Just a few months ago, Beau Zanca was relearning to walk — now, he's gearing up to run a marathon
In April 2016, Beau Zanca, 24, had just returned from a Chicago Cubs game with his friends and crashed on the couch when tragedy struck. A fire swept through the home, and after leading a woman to safety, Zanca was overtaken by the flames.
“I don’t remember much besides waking up,” Zanca tells PEOPLE. “My brother was there and he explained everything to me. I had a tracheotomy so it kind of prevented me from talking for a couple weeks. So, internally, I had to deal with it all.”
Zanca had been placed in a medically induced coma after he was pulled from the burning home. He suffered third-and fourth-degree burns over 60 percent of his body. Zanca says his left hand was burned so badly that many of the bones fused together, giving him limited use of the hand.
“It was pretty hard. At first I didn’t really understand … I didn’t really think anything was real,” Zanca says of the days after he woke from the coma. “It took me a while to process that this was going to be what life was like moving forward, especially because I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t really express any emotion. It was all kind of in my head.”
After spending months in Chicago’s Stroger Hospital, where he underwent treatment and minor physical therapy, Zanca was moved to Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. The therapy became more “intense” as he had to relearn how to walk.
“The walking was difficult. To even sit up on the bed seemed like it was impossible. So, I really didn’t know how I was going to be able to walk again,” Zanca tells PEOPLE. “Once I got to Shirley Ryan, they had me in a walker to just walk like 10 feet and it felt like an eternity.”
Still, Zanca says he was determined to recover. “I had the option of having the wheelchair around. I didn’t want it around, because I knew I’d be able to walk so I didn’t really want the chair around. Once I was in the chair I really didn’t want to be there ever again.”
Zanca’s speedy recovered impressed doctors, he says, and he was officially discharged from the rehabilitation center earlier this year — although he says he still undergoes physical therapy and surgery. But even during his treatment, Zanca was accomplishing difficult feats like completing a 5K run and even participating in SkyRise Chicago, a fundraiser for the center where people climb the 103 floors of the Willis Tower.
Zanca tells PEOPLE that completing the run has inspired him to accomplish more.
“Afterwards, I felt really happy with myself. It was kind of a testament to the training I put in. It was rewarding to say the least,” he says. “It was just a lot of hard work up to that point. Training to be able to walk, it was only six months prior that I was laying in the bed. I was really happy with that.”
He adds: “I kind of got a taste of it and I kind of want to build on that. Bigger races, longer races, faster times, more competition. That’s just kind of who I’ve been. Keep raising the bar, try to set a higher goal.”
After several surgeries and months of recovery, Zanca has been left with scarred skin on most of his body, including the left side of his face. He says he was with his mother and passed by a mirror when he first got a glimpse of his injuries.
“I was pretty disheartened. I considered myself to kinda be a good-looking person before,” he tells PEOPLE. “When I saw it … any confidence that I had was just gone. I was pretty upset.”
Zanca says that the mental journey of the ordeal has been just as difficult as the physical.
“There was a point in time after the accident when I really didn’t want to do too much. I wanted to be in a shell,” he says. “I just had to force myself into not really thinking about it and just moving forward. You’ve got to shut off the negative and just focus on the positive.”
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Now, Zanca is finishing college and has set his sights on a new event: the 2018 Chicago Marathon.
“I’m excited, hopeful. It’s an awesome event. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time but never thought I’d be prepared for it— even before my injury,” he says. “At this point in time, I feel like I’m most prepared for it.”
He adds: “I have a pretty good training schedule to the point where I think I’ll be ready for it. I know I will be.”