Dick Beardsley is out in front again. More than 30 years ago, the now 61-year-old legendary runner podiumed at storied, high-profile marathons and qualified twice to run in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials. Today, defying both odds and naysayers, Beardsley still logs impressive miles—despite the fact that his left knee isn’t what it once was.
Nor is his right.
Beardsley, who runs as many as 50 miles per week on two synthetic knees, is a testament to the notion that artificial parts needn’t slow you down.
“Everything is going good,” says Beardsley, a chipper Minnesotan who delivers motivational speeches around the world and co-owns the Lake Bemidji Bed and Breakfast, about 200 miles north of Minneapolis. “I love getting out there for an hour every morning.”
Beardsley replaced his arthritic right knee nearly nine years ago. He replaced his left, which was first badly hurt in a 1989 farming accident, about seven years back. He has lots of nearly-bionic company: according to the American Joint Replacement Registry, more than 7 million Americans live with artificial knees and/or hips. Researchers estimate that by 2030, surgeons will perform about 4 million hip and knee replacements annually. “Hip-replacement surgery is arguably the most successful of all clinical interventions,” says Aaron Essner, a longtime biomedical engineer who holds more than a dozen patents related to artificial joints. “A lot of pain is gone. Your lifestyle can be what it had been.”
But recovery time from the surgeries isn’t the only hurdle facing joint-replacement vets. They often must override physician resistance.
“The whole point of joint-replacement surgery is to get your patients out again.”
After a joint replacement, most doctors will tell their patients to slow down, suggesting they replace their beloved runs with, say, mall walking. We get the cautiousness. Medicos still quote the old Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.”
However, doctor hesitations around joint prostheses in particular can sprout from a different institutional memory. A quarter-century ago, the polyethylene (or plastic) in manmade joints could fatigue and delaminate. In dire scenarios, the joints would crack, crumble, and chunk off. Another joint-replacement problem: deterioration of the cement or bone that’s used to help anchor the joint.
Knowing and sometimes seeing all of this, some joint-replacement specialists draw the line at high-impact activities like running and backpacking, instead suggesting low-impact sports like cycling, swimming, and rowing. Ground forces generated by running, researchers estimate, can be three times that of a runner’s body weight. A woman with two artificial knees who refused to give up running once told Beardsley that her orthopedist refused to see her again.
“One day she went out for a run, and her doctor saw her,” says Beardsley. “He cut her off. The next visit to that doctor was her last.”
But medical perspectives—and the technologies associated with joint replacements—continue to evolve. Artificial-joint materials have vastly improved. More tools are being built to facilitate implant installation, and surgery-assisting robots are in development. Increasingly confident experts and doctors give joint-replacement patients like Beardsley more say in their post-op fates.
“There are patients that can do certain things and have done it most of their lives,” says Matthew Heinrich, an orthopedist based in Austin, Texas, who replaced both of Beardsley’s knees and has performed similar work for skiers and barefoot waterskiers who have also returned to their sports. “The whole point of joint-replacement surgery is to get your patients out again.”
Beardsley, who qualified for the 1980 and 1988 U.S. Olympic marathon trials, tied for first at the 1981 London Marathon and finished a close second to running legend Alberto Salazar at the 1982 Boston Marathon, nowadays misses only two consecutive days of running if he’s sick. He still jumps into the occasional half marathon, like last April’s RunBentonville in Arkansas.
“Under two hours,” says Beardsley. “I was pretty tickled.”
Of course, the argument can be made that Beardsley is an absolute double-knee-replacement outlier. He’s still trim (138 pounds) and is endowed with decades’ worth of running musculature, as well as a clean stride. The stereotypical image of a joint-replacement candidate, on the other hand, is often someone who carries too much weight and has little or zero fitness.
Then there’s the fact that running is hard on your joints, artificial or not. Heinrich says that even as a lean-machine joint-replacement host, Beardsley faces uncertainties. His running might shorten what could otherwise be his joints’ 15- or 20-year life spans. “He’s willing to accept the risk that he might need to have his plastic changed out,” says Heinrich.
Beardsley, who calculates that he’s run more than 150,000 miles during his lifetime, can tolerate the notion of going back under the knife—even if surgery success rates decrease upon subsequent joint-replacement procedures. Like so many of us, Beardsley lives to enjoy some sweat and a cool breeze while he lopes along.
“I still get butterflies before I race,” says Beardsley. “I cherish every step that I can take.”