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5 major marathons. In 42 days. 2 back-to-back. How top wheelchair racers are doing it

Daniel Romanchuk in Champaign, Illinois, before he departed for the Chicago Marathon.
Daniel Romanchuk in Champaign, Illinois, before he departed for the Chicago Marathon.

This year, due to COVID-19 postponements, five major international marathons (known collectively as the World Marathon Majors) are all taking place within 42 days of each other.

In a normal year, Tokyo, Boston, and London would run in the spring, and Berlin, Chicago and New York would be held in the fall. But Tokyo was cancelled this year, and the rest were pushed together from Sept. 26 to Nov. 7.

It's an unprecedented crunch.

And the insanity will come to a peak this weekend, as the Chicago and Boston will take just one day apart: on Sunday and Monday respectively.

No elite professional runners will be racing 26.2 miles in both cities.

Not even Desiree Linden, 38, who won the 2018 Boston Marathon on a freezing day in a torrential downpour. When Linden saw the 2021 race calendar, she says she wasn't the least bit tempted to run the double and opted to race only in Boston on Monday.

"Boston has always been the priority," she says, "and it would have been impossible to run it at a high quality after the Chicago race" citing a too-short recovery time between the two races. "An attempt would likely end in injury," she adds.

But several of the world's best wheelchair racers will contest both races in 24 hours.

They will face not only the physical impact of racing 26.2 miles back-to-back and the challenges of re-hydrating, re-fueling and sleeping adequately during the ultra-tight turnaround, but – unlike the regular field of runners – they will also have to wrangle heaps of equipment.

So, after crossing the finish line in Chicago, Tatyana McFadden's parents will take her chair, pack it, grab her luggage, and catch an earlier flight to Boston while Tatyana, the 22-time major marathon winner, takes a shower, eats, and catches the next flight with only a carry-on bag.

"It's really nice to have help along the way," McFadden says. "I have lots of good help," including relatives in Boston who will bring her a home-made dinner if she needs it.

Tatyana McFadden, of the United States, crosses the finish line to win the women's wheelchair division of the 122nd Boston Marathon on Monday, April 16, 2018, in Boston.
Charles Krupa / AP
Tatyana McFadden, of the United States, crosses the finish line to win the women's wheelchair division of the 122nd Boston Marathon on Monday, April 16, 2018, in Boston.

For elite wheelchair racers, the calendar pile-up is doubly intense

Yet McFadden knows that travel delays, storms, traffic, or post-race drug-testing could still foul up her plan to get to Boston in time to reassemble her chair, test for COVID-19, read the race packet, affix numbers to her equipment, eat, sleep properly, wake up the next day, and drive about 40 minutes from the hotel in Boston to the start line in Hopkinton the 8:05 a.m. start. So McFadden booked herself on two different flights in case she doesn't make the first one.

Even if she makes her flight, baggage handlers can still derail her in Boston. McFadden, 32, only has one race chair and it was delayed en route to the Berlin Marathon in September.

"We don't have a few days to wait here," says Daniel Romanchuk, her training mate who won Chicago twice and Boston once.

For Romanchuk and the rest of the elite wheelchair racers, the calendar pile-up is doubly intense, as they try to amass points toward the World Marathon Majors series title, which will be awarded after the New York City Marathon on Nov. 7. Rankings will be based on athletes' best five results in 10 major marathons (including the Tokyo Paralympics).

Romanchuk and Switzerland's Marcel Hug are in a tight battle for the lead, so Romanchuk can't let his 20-lb race chair get pulverized this weekend like he says it used to on about 30% of his flights – that is, until he got: "The Box."

It's a container for his chair, which he claims is indestructible. "You can even throw it – which is very good because the last two times I've flown into O'Hare, it has come flying out the baggage chute at probably 20 miles per hour," he says. "The last time, it almost hit someone. It careened off the belt and was sliding across the floor. But nothing inside of it was damaged! That thing is a tank!"

Still, Romanchuk, won't take any chances. "My dad will be up in Boston with a whole 'nother set of equipment: helmet, chair, wheels, gloves [custom made on a 3-D printer]... everything."

Daniel Romanchuk, of Mount Airy, Md., crosses the finish line to win the pro wheelchair men's division of the New York City Marathon, in New York's Central Park, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019.
Richard Drew / AP
Daniel Romanchuk, of Mount Airy, Md., crosses the finish line to win the pro wheelchair men's division of the New York City Marathon, in New York's Central Park, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019.

