2023: A Big Year for Disabled Marathoners

Blog: NYC Wheelchair Marathon

Two athletes from Switzerland broke records in the New York City Marathon’s wheelchair races last weekend.

New York’s annual race is the largest marathon in the world and one of the World Marathon Majors.

In the women’s wheelchair race, Catherine Debrunner won her first NYC Marathon finishing in 1 hour 39 minutes and 32 seconds and breaking the race’s all-time record by more than three minutes. Debrunner won $35,000 for winning her division and another $50,000 for setting the new course record.

In an ESPN interview, quoted by the New York Times, Debrunner said: “I knew it was the toughest marathon and it was my first time. I came away much earlier than expected and I did the whole race by myself. It means the world to me. I won the whole marathon series and that’s so insane. It’s been a fairy-tale season.”

Marcel Hug, aka the Silver Bullet, won the men’s race for the third time in a row, breaking the record for consecutive wins in the NYC’s men’s wheelchair marathon. Hug ran the course in one hour and 29 seconds, just three seconds short of his 2022 record. The NYC marathon win – Hug’s sixth — also broke Kurt Fearnley’s record five NYC Marathon wins. Hug is also the first person to win all six World Marathon Majors in the same year. He was awarded $35,000 for winning his division.

After the race, Hug told ESPN that his win was “incredible. At the moment, I’m just so, so tired. It was really tough. But I’m happy as well.”

The 26.2-mile NYC Marathon has included wheelchair races since 2000. The first races were won by Kamel Ayari and Anh Nguyen Thi Xuan.

Hug and Debrunner aren’t the only disabled marathoners who made headlines this year.

Back in March, Alex Roca, a runner with cerebral palsy, became the first person in the world with a 76 percent disability to complete a full marathon. A native of Catalonia, Spain, the 32-year-old runner completed the Barcelona Marathon in 5 hours, 50 minutes and 51 seconds. Roca developed CP after contracting cerebral herpes as a baby. The condition left Roca with impaired mobility on his left side, and the athlete communicates exclusively through sign language. Prior to the marathon, Roca told Spanish newspaper El Mundo, “the limit is up to you, and if you want to achieve an objective, whatever difficulties you have, with attitude, willpower, perseverance and resilience, you can achieve everything you propose. And if you do not achieve it, you will have given everything and must feel gratified.”

Paralympic Glory

Photo of Tatyana McFadden

This past Sunday, long-distance wheelchair racer, Tatyana McFadden, who has spina bifida “won her fifth overall New York title, earning her a fourth straight sweep of all four [New York, Chicago, Boston and London] major marathons,” reports Team U.S.A.org. The win made the 27-year-old McFadden the first woman in the history of wheelchair racing or elite running to do so. It was also a boon to McFadden, who was disappointed by her (nevertheless outstanding) performance this summer in the Rio Paralympics. McFadden’s historic marathon record got us thinking about the origins of wheelchair sports, which date back to the 1940s and Dr. Ludwig Guttmann.

Known as the “father of the Paralympics,” Guttmann, a prominent German Jewish neurosurgeon had the connections to escape Nazi Germany with his wife and children, settling in Oxford, England in 1939. Due to an influx of veterans with spinal cord injuries sustained during World War II, the British government put Dr. Guttmann in charge of a unit for veterans with paraplegia on the grounds of Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1944.

Guttmann took up his new post with great enthusiasm. According to a history compiled by the British Paralympic Association, the doctor “fundamentally disagreed with the commonly held medical view on a paraplegic patient’s future and felt it essential to restore hope and self-belief in his patients as well practical re-training so when they were well enough to leave they could once more contribute to society.”

One way that Guttmann believed wounded veterans could achieve this goal was through regular physical activity in the form of individual and team sports and vocational training in skills such as typing, woodwork and watch repair.

So convinced was Guttmann in the value of competition, that he decided to hold an archery contest at Stoke Mandeville on July 29,1948, the same day as the opening ceremony of the London 1948 Olympic games. Sixteen veterans participated in the contest, which was the first recorded instance of competition between athletes with disabilities.

In the years to come, more and more medical institutions and patient-athletes would come to the hospital to participate. In the early 1950s, the Stoke Mandeville games expanded to include veterans with spinal cord injuries from other countries. In 1960, the Stoke Mandeville Games were held outside of Great Britain for the first time.  Athletes from 21 nations traveled to Rome where they “shared the same city and accommodation as their Olympic counterparts,” per the BPA history. “They came from every continent in the world and took part in nine events.  Britain won 21 gold medals, 15 silver and 18 bronze. Rome would later become known as the first Paralympic Games. A precedent had been set.”

In 1960, the Paralympics included competitions in archery, wheelchair basketball, dart archery, wheelchair fencing, athletics, a cue sport called snooker, swimming and table tennis. Today’s Paralympics has grown to comprise 22 sporting events including wheelchair racing, basketball, tennis, fencing, rugby, archery, cycling, badminton, football, ice hockey, snow boarding, swimming, alpine skiing and cross country skiing. According to International Paralympic Committee, founded in 1989, and based in Germany, the Paralympic Games are now the second largest sporting event in the world.

You don’t have to be an elite athlete to get involved in wheelchair or adaptive sports. For more information, visit Adaptive Sports U.S.A.