Meet Milly Pickles. After being electrocuted, she needed life-saving surgery that involved amputating a leg. She talks about her recovery, her running blade and her 100m ambitions
“I knew what needed to happen; I needed to have my leg amputated because I knew it couldn’t be fixed.” Milly Pickles is looking back to the time the surgeons came into her hospital room to discuss the life-saving surgery she needed to have. She remembers interrupting them with her decision before they’d even got to the end of their list of pros and cons.
That was three and a half years ago, in the autumn of 2017. Milly, a 20-year-old student at Bournemouth University at the time, had been electrocuted which left her with severe injuries and needing urgent surgery. When the accident happened, the current had travelled up her right leg, through her pelvis and down her left leg out of her foot and, although this meant extreme injuries to her legs and feet, it did mean that her spine was unaffected.
She explains: “Before my amputation happened, I’d already psychologically accepted it so it wasn’t as taxing on my emotions as you’d think it would be.” She’s coped amazingly well the whole time – before, during and after her life-saving surgery – and, although she half expected the trauma and sadness to catch up with her, it never has.
Since recovering from her amputation, Milly has made amazing progress. As she explains, in those early recovery stages, she decided to focus on what she could do to keep positive, knowing how crucial it would be to maintain her mental health while her body was recovering physically. Her voracious appetite for learning and growth is clearly apparent – both now and during this time. “I began learning Spanish and how to DJ,” she says. “I also did online marketing courses to make good use of my time.”
And she didn’t stop there. After learning to stand and walk again well ahead of doctors’ predictions, she then went back to finish her degree, captain her able-bodied netball team and now she’s hoping to take the 100m world by storm.
Running free with Milly Pickles
Before her accident, Milly had been an 800m runner – and a hurdles runner, high jumper, and lacrosse, netball and rounders player. Suffice to say, she was pretty sporty! Since her recovery, having dabbled in netball, which she also loves, she’s decided to focus on 100m sprints. She says, “I feel like running is so powerful and it’s great to be able to run at speed. When I’m at the track, I just feel happy.”
Also, it’s a liberating and empowering thing for a woman to be able to run and Milly admits that being unable to left her feeling exposed after the accident. “I feel much more vulnerable as a woman now I’m disabled and I really hate admitting that because I feel that if I admit it then people will know and then I’m making myself even more vulnerable!”
She explains how the thought that she couldn’t run away if she had to has had an impact on her: “If I have a walking leg on, I can’t run, because the equipment I have attached to me isn’t designed for running. My walking leg is like a dead weight, so running on it would feel like I was limping and it would hurt.”
Her running blade is a lot more springy than the walking one: “When you get the running leg, it’s the most incredible feeling, but you can’t wear it all the time because it’s higher on your amputated side so your hips aren’t level and overuse would damage your hips.”
Blades of glory
Milly got her first running blade in November 2020, three and a half years after her accident: it took that long partly because she had other priorities after her surgery, partly because she had to find the money for the blade and partly because you have to wait a certain amount of time for your stump to heal and settle fully after surgery.
She explains, “After the operation, you’re really swollen and you have to wait for the swelling to go down. Even then, if you gain or lose loads of weight, it will alter the shape and size of your stump.” So, in November 2020, Milly received her first Ossur running blade, which she was able to get through Pace Prosthetics here in the UK.
Of course it wasn’t as simple as getting a running blade, putting it on and hitting the track. “By then, I hadn’t run properly in so long and I really wanted to run. I thought it would be a really cool experience to learn to run from a completely new perspective and I also thought the learning process would be really interesting.
Since November, she’s been learning to run again. “As you run, you have to put different weight through each leg because the blade is so bouncy. You need to be very controlled,” she explains. “Even though it sounds really hard, it’s like learning to drive – it becomes natural after a while.”
Milly’s current run blade is a standard one designed for runners but not for sprinters. This is because the ones for sprinters are so springy they’re very hard to control when you’re starting out.
Back on track
The last few months have been a learning curve for Milly in terms of technique, strength – and frustration. On top of working hard, Covid has kept her away from the track at a time when she was dying to get down there and really open up this new chapter of her life. “My coach wants me to run as human-like as I can – as if the blade doesn’t exist – so having my knee is definitely very helpful for that. It makes the transition a lot smoother than for somebody who’s an above-the-knee amputee.”
Despite the challenges and her tendency to be harsh on herself, Milly is loving running again. “I enjoy it because I’m learning even more about my body. I do a lot of different types of cross-training in my schedule including strength work, pilates, swimming, bike, yoga, technique drills and a lot of resistance band work.”
