Commonwealth Games Blogs

(Mis)adventures in Berlin

The power of attraction is something I strongly believe in. If you focus on something enough, it will come to you - whether it's a positive or a negative thing.

Before my trip to Germany to compete in the Berlin Marathon, I heard about a German athlete who had his chair left behind, and then completely misplaced, on the exact same airline and flight I was going to be on - Newcastle, England through Dusseldorf to Berlin. I focused good energy on this matter before my trip, saying to myself, "All of my baggage will get there fine." I really tried to be confident and to not think about the matter much.

Maybe it paid off, because my racing wheelchair arrived in Berlin in one piece. I was very satisfied. The Berlin airport (unlike Frankfurt's) is extremely efficient. My driver was right there in the pickup area on time, and it looked like I'd arrive on schedule at my hotel in 20 minutes.

Things didn't go so smoothly, though.

Car accident

First, my driver was very kind, but I sensed pity from her. I know this topic is a bit delicate, in that some people don't know how to approach someone with a disability. I'm extremely independent, and while I often don't need assistance, I still appreciate someone offering to lend a hand. I'm not the type to be stubborn, either. If I do need a hand, I will graciously accept.

Back to Berlin, and my driver. She was practically yelling at me to stop loading my luggage, which I thought at first was a just an aggressive but kind gesture on her part. Then, as I was about to get in the vehicle, she exclaimed with some clear authority, "Wait! Wait! Wait!" So I stopped, thinking, "Oops. I'm getting in the wrong vehicle." She then proceeded to take off her jacket, get into a wide stance, then tap her shoulders saying "OK, I'm ready for you," as if she was about to do some sort of Olympic lift. I burst out into laughter, and reassured her kindly that I could manage on my own. While it slightly annoyed me, I was also amused by the theatrical display.

I put it behind me and headed for the hotel. But not before getting into a car accident. A large city bus pulled into our lane, nearly driving us off the road. My driver hit the brakes hard and, luckily, we only scraped the bus along my passenger side. I immediately chuckled to myself and thought, "Well, if this is the price for my racing chair arriving in one piece, I'll take it." It was a long wait for the police and my replacement vehicle, and in the end I got into the hotel around midnight, missing dinner.

All wet

The weather was very rainy the day before the race, and the forecast called for rain during the race as well. Rain is always a little bit of a stressful situation because of the slipping that occurs when your hands make contact with the wheel. A great deal of power is lost in the punching action when the gloves and the push rings on the chair are wet.

But I was prepared for it, even if I was quite annoyed to be at another marathon with a fast course and great competition to push a fast pace, but with weather that was not cooperating.

I still wanted to win the race, and I knew I would have a good chance. So I refocused, started visualizing the win, and prepared my chair meticulously for the weather conditions.

I was a bit annoyed with the treatment from the marathon organizers as well. While there was a wheelchair category, there was no elite division - something that the other major marathons (Boston, London, New York and Chicago) all have.

On race morning it was pouring rain, but I was ready to go. The organizers had been kind enough to put me in the hotel for elite able-bodied athletes, which was conveniently located a little more than a kilometre from the start. But I had no idea where the tent was for the wheelchair athletes. Other athletes were warming up, but no one knew where the tent was.

Pushing through

At the same time, I had two flat tires that needed to be inflated, so I was desperately trying to find a pump. On a normal occasion, this would be easy, but in this case there was no gathering point for the wheelchair athletes. The other elite athletes, equipped with the knowledge from having competed here before, showed up ready to race.

I finally found a little white tent, tucked away in a bush, without any markings. It was the wheelchair tent. Twenty minutes before the start, and my tires still aren't pumped and I'm not warmed up. I was panicked, but I moved quickly, got in my chair and desperately searched for someone who actually brought a pump with them. I found the wife of fellow competitor Soejima Masazumi, and we got my tires pumped just in time to line up.

I took a deep breath, feeling relieved and refocused. I started to do some stretches on the line as I got my head in the game. I told myself, "I excel in these conditions."

I figured I would take it easy in the first bit and not do any courageous moves until I warmed up. The gun went, Soejima came out strong, and we were soon in a pack of four along with Marcel Hug and Kota Hokinoue. We were averaging a very fast 31 km/h in the rain when I started to notice a loud, high-pitched buzzing noise, and I knew right away: my fender was rubbing on my tire.

When I put my chair together I noticed that the fender was banged in on the left side, and so I fixed it. I didn't notice that the right fender was slightly bent as well, until I started pushing over 30 km/h. If I had time for a warm-up I would have recognized the problem and fixed it.
Instead, my chair was pulling to the right - a constant reminder that I was pushing with a disadvantage. I tried to fight it mentally, but physically I started to drop off the lead pack.

Game over

I found a fire brigade station at the 21-km mark, and communicated that I needed a sledgehammer. They brought one out quickly and I banged the frame back into place.  
I had completed the first half of the marathon in over 47 minutes, which was not bad at all, considering the circumstances. And I was still in fourth place.
I started hammering away again, giving everything to try and move up in placing. At the 27-km mark, part of the rubber that covers the push ring came off. That's the area I make contact with to propel myself, so it's an extremely crucial part.
That meant game over. Luckily, I was near a first-aid station and put in a request for a pickup.

Believe it or not, the story doesn't end here. After three cars passed by claiming they had no room, I was still waiting and soaking wet. The paramedics were very helpful, and recognizing the situation after nearly two hours of waiting, they took it upon themselves to arrange an ambulance for pickup. The only way it would be possible, though, was to strap me down on a stretcher and then hang me from the ceiling of the ambulance. I took it. The straps were secure, but I'm glad I'm not claustrophobic.

Who's the winner?
I finally arrived at the finish area and found a washroom. Did I mention I'd been "holding it" for three hours? I relieved myself, then limped back to the tent with my damaged chair. When I got there I realized that I hadn't returned the timing chip. Being the morally conscious person I am, I went off to return it, back in my regular chair, pushing the racer and equipment.
I was guided to the appropriate area by one of the marathon organizers. She asked if anyone was with me. I replied, "No." Completely confused, she exclaimed, "Well that's weird!"
Her bewilderment reminded me of the tone of someone who'd found a lost child. I politely asked her to point me in the right direction, then reassured her multiple times that I would be fine on my own.
I returned the chip, then pushed my equipment a few kilometers back to the hotel. I honestly didn't mind. It was just that I was unprepared for that sort of thing.
Along with that reminder of how elite wheelchair athletes are not recognized, came my long search to find the winner of our division. No one knew who won, and there wasn't a single photo or headline on the web or the marathon site. Soejima Masazumi of Japan took it, and he really deserved it. I was honestly really happy for him. He was working hard, pushing the pace from the front of the pack for the whole first several kilometers I was with them.
Good sign

Back in my hotel room, I was quite depressed and angry. It took a few hours for me to start putting it all behind me. Instead of focusing on the negatives that happened, I focused on the positive to come. This bad experience became motivation to focus ahead on the Commonwealth Games, and the New York City Marathon after that.
Did I attract all of this? Or was it just bad luck? I think it was a bit of both. Despite my attempts to put every incident behind me, I was still in a predominantly negative place mentally.

There may have been some bad luck involved as well. That's what you have to tell yourself to put it behind you.
Oh yeah, one more thing: I woke up the next morning feeling extremely sick to my stomach. I know for certain it was some bad salmon that didn't feel right going down the night before.

But I'm laughing out loud about it right now. That's a good sign.