Illini seek to pass grade at NYC Marathon

Illini seek to pass grade at NYC Marathon

Say what you will about the Boston Marathon and its infamous Heartbreak Hill. When it comes to muscle-burning, toughness-testing  marathon challenges, Amanda McGrory’s vote goes to New York City’s 26.2-mile race.

“New York is by far the hardest marathon that I have ever raced,” the University of Illinois graduate said this week while preparing to defend her women’s wheelchair title in the Big Apple on Sunday. “It’s New York City, so you’re dealing with some rough roads. And then on top of that, the bridges.”

If anyone has reason to take note of the bridges — five in all — that make the NYC course unique of the world’s major marathons, it’s McGrory.

In 2009, she didn’t even make it past the second mile after experiencing a scary crash on the downward slope of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge. When McGrory’s wheelchair hit a grate, one of the tires popped. She lost control of her chair and started to tumble toward the side of the double-decked suspension bridge.

“I just bailed,” McGrory recalled. “I slid one way across the road. My chair whipped the other way across the road on its side.”

Thankfully, McGrory had built a 100-meter or so lead before the accident. Thankfully, too, Tatyana McFadden was leading the next wave of racers and, apprehensive about the bridge decline, had hit the brakes well before approaching her fallen fellow Illini.

“If not, I would have taken out the entire women’s field with me,” McGrory said.

The Champaign resident — and her chair — were in no shape to continue in the race.

“I was just a bloody mess,” she said. “Broke my helmet. All of my tires were flat.”

Under other circumstances, McGrory might have spent much of the rest of the race sitting on the side of the bridge. The first station for race support was located beyond the bridge, at Mile 3. However, the lead vehicle for the men’s race was running behind schedule that year and came upon her. McGrory and her chair then settled in for the next 25 or so miles on a ride to the finish line.

“I got to watch the race from the front, which was pretty cool,” she said.

Along the way, a phone call was placed to the lead car. Turns out the timing chip on her chair was registering some pretty incredible numbers, courtesy of motor-driven transportation.

“Someone from the finish line called and said, ‘What’s going on?’ ” McGrory said. “They had me winning the race for a while. Something ridiculous like 47 minutes through the first 5K, and I was averaging 50 mph.”

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McGrory can laugh now at the goofiness of the situation, but the challenges that bridges along the NYC course pose are a serious topic for UI wheelchair marathoners.

Two bridges, in particular, grab their attention. Because the race starts on Staten Island at the entrance to the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, the first mile is all uphill at a steep grade. There’s no easing into this marathon.

“From the very start, you’re in a state of fatigue,” UI graduate Joshua George said. “And then you have to be able to recover from that while still holding a nice pace.”

But speed on the downward slopes, as McGrory learned four years ago, can be a tricky proposition, too. The other major over-water link on the NYC route — the Queensboro Bridge connecting Queens to Manhattan — has a sharp turn at the bottom of the bridge. Other downhills along the route have similar abrupt changes in direction. Add in the fact that the terrain in general along the route isn’t exactly the flattest, and entrants can feel like they’re on a roller coaster that seemingly never ends.

“There’s a lot of super steep climbs,” McGrory said. “Most of them are countered by a sharp downhill with a steep turn at the end or another climb. And so it’s really difficult to pick up speed on the downhills because you’ve got to be watching your brakes, watching your speed to make sure that you don’t go a little bit too fast around the corner and wipe out.”

The 1.4-mile Queensboro Bridge — more commonly known as the 59th Street Bridge — starts in the 15th mile of the course and extends into the 16th. There’s little letup beyond the span, either, George says.

“Manhattan is not flat at all, so you’re constantly either low grade downs or low grade ups,” he said, “And then you’re smacked with (more) bridges.”

In 2008, George was beyond the Queensboro Bridge but not beyond trouble. On the bridge, he went into attack mode and eventually caught the second-place wheelchair racer around Mile 17. Then, a thirsty George took his eye off the pavement for a few seconds to reach for his water bottle. Bad timing.

“I went through the most enormous pothole that I’ve ever hit in my life,” the 28-year-old racing veteran said. “Flatted the front tire and one of the back tires.”

George wasn’t deterred, however. He replaced the rear tire and made due with the other flat (replacing that tire would have required removing the entire front wheel).

“So I pushed the last 9 miles with a flat front tire,” he said.

George finished 11th. But he did finish.

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For UI wheelchair racers, preparing for the NYC Marathon can be as challenging as the course itself. This marathon favors pushers adept at climbing, but hills are hard to find in and around Champaign-Urbana for UI coach Adam Bleakney’s athletes.

“It’s tough because those (NYC bridges) are severe climbs,” he said. “Nothing really that we can do here prepares us for that type of length and climb.”

Still, the athletes take advantage of what the C-U terrain offers. St. Mary’s Road, a favorite area among the Illini to train, offers a challenging climb.

“But it’s very short,” Bleakney said. “You don’t have any mile climbs here.”

The best they can do is take multiple training runs on available hills.

“St. Mary’s, we climb that repeatedly,” McFadden said. “So we use what we can outside and then we use what we have here in the (indoor) facility. Weight training also helps.”

Is that enough for these Midwest flatlanders to scale the Big Apple heights? The results say yes. McGrory is a two-time NYC Marathon champion, and McFadden won the race in 2010.

Not that it’s ever easy. And those spans over water make it all the tougher, McFadden says.

“Those bridges are really, really tough,” the UI senior said. “I remember doing my first New York and by Mile 13, 15, you get so exhausted you don’t know if you want to cry, laugh.

“It just takes so much energy out of you because it’s climb after climb, mile after mile. ... You want to know when your rest is coming. You want to know, ‘When’s that next downhill?’ ”

Going the distance

Eleven members of the Illinois wheelchair racing team are entered in Sunday’s New York City Marathon. A closer look at three of them:

Tatyana McFadden — Vying for the equivalent of marathon racing’s Grand Slam after winning in Boston, London and Chicago this year, the 24-year-old would become first female wheelchair racer to sweep the sport’s Big Four in the same year with a victory Sunday.

Amanda McGrory — The defending champion and a two-time winner at New York, McGrory set the event’s course record (1 hour, 50 minutes, 25 seconds) last year. The 27-year-old’s career résumé also includes victories in the Chicago, London and Paris marathons.

Joshua George —  The United States’ top male wheelchair marathoner, George placed third in the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13. A three-time Chicago Marathon champion, the 28-year-old has finished as high as fifth in previous New York City marathons.