Nate Wigdahl knew he was in the midst of a serious injury when another soccer player blasted into him on the field.
He heard a series of pops and rolled onto his back. It felt like he’d just cracked all of his knuckles at once — but in his ankle. As he lay on the grass, ankle sticking out sideways, the pain rushed in.
Over the next 11 years, Wigdahl would undergo four surgeries to address a host of problems with his ankle. Doctors installed hardware — think screws and plates — removed bone spurs and cysts, and completed a total ankle replacement.
Some of the procedures alleviated the Elkhorn man’s pain, but never for long. None of the surgeries allowed Wigdahl to get back to his hobby: long-distance running.
Wigdahl ran track at Dana College. That’s where he caught the “endurance bug” and started running longer distances.
“I really like the solitude of it,” he said. “For me, it was a time to be by myself and work through my thoughts.”
Wigdahl tackled Ironman competitions, too. He signed up for his third Ironman about two weeks before the broken ankle.
Losing running was a big blow. Wigdahl decided to give cycling a try. In 2010, he competed in a 100-mile bike race in Leadville, Colorado.
“When I got done, I hugged my wife and said, ‘Eh. I’m done.’ It was fun, but it just wasn’t a replacement for what I was doing before.”
Over the years, Wigdahl talked with his wife, Julie, about amputating his left leg below the knee , but they didn’t know if it was an option.
By the end of his shifts as a pharmacist, his ankle was swollen and painful. It kept him from playing baseball with his son Brody and from running with his daughter Brooke.
“Having an ankle as bad as it was for that period of time, I started to think of it more as a parasite than anything else,” Wigdahl said. “So when it came time to make that decision to amputate, it was more like freeing myself from it rather than a loss.”
About a year ago, Wigdahl had his leg amputated. He’s spent the past year adjusting to his prosthesis.
Recently, he’s started running and adjusting his gait. As his limb atrophies, Wigdahl has had to adjust the fit of his prosthesis. When the fit isn’t right, it can be painful.
Wigdahl, 46, said he’s able to do more than he could before surgery, but running long distances is uncomfortable.
Wigdahl’s friends are hoping to get him back to that active lifestyle he craves. They‘ve organized a 5K fundraiser to help him purchase a running blade, which could cost up to $10,000.
Wigdahl said insurance doesn’t cover the cost of the running blade.
“To think that people would have that selfless of an attitude and be that supportive, it was an amazing feeling,” Wigdahl said.
Race director Liz Wallace, who’s also a runner, has known Wigdahl since high school and she’s kept up with his health issues. The two got into fitness around the same time and Wallace said she saw his passion.
“I knew how much he loved it. When this happened, it was just tragic,” Wallace said.
Proceeds from Saturday’s race will go to Wigdahl for a running blade. But organizers hope to make the race, which includes a 5K and 1-mile walk, an annual event. Each year, they’ll select a different recipient.
The blade will make running more comfortable. On his current prosthesis, Wigdahl can run, but doesn’t have as much cushion. He has to be on the toes of his prosthetic foot.
Running on an everyday prosthesis causes extra wear and tear, said John Boldt, Wigdahl’s prosthetist. The curved shape of the running blade provides extra spring while running.
Boldt, who works at Hanger Clinic, said an elective amputation like Wigdahl’s is fairly rare, especially given his age and activity level.
“Nate’s had a great attitude, and I think that’s carried him this far,” Boldt said.