Rolling Sport - Conquering the Big Apple
It was only in the year 2000 that the New York marathon officially opened itself to a wheelchair division. This did not come without a fight as a group of wheelchair athletes took the New York Road Runners (owner of the marathon) to court for excluding them. My first exposure to this monster came in 2001. I was recruited by Bob Laufer – the then new wheelchair division race director, incidentally he was also the attorney who defended the NYRR’s in court against the wheelchair athletes!
Over the years Bob turned the race into one of the best paying wheelchair marathons in the world, with the best fields. He set the bar and it was not long before the other major marathon followed suit.
In 2001 I discovered that the NY marathon was a beast. I’ve often said that after racing NY my body would feel like it had gone 12 rounds in a heavy weight boxing match…and lost. The surface is rough, the corners many, and the weather unpredictable.
Over the years I’ve had mixed results, but most of the time I managed to drag myself to a podium finish. In 2005 everything worked right and I won the race and set a course record.
One year I watched the race from the stands as the airlines had lost my racing chair. One year our bus got stuck under a bridge and we almost missed the start!
This time my racing chair arrives. It’s catastrophic if my chair is missing – it’s a custom built piece of equipment that can’t be replaced quickly. I’m met by representatives from the race – a big black SUV pulls up and you are whisked away to the Hilton – for a moment I feel like I’m important!
Saturday morning and it’s pouring with rain and it is windy outside. I was planning a rest day so it makes the final decision a bit easier. At 4pm we have our technical meeting as the race director takes us over various points of importance.
I get my wakeup call at 4:30am and I peek out the window to see that it’s dry, but the wind is howling. I grab breakfast and head out to the busses. I notice all the wheelchair athletes are gathering in the lobby and it seems like there was going to be some kind of announcement.
And then it comes, the wind prediction was so high (gusts of 50 – 60 miles per hour) that the city made the call that we could not start on Staten Island. So our start was moved forward by 3miles to a safer location.
Temperatures were low and the wind chill dropped it another couple of degrees. It was the best field NY has ever assembled. The dynamics changed completely because they took the first 3 miles out – that was where we were normally challenged by the steepest climb of the race. With that out of the picture, we had a big pack of around 25-30 guys for the first 15k or so fighting for position in 25-65km/h cross and head winds. Fortunately there was no crash that I’m aware of. I’m probably the biggest guy in the field, so I catch a lot of wind, especially headwind. Slowly we reduced in numbers as we went through the climbs. We then hit the longest climb of the race, the Queensboro Bridge. I was having a hard time and saw Fearnly, Hammelak and Josh George (Chicago winner) pulling away, not long after Soejima, Fairbanks and Kota also pulled away. With 15k to go I found myself in no man’s land facing serious winds. It was probably the lowest point of the year for me, in 7th place and nothing in the tank.
I grinded my teeth and fought back. First I picked up Soejima and started trading the lead with him and working hard. We then later caught Fairbanks, Kota and George. We worked together well and was finally able to gain enough on Fearnley and Hammerlak that we could see them. Soejima surged and I got dropped again, but managed to claw back. With the final long climb before Central Park we were able to close the gap to Furnley and Hammerlak and we were back to a pack of 6 for the final 4km.
I positioned myself in 3rd as we went for the final 400m and when the opportunity was there I committed myself to the sprint – the final 100m is uphill and being on the heavy side I needed a bit of momentum. I thought I had it but then I started cramping up a bit and Fearnley passed me right before the finish. For the second year in a row I have placed 2nd in what is the hardest marathon we do.
I head to the recovery tent where my day chair and hot coffee awaits. I wait for expat Krige Schabort who finished 21st. We trade war stories and we head back to the hotel.
On the Monday evening I start the trek back home. The body is in pain but it’s a good pain. I finished on the podium of all 4 major marathons, London, Boston, Chicago and New York, this year. No other wheelchair racer in the men’s field could achieve that.