Illinois wheelchair athletes ready to return to Boston Marathon

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Illinois wheelchair athletes ready to return to Boston Marathon

Rob Kozarek, a member of the Illinois wheelchair racing team, practices for the upcoming Boston Marathon.

Rob Kozarek, a member of the Illinois wheelchair racing team, practices for the upcoming Boston Marathon.

Rob Kozarek, a member of the Illinois wheelchair racing team, practices for the upcoming Boston Marathon.

Rob Kozarek, a member of the Illinois wheelchair racing team, practices for the upcoming Boston Marathon.


“If you’re trying to defeat the human spirit, marathoners are the wrong group to target.”

Not long after the bombings of the 2013 Boston Marathon, Ray Martin heard this quote. The quote has motivated the Illinois wheelchair athlete to return to Boston one year after the bombings that killed three people and wounded 264 others.

For Martin and the rest of the athletes affiliated with the Illinois wheelchair racing program competing in Monday’s Boston Marathon, the significance of the tragedy is not lost in their minds. Heading back to Boston highlights that even following tragedy, the spirit of the marathoner endures and lives on.

***

When he first heard of the bombings at the finish line on Boylston Street, Illinois wheelchair racing head coach Adam Bleakney was initially concerned about the safety of his athletes. After the race, many of the athletes were at different locations around Boston. Some were out for lunch, others were at award ceremonies or press conferences. For the next couple hours, he worked to get all the athletes into the same location and organize a game plan to get out of Boston and back to Champaign.

Martin had just concluded his first career Boston Marathon. Satisfied with his results, he headed to lunch at the team hotel. It was then that he noticed something strange. Cell phone service became increasingly shoddy and he had heard what sounded like thunder, which was strange given the ideal weather conditions. Martin thought nothing of it until he saw a large group of ambulances zoom by, sirens blaring. Moments later, the restaurant in which he ate was put on lockdown. 

It was at that moment that Martin knew something had happened. 

What had been a joyful race day had changed dramatically for Susannah Scaroni, another Illinois wheelchair athlete. She remembers a mass of people, some shocked and some crying, running down the escalator into the hotel lobby. It was a moment she described as “surreal.” 

She quickly realized what happened a mere two blocks away. Scaroni saw TV images of a smoldering, debris-filled finish line, where only three hours earlier she and her fellow teammates had finished the 26.2 mile trek. It was surreal that such a terrible thing could happen while she and her teammates were celebrating after their huge accomplishment 

After finishing his second Boston Marathon, Rob Kozarek and his sister, who traveled to Boston to watch him race, went out for a drink at a bar near the hotel. While at the bar, he heard two loud bangs, which at the time he assumed was construction going on in the area or fireworks. Minutes later, a TV in the bar said bombs had gone off in Boston. He worried about his parents, who he thought were in the area surrounding Boylston Street. Kozarek and his sister hurried back to the hotel in hopes of locating them, and were met by a large crowd of crying people fleeing the scene of the bombing. 

For Kozarek, the moments following the bombing were incredibly chaotic. Both he and his sister ran back into the hotel, where they were able to find their parents, who were packing up in the room when the bombing had occurred. 

Upon locating his parents, Kozarek decided to do all that he could to catch a flight out of Boston. With help from a teammate’s mom, Kozarek and his family landed a last-minute reservation on one of the last flights out of the city.

Bleakney characterized the mood among the athletes after the bombing as a general sense of shock. Most of all, he was impressed by the professionalism of his athletes in working collectively to get everyone to the same safe location at the team hotel. 

Looking back on it a year later, Bleakney said: “It was an experience I never had before and it is one I never want to have again.”

***

Fifteen athletes from the Illinois racing program, including Bleakney, will be participating in the Marathon on Monday. The 2013 women’s division champion Tatyana McFadden will be looking to repeat as champion and follow up her victory eight days ago at the London Marathon.

McFadden is looking to repeat the historic feat she accomplished a year ago — win all four major marathons: London, Boston, New York and Chicago. This comes just months after McFadden won a silver medal in skiing at the Winter Paralympics in Sochi.

Along with McFadden, Martin — one of the top racers in the quadriplegic class for athletes with disabilities affecting both arms and legs — is another high-profile athlete returning to Boston. He also competed in London on April 13, finishing second overall.

For the first time in his marathon career, Martin will run two marathons only a week apart. It is an experience he anticipates as “grueling,” though he is looking forward to the challenge.

