“I set myself very short goals so I’d never think of the whole distance,” explains Claire Lomas, recalling her London Marathon experience in 2012, “just the next 50 steps and the next 50 steps, and that’s how I got through it.” Breaking a marathon down into such increments is common among runners – it’s a technique used by Paula Radcliffe, in fact. But for Claire, who completed the race over 17 days, wearing a robotic exoskeleton that enables her to walk, these increments were much smaller than for most of the other runners. And these small but momentous steps have come to reflect her journey in rebuilding her life, after a catastrophic accident in 2007.
Claire, 36, from Leicestershire, was just 26 when a spinal injury left her paralysed from the chest down. A top-level event rider, Claire was competing at Osberton Horse trials when her horse clipped his shoulder and flung her into a tree. She dislocated her back, fractured her neck, punctured her lung, fractured her ribs and developed pneumonia.
Paralysis saw Claire deprived of the life she knew and the things she loved doing most. But it inadvertently enabled her to do things she’d never have dreamed of – and build a new life and family she adores. “I’ve got two lovely little girls, I met [my partner] Dan after my accident, got a career that I actually love more than the career I had before. I’ve done sporting events I never thought I’d have done. I wouldn’t change my life back.”
While Claire couldn’t be more content with her life as it today – particularly having recently given birth to her second daughter Chloe – her rehabilitation has been a challenging journey. “Before my accident, I was a chiropractor and event rider,” explains Claire. “I’d just reached the highest level in the sport and it took up all my time and dreams for the future. And then suddenly everything came to a grinding halt.”
Adjusting to the physical repercussions of her injury was just the beginning of Claire’s rehab journey. “A spinal injury has a massive effect on your life,” she says. “It affects your bowl, it affects your bladder, you can’t feel anything from the chest down. Walking is only one part of it. There’s a lot to get your head round.”
Coping with such lifestyle changes was a huge hurdle for Claire – mentally and emotionally. “I had run round the cross-country [course] that morning,” she said. “And then suddenly being told you’re going to be in a wheelchair when you’re so active… The [physical] challenges I’ve done are always seen as my biggest challenges but the biggest challenge is actually getting up when you have nothing to get up for. To rebuild [your life] from scratch, to have all your hopes and dreams shattered.”
Determined to regain her strength and find fulfilment in her life again, Claire started out by setting herself small goals. “Even just going out for lunch with friends,” she explains. “You’d not feel like it… but if you made yourself do it, you usually felt better.
“The equestrian world helped to fundraise so I could have equipment to keep myself fit and healthy and make any recovery I could, but also I knew I had to rebuild my life. I split up from with my boyfriend and, about a year after the accident, I met Dan, who is my husband now.”
With sport being a huge part of Claire’s life, she was determined to find a new passion. “I had to find a new sport,” she says. “I tried riding again but I just didn’t like it. Then I found skiing. It took me a long time to learn but I loved that. I got a job in a ski office part time… it gave me a reason to get up. The good days were starting to outweigh the bad days. I’d met Dan, I’d found a new sport – that gave me a bit of self-esteem – and I got a part-time job.”
“Right from the early days in the hospital I wrote that it was devastating what had happened but I also felt genuinely lucky because, although I had a horrible injury, there are a lot of people with neck injuries that lost the use of their arms and some even on a ventilator. I wanted to be able to fundraise to help cure paralysis so that was part of my life.”
Claire became the first paralysed person to walk the London Marathon in 2012. After finding a bionic Rewalk suit online that would enable her to walk, she settled on the fundraising idea and, supported by the equestrian community, raised enough money to make this happen.
A gruelling 12 weeks of training using the suit got Claire to the start line. “It was difficult, much harder than I anticipated,” she explains. “Anything from the chest above I have to tilt, move, push – my arms are basically keeping my body upright. I’ve also got no sensation from the chest down. So to trust your legs are there when you feel absolutely nothing is hard.”
Clare raised nearly £86,000 for Spinal Research through the challenge, and her fundraising figure to date totals £575,511. Last September, she took part in the Great North Run wearing the suit – while pregnant with Chloe – and has completed a 400-mile handcycling tour around the UK, while also doing talks in schools.
Claire is now an inspirational speaker, author and race events organiser and received an MBE in February this year. “I have a very full life,” says Claire. “I’ve done things I’d never have done. I’d never have said I could be a speaker or write a book…”
Sport, too, still remains a huge part of Claire’s life; she handcycles most days and uses an indoor bike five days a week. She is planning to walk another event this year and her race event, Road to Recovery Half-Marathon and Fun Runs, will return for a second year in June, raising money for Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation. “I do a talk at the beginning of the half-marathon,” says Claire, “they [the runners] seem to really respond… and say that when they’re out there it makes them think, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it and, if you’ve got it, use it’. And I think that about my arms; it’s made my life change because I do feel genuinely lucky to have use of my arms and, before my accident, I took my movement for granted.”
If you would like to find out more about Claire, donate to her Just Giving page or sign up to one of her Road to Recovery events, visit claireschallenge.co.uk.