Since she was a young girl, Amanda McGrory has been a person with seemingly untapped reserves of energy to burn.
When she was diagnosed with acute transverse myelitis, a rare autoimmune disease that left her paralyzed below the navel, her mother feared that she would no longer have an outlet for that energy.
“The [wheelchair athletics] community was definitely small,” McGrory said. “It was more difficult to find out about these opportunities. I remember I came out of rehab when I was 5, after my injury, and did one wheelchair race. The race lost funding, and my mom looked for years and years and years to try to find more information about wheelchair sports or more programs like this for kids and could find absolutely nothing because we didn't have the treasure trove of information on the internet.
“She was just calling organizations, looking for flyers, and not finding anything. So because of that, we had this little community on the East Coast, where it's probably somewhere between 20 and 30 kids who just saw each other all the time because there was a race in New Jersey, there was a race in Philadelphia, there was a race in Baltimore, and we would just all spend our springs and summers hopping around to these little track meets.”
Wheelchair track and basketball camps during her high school summers brought her to the University of Illinois, which boasts perhaps the best intercollegiate sports program in the nation for athletes with disabilities. That experience rendered her decision about where to attend college a no-brainer.
It has also made the reigning ING New York City Marathon champion’s choice of where to base her training as a professional wheelchair racer equally easy. As coach Adam Bleakney has continued to successfully develop long-distance racers at Illinois, Champaign has become the hub for wheelchair marathoners that Portland, OR, has become for distance running.
“Coach Bleakney is just the best in the world, and I think we're up to maybe 12 or 15 marathoners right now,” McGrory said. “That's a big group going out to push with every day, and it's nice having someone there for you to push them, them to push you, not being out there on those long 20, 30 mile pushes all by yourself.”
McGrory said that when she first began marathoning in 2006, the training group at Illinois numbered just three or four athletes, which made it more likely that she would find herself out on the road training in solitude. But success bred success, and the group now boasts several of the top racers in the world, including McGrory, 2010 ING New York City Marathon champion Tatyana McFadden, and 2013 Los Angeles Marathon champion Susannah Scaroni, all of whom will be racing here on Sunday.
“It's always easier,” McGrory said of the numbers and talent in her training group. “Even if you're not an elite runner, I think it's just—those long workouts are long no matter what. I think it's just easier to be out there with a group of people with the same goals that you have.”
Additionally, McGrory said that Champaign offers the group the perfect topography to train for a variety of different course styles, including the challenging uphill climbs in New York.
“Adam's training program that he has us all on at the University of Illinois is focused around having a strong base, so we put in a lot, a lot of miles over the summer,” McGrory said. “Earlier in the spring, we were doing 30-mile pushes. We were putting in up to 150 miles a week. We start pushing from the University of Illinois' main campus, and if you go out far enough in any direction, you'll hit a hill.
“So normally our hill workouts, we will go out, and we'll push five or six miles out, and there's a couple big hills out in the country. So then we'll just do repeats on them, climb up three or four times, and then push the pace back home, which ends up being a 20‑mile workout climbing five or six hills, which is just the same hill.”
McGrory said the group in Illinois is a microcosm of the growth of wheelchair marathoning globally, but added that she doesn’t expect the numbers to reach a par with able-bodied running.
“Since I've begun doing marathons, the sport’s definitely grown,” she said. “The wheelchair division and just the daily running division, or even just the runners in general, are similar in that there's probably 20 to 30 men, 10 to 20 women who have a really strong shot of winning every race. They're always at the top. They're really consistent. There's a couple that retire every year, a couple new ones that come up. The difference is we don't have another 30,000 people who just want to run a marathon for fun.”