"My goal is survival for all [remaining] races"

For nutrition, neither Romanchuk nor McFadden plans to rely on the sustenance of airline or airport food. McFadden will be packing her own tuna fish, bread and fruit. Romanchuk will have his usual peanut butter and jelly on tortilla in his pack along with a slew of Clif Bars – and maybe a fellow traveler will notice his name and image on the wrappers. (Clif Bar is one of his sponsors.)

To combat stiffness between the races, McFadden says she might tape the small muscles of her shoulders but adds that her legs also take a beating "because we're crouched up in our chairs, with constricted blood flow, and there's a lot of bumps on the road." Also, she says people swell when they're flying, so McFadden will likely spend about an hour at night in Boston with her legs encased in inflatable Normatec sleeves that use air compression to purportedly aid circulation. If she has any other tight spots, she may deploy her Theragun, a mechanical massage device that pounds muscles with a jackhammer-like motion.

This weekend, McFadden will be the only elite female wheelchair racer to do the Chicago-Boston double. Initially, she wondered, "Is it gonna be too wild to do both?" she says. Her coach told her no, it would be historic. "I was up for a challenge," she says.

"My goal," McFadden says, "is survival for all [remaining] races" and to finish each in the top-three. It's seemingly a modest aim for the athlete dubbed "The Beast" for her tendency to punish competitors by sprinting uphill and for winning eight Chicago marathons, five Boston marathons, five New York City marathons, and London four times in a row.

But Adam Bleakney, her coach (and Romanchuk's coach), thinks it may be possible to see two wheelchair course records set this weekend – both on the relatively flat Chicago course and the notoriously hilly Boston route – despite being held on consecutive days.

"A runner can't do that," Bleakney says. "In running, if you take one step, you're not bounding that far before you have to apply force again to keep yourself moving. But when you apply force to a racing chair wheel, the number or revolutions increases during the recovery phase (when the athlete's hand is off the wheel) – so you're going to travel farther on flat ground than you would with one step.

"When wheels are involved, the impact is different. It's why, in many cases our athletes can tolerate higher training volumes [or mileage] than a runner," he says.

What they see as the biggest hazard of racing two marathons within 24 hours

Even so, McFadden and Romanchuk did their highest-volume training this spring and summer to prepare for the Tokyo Paralympics. At peak, Bleakney says, the duo had trained 150 to 200 miles a week. Yet Romanchuk can't remember ever training 26 miles two days in a row.

In the end, perhaps the biggest hazard of racing two marathons within 24 hours (or even five in rapid succession) won't be the mileage, fatigue, or lost equipment. For the top wheelchair athletes, the greatest danger could be too much sitting – in airports, on the plane, in transit to the hotel, to the start line, everywhere.

Pressure wounds can be deadly.

"They form when there's too much pressure in one area and tissue dies and forms a wound," says Dr. Kim Romanchuk (Daniel's mother and a retired radiologist). The typical warning sign is pain "but many wheelchair athletes might not have normal sensation, so are unaware," she says.

In fact, Daniel Romanchuk developed a pressure wound in Tokyo this summer and had to scrap one of his six events at the Paralympics. It was on his right hip, and it wasn't from racing.

"He kneels in his racing chair," his mother explains, "so the pressure is more on his knees and lower legs in the racing chair," she says.

"There is a lot of sitting that comes even with a super-short [track] race. Bus transport between the athlete village and the [venue], doing chair prep/maintenance, waiting for your event, going back and forth for meals, to laundry, to medical, airplane travel, including time traveling to the airport and sitting waiting for your flight. All that adds up to make the wound worse and risk your health in a major way.

"Wounds can go south very quickly and without warning. They're a real life-interrupter," she says.

So, in addition to the race gear, Romanchuk travels with a green pencil box that contains dressings, tape, and a scalpel to debride a wound, if necessary.

"That pencil box has been to every continent except Africa and Antarctica multiple times in the past five years," his mother says.

The constant risk also means that Romanchuk, the 23-year-old with a 6-foot-10 wingspan frequently finds himself trying to balance what's best for letting the wound heal and what's most important to him in life and career.

For now, however, he's healthy and fully focused on racing.

"It's probably gonna be a little painful but, you know, I have to go to all of them," Romanchuk says. "Chicago was my first marathon and my first win and I live two hours away, so it's kind of a home race. Boston is so iconic. New York has a bunch of climbs and I love climbing! I just can't miss it."

Plus, as coach Bleakney says, "It's a unique year. We won't have back-to-back Sunday-Monday races, hopefully, ever again."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.