Kurt Fearnley has won 11 Paralympic medals, including two golds in the marathon. He broke the tape four consecutive times, from 2006 to 2009, in the men’s wheelchair division of the ING New York City Marathon, and he still holds the course record of 1:29:22 that he set in 2006. He won the inaugural Boston-London Wheelchair Challenge this year, with a fifth-place finish in the Boston Marathon and a victory in the Virgin London Marathon, his second; in 2009, he set the London course record of 1:28:56.
The rugged 32-year-old Aussie clearly knows what he’s doing, but if he should ever find that he lacks motivation, he knows just where to find it.
In 2009, Fearnley spent 11 days crawling the treacherous 96-kilometer (60-mile) Kokoda Trail in Papau New Guinea to raise awareness for two men’s health issues, dragging himself up and down the steep single track through a remote jungle.
“If I ever need to remind myself that life gets a lot harder pretty quickly, that people are dealing with things far harder than I am, [I remind myself that] we went through villages where if you were born like I was you’re crawling through dirt because there are no wheelchairs, and if someone had a wheelchair they couldn’t push it anyway because there is no cement. I crawled through these places seeing the reality of what is on our doorstep in Australia.
“To get through any hardship, that’s a pretty good reminder.”
Despite being arguably the best male wheelchair athlete in the history of the sport, Fearnley has recently changed his training. After his London win—after an eight-man sprint to the finish line—in April, he told the Sydney Morning Herald that he was spending more time in the gym and less on the roads.
“I realized last year that at the last 300 meters if someone’s got that extra bit of power up their sleeve they beat you every time,” he said in the interview. “It doesn’t really matter how many kilometers you’ve got under your belt, you’ve just got to be powerful enough to hit the speed you need to win.”
Everything, he said in a recent email, is building for New York.
“I hope this will be successful,” he said of his new regimen, “but until the day there’s always a little uncertainty.”
For Fearnley, conquering uncertainty serves as competitive fuel. In addition to his Kokoda effort, he once crawled part of the Great Wall of China, scaled 1,300 steps in the Sydney Tower Run-Up, and in 2011 helped sail the winning yacht in a 56-hour race from Sydney to Hobart. Wearing the same knee and hand guards that he used on the Kokoda trek, he fought seasickness and massive waves to raise money for a charity that buys childrens’ medical equipment for hospitals. Born without the lower part of his spine, Fearnley paid many childhood visits to Sydney hospitals from his home in Carcoar, more than three hours away by car.
“I guess I like adventure holidays,” he quipped to the Adelaide Daily Telegraph. But he added: “The more things I do like this, the more confidence you build. Your rivals see that, too.”
“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