Out There: Pushing to the Finish

Holly Koester has finished 130 marathons since suffering a spinal cord injury in an automobile accident in 1990. Photo: Courtesy of Holly Koester

Thirty yards into the climb, it was clear I had underestimated the challenge of the hill before me.

“You make this look easier than it actually is,” I grunted to my training buddy, who seemed to coast effortlessly up the incline.

“Uphills are harder for people like you,” he replied. “Your weight will make the downhill easier.”

I think I’m offended. “Are…are you saying I’m fat?”

He rolls his eyes. “I’m saying you have legs, Susan.”

That I do. In fact, I’m the only one in this training group who has a working set. Some of my companions are amputees, while others are paralyzed as a result of birth defects or spinal cord injuries. All of us are training for a marathon.

These are the members of a training group that meets weekly in a park near my house. Our training times always seem to coincide with each other—with every lap I sprint around the park, even more wheelchairs and handcycles unload from the backs of cars and trailers. They line up in the parking lot, polishing and tuning up their rides before heading out as a group. It’s like a meeting of hot rod enthusiasts, only instead of a 420-horsepower engine, these rides are powered by biceps and grit.

At my last marathon, I shared a few miles with a set of those (very large, very strong, very impressive) biceps—a handcyclist who, after the race, invited me to say hello to the group next time I was in the park. That’s how I ended up on my back in the bike lane, pushing a handcycle’s cranks with burning arms. For three days after my handcycle 5K, I couldn’t lift my arms more than two inches away from my body. This sport is hard, y’all.

We all may be training for a marathon, but I soon realized my experience as a runner without a physical disability is vastly different from those of wheelchair and handcycle racers. The more I learned from my new training companions, the more I learned just how much I didn’t know about wheelchair racing. Things like:

It’s not as easy as it looks.

“So many people think that it is easy or even fun to use a wheelchair or handcycle,” says Wendy Griffin, 10K silver medalist at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. After all, it’s got wheels, so it rolls. Simple enough, right?

Not quite. It takes a bit of effort to gather momentum with a push of the wheels or hand cranks, and even then, there’s a million forces working against that momentum: A wheelchair racer is fighting a constant barrage of potholes, mud, wind, inclines, chipseal and debris.

Chairs don’t easily go over curbs and bumps, and racers cannot navigate a narrow passage as easily as runners – they not only have to allow for the width of the chair, but also the movements of their arms to propel the chair.

The technology is still a work in progress.

Wheelchairs are not new, but racing wheelchairs are. Only recently has wheelchair racing achieved status as a legitimate athletic pursuit, garnering notice from engineers and manufacturers who specialize in speed. Earlier this year, automaker BMW announced it would use its speedy expertise to design racing wheelchairs for Team USA at the 2016 Paralympic Games. The final product, which you can see here in BMW’s latest TV ad, is pretty cool.

“Man, have racing chairs come a long way,” says 130-time marathon finisher Holly Koester, who was paralyzed in an automobile accident. “They started out with four wheels, then moved to three-wheel models that looked like a little wagon with a last-minute thought to add a brake. The racing wheelchair I use now is about two feet longer and more sleek.”

Something else that has changed is the racer’s hands. Up until a few years ago, athletes used a batting glove and taped their hands into a fist using athletic tape; now, new gloves replaced tape with Velcro and include thumb pads that allow the hand to strike the wheel with more power.

There’s more to monitor during training and racing.

Many paraplegic and quadriplegic athletes, who have limited or no feeling in their lower extremities, have difficulty controlling body temperature and are subject to overheating, says Griffin:

“We sometimes don’t realize we are overheating until it is too late; if we get cold, we don’t shiver like normal people to warm ourselves. We also don’t perspire in the same way and therefore have difficulty cooling an overheated body.” 

It matters what you ride.

If you’re a handcyclist, expect to catch flack from a wheelchair racer; if you’re a wheelchair racer, handcyclists will likely have a name (or ten) to call you. There’s a real split in the community about allowing handcycling in marathons and road races.