Unlike the London course, which contains many curves and turns, the course in Boston is much straighter and more direct. The road itself in Boston is modern and smoother than the ancient, bumpy roads in London.

“It will definitely be an interesting experience to race London and Boston, especially since the courses are so opposite,” Martin said.

He also has his sights set on overtaking his top competitor in marathon competition. He will look to avenge his defeat at the hands of Spanish marathoner Santiago Sanz. Martin said Sanz is a very quick downhill racer, so he must start fast in order to ensure Sanz does not get out too far ahead.

A major focus for the athletes competing in Boston is contending with the hills in the final eight miles. At the 18-mile mark, the course shifts from mostly downhill to mostly uphill. After a series of small hills, athletes must contend with the infamous Heartbreak Hill at the 20.5 mile mark. Heartbreak Hill is physically the most challenging and draining stretch of the marathon.

“Once you hit Heartbreak Hill, it just smacks you right in the face,” Kozarek said. “It is very difficult, unrelenting and goes on forever. For that, it’s just a matter of keeping yourself prepared and motivated to keep on going.”

As a physically larger athlete, Kozarek’s strength as a marathoner is his ability to go downhill. At the same time, he struggled with the hills in the last two Boston Marathons he raced. This time, he said he hopes to climb Heartbreak Hill considerably faster than in the past and post a time below one hour and 45 minutes. Climbing “Heartbreak” is a mental game more than anything, he said.

Martin, unlike Kozarek, is a smaller athlete, whose strength is going uphill. One of the reasons he enjoys the Boston course is that he can use his climbing ability to his advantage, and make up for his downhill limitations. Though he enjoys racing Boston for that reason, he says the uphill portion of the course is quite difficult.

“The hardest part about that is that it’s at Mile 18, so you have already been pushing a good amount of time, you’re starting to get tired, and you hit this ‘wall’ and you have to go into climbing mode,” he said.

Scaroni is also competing again this year — her third Boston Marathon. Scaroni competed a week ago in the London Marathon, where she finished fourth. Similar to Martin, Scaroni is also considered a climber. She said the key in the downhill portion of the course is to conserve energy for the uphill portion.

Though her strength is climbing, Scaroni is looking to focus a great deal on a strong start. She said remaining close with the best early will allow her a better chance to close with a strong finish.

***

For the athletes heading back to the Boston Marathon, just being in Boston again adds to the significance of this year’s marathon.

“The Boston Marathon is already steeped in legend, and I think the participants are going to reinforce just how a great event this is,” Kozarek said. “People could drop out and not race, but I think more people than ever are going to be to racing this year, and that just shows the character of this marathon.”

Martin added that this year’s marathon is more than a marathon. It illustrates the cities ability to rebound and that not even tragedy can stop the Boston Marathon from being run.

For many of the athletes, a deep admiration for the city of Boston is strongly present.

“(Bostonians) have this weird mentality of wanting to prove themselves in moments of adversity,” Kozarek said. “Say what you will about Boston, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for those people.”

Some of the athletes competing in this year’s event feel a sense of obligation to go back and participate in this year’s marathon.

“I knew I had to go back this year just based on everything that happened a year ago,” Martin said. “When I knew I had to do London and Boston a week after, I knew it would be tough to run two marathons in one week but I couldn’t not race in Boston this time.”

For Scaroni, going back to Boston is a testament to people’s ability to overcome difficult and trying circumstances.

“I really feel that we as people have to bounce back, and I’m just happy to go back and be able to do what I love to do,” she said. “No matter what people want to do to your life, we just have to continue to do what we love and are passionate about.”

Scaroni sees a parallel between Boston’s ability to endure and the ability of disabled athletes to overcome obstacles. She said many of her teammates have overcome tragedy themselves, from accidents to injuries suffered in war — none of which stop disabled athletes from competing in the sport they love and are passionate about.

For Bleakney, the number of athletes heading back to compete in the Boston Marathon is a testament to the success of the Illinois wheelchair racing program.

“I think it is a real statement to the individuals and the type of people we have here in this program,” he said. “We really stress the development of the human being more so than the development of the athlete. The athletics is a means to a greater end, which is benefiting our athletes to be great human beings.”

To Bleakney, the most fundamental and enduring message from this year’s marathon will be the ability of the entire racing and marathon community to come together and put tragedy behind them.

“If there were any positives from that event, it is the fact that the community of runners and the community of Boston came together and showed strength,” he said. “It’s reassuring to know that despite what some individuals may try to do, ultimately the will of the people is greater than the actions of a couple of individuals.”

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @danescalona77.