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Marathon Training Kept Flores’ Recovery From Crushed Foot on Course

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was sometime between the moment that the car ran her over, pinning her right foot under the right front tire, and the fifth surgery to save her mangled foot that Jenica Flores made the promise to herself--and anyone else listening.

It didn’t matter that doctors had wanted to amputate. It didn’t matter that she would spend a month in the hospital and endure nine operations to “basically rebuild my foot.”

All Flores wanted to do was someday lounge on a beach--and run in a marathon.

Almost 4 1/2 years after the runaway Toyota took most of her foot, Flores, 29, will make her long-distance debut Sunday in the Los Angeles Marathon, along with 23,000 others.

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“After my accident happened, I knew I had to pick something really great, a really big challenge to get myself going,” Flores said recently. “You know, training has been the catalyst for my healing. It’s been a way for me to heal physically and mentally.”

When she takes off from 5th and Figueroa, the marathon’s starting line, Flores will have realized both aspects of her two-pronged goal. Part of her training, you see, includes runs on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier.

“It’s not just about the running for me, though,” said Flores, who began training for the marathon last August. “It’s about the challenges that we all face, and meeting your challenges head-on and conquering them. That’s what this marathon is about. But I’m just one of many. Everybody out there has a story.”

Flores’ story begins on Sept. 16, 1996.

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A native of Waukesha, Wis., she already had a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wisconsin but had moved to Boston and was working at Harvard Business School and taking some classes in hopes of earning a master’s degree.

It was the first day of classes and Flores and a friend, Patty Powers, were walking home from a desktop publishing class. A car driven by an apparently confused elderly woman blew through the T-intersection, hitting both Flores and Powers before slamming into a brick wall, and pinning them beneath the car and rubble.

Flores, knocked out of her “trying to be fashionable, black clunky shoes,” found herself contorted on the ground like some human pretzel, her head inches from being crushed by falling brick. Her right foot was under the tire and her left leg was entangled in a wrought-iron fence that, seconds earlier, had been part of a brick pillar.

Powers, who needed to have surgery to rebuild the arch of her foot, was trapped just above Flores. She recovered as well.

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“I’m lying there, my foot’s bleeding and . . . hanging by a thread and I’m thinking, ‘OK, where’s my bag? I need my bag. My running shoes are in my bag,’ ” said Flores, who had gone for a run earlier that day. “Funny enough that the only thing that survived in my bag was my running shoes.”

She was also asking everyone around her the name of the New Orleans Saint kicker who had kicked a record 63-yard field goal in 1970 despite having been born with a club foot.

Either no one knew it was Tom Dempsey or no one could believe that Flores was asking “Sports Geniuses"-type questions while bones were sticking out of her nearly severed foot.

“I just wanted to know and needed to know of athletes who had accomplished something great despite some physical disability,” she said.

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Flores was taken to Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, where she was told her foot would be amputated.

She told the doctors and nurses to do whatever they needed to do but to remember that she needed to run.

“They just looked at me like I was crazy,” Flores said, laughing. “And maybe I was crazy but I was not in shock. I was dead serious.”

Her parents were contacted in Wisconsin and, during the hectic flight to Boston, her mother Phylis made numerous calls from the plane, trying to find a doctor in the area who would operate to save the foot, rather than amputate. She found two, Joseph Upton and Ben J. Childers.

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Flores’ monthlong hospital stay included the first five surgeries, most of which lasted 13 hours. Among the procedures: three blood transfusions; bones were reset twice with pins being inserted; veins from her left foot became arteries in her right one; muscle from her stomach and seat was stapled to the top of her foot to replace dead tissue, and, after losing her little toe initially, she has since lost most of the third and fourth toes.

Her foot doesn’t bend at all, and the two surviving toes bend 15 degrees downward but not upward, making pushing off a painful and difficult task. Plus, she still suffers the occasional “phantom pain,” feeling an itch or sharp shooting sensation where her little toe used to be.

So, what do her doctors think of her running a marathon?

“When I heard, I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s phenomenal,” said Childers, who was a fellow with Upton in Boston at the time but is now at Loma Linda Medical Center near San Bernardino. “It’s fabulous that she’s doing this. You have to remember that her foot was completely dead when she came in. Not only was there soft-tissue damage and broken bones, but there was nerve damage as well. Her foot was only holding on by a skin bridge.”

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Childers does, however, have concerns about the pounding her foot will take during a 26.2-mile race.

“I think at this point, the bones should be healed sufficiently,” he said. “I do worry about sheer force. I just hope she wears proper padding and if it starts to hurt, she sits down on the side, especially if it starts to blister. You don’t want the foot to ulcer.”

Flores, who walks with a barely noticeable limp, has always had a passion to run. This is, after all, a young woman who would actually train for grade school-sponsored Presidential Fitness Tests.

“I remember running before I can remember walking,” said Flores, the third of six children. “It’s always been a part of my life.”

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She ran competitively in middle school (sprints) but attended a small private high school that didn’t offer girls’ track. So she played field hockey. But Joan Benoit-Samuelson’s gold medal in the first women’s Olympic marathon in the 1984 L.A. Games made an indelible impression on Flores.

She has good days and not-so-good-days, but Flores battles the latter by thumbing through her scrapbook, which is filled with graphic pictures of her foot in the hours after the accident.

She also uses humor and perspective to deal with her condition, joking about the money she saves on pedicures and what her life would be like had she allowed her foot to be amputated.

“Sometimes I think it would have been easier, less painful,” she said. “But I’m definitely happy to have my foot, well, what I have left of it.”

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Flores joined her brother Bart in Los Angeles in August 1998 and is studying interior design at UCLA, when she’s not training for Sunday’s marathon with running partner Bruna Tripicchio.

“There’s a positive light, or side, to every situation,” Flores said. “Sometimes it’s hard to find, or you don’t want to see it, but it’s there. And in my case there were many positive things to come from this whole thing. I think I’m actually a much better person after this accident.

“I just don’t want my foot to be the reason I can’t do something.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Marathon Facts

* What: Los Angeles Marathon XVI

* When: Sunday.

* Television: Channel 13

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* Races: Bike tour (begins 6 a.m. at USC); wheelchair race (begins 8:20 a.m. at 5th and Figueroa); marathon (begins 8:45 a.m. at 5th and Figueroa); 5K (begins 9:45 a.m. at Staples Center).

* Entrants: More than 23,000.

* Defending champion: Men, Benson Mutisya Mbithi of Kenya. Women, Jane Salumae, Estonia.

* Late race registration: Quality of Life Expo, Thursday-Saturday, L.A. Convention Center.

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* On the net: https://www.lamarathon.com


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