How a self-confessed outcast and double leg amputee, from a small town outside of Houston, went on to become a pillar of the city’s active community.
Courtesy Courtney White
For most of us, our running story starts with learning how to run - or at least, learning how to slowly and sustainably build up our running fitness.
This might include understanding what nutrition works best for us, or working out what pace we are most comfortable with, and what distances we think we can achieve as our goals.
But Patrick Pressgrove's story is different. For a double leg amputee, learning to run starts with learning how to walk.
Patrick is a man who, once he was able to walk, never stopped. And once he was able to run, never looked back. We had the privilege of listening to how Patrick went from being a childhood outcast to a four-time marathoner and inspirational community leader.
"I was born in Houston and given away at birth"
"Right now I'm just enjoying a nice quiet Saturday," says Patrick Pressgrove, who joins us from his home in Houston, Texas.
Speaking to Patrick, who is both humble, funny and incredibly grounded, it doesn't take long to infer that he probably doesn't get 'nice quiet Saturdays' too often.
"I'm a Lululemon Ambassador and the COO of a Houston non-profit called Team CATAPULT," explains Patrick. "I'm a photographer on the side, and I'm also a co-founder and the current captain of The Freaks Come Out at Night run club."
Almost as an afterthought, Patrick confirms that his actual 'day job' is being an accountant.
Given Patrick's extensive involvement in Houston’s active communities, you could be forgiven for thinking that he's a runner with decades of experience under his belt. In fact, Patrick has only been running for 6 years.
Growing up, Patrick didn't run or take part in any sports at all. He has Dominican heritage, but was born and raised in Houston.
"To be upfront about it," Patrick explains, "I was born in Houston and given away at birth. I was adopted within the first month of my life and raised by a white family."
"I was born with a rare birth defect," Patrick continues. "I had a cleft lip and a cleft palate, which I had repaired when I was a baby.
"I was also born with legs that were malformed - they didn't work correctly or look right. I couldn't walk until I was 6 and, even then, that was with walking aids. In time, due to the way I walked, I developed severe arthritis in both my knees and I was in a wheelchair full-time by the time I was 13."
Being unable to walk for any significant period of time, Patrick didn't have a conventional childhood. His adoptive parents got divorced when he was relatively young and Patrick's mom, who he lived with in a small town outside of Houston, worked full time. Patrick couldn't drive, so for the most part he was relatively isolated at home - playing video games, watching football, doing "normal shit".
Patrick admits he probably didn’t realize at the time how difficult things were for him growing up, but nevertheless has things firmly in perspective.
"People ask 'What was it like? Was it difficult?'," says Patrick. "My answer is always: it wasn't anything… it just was. I'd wake up, do my thing, and go to sleep."
"In some ways I had it pretty hard, but there are other foster kids I know personally or - well, you read the news - and you know it could all be worse. That was my childhood, it was what it was. It made me who I am… and here we are."
"I used to push my friends around in my wheelchair!"
Patrick's philosophy when it comes to his upbringing is commendable, but equally it’s not surprising to learn that he took the first opportunity he had to improve his quality of life.
"At age 14 I was at a crossroads," Patrick explains. "Accept it, and continue life in a wheelchair, or try something else."
"By choice, I had elective amputations above the knee on both my legs. Some people don’t have the choices I had, but I had the option: my quality of life would improve if I learned how to walk."
Patrick got his first prosthetics in the summer of 2004, not long after his surgery.
"I taught myself how to walk very quickly - I'd walk all over that small town! From one side to the other, again and again."
"I'd ring my mom and tell her I needed picking up", Patrick laughs. "3 miles away on the other side of town. I'd gotten too tired to walk any further."
"In my freshman year I was able to walk around high school. I'd still go to school in a wheelchair, but walk as much as I could when I got there. I even used to push my friends around in my wheelchair!"
After a year or so, walking around became normal for Patrick. For the first time he felt able to do "normal teenager stuff." He had more of a social life, a larger group of friends and even played drums in a metal band ("We were awful").
It says something about Partick's personality that his classmates and peers showed him nothing but support throughout the process of learning how to walk and - ultimately - further integrating himself into society.
"It was all love man - even with how I talk, there were very few times I was made fun of," recalls Patrick.
"As an adult it's quite surprising thinking about it. It was a small southern town, it could have gone one of many ways… but I was probably only an outcast in that I made myself an outcast. I didn’t put myself out there in ways I could have."
"I applied for a grant for running blades… I put them away for a year because I was scared to fail"
We’ve seen time and time again how, when incredibly driven runners and athletes connect with one another, something special happens. For Patrick, his introduction to three-time Paralympian Mark Barr introduced him to a world which, as an amputee, he never thought he’d be a part of.
"The guy who made my prosthetics said ‘You need to meet his guy Mark Barr'," recalls Patrick. "I met Mark, who is an amputee above the knee on one leg. He said ‘Hey, do you know that running is an option for you?'."
Running prosthetics, or running 'blades' are specialist pieces of equipment which aren’t covered by insurance. However there are non-profits who can help amputees access these prosthetics. Patrick applied for a grant and managed to secure his own running prosthetics.
"I put them away for a year because I was scared," says Patrick. "Really, I was scared to fail. Everyone was rooting for me, I had everyone in my corner… except me."
Further conversations with Mark finally persuaded Patrick to strap on the blades. At the time, Patrick was finishing his studies at the University of Houston, and used the indoor track to take the first tentative steps on his running journey. It's fascinating to hear his insights on the unique challenges amputees face when running.
