Taking part in any marathon is no easy feat for most of us. However, Claire Lomas didn’t let being paraplegic stop her walking the London Marathon in a robotic suit. I spoke to the bionic woman about her next venture.
HAVING heard of Claire’s achievements, some might expect her to be a tough, feisty woman, but actually she is rather lovely and frankly, normal. The 32-year-old is married, works at skiing holiday company Simply Morzine, and has a daughter, Maisie, who will be two this month. “She’s fun” she giggled.
Things were different five years ago. Claire was a chiropractor and talented event rider, even competing at the Burghley Horse Trials.
“My Mum was really horsey. That’s how I started riding. I wasn’t really a professional; it was more of a hobby,” she said modestly.
On the 6 May 2007, Claire was competing at the Osberton Horse Trials with her horse Roland when they collided with a tree on the cross country jumping course.
“I broke my neck and my back. I’m paralysed from the chest down. I punctured my lung and broke my legs. Just a few things,” said Claire, sounding surprisingly upbeat.
She was airlifted to Sheffield General Northern Hospital but discharged herself after eight weeks there – the shortest ever hospital stay for someone with this type of injury.
“I was meant to be in hospital for five months but I’d had enough and that was that. I was always determined to make as good a recovery as I could.”
She flew to California to attend Project Walk where she was given a different approach to rehabilitation.
“The rehab there was intense, very tiring, but it was nice to have a positive outlook,” Claire said.
“When you have an accident like that, it does change your life so suddenly. It does take time to adapt. It took me at least two or three years.”
Her love of horse riding never came back. Compared to the excitement of eventing she found riding after the accident dull and instead took up monoskiing. The sport gave her the thrill she used to get from eventing.
Claire is clearly determined. It’s this determination that led her to the London Marathon, but she couldn’t have done it without the £43,000 ReWalk suit.
It doesn’t do the walking for you; it detects the wearer’s shift in balance as they lean forward and propels the legs forward.
The suit was funded by a near-naked calendar featuring top event riders including Mary King who won a silver medal for GB.
The suit arrived in January and Claire began 12 weeks of training – half the amount of time recommended before doing the 26.2 mile route.
“I crammed a lot of training into a short space of time. The suit is very challenging but the more I am in it the more I get used to it,” she said.
Claire completed the marathon in 17 days, walking one and a half miles a day.
“A mile and a half doesn’t seem far but I can’t feel my legs at all, I had to concentrate on every step.”
But supporters, inspired by her story, cheered her on every step of the way.
“The support I had during the marathon, people coming and walking with me, it was what kept me going. Doing the marathon was about raising money and awareness about spinal injuries. It was great fun but really hard work but people were so kind,” she said humbly.
The rules of the marathon changed this year so only those who finished within 24 hours were given medals. Asked if this bothered her she replied: “Not really, it got me more press so more people donated money.”
No matter. While she may not have her own, 14 runners donated theirs after former Olympic rower Sir Matthew Pinsent started a Twitter campaign. She even framed one.
By doing the marathon Claire raised £210,000 for charity Spinal Research – which she is an ambassador of.
“I became involved with the charity because I wanted to do something to help. I think a cure is not too far away, it’s just a question of when.”
This summer’s spectacular Paralympic games helped to raise awareness of various disabilities. Claire herself was selected for the equestrian Paralympic development squad but was 12 weeks pregnant with her daughter at the time.
She didn’t miss out entirely though. Claire lit the Paralympic cauldron in Trafalgar Square in front of Boris Johnson and Lord Coe.
“Lighting the cauldron was nerve-wracking but I was honoured to do it. The games were amazing,” she said, sounding delighted to have been involved.
After an incredible sporting year, it doesn’t end there for Claire who is preparing for her next challenge.
In April she will cycle 400 miles of the country, starting in Nottingham and finishing in London, stopping off at as many schools as possible on the way.
“It’s important to make kids realise sometimes we’re faced with tough things and you can get through it.”
It will take around three weeks and she will hand-cycle, cycle using a Functional Electrical Stimulation bike, and walk in her bionic suit (fondly named Fred).
“I’m doing the bike ride to raise more money for Spinal Research and it’s a great personal challenge. I’m hoping I’ll inspire others. It’s exciting but the training’s hard. I’m hand-cycling six times a week, building my way up to 25 miles,” she smiled.
There is no stopping Claire, with her perseverance maybe she will walk again without Fred.
For the woman who can balance it all – motherhood, marriage, her job, skiing, rehab, teaching, and amazing charity work – what’s it like for her to be called “an inspiration”?
“It’s very strange!” she exclaimed, “It’s surreal but it’s fantastic if it means I can help someone.”