“Suffering is part of who I am. I can’t imagine living without it. Since I was born, suffering was a natural aspect of family life. There’s no point in saying that I desire good for myself, since I don’t know what good is.”
Levente Ioan Polgar exhibits the sense of detachment caused by a man who has long been at war with his fate.
Levente lost his arm in a train accident when he was six years old. Now, at 37, he became the first person with a physical disability to participate in the 6633 Arctic Ultra Marathon – perhaps the world’s most challenging competition.
He lives in Aiud, where he is well known. Everywhere he goes, he’s greeted with “Hello, Levi!” The professors and students of the University of Alba Iulia helped Levi raise 3,200 British Pounds – the registration fee for this year’s extreme ultra-marathon in the Arctic Circle.
Levi is not a novice at ultra-marathons. He has run almost 200,000 kilometers, about the same mileage your car might have when you decide that it “did the job” and it’s a good time to sell it.
“I don’t go to the Arctic Ultra to confront my demons. I want to see what will win: my muscles, or my brain?
All ultra marathon runners have a problem. We feel completely at home in the midst of suffering. We don’t share the pain in our hearts. We all have a hidden suffering. The pain of running is our medicine.”
Levi was born in the heat – a hot summer day in July. As a child, he was frequently ill with asthma and ear infections, causing him to be all too familiar with Romanian hospitals.
He started school when he was six years old, but he never completed the first grade.
“In first grade, there was a classmate that used to tease me a lot. It got to the point where our families got into a big argument. My classmate’s father worked on a horse cart and would horsewhip me whenever he saw me walking down the road.
I lived on a street next to the Aiud train station. The train tracks crossed right through the street and there was no pedestrian footbridge.
One day, the oldest daughter of my classmate’s father pushed me in front of a train. The train was driving in reverse,” recounts Levi hurriedly. He does not want to dwell on the most difficult experience of his life.
Levi fell into a coma and spent the next two years of his life in a hospital. He developed sepsis and the doctors told his family that the possibility of living was little to none.
“At that time, Gentamicin was hard to find. Astoundingly, they managed to get their hands on some. I think I took so many antibiotics that the hospital I was in is still suffering from a depletion of resources caused by yours truly!
I had five operations and endured many medical mistakes. I would gladly erase those two years of my life.”
He says that he forgave those who harmed him and accepted personal responsibility for his fate. It was the only way to stop himself from obsessively asking the question why.
“I didn’t finish high school. I dropped out. There are no heartwarming stories to tell. The truth is that I was a hooligan. I’m sorry to say it. But without the boy I was then, the man I am today would not exist. The past needs to be respected.”
The second suffering
As a teenager, Levi got involved in judo and bodybuilding, which is how he bulked up to 230 pounds. At 19 years old, he moved to Hungary where he began working on construction sites. To impress his co-workers, he would lift up two sacks of material at the same time, each one weighing 100 pounds.
After spending eight years away from home, he returned to Aiud. He began to spend days at the bedside of his dying grandfather. His grandpa was the man who raised him and taught him the importance of assuming the consequences of your actions.
“I did not leave Romania as an angel and turn into a little devil while in Hungary. I was a little devil when I left and I came back the same way,” affirms Levi.
Back home in Aiud, Levi got Hepatitis A at the same time his grandfather died. He faced great suffering for the second time in his life. That was when he decided what he would do next.
“It’s very difficult to lose the only person who believes in you. The person who has taught you so many things. The person who can tell you when to stop.
What to do next? It felt like I had too many loose ends to tie up. That I was consciously disadvantaging myself. Grandpa’s death was a wake up call to take responsibility for my life. That’s when I started running, leaving my vices behind and dropping the extra pounds.”
Ever since he began running, Levi started raising funds for different causes. Since 2015, he has been organizing a marathon in Aiud. The donations collected from the participants help fund two NGOs that run social and charitable programs for children.
Levi has also helped raise money for Romanian military veterans who participated in the Invictus Games. In 2017, 15 wounded Romanian soldiers made their debut at the Invictus Games in Toronto. ESPN wrote a great article on these Romanian heroes injured in Afghanistan.
Prince Harry formed the Invictus Games in 2014 after his military service in Afghanistan. The Games allow wounded war veterans to compete in 20 different sports and find new strength in their injured bodies.
Invictus was written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley after he had one leg amputated and was undergoing multiple surgeries to save his second leg. Henley spent his whole life in poverty, but his poem has inspired millions of people. In the darkest hour of World War 2, Winston Churchill ended a speech before the House of Commons with the closing line of Henley’s poem:
“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.“
Invictus is the latin word for unconquered. It is a perfect description for Levente Ioan Polgar.
“The biggest burden in my life is not that I lost an arm or failed to finish high school. It is that I live in a country where the government offers us nothing.
It would be easy for us to stew in self-pity or hatred for living in a system that seems to actively work against us. But it is far better to be the masters of our own destinies, no matter the cost.
If we think of our ancestors, they would rise from their sleep, grab their swords and set out to fight. We pride ourselves in being patriotic, but in reality, we don’t do very much at all.
Do you have a Romanian passport? Then we need to do something about it. It’s our country, not that of our neighbor’s. It’s as if you lived in a house and others came to clean, paint and care for it. We forget that it’s our responsibility.”
Every time Levente Ioan Polgar runs in an ultra marathon on a rough, hilly terrain – he sees it as an opportunity to prove that he controls his own destiny.
Step-by-step, mile-by-mile, the runner establishes a rhythm in which all of his thoughts fall into place, ultimately finding a path towards coherence. When he reaches the finish line, says Levi, all the colors are in the right place, like a solved Rubik’s Cube.
Levi has a type of optimism that makes you feel ashamed when you dwell on the obstacles in your own life.
Going out for coffee with him is a true reality check.