e felt like a loser the first time he tried it. A failure. He’d traveled 2,500 miles just to fall 9 miles short.
This time he was home. Where it all began. Before CNN and TMZ knew who Adam Gorlitsky was — before he became this beacon of hope in the re-enabled community — he motored around cul-de-sacs in Charleston, just trying to hold his balance a few moments longer than the time before, maybe take a few more wobbly steps forward.
It seemed most appropriate, he thought, to find his redemption here at home.
Gorlitsky set a new world record in the 10th annual Charleston Marathon last weekend, completing the 26.2-mile trek faster than anyone ever has in a robotic exoskeleton.
The 33-year-old Charleston native officially finished in 33 hours, 16 minutes and 28 seconds, beating the previous Guinness World Record by more than three hours.
“I think I was probably supposed to do it here. It felt right,” Gorlitsky said. “The world took a steel chair to my head last time. It knocked me back down to reality. I think that probably makes this time that much sweeter.”
Gorlitsky’s story has been well documented. A car accident in 2005 left him paralyzed from the waist down. He regained his mobility in 2015 with the help of a ReWalk robotic exoskeleton.
He completed more than 30 road races over the next few years, continuing to up the ante in distance and location. He traveled the country and was featured by several of the world’s largest media companies. He established the non-profit I Got Legs to motivate and help others realize their own mobility. Los Angeles was to be his finest work yet. His Mona Lisa. His masterpiece.
News outlets from across the nation showed interest. A documentary film crew had cameras rolling. But Gorlitsky’s body began to shut down about two-thirds of the way through. His preparation was off a little. He underestimated the terrain. He made it 17 miles, 9 shy of the finish line.
“I probably needed that. You really learn the most when you fail,” Gorlitsky said. “Every time I’ve ever put myself out there prematurely, those are the times I’ve learned the most. That’s what L.A. was, all about learning and growing.”
Gorlitsky chose to run it back in Charleston. He figured if he didn’t sleep, and took minimal breaks, he could break the previous world record at a pace of about an hour and 24 minutes per mile.
He began his trek at 10:34 p.m. on Thursday night, two days before anyone else. Race officials met him at the start line in front of Burke High School with a timing mat. He slowly disappeared into the night’s shadows, his motors buzzing through he darkness.
“I wanted it to be as official as possible,” he said. “No controversy or disputes or anything with the timing or course.”
Gorlitsky trooped through the night, stopping for his first break at the 8-mile mark. His pace was slightly better than a mile an hour so far. He was pacing about two to three hours ahead of the previous world record by sunrise.
The battery on his suit required changing every 2 miles or so. That takes about 10 minutes. There were a few bathroom breaks too. Gorlitsky was also mindful to hydrate and nourish himself properly — a major downfall in Los Angeles. Guinness considers it all part of the race time. It didn’t matter.
“I felt like I was crushing it,” he said.
His battery completely died almost 13 miles in. The extras were in his father’s trunk. But Barry was off getting lunch for everyone. Gorlitsky lost more than hour waiting it out.
“I mean, what do you do?” he said.
He made up time on the smooth, flat run down the King Street extension. He landed in North Charleston by Friday afternoon. The inclines, the grade and amount of them, were more challenging as the race progressed. Nothing like the Hollywood hills though. His hands began to burn as he gripped his guide sticks tighter. His wrists and sternum were bruised from the braces and cummerbund. His wrists eventually fell numb (and still were two days after he finished the race). He pressed on.
Different people would pop up throughout the race to show support. Gorlitsky figures he knew about 30 percent of them. The other 70 percent heard what he was attempting — many of them found his location by following a live feed on Facebook — and came to cheer him on. That was another difference from Los Angeles. The support Gorlitsky receives in Charleston is like nowhere else. It’s home.
“It really does make a difference,” he said.
He’ll never forget the feeling of the final stretch. He was delirious by the 20th mile. He had 10 hours to finish the final 6.2 miles. He was slightly further than the point he quit in Los Angeles.
“All hydration and nutrition is out the window at that point,” Gorlitsky said. “I knew I had 10 hours and that I was going to finish.”
He blacked out momentarily a few times through the final 2 miles. Just a few seconds at a time. He equates the feeling of the mini naps to the blur right before he fell asleep at the wheel the night of his car accident. He almost toppled over once. He refused to stop or accept much help.
“Literally, a robot zombie,” is how he described it. “In a weird way, it kind of felt like I died and came back to life again.”
Gorlitsky lugged himself past the finish line on Saturday morning, floating on some sort of runner’s high as a modest crowd cheered around him. He was the first person to cross. He happily accepted his medal and with a straight face asked if the team that had helped him through his journey — the friends and family around him — might receive medals as well. They did.
He cried. Barry cried. Then Gorlitsky looked for his wheelchair.
“I had to get out of that thing,” he said of the suit that plugged him along the past three days.
Gorlitsky had his redemption. An overwhelming sense of accomplishment and happiness flowed though him. Then he felt like his body went into a weird sort of shock. He shivered for about two hours after finishing. A saline I.V. and a 20-minute nap — his first time sleeping since Thursday — settled him down.
“It’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve really accomplished something awesome,’” he said. “To the point that I can’t even function anymore. That’s kind of a weird sense of accomplishment.’”
The feeling sustains Gorlitsky. But only for a moment. Inevitably, the luster of this latest feat will fade. He’s spent the past few years outdoing himself. When it wasn’t enough for a paralyzed man to simply walk again, he walked a mile. When that was no longer impressive, he tackled a 5K, then a 10K, then a half marathon.
Gorlitsky wants his next feat to be even more impactful. It’s not enough for him to leap personal hurdles now. He’d like to leverage his accomplishments to push the community forward. He pictures a day in the not so distant future that re-enabled athletes such as himself can compete against each other. He’s intrigued by the thought of new technology — things like electrodes on the brain and spinal implants — turning his exoskeleton into a smoother, more maneuverable system. Think more Avatar than Terminator.
Gorlitsky allowed himself little time for recovery. The day after completing the marathon, he hosted I Got Legs’ Beer Mile fundraising event at the Charleston RiverDogs’ Joe Riley Park.
He planned to attend in his wheel chair but changed his mind at the last minute.
“What the heck?” he figured. “What’s another mile?”