The Professional Wheelchair Racer

The original camera system we tested was based around a Samsung cell phone so that we could harness the wifi capabilities and battery life of the device. For the 2016 NYC Marathon the phone was fixed to the front of my frame and the only part of me you could see was my front wheel. For the NYC Half Marathon we used a custom built camera mounted on the back of my chair to offer a more dynamic POV shot.

The original camera system we tested was based around a Samsung cell phone so that we could harness the wifi capabilities and battery life of the device. For the 2016 NYC Marathon the phone was fixed to the front of my frame and the only part of me you could see was my front wheel. For the NYC Half Marathon we used a custom built camera mounted on the back of my chair to offer a more dynamic POV shot.

I was never alone as I churned through Manhattan, my pistoning arms propelling me around the park and then down the west side of the island during the 2017 New York City Half Marathon. When the hills of Central Park shot me out down 7th Ave. and into Times Square I may have had my head down, scouring the road for rough patches and staying low in the icy breeze, but the view of the immortal city that I was missing was being broadcast live for the rest of the world to enjoy. A small, wideangle camera mounted on the back of my racing frame beamed a livestream of my race to a receiver on motor scooter trailing closely behind me. The unit on the scooter relayed the video to the production team in their cozy truck at the finish line, who then invited to world to sit on my shoulder as I raced.

I may have had a poor race (in my eyes), but all anyone brought up after the race was how amazing the video looked. It was the first time that footage shot from a camera mounted to a racer was used in a live broadcast (ABC used the footage in both their local and international feeds of the race), and it was a HUGE success in the process of growing wheelchair racing through greater marketability.

As a relatively young sport--with its roots in the post-war rehabilitation of the 1950s and beginning to take its position as an elite level sport by the late 80s--wheelchair racing is still polishing its value proposition. What can we, as a sport and as athletes, offer that is unique, entertaining, and marketable? How can we carve out our corner of the professional sporting world?

There are very few truly "professional" wheelchair racers racing in the current circuit. While some exceptional talents have been able to leverage success on the field to sponsorship dollars off it, most full-time racers (those with no other significant income producing job outside of racing) are only able to support themselves through funding from government institutions. Most nations outside of the USA have some form of government funded sporting body that invests in Olympic and Paralympic sport. Athletes living in those nations receive varying levels of annual funding based on criteriaset out by their sporting institution.  Nations will offer athletes annual stipends of $20-$70,000 based on the athlete's level of performance in return for that athlete representing their nation in certain competitions throughout the year. Many nations will also reward athletes with significant bonuses for landing on the podium in Olympic, Paralympic, and World Championship events, and an increasing number of nations are imposing parity in funding for Paralympians and Olympians.

This system is great for the choice few athletes who have done well at the most recent Olympics/Paralympics/World Championships, and will probably guarantee an acceptable minimum performance baseline into perpetuity.  The Olympic sports that have been the most successful and prosperous for their participants, however, are typically the ones that remain relevant as professional sports outside of the four year cycle (with the obvious exception of gymnastics); sports that have figured how to survive in the open market of entertainment.  

Track and Field is the most Olympic of Olympic sports, but the reason that Nike money keeps flowing during the three year interim between Games years is because of the Diamond League, an annual race circuit that gives athletes ample opportunity to fill stadiums, wow crowds, and survive as professional athletes.

For an established sport like Track and Field it is an easy task to create a professional venue for their athletes. People have loved watching athletes run, jump, and throw since the ancient games. Their value proposition is simple. Everyone on the planet has at some point in time tried to run, jump, or throw something. We all know how difficult this is to do well, and we all agree that it is fun enough watching insane athletes complete these tasks better than we ever could, that we will spend money to see it live, or turn on our TVs to watch it at home. The sport is currently playing with new ideas to boost their value as a televised sporting event in non-traditional track towns (Nitro Athletics Melbourne recently experimented with an up-tempo made for TV track meet), but there are plenty of cities around the world that can sellout stadiums every June, July, and August for some elite track action.

The path is a bit trickier for a sport like wheelchair racing. We are a part of the Track and Field world in the sense that we participate in the same distance events in the same venues, but we are not really a part of them. After years spent on the fringes of competitions controlled by our able-bodied counterparts--offered one event here, or an exhibition race there--we broke our first barrier into professional inclusion last year. The key was getting off the track and hitting the road. The World Marathon Majors, a race series taking place over six marathons (Tokyo, London, Boston, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City) and two years, and their title sponsor, Abbott, created an elite wheelchair division for their tenth series of the event. Series X, which began in Boston in 2015 and will end in Boston in 2017, introduced an elite wheelchair category that mimicked the running category in terms of rules and points, but would take place over six marathons in *one* year rather than *two* (wheelchair racers need less recovery than runners, allowing us to do far more marathons in a year... more on this to come in future blogs).  

