Wheelchair athletes at the University of Illinois remain on the fast track
Spectators were crowding along the sides of the road next to the start line of the Boston Marathon. The wheelchair participants were lined up, and the top racers in the world were being introduced.
And Aaron Pike was pretty pumped up for his first Boston Marathon.
The wheelchair racers started behind a car that leads them through the first downhill, to avoid a crash, as the chairs crowded together, everyone jockeying for position.
It was both exciting and intimidating for a rookie.
And then ...
"As soon as we get to the bottom of the hill, the cars take off and everybody starts sprinting," Pike recalled. "They treat the first hill like it's the end of the race ... You usually don't start a marathon with a sprint, but everybody just puts their heads down and goes.
"You would have thought we were in an 800-meter race at the start of that."
Pike is no longer a rookie Boston Marathoner. He'll be racing his fifth Boston on Monday, along with the other top wheelchair athletes in the world — many of whom come from the University of Illinois.
Pike is one of 14 UI athletes racing Boston. It's the largest group that wheelchair track and field coach Adam Bleakney has taken there in his eight years as the UI coach. The marathoners from the UI include current students and alumni who still train here, as well as Bleakney, who is racing his 11th Boston.
The UI has a long history of success in wheelchair sports, particularly track and field and basketball.
It was a national leader in providing educational services for disabled students, thanks to a program started in 1948 by Tim Nugent, the founder and former director of what is now known as the Division for Disability Resources & Educational Services at the UI.
"The vision of Tim Nugent and the way he pushed for what he wanted for his students — he was like a pit bull in many ways," said Sharon Hedrick, one of the top wheelchair basketball and track athletes in the world while training at the UI in the late 1970s and 1980s. "He went after what he wanted for his students, both academically and athletically and in terms of changing the campus, and was able to get it. He really was a major force behind making Illinois what it was then and continued to be."
Hedrick is an Olympic and Paralympic medalist; a member of eight national championship basketball teams while playing for the UI; a Hall of Fame member for both basketball and track; and, in 1977, the first female wheelchair athlete to complete the Boston Marathon.
She came to the UI for the opportunity to play basketball, but it wasn't the only factor drawing her. She also knew the UI had the most wheelchair-friendly campus in the country at the time, and a good academic program as well.
"It was very well-known as one of the top places to be" (for student-athletes with disabilities), Hedrick said.
She was coached by Marty Morse, who arrived at the UI in 1981.
"It was pretty clear that he knew more about racing than anybody else did at that time," Hedrick said. "Really, in my opinion, within a year or two he was probably the best racing coach in the world. He produced so many top racers, it's almost ridiculous."
Morse also coached Jean Driscoll, who won the Boston Marathon eight times, as well as Olympic and Paralympic medals; and Paralympians Ann Cody and Ann Walters.
"Once a program gets a good reputation, it tends to attract good people," Hedrick said. "It kind of feeds on itself. ... Michigan attracts good football players because it has a good football team. People wanted to go to Chapel Hill when Dean Smith was coaching because that's where Michael Jordan came out of. That's what happened here."
The experienced, world-class athletes such as Pike who remain on campus for graduate school or to work and who continue to train provide role models for the younger athletes, Bleakney said. They also work at camps and clinics around the country, making contacts and increasing the exposure of the UI's program.
The UI team includes top racers such as Josh George, Tatyana McFadden and Amanda McGrory.
"One of the main reasons why this place is such a good place to train — when I go out and Adam's out there with me and Josh is out there, we're racing each other," Pike said. "We get a little competitive when we get out there. You've got world-class athletes you're pushing with every single day. You're not going to get that training anywhere else in the United States."
Pike said Bleakney's coaching style, and the program's history and its success, also drew him to the UI.
"He doesn't force anything on you, but he has attention to detail. The knowledge is there. If you talk to him, he'll give you everything you need," Pike said of Bleakney, who was named the 2007 Paralympic Coach of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
"It seemed like this was the mecca. It all started here and spread. It had deep roots. I kind of like that about the school, there's a lot of tradition. You see a lot of people who went to the Paralympics, and you knew that was possible, coming here."
When he arrived at the UI, Pike was always chasing the fastest guys — Bleakney and George — on the roads. Gradually he got faster and could stay with them longer.
"I got to the point where I could make them hurt a little bit," Pike said. "Josh and Adam had already been to the Paralympics. You know if you're keeping up with them, you've got a shot at it."
Susannah Scaroni thought she had a pretty good shot at third place March 17 in the LA Marathon. She was racing against the gold medalist and silver medalist from last summer's Paralympic Games in London.
"I really do like climbing hills — it's one of my strengths — and there were several hills," Scaroni said of the Los Angeles course. "And a lot of downhills and turns with 90-degree or more angles, so there was lots of braking and accelerating."
She was pushing by herself when she saw one of her main competitors ahead at about mile 13. Between miles 13 and 15, Scaroni slowly closed the distance. She made a pass, but the other woman soon took the lead again.
Then Scaroni sprinted past her on an uphill. She kept expecting the woman to pass her, so she tried to keep her pace as high as she could. She never saw the woman again.
And she went on to her first marathon win.
"I've never been anywhere close with those two girls I was racing with. I was very surprised. I wasn't expecting that at all," Scaroni said. "I felt it was a good demonstration how my strength is at this point."
