This morning, for the second year in a row, Castaic resident and Web site designer Marc Richards, paralyzed from the middle of his chest to the tips of his toes due to a freak medical accident in early 1998, will walk the last 400 feet across the finish line at the 21st Los Angeles Marathon.
Cheering him on will be his clinical exercise physiologist and trainer Taylor-Kevin Isaacs, wife Nancy, 11-year-old daughter Sami, 14-year-old son Jacob and a gang of friends from Castaic and the Santa Clarita Valley.
As he did last March, Richards will cross the finish line under his own power, wearing a specially designed brace for his hips and legs, a pair of forearm crutches, a slick-looking running outfit, sweat on his brow, and the determination of a champion.
“The only reason I need assistance is to help put on the brace,” said Richards, 46. “Other than that, I do all the rest.”
Richards may not have won or even run the race a year ago, but he won the continuing admiration and respect of his community. Among the many who sent Richards congratulatory messages was Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, who read about his accomplishment in The Signal.
Richards wasn’t ready to kick back after his first L.A. Marathon. “After that, on April 30, I participated in the Cal State Northridge fundraiser, a 5-kilometer run/walk event,” he said last week. “I used my wheelchair in the 5K race and then was assisted to my feet, and walked the last 600 feet. Then there was a lull of about six months. On Oct. 16, I did the Long Beach 5K in my wheelchair and walked the last 400 feet. Same thing at the Santa Clarita Marathon last Nov. 6.”
Walking in these five runs is part of the continuous, long-range Physical Therapy program the West Los Angeles-based Isaacs designed to help Richards maintain general good health and recover as much use of his lower half as possible.
“Taylor’s whole concept is exercise Rehabilitation,” Richards said. “He was a teacher and a professor in kinesiology at California State University, Northridge for several years.”
Isaacs has been working with physically disabled people for the past 15 years. A Master of Science, Certified Physical Therapist, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, he is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. In 2002, he was named Personal Trainer/Clinical Exercise Specialist of the Year by the American Council on Exercise.
Richards has been working out regularly with Isaacs for about three and a half years, training each Friday at Gold’s Gym in Northridge. When they started, Richards had trouble getting out of bed, much less stand, forget about walk, never mind run.
Richards’ paralysis struck suddenly in early 1998. He was public information officer for Autoland in the San Fernando Valley back then. In January, out of nowhere, he suffered a grand mal seizure doctors found to be caused by a malignant brain tumor.
The tumor was successfully removed, but complications with chemotherapy medication following surgery destroyed his spine and left him confined to bed and a wheelchair for more than five and a half years.
Richards’ doctors determined his condition to be Transverse or Diffuse Myelitis. “My white blood cells had attacked the chemo, but had also eaten away some of the Myelin coating around my spinal cord at about T-4, or Thoracic level 4, which is right below the chest on my front side, preventing signals from my brain to reach the lower half of my body and the same back up,” he explained. “It’s a condition not dissimilar to Multiple Sclerosis, but it happened all at once, not gradually, like MS.”
After six months at UCLA hospital facilities and a short time at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital re-learning the activities of daily living, Richards returned home to Castaic.
Gradually Richards developed his coping skills. He never gave up. “Attitude is life-changing,” he said. “Early in my career, I was in professional sales, and one thing I picked up was ‘PMA’ – ‘positive mental attitude.’ Keeping that in mind has helped me a great deal. I realized my life wasn’t over, it had just changed. Things were different.”
However, half a decade confined to a bed and wheelchair took its toll. Richards’ overall health suffered. He’d begun a long, slow, ultimately fatal decline by the time he connected with Isaacs.
“Marc had a history of urinary tract infections, Spasticity, secondary disuse muscular Atrophy, postural deviations, impaired balance, joint instability, decreased strength, endurance, power, muscular imbalances, and cardiovascular de-conditioning,” said Isaacs. “Essentially, without exercise, Marc had succumbed to de-conditioning disuse syndrome.”
“One of the things Taylor focuses on is Rehabilitation through exercise,” Richards said. “He is showing how people can recover for catastrophic illnesses or injuries by performing different types of exercise. In my case, it’s walking, and for others just general exercise.”
Now, with three and a half years of focused exercise training and four major marathon events behind him, Richards feels the positive effects of his work with Isaacs.
“The time it takes me to get fatigued when I’m walking has increased,” he said. “I can walk faster with a cleaner stride. I can walk a greater distance in the same time before I get too tired. I’ve gained stamina, strength and confidence. Taylor’s program is a huge success.”
“Marc’s ongoing progress is due in large part to the benefits of therapeutic exercise and his concentrated, consistent and long-term effort to being the best person he can be,” Isaacs said. “He’s improved in all of the above-mentioned variables. Most impressive is that his neural pathways are turning into neural super-highways as his Central Nervous System becomes more efficient at recruiting groups of muscles to produce efficient movement.”
This morning, Richards is once again calling up those groups of muscles to power him toward the finish line at 5th and Flower Streets.
He has the hearty support of race officials, too. “We’re pleased to be able to help Marc achieve his goal at the Los Angeles Marathon,” said Terry Collier, the event’s race director.
While he was the sole Paraplegic runner in the 2005 L.A. Marathon’s field of 25,000-plus runners and wheelchair racers, Richards has company today.
Also ambulating one way or another across the finish line are between eight and 12 other people of both genders ranging in age from teens to seniors who have also suffered catastrophic accidents or illnesses that left them partially paralyzed or disabled.
