Running man

Rod Harwood overcame cerebral palsy and a traumatic accident to run marathons.

Photo of Rod Harwood

Rod Harwood has taken the idea of overcoming life's obstacles to a new level.

The Pendleton man, a marathon runner who oversees spiritual care at St. Anthony Hospital, glows with health and vitality, but he says it wasn't always so.

Along life's road, he battled a tenacious disorder that made it hard to walk. As a teen, he almost died in an accident so bad surgeons had to look at a school photo to piece him back together.

His challenges started at birth.

Born two months early, doctors struggled to keep the 4 pound, seven ounce baby alive. Two years later, doctors informed his parents, Paul and Alean Harwood, their son had cerebral palsy.

Until age seven, the little boy wore a long, cumbersome leg brace. He often woke up at night screaming from the pain and his parents rushed in to massage his legs. His bulky brace and awkward gait drew teasing at his grade school.

"I couldn't run as a kid," Harwood remembers. "I got picked on a lot."

At age seven, a surgeon lengthened his Achilles tendon in his right leg, making the brace unnecessary. Running and skipping, however, were still part of a mist-shrouded dream.

In high school, a private Christian school 250 miles from his family's 5,000-acre South Dakota dairy farm, Harwood met a man who changed his life. It happened in the school gym where students gathered to sign up for classes and activities.

Coach Glen Letellier sat behind one table. Taped nearby was a sign with the letters "CC."

"I walked over and asked, "What's CC?" Harwood remembers.

As Letellier described cross-country running, the freshman felt a strong wind blowing on the embers of his heart. He was overwhelmed with a crazy desire to go out for the team.

The coach didn't try and talk him out of running. Rather he encouraged him.

The first month proved Harwood had tenacity.

"I remember running about 100 feet, then I'd trip and fall," Harwood said. "My hands were gouged from the gravel."

Coach Letellier stayed close.

"He ran every mile with us," Harwood said.

For his first race, he had a single goal - to run the whole race without stopping. He passed one runner who'd stopped to walk and inched past another at the end of the race.

"When I came in, my team was cheering like crazy," Harwood said, grinning.

At home, the boy hurried to milk cows each morning and evening, then got in some running.

By his sophomore year, the boy was a key member of a team that placed in the top five three years in a row at state. In his senior year, he'd cut his 5 kilometer time to 16 minutes, 45 seconds.

About this time, Harwood felt the calling to become a minister, something that devastated his father who expected his only son to take over the family dairy farm. Harwood headed to Northwest Bible College.

During summer break, he hired on to drive a water truck for a road construction crew. On his second-to-last day of work, disaster struck. As he drove along a dirt road at about 35 mph, the steering suddenly went stiff.

"I braced myself as the truck began to roll," Harwood said.

As the top-heavy truck full of 4,800 gallons of water finally stopped rolling, Harwood opened his eyes.

"I couldn't see anything," he said. "It was all black."

Numb and bleeding, the 19-year-old crawled out of the smashed cab and struggled to the road, where he lay alone. No one had witnessed the accident.

Laying there, Harwood said he felt only peace. In a reaction he knows many might find crazy, he began to give thanks in prayer.

"I lifted my left hand in the air and began to offer praise the best I could," he said.

Construction crew members came upon him at about that time, reacting with shock when they saw his broken body. Harwood's face had 17 fractures. One of his pale blue eyes hung out of the socket. His top bridge had come loose and teeth poked through his skin.

The crash had broken all his ribs, cut up his entire body and torn all the ligaments in his left knee.

At the hospital, his mother gave the surgeon a photo so he could operate on her son. Alean Harwood is now a fifth grade teacher at Ferndale Elementary School in Milton-Freewater.

"I wouldn't have recognized him except for his hair," Alean Harwood remembers. "He had curly hair."

"How are you honey?" she asked.

All he could say was, "I hurt."

The surgeons got busy, working until 3 in the morning.

"They pieced my face back together," Harwood said. "When I woke up, it felt like an elephant was sitting on it."

Afterwards, he asked his mother for a mirror, but she refused. His friends came to visit, paled and left the room.

Finally, he found a mirror in one of his hospital drawers and he looked at his broken face, swollen, stitched and bruised.

"I looked like the brother of Frankenstein," he said.

He questioned God. Since, he's seen blessings emerge from the pain. The accident led him to work as a hospital chaplain. He now has increased empathy for those who hurt.

"In the midst of a dark night of the soul, he's there with you," Harwood said. "He can take whatever happens to you and make something of it."

Because of his knee damage, Harwood stopped running and concentrated solely on his ministry, a calling that his father had finally blessed when Harwood was a fledgling minister. His dad died of cancer several years ago.

About nine years ago. Harwood, who had since married Kim and fathered three children, had gained weight and worried about heart disease.

He started working out on a treadmill and moved up to light running outside. His left knee felt surprisingly good. He still can't wiggle the toes on his right foot and has to consciously tell his right leg to push off.

Since 2001, he's run six marathons and started coaching the Sunridge Middle School track and cross-country teams. His children, James, Christine, Jessica, now 21, 18 and 15, are all runners. As he works with his athletes, Coach Letellier is always in the back of his mind.

"My job is to help them find the dream of running," he said. "I get them to believe in themselves."

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