She smiles: “My running coach says that resistance bands are just the best thing ever. It’s all about building my core and hip mobility – things that I didn’t really focus on before – and getting as strong and lean as possible.”
Putting in the hard yards
Milly is a very positive person but she does face challenges every day. For instance, she lost a lot of muscle after her accident and is much weaker than she used to be. It’s easy to use this as a stick to beat herself with when she is feeling frustrated. “I always think that if I was stronger I’d be much further ahead than I am now. As an athlete, of course you do get problems and it’s about learning to manage them, but sometimes it’s frustrating if you can’t do what you want to do.”
She explains that she gets a lot of sores and cuts on her legs because the prosthetic rubs and some days she can’t run at all because it’s too painful. “I tape my leg a lot and use various creams to prevent and repair as many sores as possible. And I get checked regularly to see whether my hips are equal while I’m running.” At the moment, this is something she needs to work on because video footage shows that she doesn’t raise one knee as high as the other when running, and that’s down to hip mobility.
When she can’t get out on the track or attend Herts Phoenix run club meets, she keeps frustration at bay by doing something else. “When I can’t run, due to pain from the prosthetic, I can still do my strength training in my wheelchair. I also bought an iWalk, which is basically a crutch, and I go to the gym on that. There is still a lot I can do to help me progress.”
When everything is going well with the blade, Milly’s coach has put quite a punishing training programme in place, and she’s encouraged by the progress she can see in her running, even in the last couple of months. “I train four times a week at the track and then I’m training three hours or more each day on my strength. It’s really tiring,” she says, “and as an amputee you burn up to 30% more calories because you’re using more energy.”
Of course, it’s not all about physical exertion; Milly is inspiring to talk to about mental strength. “Whether you can compete comes down to whether you can do it physically and mentally,” she says. “Mental strength is, if anything, more important than physical.”
Milly is great at focusing on what she can do and not what she can’t but that’s not to say that she hasn’t found the past year hard. She found it very challenging when she couldn’t get to the track last year because of Covid. “I had just got my blade, and all I was able to do was lots of repetitive exercise when I just wanted to run. I didn’t understand why I was having to do all those exercises because I hadn’t run as an amputee before. Now, of course, it makes sense but when I was stuck in it, it was frustrating,” she confesses.
Mental strength is something Milly definitely has in the locker after what she’s been through. “Staying strong mentally is more likely to get you there and I think I’m good mentally.” That will surely come in handy when she takes her training to the next level and starts to compete on the track? “Who knows?,” she smiles. “I don’t like to put pressure on myself. Every day, I do everything I need to do to get where I want to be and hopefully the end result will look after itself. My coach believes I will be able to compete but time will tell.”
First things first. With races back on the calendar she’s keen to have a go; not with the aim of winning right now but for the experience of racing against other disabled athletes and with her blade. She’s got work to do practising the starting point and making tweaks to her form before she takes to the track.
Looking to others
Milly is a fan of following her heroes online. “I follow amputees on social media and find it inspiring to see them at track. It’s lovely to see their progression and to think I might be there eventually.” She follows Hunter Woodall, a double amputee sprinter, who posts videos about his track sessions: “I find it insightful to look at somebody who is where you want to be,” she says. She also follows Steph Reid, a single leg paralympian and has become good friends with Julie Rogers, a 100m runner who’s competed at the Parlaympics twice.
“I love watching anything to do with track and field basically,” says Milly. “Following someone who’s basically like me, at a similar point, gives me direction if I’m struggling to see it myself.”
Representation and disability in sport
As well as everything else over the past year, Milly has become an accidental social media star and a hugely important face for disabled sports. After her amputation, she didn’t want to have to tell everyone she knew individually that she’d lost her leg so she announced it on Instagram. Seeing how interested everyone was in her physio made her share more videos and she was pleased that she was helping people going through similar. However, it was only after she accidentally posted a video to TikTok that everything went really crazy; her first video got 1.7m views and she now has 304,000 followers.
“I share my life as an amputee, showing how things work, and learning to run etc, and I focus on raising awareness. When I lost my leg, I looked for people like me to follow and there was nobody; just one lovely girl in Brazil but I couldn’t understand a word she was saying!
“I really wanted to have someone to relate to, and when I started posting everything online, a lot of amputees started asking me ‘What’s the best leg to get? What happens at this point?’ and so on. TikTok can be a great environment for diversity and inclusivity. I love it when people contact me for help and advice; I’m happy knowing I can help someone else.”