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Missing both legs and arms, he’s racing in the Philadelphia Marathon

Chris Koch, who races on a longboard, has yet to come across another racer who gets around like he does.

Chris Koch picked up his racing bib at the Convention Center on Friday so he can compete in Sunday's Philadelphia Marathon, propelling himself on his longboard.
Chris Koch picked up his racing bib at the Convention Center on Friday so he can compete in Sunday's Philadelphia Marathon, propelling himself on his longboard.Read moreJose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer

Chris Koch is a marathoner and a motivational speaker, so when visiting Philadelphia in the spring, he sought out a certain cinematic landmark of athletic inspiration.

Like so many before him, he climbed the Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he enjoyed the view so much that he’s back this weekend to compete in his 13th marathon.

Unlike his fellow competitors and the fictional boxer, he’ll race through the city streets on a longboard.

Koch, 43, was born without a left leg and very little of his right leg, though it is long enough that he can propel himself on the board — a longer type of skateboard that’s designed for cruising. His arms also are underdeveloped, stopping just above where his elbows would be, though he carried his board up the museum steps in May.

Athletes who compete in wheelchairs have long been a fixture in marathons and other road races. But Koch, who lives an hour south of Calgary in rural Nanton, Alberta, Canada, has yet to come across another racer who gets around like he does. Not that he wants people to think he’s doing anything extraordinary.

“We’re all pretty capable of doing some incredible things,” he said. “It has nothing to do with arms and legs or physical ability. It has to do with that space between your ears.”

“If I Can ...”

Race organizers invited Koch to speak at noon on Saturday at the marathon weekend expo, an event at the Pennsylvania Convention Center where entrants can pick up their racing packets and shop for gear. The weekend consists of three races with a total of 28,000 entrants — a half-marathon and an 8-kilometer race on Saturday, followed by the full marathon Sunday.

» READ MORE: The Philadelphia Marathon returns this weekend. Here is everything you need to know.

Whenever he speaks or posts videos of his exploits, the theme is always “If I Can …” — as in, if he can do it, so can you, as he describes on his website,

The reception is almost always positive, though on rare occasions, he draws negative reactions.

Once, when he posted a video of himself on a surfboard, being towed by a speedboat, a viewer accused him of engaging in “inspiration porn.” Advocates in the disability community use that term to describe videos and other media in which the disabled are held up as objects of public spectacle. Critics say the goal is to evoke fascination or pity, allowing others to feel gratified and uplifted without doing anything to help.

Koch realizes there is a fine line.

But he feels that when he speaks in public or posts his own videos, it’s his choice, and therefore he owns the narrative. In the rare cases where someone takes issue with his public persona, it tends to be someone outside the disability community, he said. Either way, Koch said he always tries to take the high road.

To the critic of his surfboard video, posted on LinkedIn, he responded simply: “Thanks for your feedback. Have a fantastic weekend.”

Philly hosting a “race for all people”

Philadelphia will accept Koch with enthusiasm this weekend, race director Kathleen Titus predicted.

“We want it to be a race for all people, just like what Philadelphia was based on,” she said.

Koch attributes his cheerful outlook to his family, whom he says treated him like they would anyone else. Including with a healthy dose of humor.

When Koch’s grandmother learned he had been born with underdeveloped arms and legs, she joked that his father, Bruce, was responsible, according to family lore.

“Bruce never did finish anything he started,” she said.

Koch used to wear prosthetic legs, and also has tried wheelchairs and scooters. But a few years ago, during a trip to Florida, he tried riding a longboard, and instantly was hooked.

He rides his boards for races as well as for everyday transit, and has four different models made by Venice, Calif.-based Arbor, each with a thin layer of padding for him to sit on. The board he’s using Sunday is fitted with Shark Wheels — wide, ribbed wheels that work well on rough surfaces.

In addition to racing and speaking, Koch works on farms, where he drives a tractor and a combine. He’s also a travel buff, trying to pick his speaking engagements in interesting locations.

Philadelphia was a highlight, he said. He tried several cheesesteak shops and attended two Phillies games, and also spoke to middle and high school students in nearby Delran, in Burlington County.

High school principal Dan Finkle said the talk “made everyone feel like they need to do more with their lives.”

On his longboard, Koch moves much slower than wheelchair racers, the best of whom complete the 26.2-mile distance in well under two hours. His racing times are close to those of an average runner. At a marathon in Edmonton, he clocked his personal record at just under four hours.

This Sunday, he might have an advantage. At the 7 a.m. start time, the temperature is projected to be well below freezing.

Asked about the cold, Koch scoffed.

“I’m Canadian, so …”

So he can do it. That means no one else has an excuse.