Each is an Isaacs client and working on physical rehab goals. “All of my clients are exceptional individuals who have many stories worth telling and many achievements worth applauding,” Isaacs said. “They all involve medical science, university research, aggressive therapeutic exercise, and most importantly, human determination.”
In addition to Richards, two more of Isaacs’ clients in today’s event, Aaron Baker and Kenny Craig, are SCV locals.
“Both were given a one in a million chance of walking again,” Isaacs said. “I told them I’m not interested in the million – let’s focus on the one.”
Baker, 27, is three years post-injury in a motorcycle accident. “For the past three years, he and his mother, Laquita Conway, have completed the L.A. Marathon Bike Tour on a tandem bike,” Isaacs said. “This year, instead, Aaron decided to train to walk unassisted at a self-selected pace across the finish line.”
Craig was injured in October 2004. “He was a Ventilator- dependent quadriplegic who was given two weeks to live,” Isaacs recalled. “Three months ago, Kenny started to walk unassisted. So we’ve been training for the L.A. Marathon.”
Richards felt proud and humbled at the same time when he found out he’ll be with a pack of peers. “There’s going to be a group of people with all kinds of different disabilities walking with me,” he marveled. “I was an inspiration to do something unique.”
Isaacs said the walkers’ conditions include Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, spinal cord injury (Paraplegia and Quadriplegia, both complete and incomplete diagnosis), stroke, heart disease, diabetes, traumatic brain injury and cancer.
“This is truly a cross-section of clients, and represents my concept of inter-generational, integrated fitness,” Isaacs said.
Like Richards, other members of the group will cross the finish line using assistive devices including walkers, braces, canes and crutches, and, in Baker’s case, walking unassisted at a self-selected pace.
“The message sent by the actions of these individuals is to emphasize the power of possibility and to highlight how, through daily study, preparation and practice, one can achieve a personal victory,” he added. “Put another way, the process is the progress.”
Isaacs has worked with each of his clients to customize an exercise and lifestyle approach. When his clients participate in runs like the L.A. Marathon, it’s part of getting them back into the race, metaphorically speaking.
“I’m a man on a mission with a message,” Isaacs said. “My role as a clinical exercise physiologist is to bridge the gap between sad and glad, dysfunction to function. My enduring personal and professional philosophy is about transforming bodies, and more importantly, transforming lives. I aspire to inspire my clients to become fit in the body, ready in the mind, and high in the spirits.”
When designing a program for a client with a neuromuscular disorder, the exercise selected for that person has to be safe, first and foremost, and second, effective, he said.
“With all my clients, I tell them not to compare themselves to another person with spinal cord injury because the best they will be is a second best them,” he added. “Instead, I tell them that the program that I have for you is highly personalized and prescriptive. With that in mind they must focus on being the best them possible.”
Once his clients are up and walking today, Isaacs plans to let them do it alone, just standing by for safety’s sake.
“It’s an honor and privilege for me to be with these individuals, every step of the way,” he said. “I plan to just marvel and admire the enthusiasm and industriousness of my clients in their quest to maximize their recovery from their disabilities – and to promote the benefits of ongoing therapeutic exercise.”
Richards and Isaacs’ other clients and a growing group of family members, friends and other supporters would like to see Isaacs directing his own clinic.
“Our goal is to raise money to build a facility that will focus on Taylor’s work, where he can be the chief medical exercise physiologist and teach his staff how to do what he does,” Richards said. “The place would be a melding of regular exercise equipment you’d find at a health club plus some of the specialized adaptive equipment used at the Center of Achievement for the Physically Disabled.”
“We’d like to develop a state of the art inter-generational, integrated fitness facility,” Isaacs said. “I am in the process of connecting with like-minded individuals who can help make this dream become a reality.
“I would relish the opportunity to duplicate myself in others, which would require an extended learning academy — ‘The brain does not forget what the hands learn,’” he continued. “I have the knowledge, skills and ability. Our goal is to connect with individuals who share the same vision and have the resources and space.”
Between marathons and the occasional wheelchair race, Richards and Isaacs’ other clients do whatever they can to increase people’s awareness of spinal injuries in general, and the demonstrated value of Isaacs therapy in particular.
“The idea is to broaden people’s perceptions about using exercise therapy to manage devastating injuries and illness, and raise funds through sponsorships to set up this specialized facility to be run by Taylor,” Richards said.
Richards sees further signs of hope for people living with or working hard to overcome spinal injuries and disorders.
“With the passage of the stem cell research initiative in California, now’s a great time to bridge the gap between research and Rehabilitation,” he said. “Meanwhile, my friends and I advocate improving the quality of our lives through ongoing therapeutic exercise as well as keeping our bodies in condition for the day that research provides the treatment.”
During the day, when his wife is at work (she’s a program coordinator at an elementary school in Studio City), and the kids are in school (Sami at Live Oak Elementary and Jacob at Castaic Middle School), Richards exercises conscientiously and works on his spinalman.com Web site. When he has appointments outside the house, he drives a specially modified minivan.
“More than one person has told me I should write a book that doctors could hand to somebody the day that they have a spinal injury — ‘These are all the things you should know,’” Richards said. “Well, instead, I put together a site to begin to do that.”
Since his Spider Design is a home-based Web development business, Richards can keep a close eye on the home front most of the time, he said. “I work on the computer, spend time with our kids. They’re here, protected. We also take care of a neighbor’s kid after school. So I take care of everything.”
What’s next? “CSUN’s marathon in next month,” Richards grinned.
Learn more about Marc Richards at spinalman.com and Aaron Baker at aaronbakers.com.
Stephen K. Peeples / Signal Staff Writer for the-signal.com