You know a newcomer must have a great story when you ask him for his email address and it includes the phrase “demon legs”. Sure enough, Robert Cacic, who joined Downtown Run Group in 2016, has a story that will make you “Run Inspired”. Here is his story in his own words–
It was October 17, 1991. I was four years old. I did not know that was the day that would drastically alter my life. I was helping bring in the fall harvest on the family farm- not unusual for children in Marquette County, WI at that time. I wandered away from my job of keeping the corn from missing the escalator, most likely to go kick over some dandelions or harass a toad. A few cobs had missed the escalator. I had to get back to do my job. I stepped over the power takeoff shaft and it bit me.
That’s what it felt like initially, you know, like a large dog nipping at your pant leg. First the grip, then the tug, then you lose your balance. That was followed by what felt like taking an upper cut on the front of the chin- the jaw slams shut and the nose gets pushed upward uncomfortably. Then everything was spinning and I was airborne. Thud. I was conscious and sat up to see what happened only to catch a glimpse of the damage I had sustained.
Relatives were shouting. This was before 911 or fire numbers. Calling the ambulance meant looking up the fire department number and conveying a location using a route number and mailbox number. Fortunately, the airstrip on the property was a local landmark and they arrived as fast as a volunteer service could be expected. I was told to lay down and was covered with a blanket to keep me comfortable. I was rolled onto a clean sheet and lifted onto the litter- no time for placing braces or extensive assessments the problems were obvious and untreatable with available resources.
Twenty-five minutes later I arrived at the local emergency room only to be stuck full of needles, placed back in the ambulance, and sent on to the level I trauma center in Madison- another 50 minutes or so. After all of the needles the pain was very dull. I was able to talk to my aunt and the EMT who was keeping me company. This was 1991- well before cellular service in my region. I was concerned with why and how could there be a phone in the ambulance. It seemed silly because it would have to be plugged in to work. Another concern was the siren which was ear-piercingly loud. I begged for them to stop the siren- which they did when able.
I arrived in Madison, where my mom met us at the door. She was a nurse and had been at work at the hospital there when the accident happened. She looked incredibly sad. I figured it was my fault and said, “I’m sorry, mommy” then things went fuzzy.
I’d been scalped by the ground, had severe soft-tissue traumas, and broken many bones. My legs were most severely impacted. After the first surgery to stabilize my condition the doctors informed my mother they were surprised I even made it but that I would eventually lose both legs- one above the knee and one below. Somehow, Shriners’ Hospitals (a charity) was able to locate a specialist at Gillette Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis and establish a closed circuit TV communication in the surgical suite to aid the next five operations and reconstruct my legs. This was the first time this was performed at either hospital to the doctor’s knowledge.
Ten weeks and six operations later I was discharged in casts. We were told I likely would never walk again, that long-term damage wouldn’t be known for years, and that I’d have to have MRIs every 6 months to assess status.
In the small community where I lived everybody knew what had happened. The whole church knew I’d be there on Christmas Eve and were eager to gauge my recovery after the accident. Many had lost loved ones on farms. The church was always packed for midnight mass so the priest would have the children sit at the altar- it may have been a ploy to get us to behave. When he called the children forward, I insisted on going. I walked to the altar despite casts, on crutches with the help of many hands. Many tears were shed by those who celebrated my early recovery triumph.
Two years later and the news was in. My growth plate was irreversibly damaged and the right leg was growing at a severe outward angle. The angle was corrected by further altering the growth plate. I’d never reach my full height, my hips would be uneven, and my spine was going to be under great stress- probably not growing to its full potential either. This was incomprehensible. I was a normal six year old who always wore pants and had debilitating arthritis at times but otherwise played like all the other kids- running, jumping, everything. I was forbidden from impact and contact sports. So I swam, tried piano, read books, and boy scouted instead of playing tee-ball and flag football.
High school approached and the doctors decided it was time. The final corrections had to be made. Almost exactly ten years from the date of my accident I began a modified Ilizarov procedure- placing an external fixator on a freshly broken leg with a bolt I would turn three times per day to “grow” the leg. This would occur during my freshman year of high school in a brand new school system. We had moved that summer. After daily doses of Percoset, Vicodin, and valium for 7 months to manage the pain and wreck my aptitude the fixator came off in May. I was fortunate to have tremendously invested family and teachers to get me through with a C- average. I was free. The doctor completing the procedure cleared me for whatever I could tolerate. I continued swimming and started playing Ultimate Frisbee.
During the summer I worked at a resident scout camp. I worked on the beach and kids were always staring at and asking about my scarred legs. I had no escape- reliving my accident every time I told the story or the arthritis hit. Getting over being struck twice by lightning, evading tornadoes, and being incredibly high energy for 14 hours per day was simple in comparison. I took up running the trails to sort my mind out and rebel against the arthritic reminder. Cub Scout camps used themes to keep the campers more involved. During a Pirate theme I became Commodore Demonlegs complete with a homemade crutch and wool trench coat (in the middle of summer) who “fights like a demon but his legs don’t work.” I escaped the questions about my legs for a week and gained a nickname to help cope with the near constant reminders.
I wanted to be better at Ultimate so I joined Cross Country and Track & Field my senior year. The coaches asked me why, in my senior year, I would decide to start new sports and I told him, “Because I can.” By late-September I’d improved my times sufficiently to compete Varsity. Coach told me to prove it in a race and gave me a sub-20 goal for the 5k. I hit the halfway marker at 09:15 and was ahead of pace. Then, snap.
My leg had broken. Against coach’s recommendation but knowing it would be my last race, I finished. My time was 24:31. I walked into the doctor’s office that Wednesday and he confirmed my leg was broken. He surmised my ‘shin splints’ was likely a stress fracture that gave way. He told me he’d have to cast it. I had a dance to take a girl to that Friday then a state Frisbee championship tournament on Saturday. Casting it was not an option so I thanked him for seeing me, promised him I’d take it easy, and told him I was going to walk out. He told me I couldn’t and I rebelliously replied, “Watch me!” We won state in Frisbee and the girl married me, vindicating my decision.
In college I took up triathlons in the summer and water polo in the winter. Water polo required an egg-beater kick, another thing I was told I’d never do successfully after the reconstruction– another ‘because I can’ triumph. I’ve found nothing else as mentally therapeutic in addressing residual challenges from my accident. Running, solely because I can when so many told me I couldn’t, provides a momentary triumph over my accident and my reality. I’ve competed in three national tournaments for water polo, numerous Sprint (1:19) and Olympic (2:31) triathlons, a half-ironman (6:02), many 10k’s (39:56), a half (1:37) and two full marathons (3:38). While not professional times (I’m still planning to improve), I’ve come a long ways from that four years old who surprisingly survived and wasn’t supposed to walk again.
All this, because I can!
By demonlegs AKA Robert Cacic
“Because I can” is inspiring! We asked what advice he would give someone who was thinking of running. “Do it for fun,” Robert said. “Make sure it is always fun. Don’t force yourself into anything. Use it to get away from your job, don’t make it your job.”
We are so glad to have Robert, his wife Kelsey, and Mimi in Downtown Run Group.