After countless loops around Central Park and swings through the city’s avenues, Eliza Cooper took a turn and headed north. Past Yankee Stadium, past Morningside Heights, past that little red lighthouse on the brink of the Hudson River. As part of her training for the 2015 New York City Marathon, she powered up and across the George Washington Bridge before stopping in her tracks and taking a breath -- taking in the air that somehow just smelled differently from that height, from that distance away from the city.
She had taken a new route, yes, and she had gone a greater distance, sure. But breathing that sea-stained air was remarkable for Cooper for a different reason: Because as a New Yorker with visual impairment she, for the first time, was able to truly experience this major cultural landmark.
“It was kind of like this momentous feeling of not only has she now accomplished these miles but now she’s also accomplishing these new [experiences] -- not just pushing her body but also pushing her senses in a different way,” explained Kathleen Bateman, a director at the non-profit running organization Achilles International.
Cooper is just one of Achilles International’s 294 disabled athletes who, paired with a physically abled guide, will be running or handcycling on Sunday in the 45th annual New York City Marathon. And Achilles is just one of countless charitable organizations that have been working with physically and mentally disabled marathon hopefuls around the boroughs, spending months, sometimes years, training them to fight through their ailments and run those 26.2 miles.
In fact, according to Stephanie Paddock of the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s Team Fox, this year's marathon is so chock full of foundations and nonprofits that some charities have had to limit their number of runners. Team Fox will see 130 of its members step onto the course Sunday -- a “significantly lower” headcount than usual, but a change it has embraced given the added opportunities for the other grassroot organizations involved.
While the marathon is indeed the end-goal for many of these charities, it is certainly not the be-all and end-all. Although Bateman estimated that roughly half of Achilles’ athletes will run the marathon at some point, she is careful to stress that taking part in that race is merely indicative of the athletes’ other, off-the-track successes, where personal bests are measured by emotions and mentality, not minutes and seconds.
In other words, for many of these runners, the gold medals they receive after mile 26 are the concretized, tangible forms of their real successes: the struggles they have overcome, the pain they have endured and the lengths that they have gone to to even arrive at the point where they could think about training for a marathon.
Achilles' New York chapter alone trains athletes with autism, traumatic brain injuries and partial and full blindness; they work with single and double amputees, those with kidney failure and with a history of strokes.
“Some of the athletes who show up may have [previously] felt like they were very isolated with their own disability,” Bateman, who heads the chapter, told HuffPost. “Then they meet someone [at our practices] who, let’s say, is missing a leg. [Then] they themselves have a shift in their own view of their disability and their challenges.”
Take Asim Baig, for example, who moved to New York in his mid-20s with virtually no support system and a serious visual impairment. In his words, he was overweight and plagued with self-doubt and low self-esteem. As his visual impairment effectively rendered him without depth perception -- unable to tell, say, whether an object was an inch or 10 feet away -- and with the potential for getting “confused” when he “moved around” if he wasn't familiar with the terrain, he had never participated in organized sports.
“[In my family], the thought of having a disability was kind of stigmatized,” he said. “So [I never] learned how to adapt myself into society.”
Three years ago, a social worker referred Baig to Achilles, and despite his hesitation, he joined for its social component. Never before having run more than one mile straight, he began to train two days a week. Then, he began to train more often, harder and longer, until he finished a five-mile race then a half-marathon, a triathlon and then the 2014 New York City Marathon.
And when he realized that, with Achilles’ help, he could run a quarter, a half, a full marathon, he realized that his training would translate elsewhere in his life, as well. He began to ask for the classroom accommodations he needed at college, felt a spike in his self-esteem and became more vocal and active in the communities he was joining.
“I wasn’t afraid [then],” he recalled. “... My ambitions toward becoming a better runner and triathlete helped me with my ambitions … [in all aspects of my life]. As an endurance sport, [running] kind of parallels life -- because life takes endurance, as well.”
On Sunday, Baig will be taking part in his second consecutive New York City Marathon.
“The best part of running is that it makes me forget about my disability,” he explained. “[Because, running with my guides], at the end of the day, we realize that we all have segments of life where it doesn’t matter if you’re disabled or abled, you still have to overcome the same obstacles.”
