As spammed on social media, the majority of you are probably aware that I pushed the Portland Marathon Half last month. My solid intention was to follow-up with a post of the experience immediately after with everything fresh in mind, but honestly, the whole thing is still a bit emotionally charged for me. I’m still not sure exactly how to sum up a blog post, but it’s time to start typing and see what comes out.
Last week I awoke from a dream, in which I had just raced a half marathon, finishing first, even out of the able-bodied runners, but I wasn’t greeted with any awards or recognition. I hung around the finish line, thinking they might need a few minutes to recognize this, only to be awarded the opportunity to see the first able-bodied runner finish, greeted by fan-fare, trophy, and podium pictures joined by the second and third place finishers.
That dream, sums up my frustration with the event. At packet pick-up the day before the race, I was bounced around between several people when I asked about the wheelchair division, landed on a very friendly coordinator who looked up my registration and marked me as a wheelchair participant and told me I would be competing in the wheelchair division. About ten minutes later, he found me through the crowds (he was very helpful) to tell me that he was very sorry to find out that there was no wheelchair division for the Portland Marathon Half. We went and talked to the higher-up coordinator and when I asked “why”, she informed me that it was because they never had enough participants to warrant a wheelchair division for the half marathon, it only existed for the full marathon. Insert sad trombone.
Forecast wise, the weather was looking touch and go, and rain does not mix well with push-rim wheelchair racing, but I was determined to compete regardless as this was to be my first official race in the chair, and, well, I guess ever. Sure enough, the rain poured on the drive to downtown Portland, and all the covered sidewalks in the starting corrals were packed with runners huddled together, trying to stay dry as long as possible. Fortunately, the rain subsided a little as I broke from the covered refuge to climb into my racer at the starting line.
Turns out, I was the only pushrim racer competing in either the half or full marathon (alright, there was another, but using a day chair, not a racer, which is impressive). The rest of the wheelchair users were on handcycles (cranks, chain, gears), which is cycling, and competing in marathon events, I don’t think they should be in the same category as a pushrim.
The gun sounded and we were off. By the first turn, all of the handcycles were already out of my sight. Slowing down with uncertainty, I nearly missed the turn altogether until someone held up an arrow sign last minute. Actually, this became a serious issue for later groups of runners when there was no apparent guidance and a hefty crowd ended up running over a mile extra correcting course, missing this turn. After assuredly knowing I was correctly on course, and taking advantage of the slight downhill, my speed started ramping up and I was oozing adrenaline and excitement. I was actually doing it!
And then it started pouring rain again, despite the klister (handball resin, aka, real sticky stuff used to try and gain surface traction in the rain) on my hard gloves and pushrims, my strikes started slipping. Adjusting my stroke to accommodate, this was still manageable, until the first hill. Hill climbing in the best of conditions in a racer is work, you can’t shift to a lower mechanical gear as you would on a cycle, you simply have to dig in and power up the incline. Hill climbing a racer in the rain? Not awesome. I had applied a generous amount of klister to both my pushrims and gloves the day before so it had a chance to setup nice and sticky, but when that rain started pouring in tandem with the hill climbing, it was not enough.
I slowed to a crawl, pushing inward and down against the pushrims with everything I had to keep moving forward and seeking out the slightest bit of traction that would enable me to transfer power. The crowd here, along the side of the course, was amazing. The cheering and support, watching me struggle really did make a huge difference for me as I slowed and the first of the able-bodied runners started passing me.
One of the cheer crowd even offered up his towel and quickly tried to dry off my gloves and pushrims (I’m sorry, all the klister must have ruined your towel, but thank you!), which helped me gain a little momentum and then he kept walking along with me up the course offering to do it again. The road mercifully leveled out slightly and I gained some ground on the heard of runners whom had passed me on the first hill. And then the next hill hit. There I was again, barely moving, but determined. At some point, not finding enough traction, I slipped my hard gloves off enough to get the skin of my palm gripping and pushing the rim (I felt the blister come and go), even pushing the spokes forward with my thumbs at the worst.
The runners came, the runners went, in herds, even the day chair caught and passed me, as he was able to grip his rims as they came around, rather than striking (striking is far faster, when you have traction). Again, the crowd, volunteers, and other runners were amazing support here, shouting encouragement. A couple times, runners even offered to give me a push up the steepest parts. Of course, I politely declined, this was going to happen, and it was going to get done under my own power. Also, I knew that I would be weaving my way through their crowds as soon as the hill was chewed up.
