As part of my triathlon training, I’ve stepped up the racing a bit, and did a 5K yesterday. It was a race hosted by and designed for disabled veterans. Everyone was welcome to run, however, and although early-morning rain brought down the number of participants, enough showed up to make it interesting.
I arrived early, since the venue was one I did not know well. A fast, flat, somewhat shady course, though the heat and humidity of the day would make the shade pretty useless in the end. As runners arrived and checked in, I had the chance to check out the sportschairs the disabled competitors were using. Very slick and lightweight, they are low to the ground, powered by hand crank or pedals, depending on user mobility. The owners dress them up with miniature license plates, bumper stickers, streamers and whatever they can find to make them stand out as both individuals and racers.
As I was admiring the machinery, I was also watching the owners’ pre-race preparation. They stretch, warm up, trash talk each other, commiserate over recent races and times, share information about upcoming races. The difference is that they are rarely coming to events alone. Some can drive, but the transition from car to standard wheelchair or crutches to sportschair is arduous. Many need assistance to get the wheels onto their sportschair (the wheels often have to be removed in order for the chair to fit inside a vehicle), seated and strap in securely, then get gloved and helmeted. Once ready, these wheeled warriors are as ready as they were during their time of military service. Whatever kibitzing they did before the start is done; when the clock starts, the competition is on.
Watching these men and women, who served from Vietnam to the present day, is an education in what life looks like after the guns go silent and the uniforms are put away. Looking at their sportschairs brought home the realization that while the technology to make them has come a long way, it’s tragic to need that technology for this in the first place. But most of all, no matter how we get to the finish, we’re all still standing together as a community of runners.