"Running was difficult because I don't have knees when I run, unlike when I wear my prosthetics at home. I had to learn how to run without my knees," explains Patrick. "The technique requires that I sling my legs out from my hips; the power comes from my hips and my lower back."
"It takes 3x more energy for me to run a 5k than it would for you. So it took a lot of time to build that stamina up. All this also means that you need more nutrition beforehand, and more water during the run itself."
"My top running memory is when I ran that full 3-mile loop without stopping"
Patrick's diligence and determination saw his running capabilities gradually increase over the course of the next year. In that time, he also benefited immensely both from further mentorship from Mark and the opportunity to run as part of a running group.
"Mark said I should go to Memorial Park," explains Patrick. "It's the hub of running in Houston, everyone goes there. He was involved in a non-profit organization which meets there each week called Team CATAPULT."
"So I went there and I met, and ran with, all these other people with disabilities - two other amputees and a handful of blind athletes. They used to run the three mile loop every week."
"Mark also ran with me," Patrick continues. "He told me everything he knew, he was my mentor. My top running memory is when I ran that full 3-mile loop for the first time with Mark."
That was in 2016, and by the summer of 2017, Patrick had run his very first 5k event. That 5k gave Patrick ‘the bug’ - and afterwards he signed up for every event he could find.
Today Patrick has run 4 marathons, 2 of which have been the Boston Marathon, 14 half-marathons and countless 5ks and 10ks. After meeting local Triathlon competitors, he’s even got a half iron man under his belt (“If you hang out with triathletes, they don’t shut up about triathlons”).
"2018 was my breakout year," Patrick reflects. "When I found out I could run, I just dived in head-first… just like when I learned how to walk. It’s been a very fast-paced 6 years!".
"I wanted to start giving back"
Moving into 2019, having thrown himself into a vast array of running and triathlon events, Patrick was also starting to put time and energy into supporting Houston’s running and athletic communities.
"I became an accountant at Team CATAPULT," explains Patrick. "I was doing the monthly books and I took over a lot of the admin stuff."
"Then I started to take over even more things; I became the event coordinator on top of the finance stuff. Gradually, I took on more and more until in 2020 they named me the COO."
Patrick's efforts did not go unnoticed - and he was introduced to a manager at Lululemon by members of the local triathlon community: "I became a Lululemon ambassador in 2019 and I’m still one now, in my third year. They just needed me to keep doing the things I was doing."
In his first years as an ambassador, Patrick has already contributed immensely to running communities in Houston - especially those of Black and minority backgrounds.
Campaigns and events Patrick has helped to curate include the Freedman's Town 5k and 10k, a running event that highlighted Black historical landmarks in Houston. This was followed by the Saint Emanuel 5k/10k, which highlighted Asian American history in Houston.
In 2021, Patrick was proud to curate the routes for the Lululemon SeaWheeze half-marathon and 10k events: "I met so many people who had never run in that part of town, or had never seen those parts of their own neighborhood. We put a lot of time and energy into that event - and the after party!".
For most people, being a COO at a non-profit and being a Lululemon Ambassador - as well having a day job - would be more than enough responsibility. The same cannot be said for Patrick.
"Is it ever enough?", laughs Patrick. "I don’t know.."
And so we turn to the Freaks Come Out at Night Run Club, which Patrick both co-founded and is currently the captain of. We go back to 2020, and a late night where Patrick was out in Houston patiently waiting to run his leg of the Texas Independence Relay.
"All of a sudden, these people I knew ran out of the darkness," Patrick recalls. "They were training for the Goggins Challenge [running 4 miles every 4 hours for 48 hours]."
"I talked to them for a couple of minutes before my leg started. One of them said 'What are you all doing out here so late? You know the freaks come out at night'. I thought to myself… that would make a dope run club name!"
Spearheaded by Patrick, the group came up with a game plan to create an unofficial run club of the same name. Today, Freaks meet every Friday night at 7pm, when 20-30 runners turn out to run a brand new route which Patrick personally curates each week.
"We go somewhere different every week, a brewery, a bar or a local restaurant - and run a new route," Patrick explains. "It's dope. My favorite part every week is hearing somebody say: 'I've lived in Houston my whole life and I've never run over here' or 'I had no idea this was here'. That makes it all worth it to me. I love it."
"We [Freaks`] are unique in that we meet on Friday night. If you're a really serious runner you wake up early on Saturday morning," Patrick continues. "Whereas we don't even care if you run or not, it's fine if you just want to show up and hang out. We're here for the community, like a small family, that's us."
"Houston being one of, if not the most, diverse cities in America we are also a diverse group of people - and it's all love!."
"As somebody who is noticeably different, I never put myself out there… ever"
It's worth restating that everything Patrick has achieved in the world of running - both for himself and the wider community - he has achieved in a period of just 6 years. But instead of reflecting on the positive impact he’s had on others, Patrick prefers to acknowledge the positive impact that running has had on him.
"As somebody who is noticeably different, I never put myself out there… ever," he explains. "Running, and being a part of the wider active community in Houston, opened my eyes to the fact that people don't care about any of that [being different]."
"The confidence I gained being a part of that community translated to other parts of my life - Why not try this? Why not do this? Why not show up and put myself out there?"
"Before all this, I never would have put myself in front of a room of 30 people and asked them to shut up and listen to me talk. Now they do it because they want to be there."
Patrick's story is so much more than the story of the double leg amputee who learned how to run. Patrick's story is that of the shy outcast who never put himself out there, who became a true pioneer of Houston's running community.
Sidney Baptista is a running coach, leader & activist who founded PIONEERS Run Crew in Boston. Patrick Pressgrove is the founder of the Freaks Come Out at Night Run Club and COO of Team CATAPULT.