While the track and field community had long held us at arms length, the road racing community has harbored opportunity for "professional" racing; athletes racing for prize money.  The introduction to Series X cemented the idea that the greater marathoning community had reached a point where they not only accepted us as participants in their races, but as professional competitors, training fulltime and racing to *win* not *finish*. Road races have been offering prize purses to attract talent for over 30 years, however that was on a race by race basis. Being a part of the Abbott World Marathon Races are carving out space in, or increasing their budgets to include us, and we are gaining an increasing presence in media around the race. They opened a door for us, and now it is our responsibility to make sure it never closes.

It is very important, at this juncture, for wheelchair racers to be able to clearly state and support our value proposition. The most beautiful thing about marathoning is that it is an egalitarian event. Everyone runs the same course, at the same time, whether you are gunning for a 2 hour marathon or a 7 hour, or whether you are running on two feet, one foot, no feet, or in a racing chair. Sponsors of these races love that they will be in front of the eyeballs of 30-50,000 runners, their families, and the thousands of spectators along the course. Broadcasters, however, get their value by being able to feature the best runners on the planet pushing human endurance to its limits. Elite runners can demand upwards of $20,000 just to start a race, with the top runners pulling $50-$70,000 (race dependent).  These are compelling stories because, as we stated earlier, people can relate to the pain, suffering, and natural high that accompanies distance running. They may not be able to compare to the elite runners on an physical level, but it is easy for them to sympathize.

This statement does not hold true for wheelchair racing. Until recently, the only stories that ever interested the media were bent on *overcoming,* as in; "so-and-so overcame a horrific accident as a child to be out here participating today." The general public has long found it difficult to separate the disability from the equation to allow themselves to see the athletic side, and there is little empathy for the amount, and intensity, of the training we do to run a sub-1:30 marathon, or have to consistently finish races in a dead sprint. Change is apparent. The ability to relate to a wheelchair racer is gradually increasing, however until it is on par with our able-bodied counterparts we need to define our value in other ways.

Back in New York, spectators riding on my shoulder can see the steel and glass laden skyline fly down the left side on the screen as I head down the West Side Highway, One World Trace Center looming in the distance. The image being blasted to millions of tvs and computers across the globe captures my upper back, head, and arms in the bottom third of the frame. Sponsor names are scrawled across my back and helmet jump, in pristine high definition color, from each of those screens.  As we continue to perfect an onboard camera we increasingly raise our value proposition. People may not know what it is like to push a racing wheelchair, but they all agree that it is envigorating to watch a pack of racing chairs thundering down the road, bumping, jostling for position, feeling out the right time to attack, or waiting to respond, and occasionally crashing. Our races are entertaining as races even before spectators learn how relatable we are as humans and athletes. It is not such a bad value proposition when we can offer this high a level of access for both sponsors and spectators to a sport with increasingly evident entertainment value.

Here's to the future of the professional wheelchair racer.

Harnessing nervous energy

Tokyo Marathon 2017

The concept of racing a marathon is always the most appealing the further away the opportunity exists to actually run a marathon. In the cold, dark winter months of December and January, or the sweltering heat of July and August, fantasies of tackling the marathon--the tantalizing rush of emotions tied to tactical soliloquoys of surge and reprieve, feint, parry, and breakaway--serve as the carrot that keeps the workhorse training mentality from grinding me into the ground. 

In a curious betrayal of the mind, however, when the week of a marathon finally approaches, my fantasies of endurance racing glory are suddenly tinged with a new thought. "What's with this marathon business anyway? Wouldn't it be nice to sleep in on Sunday, relax, enjoy a breath of air for being a breath of air instead of cursing it for not containing enough oxygen to keep my muscles from screaming?"

The battle between the desire to unleash a primal scream as I race through the streets of Tokyo, and escapist thoughts of a lazy Sunday morning dominated my week in Japan for the 2017 Tokyo Marathon. Fourteen years and 50, 60, 70 marathons into my career and the nerves that accompany a big race still stubbornly persist, raising from the deep like a swarm of cicadas entering adulthood. 

When I landed in Tokyo it had been nearly four months since I had last run a marathon and I was nervous. I always grow a little frustrated when I hear people brashingly announcing that they like feeling nervous, that the nerves give them energy, or mean that they care, or what they are about to do matters. Nerves, to these bold soles, are nothing but positive, motivating feelings. Brilliant! Congratulations on being amazing and so intune with your psyche, but quit rubbing it in! 