Turning the corner at the top of the crazy steep hill, I was relieved to see a lesser incline and with the rain slowing down, I was able to speed up, again catching runners as the hairpin corner signaling the downhill, neared. After having to come to a complete stop to make the turn, it was all acceleration and speed as I flew down the other side weaving in and out of the crowds of runners who has passed me going up the hill.
And this was the pattern for the rest of the race. speeding up, slowing down where I couldn’t pass the runners listening to music through their headphones, and then digging into the rims again to surge ahead when clear. I forgot to lock the touch screen on my Garmin before starting, and with the rain pouring down, it decided to switch display pages to some useless metric. I had no idea what my distance, speed, or heart rate was during the race, but being only a half marathon, there was no need for me to pace, it was all pushing as hard as I could, when I could.
The entire time, I was cheered on towards the finish, by volunteers, bystanders, and other runners shouting “good job!” as I passed. Near the finish line (they have continued to rope off the finish line area after the Boston Marathon Tragedy some time ago, not allowing fans at the finish), my parents, wife, and a couple close friends were waiting to yell encouragement for the last push, and then, it was finished, my first race was in the books.
After the finish line, there were tables of snacks which I couldn’t carry, and my medal, coins, rose, finisher shirt and windbreaker were all thrust at me, I had to try and stuff everything between my legs and chest as best I could, but it wasn’t working. After seeing me struggle for a bit, thankfully one of the volunteers offered to walk with me, carrying everything, only after the klister and rubber residue permanently marked it all, and destroyed the windbreaker.
Honestly, I know it’s for safety reasons, but having such a large finish area restricted to race officials and volunteers only, it’s a bit anticlimactic crossing the line with near silence after being cheered on the entire race. That, and, hey, how about maybe providing a bag to carry all our post-race goodies in!
As it turned out, there were 3 others in the wheelchair division for the Portland Marathon Half, (and yes, we were given a wheelchair division in the race results), besides myself and the day chair racer. I finished first out of us in the results (our category did not receive any awards however, such as were given for age groups, bonny and clydesdale divisions), and if allowed to group with the able-bodied runners, my time would have earned me around the 10th place finisher overall. I’d like to think that if it weren’t raining, I could have placed in the top 3 overall.
And now I am itching to do a full marathon. Even after finishing the half, I was wishing and feeling like I could have done the full (that was probably overconfidence inspired by adrenaline). I really hope to do the full Portland Marathon next year with my race chair, however, their inclusion of wheelchair athletes is seriously lacking and I may be forced to look to other races that are happy to include and accommodate us.
After the event, I asked Portland Marathon on social media why there was no wheelchair division for the half and their response was that it was purely a safety issue (which contradicts what they told me at packet pickup), the course was too fast and it exceeded the safety net of the Portland Police. Furthermore, it was not their responsibility and that I should follow-up with the Portland Police.
Seriously? A safety issue? The half marathon takes place on the same course/route as the full marathon, yet it’s safe enough to have a division/category for the full marathon? Oh, and if I do the full marathon, I will be racing in the same category as handcycles? This is not a Portland Police safety net issue, and it is not my job as a paying participant to follow-up with them. This is a sanctioned race coordinator issue to ensure that corners are marked properly (turned out to be an issue not exclusive to wheelchair racers) and if you are posting this on your website: “Sanctioning and certification for the wheelchair division is annually requested. Except for industrial railroad crossings, the course has no obstacles of concern to wheelchair entrants. The course has only 21 turns.”, they you really need to back that up with inclusion and support for the actual race!
I know Portland Marathon prides itself on being friendly and relaxed, but I believe that line has been crossed and then some. Why can’t we do more to encourage wheelchair athletes to participate? I for one, would be happy to join in discussion with the race coordinators and figure out how we can address the hurdles and “safety net” issues while making an action plan of inclusion.
You’re discriminating Portland Marathon, let’s talk and figure out how to make it better!
Thank you to The Oregonian for taking and providing many of these pictures free of charge! Portland Marathon photographers produced some more photos, but the expense is too much to obtain them for myself.
Thank you Adaptive Sports NW for sponsoring part of my registration fee making this race a reality for me!
Thank you Challenged Athletes Foundation for the grant, providing me with my own racechair making this all possible!
If you’re visiting here for the first time and wondering why the heck I use a racechair to run, check out my About page.