Three years ago, Rajesh Durbal became the first triple amputee to complete the Hawaii Ironman in Kona, finishing the legendary triathlon in 14 hours, 19 seconds.
That’s impressive, but not as impressive as watching Durbal drive.
His Ford Focus is not specially equipped. He only drives stick shift. And he does not have a right hand. He shifts gears through a flurry of smooth movements involving his left arm and working the clutch and gas with prosthetic legs.
“People ask, ‘Why not get an automatic? It’s so much easier,’” Durbal, a systems network engineer in Orlando, Florida says. “I learned on stick. My dad never made anything easy for me, and I’m glad he did it that way.”
A Rough Start
Durbal, 35, was born missing bones in both legs, and his right arm only partially developed. Before his first birthday, his legs were amputated and he was placed in a full body cast for three months.
He spent most of his first six years in and out of hospitals. When it came to sports, he spent most of his time on the bench. Teachers pointed him toward card games or table tennis. This was in the 1980s and early ‘90s, long before the Challenged Athlete Foundation, advanced prosthetics, and the mainstreaming of people with physical challenges.
His Trinidad-born parents, Raj and Anne Durbal, battled the public school system and resisted suggestions to send him to special schooling.
Raj wanted his son to have a normal childhood, which is to say a daredevil one. So he took him hiking, skiing and snowboarding. During a family trip to Niagara Falls, tourists snapped photos and video as Raj and Rajesh ventured out under the falls for a too-close-for-comfort look.
As a young adult, Rajesh discovered the Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged and excelled in track events. That helped him fit in to a degree, but everyday life continued to be a struggle. He smoked cigarettes and followed a diet of junk food, became depressed and even considered suicide.
The Power of Triathlon
Religion made a difference, and Durbal frequently cites his faith. But what really turned things around was a decision early in 2009 to enter triathlon, of all things. The sport has a long history with physically challenged athletes, but most have two or three functional limbs.
Wouldn’t other sports have been easier?
Why not drive a car that’s an automatic?
Durbal threw himself into triathlon training, sometimes quite literally, like when two handlers place him into the water for the swim start. That and getting help out of the water and into the first transition are the only accommodations he accepts.
For everything else he’s on his own.
He's Got Legs
He brings three sets of legs to the race (bike, run, and walking-around legs) and then there’s the bike, which is operated from the left side with aerobar pads that ride up on the right side to fit his right stump.
His running legs boost his height from 5-foot-4 to 6-foot-3, which is what doctors project his height would have been.
Then there’s the water.
Like most swimmers, Durbal breathes every three or four strokes. But he often trains by breathing every seven to nine. He’ll wear a wetsuit to swim if everyone else does, but prefers to go without.
“I don’t like the advantage it gives you in terms of extra buoyancy and streamline,” he says. “I’m a fighter. I like to make things as hard as possible.”
That’s why he loves the run. Actually, he hates the run but that’s what makes it his favorite of the three disciplines. Most observers see him gliding along on the run course and assume that’s preferable to one-handed swimming or biking.
They’ve never walked in his shoes, let alone run 26.2 miles in them. Running with prosthetics that rub against the bare skin of his stumps can be excruciating, requiring massive core strength, which Durbal has in abundance.
Enjoying the Challenge
These days, Durbal focuses mostly on Olympic-distance and half-Ironman events. He’s launched a foundation (live-free.net), developed a line of triathlon clothing for disabled athletes, and talks frequently to corporate groups and schools.
Everyone, it seems, wants to know the specifics of how he swims, bikes, and runs.
“Triathlon fits in well with my approach to life,” Durbal says. “You can train and plan, but there’s always something that comes up and you have to adjust. Something breaks, your equipment fails, the weather’s bad, and how you deal with that is what makes it so rewarding.
"In the end, it’s just you against the elements.”