Sure, that's the positive spin on handling nerves, but it wasn't a natural connection for me to make, and it has taken years of mental training to get there. Nerves suck. Sure they bring with them extra energy in the form of adrenaline, but they also bring shortness of breath, dry mouth, nausea, and illogical foggy thinking. For the longest time nervous energy was a conundrum to me leading either to overreactions or no reactions at all. I'd spend my race weeks fantasizing about being in any city other than the city I was racing in, and spend my race days wasting valuable energy nervously overreacting to fluctuations in pace by my competitors. The discipline to harness that energy and administer it sparingly did not come natural to me. I am not one to describe twisted guts, dilated pupils, dry mouth, and an underlying urge to vomit, as "fun." 

The process I went through (am still going through) to handle my nerves was (is) tedious. As with much of what I do in my racing career, it began with self-deception. Or, as the sports-psychs like to call it, positive framing. Like a wise monk on a mountain I trained myself to consciously recognize my nervous thoughts, note them, and then send them on there way while I refocus on my task. "Hey bud, you're in Tokyo, pretty cool city huh? Wouldn't it be great to sleep in a little Sunday morning and then maybe check out your surroundings, eat some sashimi, visit a temple, high five Mickey at Disney World, not run this marathon against really fast guys that is going to make your body scream and could potentially color your career, one that you've worked so hard on, in a negative light?" This is a thought I would note as my escapist nerves trying to get the best me. I would note it, mark the first part as valid and the second part as a ridiculous, preemptive overreaction, and respond. "Very good points you make there oh brain of mine, but would it not be better to go out and crush this new marathon course like Godzilla in every movie ever?" 

I may scare passing children as I shout this conversation with myself, walking down the street (just kidding, these conversations happen in my head, usually), but after years of repition I have actually begun believing myself. My escapist thoughts last for a few moments before excitement to race ushers them out.

Consequently, these internal dialogues help me view the energy that comes with nervousness in a far more positive light, and when I am no longer scared of the source of my energy I find I think much more rationally about how that energy is used. 

The mental exercises that took years to develop were also coupled with advances physically. I was able to pinpoint weaknesses in my racing that caused some of my greatest bouts of nerves and set about fixing them. As I became stronger physically, I had less and less material for my nervous brain to attempt to pinpoint to support the reasons for being nervous. "But you may get dropped down this hill," my brain will scream.  "Whatever," I can now respond, "I'll close on the flats. Ain't no thang." Nerves quelled. Boom.

Meanwhile, on race morning in Tokyo, I was locked in and ready to push. I felt fresh and loose while I warmed up and about 75% of the shaking that I was doing on the start line was due to the fact that I was cold, not nervous (my incessant smiling, however, which a fellow American pointed out, may have been due to nervous energy, but smiles are positive. Force yourself to smile the next time you are in a situation you don't want to be in and I guarantee it will help change your thought processes for the better).

The race itself was probably very exciting to watch and ended with a furious sprint, but would be unremarkable for me to account in this narrative. What I found interesting, though, was that I am finally efficient at utilizing the nervous energy that bubbles up around a race. Japan is chock full of amazingly fast racers that love to push the pace and are constantly surging and counter-surging. The first 5k of the race includes some screaming downhills (my weakness) and the baseline pace is very fast. Gone are the days when I would have wasted too much energy in the opening miles of the race, nervous that if I  didn't stay on the pack down the hill my day would be done. Instead, at the bottom of each hill I would calmly and rationally string together a few hundred meters of sustained effort and ease myself back on the pack. 

As the race progressed and the constant surging whittled the pack from 20 to 15 to 10 and finally to eight, I was tucked comfortably and calmly in the top four. Responding to surges with the minimum amount of energy necessary. I was in control of the nervous energy, not vice versa. 

By the time we closed into the final kilometer of the race, the notion of nerves no longer existed. My thoughts were locked purely on physical motion, navigating a challenging, and incredibly rough and bumpy, final stretch of road, followed by a hard left hand turn and ferocious sprint across the finish line. I finished fifth in the sprint finish. It was a bit disappointing and I felt I made a couple mistakes that possibly kept me from landing in the top three. I was also pleased, though. It was only the first marathon of the year. I felt very strong and fit for an early season race, and more importantly, I convinced my nervous energy that it is better to work with me than against.

Super Bowl Motivation

It has been two days since I witnessed the craziest Super Bowl in history and I still can't get it out of my head. The game was over. The game should have been over. Atlanta was up 28-3 midway through the third quarter, no team had ever come back from 10 down in the Super Bowl, let alone 25.

I was sitting on the floor at my coffee table (my favorite place to work) watching a stream of the game on my laptop while answering emails on my iPad. Due to the time difference between Sydney and Houston my 'Super Bowl Sunday' became 'Super Bowl Monday Morning.' The sun was shining and due to a bad habit of procrastinating I had stuff to do while I watched the game. The fact that I was only half focusing on the game didn't seem to matter anyway. In my opinion, the game had been a bit boring throughout the first half. Sure Atlanta's offense had been breathtaking to that point, but it had just become more and more painful to watch New England sputter, stumble, and self-destruct in the biggest game of the season.