As they train and race, athletes like Scaroni can have "a breakthrough moment and see a huge gain in performance," Bleakney said. "Part of that is having so many talented athletes in one location. It's a catalyst for that type of improvement."
When Hedrick trained for the '77 Boston Marathon, there wasn't a lot of knowledge among the coaches about how best to train for a marathon. So she trained with a runner who was also preparing for Boston.
But training for a wheelchair marathon isn't like traditional marathon training, with its long runs increasing in distance over several months. Wheelchair racing is more like bike racing. The pace isn't steady; it fluctuates, with spikes as racers attack at certain points along the course. Speed is crucial.
"You still have to hit 1,500-meter or 800-meter speeds in the marathon," Bleakney said. "If you can't hit 24 mph on flat roads, you're not going to win big events.
"You can be the most fit athlete in the race, but if you can only hold 16 mph for two hours in races, if you can't hit those higher speeds, you'll be dropped."
Bleakney said track workouts are like "a sharpening stone" to prepare his athletes for those racing conditions. The focus of the training is speed-oriented, with workouts gradually building up the athletes' ability to maintain speed over longer distances.
During the winter months, the racers train indoors on rollers. The focus indoors is on both high-intensity workouts to improve speed and looking closely at technique. The essence of being a great wheelchair racer is the ability to transfer power from the arms and hands to the hand rings on the racing chairs.
Biomechanics makes a huge difference, Bleakney said — where the hands first grab the rings to where they leave them, to generate the most velocity.
Scaroni worked on her technique on the rollers this winter, figuring out how to make her stroke more efficient.
"I think my training has gotten more fine-tuned. I see how things I think about and focus on in practice really relate to what I'm doing on the roads," she said, adding she noticed she was pushing more efficiently in the LA Marathon.
Long training pushes on the roads help the athletes with race-specific factors such as wind, hills and varying road conditions.
Workouts about three weeks out from Boston looked like this: Monday, an indoor speed workout; Tuesday, 3-mile repeats outdoors; Wednesday, climbing intervals outdoors; Thursday, an 8-mile recovery workout outdoors; and Friday, 30 miles on the roads.
Pike and Scaroni love the training — the long pushes of 20 to 30 miles — as much as the racing.
"Right when we get south of campus, we have hundreds of miles of roads to push and train in," Pike said. "It's the perfect little place."
Pike races distances from the 800 meters on the track to the marathon on the roads (as well as playing wheelchair basketball), but he likes road racing the best, particularly the marathon.
"I like all the tactics involved, picking times to attack and times to sit back," he said. "Some of the climbers will hit the hills a little harder, and other guys try to take advantage of the downhills or accelerating in turns.
"It's a lot longer fight with the marathon. You have to have a certain level of endurance, but you have to be able to pick up the pace to track speed."
How a racer approaches the Boston course and its hills depends on body type. Lighter athletes find it easier to climb the hills, but they can't descend as fast. It is important for a lighter racer like George to draft off someone who is faster on the downhills, Morse said.
Pike is bigger and heavier, and he is good on downhills and into headwinds.
"Nobody can really go downhill with me," Pike said. "Boston is a good course for me. I can go 40 mph on the downhill, and Josh is trying to hit 30."
The racers need to focus on road conditions at Boston, too, Morse said. How much damage did winter do to the pavement? Has it been repaired? Are there exposed manholes?
And the wind is a factor as well, especially on Boston's point-to-point course. A northwest wind makes the climbs easier, but with an east or southeast wind, "prepare to suffer all the way to the finish," Morse said.
"Nobody wins Boston in the men's division without suffering," he said. "Your upper back and neck take a beating."
And if it's raining and a racer's hands slip on the hand ring, he or she might get burns or cuts on the biceps from the ring.
"The women's race is almost always tactical," Morse said. "The women's race is almost always a pack until the climb coming out of Newton Lower Falls (at mile 16, leading into a series of four difficult hills). Driscoll would break the field at this point for her first six races. Again, though, the winner will suffer in the hills and then the flat-out sprint to the finish."
Scaroni loves hills — including Boston's Heartbreak Hill.
"I really loved the (Boston) course," she said. "It's rolling and straight, with no sharp turns. I liked Heartbreak Hill. It felt good to climb it.
"You feel power and drive going up it. You really have to squeeze into the hand ring. I can feel my shoulder muscles going into it, and my wrist muscles. I feel like a large part of my body is being activated to climb a hill, and I like that."
At Boston, she'll think about her competitors pushing on the same course — and if she can push a little harder than they can on race day.
"I'm really excited to see how strong my body can be that day and see how fast I can push that day," Scaroni said. "It's exciting to me, how I'm going to be able to perform."
Off to Boston
The University of Illinois wheelchair racing team will be well-represented at Monday's Boston Marathon. The following are the UI racers who will participate:
David Grassi, senior
Trey Roy, freshman
Brian Siemann, senior
Travis Dodson, junior
Jill Moore, sophomore
Susannah Scaroni, senior
James Senbeta, senior
Ray Martin, freshman
Tatyana McFadden, senior
Aaron Pike, graduate and volunteer assistant coach
Joshua George, graduate and volunteer assistant coach
Robert Kozarek, graduate and volunteer assistant coach
Amanda McGrory, graduate and volunteer assistant coach
Head coach Adam Bleakney