“It’s inspirational! — Have you seen the look on their faces?” said Andrew Kelehe, referring to the openly excited and smiling young participants competing in last weekend’s 7km fun distance of the Outeniqua Wheelchair Challenge in George. As the 2001 Comrades Winner and ten-time Gold Medalist, inspiration is something Kelehe is well qualified to talk about.
Over recent years growing recognition has been given to wheelchair racing, which falls under the ASA athletics umbrella through the SA Sports Association for Physically Disabled.
Kelehe was amongst a handful of celebrities including Bruce Fordyce and Sharks ‘push-up’ team leader Roland Styles, who had been recruited to assist younger participants navigate their wheelchairs around the course, in what is South Africa’s biggest wheelchair distance race.
Over the five year history the event had grown from 27 dare-devil participants hurtling down from the top of the Outeniqua pass to this year 439 entrants tackling four different distances on a less hair-raising streets of George.
Not only does George municipality close York street, the main commercial arterial, but to accommodate the longer 21km and marathon events, the two central lanes of the N9 to Oudtshoorn are restricted for the wheelchairs. Commerce, residents and through traffic are supportive of these two major traffic restrictions giving favour to the wheelchair racers.
The status of the event attracted five of the world’s top racers including 2006 World Champion Kurt Fearnley (AUS), world record holder Ernst van Dyk, (RSA), Canadian Diane Roy and Sandra Graf (SWI) who are 3rd and 5th in the women’s World Rankings.
Inspiration is indeed the word of choice when people succeed in doing things that others generally consider impossible, or highly improbable, and the Outeniqua Wheelchair Challenge has that in buckets.
With a world record of 1 hour 18 minutes for a marathon, the chairs hover less around 100mm above ground that flashes past at over 32km per hour, with peak downhill speeds over 70km per hour. This is not a sport for faint of heart.
Hard as it is to imagine propelling a chair along the route with only two arms and legs strapped to the chair to provide leverage, the sight of a participant holding a relatively straight line at pace by skilful use of one arm and a second limb amputated above the elbow is mind boggling: what improvisation, what dedication and drive.
It was a point underlined when able-bodied school kids found themselves instantly disorientated and floundering when given the opportunity to navigate a 100m course in a wheelchair the day prior to the race.
There was more inspiration down the field where Sister Maseko, previously a top KZN roadrunner, who survived a car crash to reincarnated his love for running through wheelchair racing. It would have been so easy to slip into a sedentary world, but his story is a stark reminder that each of us that we may only be the next accident, illness, or a second away from being disabled. How would we cope with the loss of our passion for the road?
Oscar Pistorious, the 400m paralympic whiz-kid with Kevlar limbs that propel him to gold medal performances on the track was amongst the chair-pushing celebrities. A wave of emotion and admiration was visibly aroused in each spectator as he powered a small chair around the streets. The young body may have been buckled, and the incumbents attempts to push the wheel may have lacked the necessary coordination, but both drivers were bonded by the enthusiasm, delight and joy exploding through their eyes and smiles.
These are but a snapshot of a catalogue of emotions in a segment of athletics that floods with inspiration but is often relegated. Make no mistake the desires and ambitions of the participants exactly match those of the range of runners we share the road with each day: to be faster, to go the further, or simply to meet the challenge.
Their commitment to training is as great: -perhaps greater given the limitations and restrictions they encounter.
Thankfully these emotions and needs have to some extent been recognized by ASA and Nedbank who include chair events in a number of their series events.
It’s an important start, but in a world where it is not unusual for wheelchairs, (and in-line racing for that matter), to be an integral component of major road events, surely through the deep-rooted club and provincial structures that exist in South Africa greater opportunities can be created.
With a 1hour 40 minute winning time in the Nedbank PE marathon one week, and a 1hour 38minute victory a week later, it was inevitable that discussion would turn to Two Oceans and Comrades.
“Outeniqua Challenge is probably the best route in the country as it has so few turns, but it would be great if we could take on South Africa’s major ultra challenges,” said van Dyk
The long, generally down 21km stretch to Fishhoek would surely set the foundation for a sub 2 hour 15 minute Oceans? Although the steep twisting 4km Chapman’s climb, and the even steeper final 3km up Constantia, may reduce speeds to an arm buckling grind, they would be compensated by the awe-inspiring, ground sucking speeds achievable on the downhill.
Start to imagine a 3 ½ hour Comrades down record, two hours faster than Bruce Fordyce’s best – “definitely possible” says van Dyk “hills are not a problem when the motivation and incentive is there … but it should be a down run event only, with each participant fulfilling a qualifying event to ensure they can handle the hills”
As with the 1921 Comrades that started with 34 runners, it’s a project that will start small and grow through the desire and ambitions of capable competitors, but Kelehe was right – It’s inspirational!