You see, some wheelchair racers consider the gears of handcycles to be an insult to the integrity of racing, which should be completed solely under the power of one’s own body. But racing in a traditional wheelchair is not always an option for athletes. Take Jesse Walton, for example. After a motor vehicle accident rendered the veteran paralyzed from the chest down, Walton lost use of his abdominal muscles (a key element in one’s ability to race a wheelchair).

“It would be my preference to participate as a wheelchair athlete if I had the capabilities, and that goes for others too,” Walton says. “However, since some injuries or birth defects vary so broadly—say, higher spinal cord injuries that affect the hands or breathing, amputees, metal rods that prevent bending, or certain spina bifida—not all athletes can compete in chairs. It’s my belief that a handcycle provides an alternative for those people, but some chair competitors and other marathon traditionalists do not believe that using equipment with gears is fair.”

You can’t just enter your local 5K on a whim.

Unlike most runners, who can enter almost any race at any time, wheelchair and handcycle racers are limited to a small handful of events.

“When I was striving to complete a marathon in each of the 50 states, I was just looking for races that would allow wheelchairs,” Koester says. “It would get really frustrating in some states trying to find a wheelchair-friendly marathon.”

Once a race is identified, there are still several hurdles to clear. Many races cap the number of wheelchair athletes allowed or the type of wheelchair or handcycle used. Some place limitations on speed, restrict passing, or tell wheelchair users to yield to foot runners—which defeats the purpose of racing.

Race directors don’t always think of everything.

Even the most accommodating of races often forget to provide handicap-accessible bathrooms. (Remember that next time you complain about the conditions of your pre-race port-o-johns.)

People can be jerks.

It’s rare, but it does happen—some people are just assholes. In 2014, video footage was recorded of a volunteer telling a quadriplegic athlete in a Missouri marathon to “get up and walk.” The video was used as evidence in a lawsuit against the race, which was accused of discriminatory practices.

This is an extreme case, of course. For most wheelchair and handcycle racers, discrimination usually comes in the form of garden-variety ignorance.

“Many people usually assume handcyclists have more capabilities than they really do,” says Walton. “People always seem to be surprised that I’m completely paralyzed from the chest down and require a wheelchair—they just assume that I’m a cycling enthusiast trying a new, recumbent cycling product. The truth is, one cannot see the disabilities the cyclist has, only that they appear to be muscular and fit, so they’re easily mistaken.”

And that’s not all.

As I talked with more and more wheelchair and handcycle racers, the list of challenges got longer and longer: finding (and affording) a racing wheelchair, locating a mechanic with knowledge of handcycles, transporting a racing wheelchair or handcycle, finding safe routes for training (sidewalks have distracted pedestrians and roads have distracted drivers), getting over a soft, sandy field that separates the parking lot from the start line…it all sounds like, well, a real pain in the ass.

“I can’t imagine doing all of that just to race,” I sighed each time I heard another laundry list of challenges, realizing how much I take for granted as a runner.

“I can’t imagine not doing it,” they almost always replied. “It’s worth it.”

This is the statement that always brings me back to our common ground as athletes. I may not be able to relate to many of the challenges wheelchair and handcycle racers face, but I get why they do it anyway— a race is one day, but the effects can be felt for a lifetime. It’s worth it, indeed.

“Racing has given me independence, freedom, opportunities to travel, and the chance to set goals and achieve them,” Koester says. “It has given me the confidence to try new things. Heck, if I can push 26 miles, I can get in front of a class and teach, or be a leader in my community.”

“The coolest thing about racing is that feeling of camaraderie and accomplishment. I belong to a group. I can do things now that I used to be able to do before I was paralyzed, just in a different way,” Griffin says. “Those of us that use chairs are still very able bodied and able minded. We can do so much if given the opportunities to push ourselves to the next level.”
About the author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). She lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: a labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. Lacke claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke

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