Marcel Hug is big in Switzerland—and he’s just big. The 27-year-old from Neuenkirch has a broad back, bulging shoulders, and incredibly muscular hands—all prerequisites at his level of wheelchair racing. Hug is the reigning IPC World Championships Marathon champion, a Paralympics silver medalist, and a winner of the BMW Berlin Marathon. He even won last weekend’s prestigious Oita Marathon in Japan, defeating many passionate Japanese competitors in their home race, 2011 New York champion Masazumi Soejima among them. But aside from a distant third-place finish in 2009, five minutes behind course record-holder Kurt Fearnley of Australia, Hug had not made a name for himself in New York.
Hug believes that a champion wheelchair marathoner must train as a sprinter, too. He holds the Swiss record at 100 meters—the shortest race distance; in a marathon, should the race come down to a sprint, he’s understandably confident. But not all wheelchair races follow that pattern, as the United States’ Tatyana McFadden demonstrated here. She broke away early and won by minutes—despite strong headwinds, which make pushing solo even harder when compared to drafting in a pack.
Hug took no such risks. He was more than content with his company as the lead pack was established: Soejima and Fearnley; Kota Hokinoue, Japanese record-holder at 5000 and 10,000 meters; and Ernst Van Dyk of South Africa, a nine-time Boston Marathon winner and the 2005 New York champion.
Hug tucked into a streamlined aero position as the leaders flew down the Queensboro Bridge and careened around the 270-degree turn at the bottom; the hay bales along that turn’s outer edge have kept many a wheeler from hitting pavement. Then they battled the winds up First Avenue, taking turns at the front; drafting reduces effort by 15 percent in calm air—much more on a day like this—and wheelers, like cyclists, share the work.
When the race turned south in the Bronx, Fearnley pressed hard at the front. Soejima fell back—and then gradually, with enormous effort, regained contact. Hokinoue, too, faltered briefly but refused to be dropped.
When the five men reached the final turn into Central Park, only one option was on the table. They’d tested one another for more than 90 minutes, and they’d all passed the test. Three of them are former New York champions, and they concede nothing easily.
With 200 meters remaining, the pack fanned out, each man looking for a line of attack. And then Marcel Hug’s sprint preparation paid off. He pressed past Fearnley and came abreast of Van Dyk, and the two men blasted forward. The race was undecided with less than 10 meters remaining, at which point Marcel Hug whipped his wheel-rims down a final time and forced his front tire’s edge inches in front of Van Dyk’s as they reached the finish line. The five men all finished within two seconds, with Fearnley hanging on for third.
Hug is the race’s first male Swiss champion, runner or wheeler, and he now has a name in New York.
“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