How Trail Running Helped One Army Vet Deal with Injury and Overcome Addiction

When the doctors said he could be in a wheelchair, Todd Short refused to accept it.

Six days a week, Todd Short, a U.S. Army veteran, runs the trails near his home in Woodland Park, Colorado. High elevation, inclement weather, and rough terrain be damned, Short is out there logging 35 to 55 miles a week. Running through nature, greeted by deer, mountain lions, and other wildlife, he quietly prepares for the next trail race on his schedule—in this case, the Super Half Marathon, where Short’s hoping to break 1:30.

For a man whose doctors included the possibility of a wheelchair in his prognosis, to say Short’s PR goal is impressive would be a serious understatement. On the trails, he’s probably passing you, but on paper, he’s a disabled veteran.

Short’s service in the Army spanned six years, starting off as an 82nd Airborne Infantry Solider. As a paratrooper, he spent months at a time lugging an 80-plus-pound pack containing everything he’d need to survive the mission. At the time, he weighed about 180 pounds and had to carry some seriously heavy gear in his ruck: a 30-plus-pound parachute, a 12-pound reserve parachute, a 23-pound M-60 weapon, plus 200 to 300 rounds of ammo that weighed another 14 to 21 pounds. They used a T-10 parachute that’s entire premise is to get the troops on the ground as quickly and safely as possible before the enemy shoots them out of the sky. “My point,” said Short, “is that you come down hard… Jumping from eight-hundred feet while carrying that much weight is equivalent to jumping from a two-story building with no parachute.”

Short’s knee could go out at any time, and his back’s in such bad shape he could be in a wheelchair—if not now, then in the near future.

All that weight and impact took a toll. His service left him disabled, with neck, back, and knee issues. Short’s injury list is extensive: loss of 30 to 40 percent of hearing in his left ear and tinnitus in both, nerve damage on the left side of his neck, a bone spur and arthritis in his left knee, and his lower back has degenerative disk disease, arthritis, and scoliosis. The damage was done mostly from carrying heavy rucksacks and jumping from planes, plus the pull of an M-60. The impact of jumping from a plane didn’t do his knees any favors either. He now sports extremely loose ligaments in both. Plus, he hyper-extended his left knee a few times while moving at night using night vision goggles. “They have no depth perception and identifying holes or low spots was impossible,” he said.

Per his doctors, Short’s knee could go out at any time, and his back’s in such bad shape he could be in a wheelchair—if not now, then in the near future.

Photo courtesy of Todd Short

Photo courtesy of Todd Short

Along with the laundry list of injuries, Short left the service with three Army Accommodation medals, an Army Achievement Medal, a Good Conduct medal, and the National Defense Service Medal. He was so excited to get out, he never claimed any of his issues or discussed his pain with the exit doctor. The injuries eventually caught up with him. “Each year that I was out, I noticed more and more issues that caused me to go seek guidance from the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). They worked with me to get my medical issues service corrected,” said Short.

Considered too young for back surgery, Short’s doctors at the time took a generic route, using medication to keep him comfortable.

A never-ending tension lives beneath his scapula, limiting Short’s movement turning to the left by 90 percent. “They tried dry needling the muscle. If they miss, they can puncture a lung. I did that about three times a year,” recounted Short. They tried massages and ultrasound—with no prospect for long-term relief. His doctor couldn’t figure it out, so they turned to prescription painkillers and nerve-blockers, like Tramadol and Gabapentin. Following a day laying flooring in his new house, Short’s back went into a furious spasm, landing him at the Denver VA, where the doctor commented, “based on your prescriptions, you’re infantry.”

Although the meds did nothing but mask Short’s problems, “it was an easy cycle to stay on. They give you a physical, and they write you another script,” he said. It was comfortable enough, but foggy.

“I was slowly killing myself with pain meds.”

Five years—that’s how long the cycle continued until the perfect storm blistered in. Short was studying psychology (in which he now holds a bachelor’s degree) when he ran out of Tramadol. Going into withdrawal, he suffered headaches and cold sweats. “I realized I was addicted,” said Short.

The realization hit home, and it hit hard. “I kept sucking down their pills, and woe is me. I was slowly killing myself with pain meds,” he said.

After talking with his wife and doctors, Short decided enough was enough. He slowly weaned off the medication.

A successful athlete in high school—running track and playing football—Short had continued running as part of his PT in the Army. After service, five years of medication, and exercise mainly limited to walking his dog, Short started running again. He was walking his dog about five miles day, then doing three-mile runs, and those three miles slowly turned into five.

Short’s first race was a 5K road race. It was hard, and it was painful. “Everything hurt after the first 5K, because I was overweight. I wrote in my journal comments like ‘I feel like a fat lard. My back hurts. My knee hurts,’” said Short.

Photo courtesy of Todd Short

Short logs miles in all types of weather, including below-zero temperatures. Photo courtesy of Todd Short

At first, it was a weight management thing, but then he remembered he’s pretty damn good at running.

Although when he started getting back into it, he trained mostly on the road, Short sticks to trail running these days—partly out of proximity and partly out of ease on his joints. He hits the trails six to seven days per week, readily and in any weather. This year, he’s invested in top-notch winter running gear, and has put it to the test, logging miles in below-zero temperatures. He’s also started working with elite athlete and running coach Peter Maksimow to improve his race times.

Short’s training was as regimented as his Army PT, but it needed a different approach. “My goal was always 20 miles a week, running three to four times a week,” says Short. “I wasn’t getting any faster. I was placing the same.”

Coach Maksimow bumped up his base miles, so Short started covering up to 55 miles per week and moved the focus to effort levels instead of time, because of the intense terrain Short trains on. Right now, Short’s preparation is for half and full marathons. There are no current plans for any ultras, but that doesn’t mean he’s counting them out. If it feels good, never say never.

Short | Photo: Tim Bergsten/PikesPeakSports.us

Short | Photo: Tim Bergsten/PikesPeakSports.us

His pain is still moderate, and yes, his knee can hurt pretty badly when he’s warming up, but what Short has accomplished is exceptional. “My pain has morphed my body already. My back is degenerative; it will get progressively worse, but the exercise has slowed it down,” he said. “I’ll probably have a cane when I’m 60, but I’ll prolong a wheelchair as long as I can.”

Short said that on top of the physical requirements, mental toughness is a major part of surviving the military, and his grit seems to know no bounds. When the doctors said he should be in a wheelchair, Short “refused to accept that outcome.” With that aptitude to overcome, should you ever find yourself entered in the same race as Short, it’s probably safe to say you won’t be in front of him.