my teeth, and on the verge of tears."

When one is broken and hurt, inspiration can come from anywhere or anyone. For Cowan, it came while he cheered for his sister as she crossed the finish line at the 2011 Melbourne Music Marathon in Melbourne, Fla.

"I wanted to be part of the excitement and energy that was present that day," said Cowan, whose sister visiting from California decided to run the marathon.

The Melbourne Music Marathon is an annual event that provides fitness-minded individuals with a platform to compete in a half marathon, 13.1 miles, or a full marathon, 26.2 miles. The scenic route takes participants over causeways to the beachside barrier island and back to the mainland, where runners cross the finish line in historic downtown Melbourne, just miles south of Patrick.

Before the accident, Cowan said he only ran enough to pass the mile-and-a-half Air Force physical fitness test. But after being "part of the excitement and energy" at the marathon, the broken Airman had the determination to run a half marathon.

"Eventually, I started walking and getting stronger. It was tough, but with a lot of encouragement from family and friends, I got there," Cowan said. "While watching my son Quentin play baseball, I would walk laps around the field. Soon, I was able to jog, just 100 yards or so, but I was getting there."

After many months of therapy, Cowan's body began healing and his efforts put him back on his feet with the ability to pass the Air Force physical fitness test run.

To prepare for his half marathon challenge, Cowan downloaded a marathon training regimen that laid out a plan for him to follow. It helped him set distance goals, maintain motivation, and even had nutrition recommendations that he followed -- but Cowan fell short.

The plan took him all the way to distance he needed to achieve, but physical pain initially barred him from going the full distance.

"I only ran five or six miles; anymore than that and my hip begins to hurt," he said.

On the big day, Cowan was one of thousands preparing to complete the half marathon. Knowing that it was his first big race, Cowan, who was a little nervous, stayed toward the back of the group of runners. He had a goal in mind and the mindset to achieve it.

"I have always strived to do the best I can, whether it be raising my kids, doing my PT test or instructing my new recruits," said Cowan. "This was my first marathon. I knew I wasn't going to win it, but I was going to finish it as strong as I could."

He was shooting for a 10-minute mile.

Musical acts staged throughout the course make the Melbourne Marathon unique. Along with the bands are friends and family serving as amateur cheerleaders helping to motivate the runners.

"I made a point of saying good morning to everybody out there cheering and playing music," Cowen said. "I thanked them for coming out. They kept my mind focused and going."

The route included crossing from the mainland to beachside, which meant crossing two causeways, each a mile-and-a-half long. Not only do they expand over two bodies of water, the Banana and Indian Rivers, but they are the highest elevation in the area; crossing them can also mean battling the wind.
"Going across the last bridge and coming around the bend was probably the hardest part of the race," Cowan said.

But he couldn't let that challenge make him quit. Once the finish line was in clear sight, Cowan kicked it up a notch and gave it all he had.

"I was pretty much in a full sprint," he said.

Although a great time wasn't a big deal to him, Cowan said he still wanted to finish in the best time he could. He said crossing the finish line was "awesome."

"Everybody was cheering and clapping," Cowan said. "It was remarkable, almost like a high."

Cowan crossed the finish line at 2:14:44, a 9:54 per mile pace, and has plans to complete a full marathon next year.

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