When my feed cut out after witnessing Gostkowski miss an extra point attempt and botch the subsequent onside kick, I made no attempt to reset it. I blasted out a couple more emails before my phone announced the arrival of the man delivering my new dining room chairs. By the time I settled back into my floor-level workstation I figured the game was done and dusted. You can imagine my shock when I logged onto espn.com to find that the game was about to head into overtime. NO F-ING WAY! I did not believe what I was seeing even as I booted up the livestream on my laptop while loading every highlight I could find on my iPad.

In a year filled with insane outcomes to contests of all form, this was the craziest (okay... maybe the second craziest). As the Patriots marched down the field in overtime, systematically gut-punching the Falcons defense in a manner that was impossible to fathom after the first half (and as equally painful to watch), the only thing I could think about was mental fortitude.

As a spectator, and sports fan, I am well-versed in all manner of tricks that we play to convince ourselves that the game, or series, is still winnable. Being a fan of the Washington Professional Football Team, convincing ourselves of delusional scenarios for victory that have at least a .01% chance of working has become an art form. It is easy to do when you are merely a fan. We aren't risking anything. Win or lose we are not affected in any way that truly matters. Our family, friends, career prospects are not in the least bit attached to the performance of a group of people in tight pants and shiny helmets.  We have the freedom to dream with only minimal blow back should the dream crash and burn. Beyond that, the reason why we are creating fanciful comeback daydreams is not in response to anything that **we* are responsible for.

As an athlete, I know that the situation is far more difficult when you are the one directly responsible for the hole you are now sitting in. I've gotten off on the wrong foot in my fair share of marathons and multi-day track events. I have experienced how hard it is to swing negative momentum. I am definitely not the type of athlete to harbor even the slightest bit of overconfidence in my abilities, but even in situations when I'm feeling particularly cocksure, I know my comeback plans after a poor start to a competition are always slightly tinged with doubt. Even if the moment of doubt is subtle and fleeting, it occurs. It is also easy for that fleeting moment of doubt to hang out a bit longer with each subsequent misstep. There is no reset button. No "back to the drawing board" moment or extra training you can magically go back and do. In that moment--in that hole of your own creation--you have to convince yourself wholeheartedly that you have the tools and abilities to dig yourself out. You have to have the sheer force of will to toss out the outcome that any logical bystander can predict and narrow your focus to each tiny move you need to make to come back.

Down 25 in the third quarter it would shock me if Tom Brady was thinking victory. Even if you still believe you can win in that dire of a situation the outcome of the game can no longer matter. Saying this is far easier than doing it, however. With Brady in the worst possible position to be in, in one of the biggest games of his career, and forcing himself to literally compress his focus to one play at a time, and one drive at a time was one of the most impressive things in sports I have witnessed. Unlike the standout sports comebacks of my fan life--the Red Sox coming back from 3-0 against the Yankees, the Cavs coming back from 3-1 against the Warriors, etc.--the Patriots did not have the luxury of playing for another game. They had 20 minutes to make up for 2-and-a-half quarters of misery, yet their style of play was never rushed, hurried, or outwardly urgent. When I went back and rewatched parts of the game that I had missed, I never got the sense that they felt the nerve-induced urge to get back into the game in chunks. They continued huddling between plays, running the ball, taking field goals instead of insisting on touchdowns only, and never tried to win the game all at once. They got lucky a couple of times, but luck cannot result in scoring on their last five drives of the game.

What I witnessed was the shear force of will to dissociate, instantly, with every single bad play and poor decision that was made in the first 30+ minutes of the game. What I witnessed was the mental fortitude to never doubt that they had the tools to be a championship football team, despite recent evidence. What I witnessed was the faith and confidence of every one of those players that despite what the scoreboard said, they could play championship caliber football on the next play, and then the next, and the next, and the next, until unbelievably, remarkably, astoundingly, the scoreboard began to agree with their beliefs.

When the Patriots received the ball in overtime it was widely believed they would win, but the Patriots never played as if it was a foregone conclusion. They continued to be deliberate. They marched down the field in five plays, but none of those plays were intended to score a touchdown until the very last one. The focus was to succeed on the next play, then the next. Not to win the game, but to succeed on that specific play. Until, at last, the goal of the play was to score and the score just so happened to win the game.

2017 is a year filled with major marathons and a big World Championships in London in July. My training has been tough and focused on longer term goals, forcing me to change what my definition of success needs to be in my early season races. I may go through a period where the scoreboard does not agree with who I am as a racer, but I am motivated to not let this affect who I believe I am as a racer. Not many of us can claim to be the GOAT as the leader of the Patriots can, however all of us can pull a page from their playbook and develop a strong belief in ourselves that will allow us to keep clawing, grinding out one successful play at a time, until the scoreboard screams what we have known all along.