Despite daily pain, veteran pushes to train, compete

January 26, 2009 

Before the bomb, Maj. Marc Hoffmeister was an avid outdoorsman who loved mountain biking, kayaking and running.

Before the bomb, Hoffmeister was a top endurance athlete who competed in such adventure races as the Eco-Challenge in Fiji and USA Supreme Adventure Race in Utah.

But on April 22, 2007, while serving with the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) out of Fort Richardson, Hoffmeister was patrolling with 15 other soldiers and three interpreters when a roadside bomb exploded in Al Hillah, Iraq, ripping through his vehicle.

He survived. But despite his injuries, Hoffmeister knows how fortunate he is to be able to compete at all these days.

"I'm still around to grow old with my loving wife and family," he said.

Nonetheless, severe damage to Hoffmeister's left arm and head deliver daily pain. He has no feeling in his fingers, lost half the muscle mass and five inches of the ulnar nerve in his arm. From wrist to elbow, that arm is now titanium.

"My wounds have redefined many things in my life," said Hoffmeister, now the Alaskan Command's Chief of Engineering in charge of integrating engineering projects between the different branches of the military in Alaska. "But they haven't changed who I am or what I dream to achieve."

Perhaps there's no greater indication of that than the roster of 73 racers signed up for the Susitna 100 race beginning in less than three weeks at the Point Mackenzie General Store.

Listed there between Peter Hjellen and Carole Holley is Hoffmeister. He plans to bike the 100 miles from the Point Mackenzie General Store on a snaky lollipop loop past Flathorn Lake, Eagle Song Lodge, Luce's Lodge and back; others will ski or run the same course.

Before the bomb that changed his life, Hoffmeister finished the 2006 Little Su 50 in 3:33:53, securing 12th place. Things have changed dramatically for him since then, but Hoffmeister seeks no sympathy.

"People are severely injured every day -- disabled in accidents, on the job, on the Glenn Highway, you name it," he said. "But combat-wounded soldiers, unlike the general population, receive honors, medals and the thanks of our nation.

"Everyone else is simply expected to move on and deal with it. I have been personally overwhelmed by the recognition I've received from this community for something that, to me, is a normal and acceptable job risk."

The bomb that penetrated his truck's armor injured four soldiers, costing one of them his leg.

Pain remains a daily encounter for Hoffmeister, but he notes, "I have a pretty high pain threshold.

"There's days it's frustrating. You get tired of the constant pain. But I know that probably will diminish."

On Saturday, in what he described as "more a training event than anything," Hoffmeister raced the Frosty Bottom 50/25. He, of course, selected the 50-mile course to pedal his studded-tire bike.

"One good thing about competition," he said, "is being out there with 'whole body folks.' When I can hold my own against them, that's a good feeling."

By Saturday night he was feeling satisfied as the 12th biker across the finish line in three hours, 55 minutes, 14 seconds -- under his goal of four hours -- on the rough and icy Coastal and Chester Creek trails. Making it an even happier day, his wife, Gayle, won the 25-mile bike race for women.

"It was a good tune up, but the Susitna will be immensely more demanding," he said. "The icy conditions made (Saturday's) race very fast.

"It was also very harsh on my arm due to the constant impact shock of the ice. The last 10 miles I essentially rode with one arm as my wounded arm had fatigued significantly. The lack of padding in my palm due to atrophied muscle was pretty rough."

No matter, Hoffmeister will resume training this week.

"It has its challenges every day," he said. "Because of the loss of muscle mass, I can't develop that (left) arm as strong as my right arm. As I build strength and endurance, I lose balance and symmetry.

"Biking, especially if there's lots of snow, requires steering and balance. My right arm from training is just wore out, but I've greatly improved it as far as strength."

That's fortunate because endurance sports have long been such a big part of Hoffmeister's life. In addition to biking, Hoffmeister runs, kayaks, does orienteering and rogaines, a sport of long distance cross-country navigation.

"I'm still figuring out my limitations," he said. "The metal in my body is stronger than my bones, and if you can tolerate it, you can do it."

The 1992 West Point graduate is captain of Team Veteran Leader Adventure Racing, a team of active duty military, national guard, reservists, veterans and family members. Team members believe adventure racing requires some of the same skills that exemplify the best of the U.S. military -- loyalty, courage and selfless service.

This June, Hoffmeister plans to lead a team of six -- including four Wounded Warriors, his wife and retired Army infantry Sgt. Bob Haines -- to the summit of Mount McKinley, an effort dubbed Operation Denali 2009. They aim to raise the awareness of the needs of severely injured service men and women and show, as Hoffmeister said, "no obstacle is so great the human spirit cannot overcome it."

Last summer, the team spent 12 days on Pika Glacier, an area of Denali National Park known as Little Switzerland, on a mountaineering course from the Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna. Team members trained moving across crevasse-studded glaciers roped together, self arresting, winter camping and other skills.

"There are a lot of unknowns," Hoffmeister allowed. "I would love everyone to be on the same level, but I intend to be as physically, mentally and technically prepared as possible so I can compensate for or assist if any other team members have issues."

Reporter Mike Campbell can be reached at mcampbell@adn.com, or 257-4329.

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