Hello Everyone. My name is Kevin Mills and I am the Supreme Chancellor at Walk It Off Spinal Cord Recovery and Wellness Centre. I thought it might be helpful to share with you 7 excellent races for those athletic individuals out there who are currently in wheelchairs. In February of 2009 I myself sustained a spinal cord injury when a wave drove me head-first into the sand while swimming in the ocean in Cuba. I am a C 5/6 AIS A (quadriplegic). I was a competitive middle distance runner in high school and I completed my first half marathon in October of 2008, a few months prior to my injury.
Before my injury I was training for my next half marathon and was hoping to beat my time. I was also planning on attempting a full marathon. After my injury, I worked incredibly hard just to be able to push myself in a manual chair. I decided I wanted to set the goal of completing a half marathon. Over the next few years I completed 4 5Ks and 8 half marathons in my wheelchair with power assist e-Motion Power Assist wheels and a Freewheel wheelchair attachment. In November of 2013 I purchased a handcycle from bike-on.com with Quad modifications. Since then I have finished 1 10K, 3 half marathons, and 2 full marathons in my Quad Elite Handcycle. Through this racing experience I have discovered which races allow wheelchair competitors and which events are better suited for handcycle and wheelchair participants.
The purpose of this blog is to highlight races relatively close to the Toronto area for wheelchair athletes who would like to start racing. I have chosen to only look at races which I myself have competed in. There are definitely more races out there which I have heard are great events. My list is just a start. Please keep in mind that I am looking at these races from the perspective of a quadriplegic athlete, so my criteria for what constitutes a good race may be different than a paraplegic racer. A fast paraplegic in a handcyle or racing wheelchair will most likely stay well ahead of the running participants and will not have to worry about encountering a crowd. For me, an earlier wheelchair start time than the runners is important as it allows me to stay ahead of the majority of the crowd. I prefer a flatter course as I am way slower than a runner uphill but way faster downhill (reach speeds up to 55 Km/hr). I prefer not to be in a large crowd of runners as it is difficult and annoying to steer around so many people. I would also hate to accidentally crash into a runner. For this blog a “wheelchair” is an everyday manual wheelchair with or without a Freewheel. A “racing chair” is a longer three wheel chair with a single push rim that meets IPC (International Paralympic Committee) standards. A “handcycle” has hand pedals with a chain and gears.
Here are my top picks for running races that include wheelchairs and/or handcycles:
1. Younge Street 10K Toronto, Ontario. April 19th, 2015.
This race allows racing chairs and handcycles. The race starts 5 minutes ahead of the runners. It is a fast, net downhill course, which is a great way to start the season. I was able to stay ahead of the majority of the runners. You can participate in a wheelchair, but must start in the back corral. Because of the downhill nature of the course you would be dodging a lot of slower runners. Approximately 8000 participants.
2. Toronto Goodlife Fitness Half Marathon Toronto, Ontario. May 3rd, 2015.
This race allows wheelchairs in the half marathon only. Handcycles and racing chairs are not allowed. There is no wheelchair information or policies on the website. I was allowed to compete by calling and asking the race director. The entire course is hilly, with one really big hill. I was able to place myself in any start corral but there was no lead-time. I did not feel too crowded because of the wide streets. Approximately 10,000 participants.
3. Walk It Off 5K Run-Walk-&-Roll Newmarket, Ontario. May 30th, 2015.
This is the premier event of the racing season! but I may be biased. Wheelchairs are allowed with a 10 minute lead. No handcycles or racing chairs do to congestion. The race is held on a paved trail and is an out and back course. We did not feel we could safely include handcycles but hope to involve them in the future. It is a great race for wheelchairs as it is mostly flat with a few small grades. The course follows the river the entire way and loops around a small reservoir at the turn around. It is a smaller race, but has electronic chip timing, a finish/start line structure, posted results, and finisher medals. Approximately 400 participants and a breakfast after!
4. Ottawa Army Half Marathon or 5K. Ottawa, Ontario. September 20th, 2015.
This race allows handcycles, racing chairs, and wheelchairs in both events. There is a 15 minute lead time on the runners which allowed me to stay ahead of the crowd. It is a beautiful course around the city with rolling hills, flat sections, and no big climbs. Approximately 25,000 participants.
5. Toronto Scotiabank Waterfront Half Marathon Toronto, Ontario. October 18th, 2015.
Wheelchairs and racing chairs are allowed, no handcycles. There is an official wheelchair policy on their website. Elite racing chair athletes start 2 minutes before the runners and compete in the full marathon. I have not competed in a racing chair or on the full marathon course. Wheelchairs must start in the back coral. It is a very large race so it feels a little crowded despite the wide roads. The half marathon course is mostly flat so once you are with runners going the same pace it is okay. You can do the full marathon in a wheelchair as long as you can do it under the time limit (6 hours), which I can’t. Approximately 30,000 participants.
6. Detroit Full Marathon Disability Division Detroit, Michigan. October 18th, 2015.
Handcycles, racing chairs, and wheelchairs are allowed in the full marathon only. This was my first full marathon, which I completed in my handcycle. The disability division starts 2 minutes before the runners. It is a hilly course with some really big climbs. You go over the Ambassador bridge into Canada two miles into the race so all participants require passports. With only 2 minutes lead time, this put me in a large crowd of runners. The disability division is really well organized so I had two-three escort cyclists with me for the entire race. They had whistles and were able to clear a path with minimal disruption. This is a unique race as there are two international border crossings. I choose this race over Toronto because they allow handcycles. Approximately 40,000 participants.
7. Niagara Half Marathon Niagara Falls, Ontario. October 25th, 2015.
Handcycles, racing chairs, and wheelchairs are allowed. There is a 5 minute lead time on the runners. This course is amazing as it is really flat for the entire race with a decline over the last kilometre. It follows the Niagara river and ends at the horseshoe falls. The road is wide so it never feels crowded and the lead time/flatness allow you to stay ahead of the runners. Approximately 3,000 participants.
So here is my advice. If you are a new racer using a wheelchair, the Walk It Off 5K is a great race. All of the proceeds go towards purchasing equipment at Walk It Off, which is a not-for-profit spinal cord recovery centre. It has chip timing with posted results and a really low entry fee. If you are attempting a half marathon in any device, the Niagara Half Marathon or the Ottawa Army Half Marathon are the way to go. They are both fantastic courses with good lead times. If you want to do a full marathon in a handcycle Florida is the best option. More on this in a future blog.
As always we welcome your feedback. You can connect with us by telephone or email, leave a comment right here on the site or stop by the centre.
Have a great racing season.