For Cletus Mays, the toughest part of competing in Sunday's Life Time Miami Marathon won't be competing alongside the 25,000 marathoners, or the staggering 26.2 miles it will take to get to the finish line.
It will be the steep climb over the bridges.
Within the first two miles Mays and the others will have hit their first bridge, the MacArthur Causeway. Once on the beach, the marathoners will then cross the Venetian Causeway to get back to downtown. After that, they must cross over the Miami Avenue bridge, the Rickenbacker Causeway and the Brickell Avenue bridge to make it to the finish at Bayfront Park.
While the bridges are tough for the nearly 25,000 half and full marathoners expected to run on Sunday, they're particularly tough for Mays, a double amputee, and his fellow racing buddies from Achilles International Team, comprised of athletes worldwide who have varying levels of disabilities.
“The best part is when you get to the top cause you can't slow down until then, or you are going roll backwards, way backward,’’ Mays said. “You just have to down shift and work your way up it slowly.’’
Approximately 60 Achilles Team athletes with compete on the same 26.2-mile marathon course — 13.1 miles for the half marathon. Some will run, others will walk and some will use specially designed hand-cycles propelled by their arms.
The 29-speed hand-cycles look like a tricked-out wheelchair with a third wheel in the front. The cycles have racing tires and handles propel the rider, using the riders’ arm strength.
“I use a K-Cycle Suspension Bike made for amputees,’’ Mays said. “I have been racing for six years but I have been using this bike for four.’’
Riding can be difficult, however.
“It is all arms,'' he said. “When they feel like they are going to fall off, you have to keep pumping. Stay calm and relax. Finish what you start, that is how I make it to the end.''
This will be Mays' fifth time competing in the Miami race, and his 16th overall marathon.
Mays’ injuries stemmed from his service in the Vietnam War.
“I was a United States Marine — in the First Marine Division and served in Vietnam in 1970,’’ he said.
He lost his right foot on the battlefield, but still finished his six-year commitment with the Marines.
When he got out, U.S. Airways hired him as a customer service agent. He worked there for 24 years, until he was forced into retirement by a life-threatening medical condition.
While in Vietnam, he was exposed to Agent Orange, which affected his internal organs. By 2002, Mays had to undergo an emergency transplant of his kidneys and pancreas.
“They told me I couldn't work anymore,’’ Mays said.
The next year, he had to have his lower legs amputated, a result of Agent Orange complications and diabetes that had developed.
“After that I spent a couple of years sitting around feeling sorry for myself until I decided I needed to reflect,’’ Mays said. “That was when I decided to get into sports.’’
His inspiration came from watching a wheelchair athlete compete in the New York City Marathon. He began researching sports that could be played by amputees and started playing wheelchair basketball and doing hand-cycling. He began racing competitively.
“Racing is one of the sports where you can meditate, and it helps you find perspective,’’ he said. “Competing you find out who you are and that is why I like racing. I am a go-hard, go-fast kind of guy and I like to get people up and moving. A lot of people sit around complaining about what they couldn't do, or what they can't do. All they needed to do was to get up and get moving!’’
That attitude inspired his hand-cycle mate, Rudy Peterson, 43, of Fort Lauderdale, who is a single leg amputee. Peterson lost his left foot and a portion of his calf after being stung by a Brown Recluse spider in 2012.
“I got my start from Cletus Mays,’’ said Peterson, who will be competing in his first Miami marathon. “He got me into wheelchair basketball and then hand-cycling. It has taken a lot of hard work and training to get ready for the race. We go out to a lot of parks and do 20-26 miles and we practice day by day.’’