The plot was hatched, as are so many, over coffee. A casual chat about people who run across America suddenly veered off course: “Do you think you could push your racing chair across the country?”
Asking the question was Roger Muller, founder of Stay-Focused, an organization that helps teenagers and young adults with disabilities gain confidence and life skills through learning to SCUBA. Answering with an immediate “yes” was Ryan Chalmers, a wheelchair racer who has been deeply involved with the group since 2005.
Which is how it came to be that Chalmers, a 2012 Paralympian, pushed off on West Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles on April 6, heading East on a “Push Across America” to encourage others to take on challenges and to give back to those who have made a difference in their lives. He arrived in Central Park on June 15.
The ING New York City Marathon will be his first 26.2-miler since pushing himself 3,321 miles over 71 days through 16 states, averaging about 58 miles a day.
“I never thought that a marathon would feel short to me,” the 24-year-old quipped in telephone interview last week.
The reality of the cross-country journey set in quickly, with 81 miles—the most of the trip—tallied on just the second day. On the fifth, Chalmers braved Death Valley, where, his head draped with cold towels, he nonetheless felt lucky that the temperature reached only 97 degrees Fahrenheit. As the trip went on ,his hands would become callused, but they were still bleeding and blistered as he climbed seven miles to get into Death Valley and 14 more to get out. His feet were swollen from being tucked under him so long, and his knees, locked into one position for hours on end, were killing him.
It was the longest day of the trip, beginning at 5:45 a.m. and not ending until 8 p.m., and one of the toughest both physically and mentally. As the exhausting day was finally winding down and Chalmers thought he had only three miles to go, he learned that it was actually four: an additional 20 minutes of brutal uphill pushing.
The news almost did him in.
“I had to just stop for a while, get out of my chair, and reflect,” he said. “You have to really dig deep and remember the reasons why you’re doing this crazy thing in the first place, and then it becomes much easier. That moment opened my eyes for the rest of the push: There was no option to fail, because I was doing it for something that was much bigger and much better than myself.”
He got back out of the RV, which was driven by one of the six members of a support crew that included his roommate and fellow ING New York City Marathon competitor, Aaron Pike. And on he pushed.
Nevada brought the dramatic Valley of Fire State Park, where Chalmers didn’t have the chance to look up from his chair until the end of a long climb to be awed by stunning red rock for which it is named. The mountains of southern Utah brought snow, although thankfully the plows cleared the roads before the day’s push began.
Cincinnati brought Hunter Holbrook.
Chalmers met the 5-year-old in Cincinnati, during one of his 14 days off along the way to meet and inspire children with disabilities. Like Chalmers, Hunter was born with spina bifida, “an energetic kid who wants to try all sorts of sports, just like me.”
Hunter was so enthralled that he wanted to see his new hero finish in NYC. His mother, Geralyn, drove all the way from Ohio to grant her son his wish. When a TV reporter asked Hunter why he had come all that way to see Chalmers, the youngster answered, “Because I kind of love him”
“To my amazement, I finished in Central Park and he was there,” said Chalmers. “That’s one of those moments that goes back to the question of, ‘did you ever want to quit?’ [He’s] one of the reasons why that was never an option.”
On November 3, Chalmers will again have his sights set on Central Park, this time for the ING New York City Marathon finish line. His expectations are modest: Besides some recent medical issues, the long, relatively slow grind of the trek set back his training, even his career progress.
“New York City is going to be fun for me, but it’s not going to be the best marathon I’ve done, I can tell you that. I wish it were different but I have to face reality,” he said. “I do have a long road ahead of me to get back to even where I was.
“But it was all worth it.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg