ESF’s ENDURING ATHLETE OF THE MONTH – MAY
By Pete Williams
He’s best known for triathlon, of course, navigating courses of up to Ironman distance despite not having legs or much of one arm.
But when Rajesh Durbal, a 33-year-old triple-amputee engineer for the city of Orlando, really wants to impress people he’ll sit them shotgun and let them watch him drive.
His Ford Focus is not specially equipped. He only drives stick shift. And he does not have a right hand, switching gears through a flurry of smooth movements involving his left arm.
“People ask, ‘Why not get an automatic? It’s so much easier,’” Durbal says. “I learned on stick. My dad never made anything easy for me and I’m glad he did it that way.”
Cops do double takes when they pull him over and see his arms on the wheel. They examine his license, which has no restrictions. They ask questions, especially if he’s wearing shorts.
How do you work the clutch with prosthetic legs?
“It’s all about feeling the vibrations through the legs,” says Durbal, who was born with a congenital deformity in three limbs, had his legs amputated below the knees and has only a nub of a right hand. “Once you realize where the clutch catches it’s like riding a bike.”
That is, riding a bike with one limb for up to 112 miles, as Durbal did during the legendary Hawaii Ironman in Kona in October, finishing the race in 14 hours, 19 minutes, a time for which most triathletes with four limbs would, well, give their right arm.
Go ahead. Make all of the bad jokes and puns. Durbal has heard them all, actually much worse as a kid growing up in New York City.
He spent most of his first six years in and out of hospitals. When it came to sports, he spent most of his time on the bench. Teachers pointed him toward card games or table tennis. This was in the 1980s and early ‘90s, long before the Challenged Athlete Foundation, advanced prosthetics, and the mainstreaming of people with physical challenges.
His Trinadad-born parents, Raj and Anne Durbal, battled the public school system and resisted suggestions to send him to special schooling.
Raj wanted his son to have a normal childhood, which is to say a daredevil one. So he took him hiking, skiing and snowboarding. During a family trip to Niagara Falls, tourists snapped photos and video as Raj and Rajesh ventured out under the falls for a too-close-for-comfort look. It wasn’t because Rajesh looked different.
“They were waiting for us to fall in,” Raj says.
Raj challenged neighborhood kids to come over and do underwater laps against Rajesh in their 30-foot-long pool. Nobody could outlast him, which still is the case whenever he and his training group do the drill under the direction of Consuela “Sway” Lively, his Orlando-based triathlon coach.
“He goes at least sixty yards,” says Lively. “I haven’t come across anyone with more mental toughness.”
As for driving, that started at the age of 12 in Antigua. Raj pulled over right before a steep hill and told his son to get behind the wheel of a manual transmission. At least the steering column was on the right side, making it slightly easier.
“He didn’t flinch,” Raj says. “He never backs down from anything, no matter how seemingly dangerous.”
Rajesh eventually discovered the Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged and excelled in track events. That helped him fit in to a degree, but everyday life continued to be a struggle. He smoked cigarettes and followed a diet of junk food, became depressed and even considered suicide.
Religion made a difference, and Durbal frequently cites his faith. But what really turned things around was a decision early in 2009 to enter triathlon, of all things.
The sport has a long history with physically challenged athletes, but most have two or three functional limbs.
Wouldn’t other sports have been easier?
Why not drive automatic?
Durbal threw himself into triathlon, sometimes quite literally, like when two handlers place him into the water for the swim start. That and getting help out of the water and into the first transition are the only accommodations he accepts.
For everything else he’s on his own. There are the three sets of legs he brings to the race (bike, run, and walking-around legs). There’s the bike, which is operated from the left side with aerobar pads that ride up on the right side to fit his right stump. There are the running legs, which boost his height from 5-foot-4 to 6-foot-3, which is what doctors project his height would have been.
Triathletes arrive at events with a ton of gear, but Durbal takes it to a new level, which draws a few sideways glances – at least until he takes off his legs, one of six pairs in his closet.
Then there’s the water. Like most swimmers, Durbal breathes every three or four strokes. But he often trains by breathing every seven to nine. The increased lung capacity of the former smoker allows him to stay relaxed and use muscles to compensate for not getting propulsion in the kick.
He spends hours in the pool fine-tuning his stroke and working on directional training so he stays on course in the water and not drift out on his own, as he did during one of his first workouts with Lively in Orlando’s notorious Lucky’s Lake.
He’ll wear a wetsuit if everyone else does, but prefers to go without. “I don’t like the advantage it gives you in terms of extra buoyancy and streamline,” he says. “I’m a fighter. I like to make things as hard as possible.”
That’s why he loves the run. Actually, he hates the run but that’s what makes it his favorite of the three disciplines. Most observers see him gliding along on the run course and assume that’s preferable to one-handed swimming or biking.
They’ve never walked in his shoes, let alone run 26.2 miles in them. Running with prosthetics that rub against the bare skin of his stumps can be excruciating, requiring massive core strength, which Durbal has in abundance.
Core strength, for all the talk of washboard abs, actually refers to the many stabilizer muscles of the shoulders, midsection, and hips. The limbs are just along for the ride.
Personal trainers sometimes make an analogy of the core as a mannequin with no limbs. Actually, Durbal is as chiseled as your average plastic model in a department store.
He’ll challenge his training partners to see how long they can stay in a plank position. Nobody can come close to Durbal, even though he’s holding the pose essentially on one arm.
After entering his first sprint-distance triathlon in June 2009, he finished the Hawaii Ironman just 16 months later, a speedy timetable for anyone, let alone someone with a demanding schedule as a systems network engineer for the city of Orlando. He takes a lead role in developing networks and infrastructure, supporting police, fire and virtually every other aspect of the city.
He’s launched a Web site encouraging others (live-free.net), has become a popular corporate speaker and talks frequently to schoolchildren, who like everyone else want to know the specifics of how he swims, bikes, and runs.
He’s heading back to Kona in October and has eyes on competing in the Paralympics in 2012. Sponsors have embraced his story and he’s a spokesman for 15 companies, including national brands Mix1, Gu Energy, and Zoot Sports.
Triathlon, with its long hours of preparation and choreographed race day rituals of laying out gear is perfect for a man who sets out his legs with his clothes before he goes to bed, always thinking three steps ahead.
“Triathlon fits in well with my approach to life,” Durbal says. “You can train and plan, but there’s always something that comes up and you have to adjust. Something breaks, your equipment fails, the weather’s bad, and how you deal with that is what makes it so rewarding. In the end, it’s just you against the elements.”