He lost his legs in the war in Ukraine but not the will to flee
Artem Moroz’s four-mile race in Central Park in Manhattan did not go as planned this month.
The former Ukrainian soldier had hoped to run with new prosthetic limbs made for him in the US, but they weren’t ready in time for the race. So he walked over the start with a prosthesis he brought from home and was pushed the rest of the way in a wheelchair.
As Moroz’s guide urged him up the hill, he spread his arms like a child imitating the flight of an airplane. The corners of a Ukrainian flag pinned to the back of a chair rippled in the wind.
He wasn’t running yet, but he knew he would be soon.
Moroz, 44, has been running since childhood. He and his family live in Irpin, west of Kiev, and “it was impossible not to run away,” he said.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Moroz started his day running: at sunrise through a nearby forest before heading to major construction sites, where he was a project manager.
Then came the war.
Moroz joined the military in late March 2022 after observing Russian soldiers attacking Irpin and became a platoon commander. On September 14, he and his unit were hit by a missile in the Kherson region. Without Polish doctors and paramedics he would have died, he said, but both legs were amputated below the knee. At first he couldn’t imagine being able to stand again, he said.
While in a Mykolaiv hospital, he watched a documentary on YouTube about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and how the city and running community had come back stronger in 2014.
The film gave him one goal: to run the Boston Marathon, which was then six months away.
Social media provided an important connection as he began his pursuit. Nadiia Osmankina, a Ukrainian who came to the United States for the Boston Marathon a year ago and stayed because of the war, saw his story and reached out to him. Running in Boston changed her life, she said, and she wanted Moroz to have the same opportunity.
She had ties to both the Ukrainian Running Club in New York City and the president of a foundation, Revived Soldiers Ukraine, that helps wounded Ukrainian soldiers. The Foundation’s President, Iryna Vashchuk, was a professional runner and was born in Irpin.
The foundation has a center in Orlando, Florida where soldiers are fitted with prosthetics. They were able to provide Moroz with both normal walking prostheses for everyday life and a special type for running, which are carbon fiber curves with rubber profiles on the edges of the “feet”.
Moroz arrived late last month thinking that while he was in the United States he could do some racing. The Ukrainian Running Club has a large presence at many races hosted by the New York Road Runners, organizer of the New York City Marathon, and they brought the Road Runners and Moroz together so he could pick a race.
But getting used to new prosthetics, especially running shoes, isn’t like slipping into a new pair of sneakers.
“It’s a whole different kind of muscle memory, especially for transfemoral amputees,” said Mary Johnson, who had a leg amputated above the knee after a traumatic injury.
You have to trust your foot to hit the ground beneath you where you expect it, or you’ll hit the ground, she said.
The Central Park race in early April came just a week after Moroz arrived in the United States. In the meantime, reality had set in: He would not compete with his new runners. Still, he was out there at a racetrack again.
The organizers allowed Moroz and Osmankina to start 10 minutes earlier so he wouldn’t be jostled in the crowded enclosures. Aside from walking the start line, this first race would be in a wheelchair. Some runners from the Ukrainian club cheered at one point along the route.
Shortly after he was done, Moroz was already looking ahead to his next race: Boston, in two weeks. Not the marathon, but the five kilometer race hosted by the Boston Athletic Association two days earlier. This year it fell on the 10th anniversary of the 2013 bombings. Despite his slow early progress, Moroz thought he might be able to walk in Boston with his new runners.
Two days before the race, Moroz was practicing on his new walking prosthesis in a parking lot in Orlando. The fit still wasn’t quite right, he said. Small changes, even drinking a glass of water, changed how they would fit. This is not uncommon for amputees. The doctors would tweak one thing and he would try, and then they would adjust again.
Sean Karpf, who was wounded while serving in the US Army and lost part of a leg below the knee, said he made adjustments every four to six months for the first two to three years after his injury because of the changes in his leg needed stump — not uncommon for amputees.
In the United States, health insurance does not cover adaptive exercise equipment that is not considered medically necessary and can be expensive. A running blade can cost $12,000 to $15,000. Transfemoral amputees also need a knee joint, which costs more.
While the Department of Veterans Affairs generally covers the cost of this type of equipment for American troops injured while on duty, the wait can be as long as 18 months. Non-military Americans often rely on fundraisers or grants from nonprofit groups. Johnson got her running prosthesis from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which provides grants for adaptive equipment and camps and clinics for people to learn adaptive sports.
Moroz finally got his running runners a few days before his race in Boston, but he wasn’t ready to run on them just yet, so he used his prosthetic walker for the 5K instead. After the race he put on the runners for photos with Osmankina at the finish. He could not stand, let alone walk, without leaning on someone for balance. When Osmankina resigned, Moroz almost fell.
Still, seven months and a day after Moroz was carried from the battlefield in mortal danger by Polish medics, he ran for the first time in Boston. It wasn’t the marathon he had imagined, but that didn’t matter. He ran.
Soon Ukraine will have more capacity to help war wounded instead of relying on European and American medical centers. Unbroken, an organization focused on helping Ukrainians heal from traumatic injuries sustained in the war, is retrofitting an old Soviet-era military hospital in Lviv, said Dr. David Crandell, the medical director of the Amputee Center at a rehabilitation hospital in Boston and part of the World Health Organization’s Technical Working Group on Rehabilitation for Ukraine. Next month, Unbroken plans to open the former hospital as a center for amputees and post-traumatic stress care.
Demand is high. First Union Hospital in Lviv receives 25 to 100 new trauma patients every day, Crandell said. He estimates that the country will have to take in 5,000 to 6,000 new amputees because of the war.
“You can imagine what Boston saw at the Boston Marathon every day for a year,” Crandell said.
This race, which Moroz had only been inspired to do from his hospital bed months earlier, began with Osmankina riding in a wheelchair and holding a flag while Moroz pushed it. A little further on, a slippery spot on the road caused him to skid, and before the second corner on the track they had swapped positions. Osmankina pushed Moroz, his feet elevated so the heels of his everyday prostheses wouldn’t catch on the floor. He raised his arms and encouraged the spectators lining the course to cheer louder.
You’ve reached the fans. Andriy Boyko, a Ukrainian living in Melrose, Mass., a suburb north of Boston, appeared with his family to cheer from the sidelines. Moroz later said he heard a lot of people cheering for him and Ukraine during the race, which he didn’t expect.
Towards the end of the race, Moroz and Osmankina switched places again. Moroz ran and pushed his guide across the finish line.
The marathon would be there when he was ready. As he spoke, his hand was still shaking with adrenaline a good 20 minutes after crossing the finish line.
“I might not sleep tonight,” he said.