Race finish part of Leland runner’s return to ‘normal’

October 2, 2014
Brunswick Forest

Star News
By: McLoed Brown

Dec. 17, 2013, began just like any other for avid outdoorsman Sandy Ergas, with a specific exercise planned to help keep his mind and body in shape.

Ergas was always known to be participating in some physical activity, whether that be on the golf links at Cape Fear National, competing in local running races, or simply running around the neighborhood three to four times a week.

That December day’s activity just so happened to be horseback riding. Ergas had years of history with him; he and his wife, Heidi, owned a 60-acre property, including three horses, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, before relocating to Brunswick Forest in 2008.

What started as a normal day, however, quickly turned into an event that would shape Ergas for the rest of his life.

A freak accident left Ergas with a broken neck and, more devastatingly, a broken spirit.

The race never ends

After two weeks and two major surgeries at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, doctors sent Ergas to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a private, not-for profit hospital dedicated to rehab for people with spinal cord injuries and various neuromuscular problems.

This would be Ergas’ home for the next 3 1/2 months. Where he would learn to move again. Where he would learn to feel again.

In his hospital bed, Ergas found himself in an unfamiliar state of not being able to do anything physically. Yet, on top of regaining his range of motion, and feeling in his extremities, Ergas wanted to push himself beyond the doctors’ possibilities – he wanted to race again.

And he didn’t want to participate in just any race. He wanted to come back home and complete the Orthopaedic Specialists 5K that was held Sunday in Brunswick Forest.

“I just wanted to be able to finish,” Ergas said. “It was something that I was aiming for since I was laying in the hospital bed and the only thing that worked was three fingers. I want to say I’m not done doing races … It’s just been one of those goals I’ve been going for.”

So once he was able to go back home in early May, Ergas began training. Not only Ergas, but his entire social network.

He had a personal trainer, Mike White, who regularly would work to increase his mobility. A care calendar was spread throughout his neighborhood, where neighbors would sign up to go on walks with him five times a week.

What started as Ergas’ goal turned into a community’s. What began as a broken spirit brought a neighborhood together.

“It’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced in life,” Ergas said. “Just a mixture of being down, which you face every day and say, ‘How can I live like this?’ Things with depression. But you have to be able to convince yourself that every day is a little bit better, and every day you have to try, and every day you have to try to go forward and get as much out of life as you possibly can.”

His wife, Heidi, added: “The neighborhood, everyone, when we don’t have any strength, they’ve kept us going. I’ve discovered this is a team effort. This isn’t something you do on your own.”

Embracing his help

After months of training, race day arrived Sunday.

With 445 participants, a large turnout of spectators and runners were joined by Sandy Ergas.

But he wasn’t alone.

More than 40 people, each wearing shirts with “Team Sandy” across the front, joined him at the start line. Each walking with Ergas throughout the course, step by step. Each wanting him to finish, just as much as he did.

And once he finally crossed the finish line, the emotions of the last nine-plus months spilled over. Tears and hugs were stopped only by photos with Ergas, who has become even more popular with his fight.

Most importantly, Ergas’ spirit was mended. That sense of accomplishment Ergas felt every time he would cross a finish line returned.

“They give meaning to my life,” Ergas said of his support crew. “Bringing them all together, at that one spot and helping me out, was good for all of us. Having those people in my life give me a reason for living.”

Ergas’ comeback humbly reminded the rest of the participants to value the greater things in life, a necessary lesson from time to time in a competitive sport.

“You realize there’s more to running than just being competitive,” said Ed Fore, President of 5 Star Race Productions, whom put on the competition and many alike throughout the area. “There’s camaraderie, people looking up to you. I think having him participate was a good reminder to some of those competitive folks that, someday that could be me,” said race organizer Ed Fore, a longtime member of the local running community.

“It could be any of us. You love running, other people out there that aren’t as good as you or as fortunate as you, you need to remember them. Competition isn’t everything.”

While the completion of the race is a milestone in Ergas’ recovery, the fight isn’t over. He still struggles with common tasks, still needs help in everyday life.

But Ergas has found comfort in knowing he’ll never be alone on his journey.

“Every day is a fight,” said Heidi Ergas. “Every day is a new adventure. Every day I see him get a little bit better, move a little bit forward.

“We’re just going to take back everything we can take back.”