The Achilles International Handcycle Division at the 2013 New York City Marathon
It’s possible that Baig has seen fellow Achilles-devotee Michael Ring at some of the local meetings. Ring’s situation is in many ways the polar opposite of Baig’s. Ring had run 29 marathons and was training for his 30th when, in May 2014, he found himself “tripping over stuff” as if his “brain wasn’t talking to [his] feet.” He went to the emergency room, expecting a long day of waiting-room tedium -- instead, he got a four-month hospitalization, diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome and temporarily paralyzed.
The man who could run 26.2 miles seemingly at the snap of his fingers suddenly, inexplicably, couldn’t take a step.
“That expression ‘relearning to walk’ -- you don’t know what that means until you don’t know how to walk,” Ring told HuffPost. “I was looking at people like, ‘How do you do that? How do you take a step without your knee locking behind you?’”
It took him 12 months after he was released from the hospital to be able to walk three miles. But now, with the help of his medical team, running friends and the newly founded Brooklyn chapter of Achilles -- and with those literal and symbolic first steps behind him -- he has settled upon his next goal. So what if he still has to use a wheelchair on occasion -- in 2016, he says, he will compete in the New York City Marathon.
“[Achillles] has been really good to me,” Ring said. “... I know in a year I’ll be able to handle 26 [miles] … [My support groups and medical teams] are getting me stronger and they’re helping me figure out how to do things with the [means] that I have.”
“I’m an atheist,” he continued. “And I think running did for me what church does for a lot of people. I meet with people who care about each other, we have goals -- when I was in the hospital, 95 percent of the people who visited me were running friends.”
If running is Ring's religion, then he’s joined in the pews not just by other Achilles athletes, but also by those throng of other charities that have similarly dedicated time, effort and money to helping those with disabilities experience the marathon’s energy and electricity.
Actor Michael J. Fox belongs to that proverbial congregation, which he made well known when he appeared on "The Late Show With David Letterman" two years ago, discussing how a single man with Parkinson’s disease motivated him to run the last leg of the 2013 marathon.
Fox begins to discuss Mike Kelly and the marathon around the 6:30 mark.
The man was 60-year-old Mike Kelly, who has, to date, run the marathon four times after being diagnosed with the disease a decade ago. He ran his first in 2009, when his daughter -- who was running in his honor -- dropped out of the race due to injury. He took her spot, finishing in a little over six hours. And then he ran it the next year, and the next, and then -- after the 2012 event was canceled due to Hurricane Sandy -- the next, in 2013. Each one of his children has ran and completed a marathon with him since that inaugural 2009 race, raising money for Parkinson’s research with each mile.
“Just finishing is a big accomplishment for me, physically, as a Parkinson’s patient,” Kelly said.
“[The biggest challenge of running with Parkinson’s] is keeping your head straight, thinking about what you’re doing, because it’s easy to wander off mentally,” he added. “It’s a mental game. [But] I can run better than I can walk. I have more balance, or it appears that I have more balance, and I [can] control my movements much better while I’m running.”
In the 2011 race, Fox saw Kelly run by. He was so “moved” that he told Kelly that if he were to run again, Fox would join him for the last two or three miles. In 2013, the two made that happen.
As they laced their way through Central Park, they heard cheers and shouts of encouragement for “Mike” -- both of their names. Fox turned to Kelly, and told him they were cheering for him -- not for the celebrity, who was hard to recognize in the dark, but for the man who had just run 24 miles with Parkinson's, who was then approaching yet another finish line.
Kelly still remembers the conversation, reciting it word-for-word.
“Finishing -- that [was] my runner’s high,” he said.
For these athletes, who have overcome so many obstacles in order to be able to partake in this 26.2 mile track meet, Central Park is a place laden with symbolism. Training there for so many months with the help of guides, friends, family and strangers, it has become a place of community and growth, of physical and proverbial distances broached and goals achieved.
As Baitman and Baig, Ring and Kelly suggested, in the "religion" of running, marathon training is simply a means to breaking down other, more critical barriers in these athletes’ lives, as they use groups such as Achilles International and Team Fox to rejoin communities and rediscover themselves. Baig said it well: the training runs simply bleed into “all other aspects” of these athletes’ days, as the impossible becomes attainable, one mile at a time.
“There’s just this community built,” Bateman concluded. “So it becomes so much more than running the miles together -- it turns into lifelong friendships … 99 percent [of our runners finish the marathon], and that’s the power of the group. Together we are stronger.”
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