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Inside the Wheelchair Races at the NYC Marathon

An hour before the elite women cross the starting line for their 26.2-mile journey around the five boroughs, an even speedier group—in fact, the fastest competitors in the race—will begin their division of the TCS New York City Marathon.

They’re the elite push rim wheelchair athletes, and while they’ve achieved more publicity and respect in recent years, especially thanks to the New York Road Runners support via appearance fees and larger prize purses as well as the inauguration of a wheelchair World Marathon Majors series competition, they remain something of a footnote in the coverage of the race.

That’s somewhat odd, since unlike the elite runners, who seem to be a pack of relatively faceless Africans who rotate over the course of a few years, the pro wheelers have distinct, and often humorous, personalities, and remain in the sport for a longer time, enough that they should be able to build up a following among fans of the sport.

Four time NYCM winner Kurt Fearnley is 35, and Ernst van Dyk is the Peyton Manning of his sport, still going strong at 43.

“We have the privilege of having an extended career,” said van Dyk. “If you look at why runners retire it’s usually because either their Achilles or their knee or their hip goes. We’re already in chairs. So none of that’s going to go. We have shoulder problems, wrist problems, elbow problems, but I think because there’s no impact—we don’t carry our own weight. We don’t pound it onto the road the whole time.”

Also, most elite wheelers don’t hit their marathon potential until relatively late in life, since theirs is a more technical sport than running. “It takes such a long time to get to our level,” Fearnley said. “You don’t see many people before their 30s reaching the pinnacle of marathons. You just don’t. So once you’re there, it’s just a matter of maintaining a certain level of strength and skill with the chair.”

“It takes a lot of years to find the right position, to find the right technique, and then to build up your endurance to do a marathon and sprint the last 400 meters on the track,” added van Dyk. “It’s a lot of things that needs to go right in an athlete’s career to reach that point of achievement.”

“Although our guys hang on, there’s a price that we’ll have to pay for it,” said Fearnley. “I can’t see myself lasting too many more years at this level because it is taxing.”

Although Fearnley (five NYCM wins, including a CR 1:29:22 in 2006) and van Dyk (two wins, including last year’s one-second victory) have had success over the course van Dyk compared to a 12-round heavyweight fight, on Sunday they’ll have to contend with a racer who has been unbeatable this year, Switzerland’s Marcel Dubbed the “Silver Bullet” for his speed as well as his chromed racing helmet, Hug has won every Major this year as well as the Rio Paralympics gold in the marathon, so this is the last chance for the rest of the men to break his stranglehold on the sport.

“We need him to lose a race,” said Fearnley. “He’s racing amazing. We haven’t had a guy win more than one race in a year for four years, and now he’s won what, five? He’s hitting his pace, and when you get momentum like that, sometimes you’ve just got to ride it out.”

“He’s got the ability to do a 400 meter up to the marathon at the same speed,” added van Dyk.

“I would have said hills were his weakness, last year we were able to break him on the bridges, but this spring in Boston he climbed so well,” said Fearnley. “He’s maturing and improving his all around capabilities,” van Dyk continued. Every race he’s won this year has been in the sprint, so he’s got a really good kick and that’s the weakness we have improve on. To beat him we have to be better in the sprint. A lot of that is finding the right time and place to go, and a lot of that is experience, that’s why it takes so long to master. The last three times I was second here I started my sprint too soon, and I’m very experienced. Last year I got it right and I won. It’s a very fine balance knowing when to go, especially with this finish being what it is.”

With Hug being the wheelchair equivalent of cycling’s superman Chris Froome, he’ll have an equally large bullseye on his back when the wheelers line up in Staten Island an hour before the elite women. They’ll finish before the women reach halfway, and if you like the intrigue and excitement of some of the Tour de France sprint finishes, this one should be a spicy appetizer to the elite runners’ races that follow.