Wheelchair Athletes and the Boston Marathon
By Mike Savicki
“One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”– from Ulysses, Lord Alfred Tennyson
On the morning of April 21,1975, 24 year-old Bob Hall of Belmont, Massachusetts, arrived at the starting line of the 75th Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest and most prestigious running race. Seated in a modified hospital wheelchair, he was about to attempt something that no one had done before. If he finished the 26.2 mile course in less than three and a half hours, Hall would receive a finisher’s certificate and be officially recognized as the first sanctioned wheelchair athlete to complete the race.
He explained, “I had respect for the event, for the race, so I didn’t just show up. I had written to Will Cloney, the race director. I told him … that I and others were coming to Boston, that we wanted to race the Boston Marathon, and that we were legitimate in terms of our abilities and our expectations. So he wrote back saying that he couldn’t give me a number, that he’ll recognize me if I finish under 3:30. He didn’t close the door on me, he just opened it a little bit.”
Two hours and 58 minutes after the starting gun sounded, Bob Hall crossed the finish line in downtown Boston and achieved his goal. And along the way, he shattered misperceptions. His efforts pushed the door wide open.
Wheelchairs in marathons were now legitimate. Marathons across the United States and around the world soon began recognizing wheelchair racers as equal counterparts to runners by establishing formal divisions. Over three decades later, Bob Hall’s efforts continue to pay dividends.
Through the years, the Boston Marathon has remained the premiere global marathon for wheelchairs. The rolling course between Hopkinton and Boston has played home to 13 men’s and nine women’s world records. Athletes agree that it’s hilly but blazing fast. Boston legend Jean Driscoll set the current record of 1:34:22 in 1994 after beating the previous records in five successive years.
Boston also remains the only annual marathon in the world in which all racers, including wheelchair athletes, must meet a strict qualifying time just to earn a starting number. In running circles, it’s called “earning your BQ.”
The Boston Marathon has welcomed some of the world’s most elite wheelchair racers. Sharon Rahn of Champaign, Illinois, became the first woman to complete the course in a wheelchair, finishing the 1977 race in 3:48:51. Jim Knaub of Long Beach, California, won five times between 1982 and 1993. Candace Cable was a feared American competitor in the 1980s and, collecting six wins before Jean Driscoll won a record seven in a row (of her eight total) and set five world records in the process. Driscoll’s feat has never been matched by any able bodied or disabled athlete to date.
Of late, a South African named Ernst Van Dyk has dominated. His size, strength, conditioning, power, and wire-to-wire drive have earned him seven total Boston wins. Van Dyk’s world best time of 1:18:27 in 2004 has been tough to beat, although it has been tested by Heinz Frei, Saul Mendoza, Krige Schabort, and Franz Neitlispach. And he’s not finished yet.
American wheelchair racing legend, Scot Hollonbeck once commented, “In Boston, you don’t feel disabled, you feel super-abled. I’ve actually heard people there say ‘Man, I wish I was him’ behind my back.”
How’s that for acceptance?
Wheelchair racers from around the world flock to Boston every April where they are welcomed, embraced, and admired by Bostonians. From prominent display on billboards to eye-catching newspaper photos, the Boston Marathon has become synonymous with wheelchair racing.
In 2009, there will be a renewed focus on the wheelchair divisions. Isn’t it time you put Boston on your calendar and try to beat the elite?
This article was originally published online at Disaboom.com in May 2008.