Running for a Great Cause

Helping the disabled cross a marathon's finish line

by Andrea Billups | 28 Oct 2015 at 12:40 PM

Martin McNamara ran the New York City marathon in 2010 and 2013 as a proud member of the Achilles Track Club.

While the race is a feat of endurance for the able-bodied, McNamara, now 66, showed courage and deep determination in his last two bids. He returned to the 26-mile course after a hit-and-run biking accident in Norwalk, Connecticut, that left him with a broken neck, head trauma and other broken bones.

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"It's a special feeling, and it never ends when you cross that finish line. It's like no other marathon in the world," McNamara said of his accomplishments in the Big Apple where Achilles racers — who are disabled and run with special guides — have earned a special place in the city's hearts.

This year, about 300 Achilles runners from around the world, along with 275 guides, will hit the streets Nov. 1 for the 2015 TCS New York City Marathon. Some train together well in advance of the race and others meet at a communal pre-game pasta meal the day before the race, or even at the starting line.

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"New York is like a big party on that day. It's 2 million people who are out there. It doesn't matter if you are an elite runner or not — they never leave. They are out there cheering you on no matter how long it takes."

While top finishers run the course in two to three hours (male record is 2.05 hours, female record is 2.22 hours), McNamara took 7 hours, alongside two Achilles guides who became his cheerleaders and supporters every step of the way, from the starting line in Staten Island to the famed finish in Central Park.

He chronicled his recuperation and return to running in a 2013 book, "The Long Road Home."

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"The excitement is unbelievable and it's hard to put into words, especially when you see Achilles athletes — some walking on prosthetics, some blind ... I saw a guy with a heart transplant and another runner with MS and another with cerebral palsy, in wheel chairs ... It's just an amazing thing."

Achilles, he said, allows those who dream of competing to make it a reality with a little assistance along the way.

"Their philosophy is, 'Yes, you can. You are a runner. No excuses. Find a way.'"

All the Achilles runners and guides are given a royal welcome by the city during the marathon, said Sarah Green, events marketing manager.

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"It's nuts. It's our largest presence in any race ever in any year," she said of the New York event, noting not only U.S. competitors, but runners from chapters in South Africa, Japan, New Zealand and Colombia, among many other nations around the world, take to the streets.

Achilles also features a program for youth, Achilles Kids, as well as a running group of wounded war veterans returning from serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. This year, they also have a field of 32 able-bodied charity runners, who raise money through pledges for Achilles in exchange for guaranteed entry in a race that is selective of its participants, she said.

"We are a track club in New York City, and spectators and New York runners alike know us. They know our logo. When they see a pack of runners with our bright neon jerseys, they know this is Achilles," she said of the excitement. "We are such a huge presence on the course. This feels like the best home game that your team could possibly play."

Best-selling author and entrepreneur Michael Levin ran as one of two guides with McNamara in 2010 and will mark his fourth New York City marathon as a guide runner this year. He also has run as a guide in the Los Angeles Marathon.

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While he, too, is a veteran marathoner, running as an Achilles guide means everything. He has paired with a hearing-impaired runner, a runner who survived a car accident with stroke and brain damage, as well as a cancer survivor who walked the course in just under nine hours — in heavy cold.

This year, Levin is joining a woman who has severe scoliosis. Her doctors have told her this is the last time she can attempt a marathon. To him, it is an honor to be by her side.

"It's so rewarding that I get as much or more out of it as my runner," Levin said.

He describes the start of the race at the base of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge as "like a Civil War field hospital in spandex."

"There are all these people without legs, with limps, some are blind, and they are all going to do a marathon," Levin said. "They are in these futuristic devices you've never seen before. It's so heartening, and it creates such gratitude to be able-bodied and to be able to support them. You are making somebody's dream come true."

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City residents also show the love — understanding the magnitude of the Achilles runners' challenge and the resilience they show to hit the road. Their tenacity, at the heart of every New Yorker's own survival instincts, strikes a chord.

​"They know who we are when they see us, and they go crazy. You feel as though you are escorting the Beatles in 'A Hard Day's Night.' It's really that level of energy and excitement," Levin said.

"The crowd feeds off the sight of the disabled runners. The people watching are able-bodied, by and large, and they are watching a disabled person do this. They recognize a disabled person is doing something that most able-bodied people can't do, and it is amazing.

"It's one of the most satisfying things I've ever done."

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