Achilles International, ADA, Anthony Edwards, Central Park, challenged athlete, disabilities, discrimination, Equality, Gatorade, Hope & Possibility Race, Jon Stewart, MS, New York City Road Runners, NYC, NYRR, service dog
This past weekend I traveled from Houston to New York City for the Achilles International Hope & Possibility Race. Ever since becoming aware of Achilles and getting involved in the world of challenged athletes, I’ve heard such amazing things about what it’s like to participate in this race. I’ve been told it’s a phenomenal thing to even be a spectator, to merely witness the outpouring of joy and triumph and community that is the spirit of 5,000 or so able-bodied and differently-abled children, teens, adults & older adults coming together for this event.
The point, the mission and the message of the Hope & Possibility Race, as I understand it – and as it’s advertised – is to celebrate what’s possible, what we *can* do, in spite of illness and various levels of dis-ability. Equally important – and also how it’s advertised – is inclusion. Because so often athletic events place a dividing line between us: “athletes” over there, “disabled athletes” over here. Whether to make things more fair or not, as in the interest of “leveling the playing field,” let’s face it, categories are drawn, separations are made. Sometimes the dividing, the separating out, makes a positive difference. Special Olympics, Paralympics, Olympics – all with the goal of giving everybody a group of their peers, a similarly matched category of abilities/disabilities, with which to compete.
When there are no separations, say in a 5 mile or 5k race open to anybody, I expect to be in the back of the pack – what’s sometimes called a “straggler.” I have MS and the only way I ambulate anywhere is with the help of my trusty service dog. Even with him aiding my balance and forward momentum, I’m not exactly what you’d call swift. So if I sign up for a race open to the general population of runners and walkers of the world, I expect to come in near the end of the racers. I realize that there will be far fewer folks at the Finish Line cheering on the last runners/walkers. Sometimes, depending upon how slow I am, there may only be several race volunteers left manning the Finish Line, the water and Gatorade tables. But I’ve never completed a race or fun run and found nobody there. I’ve never arrived at the end of a racecourse at not found a Finish Line to cross. There’s always been somebody – even if it’s one tired-looking, sunburned, enthusiastic volunteer – waiting with a cheer, a few claps of the hands, a pat on the back. What I’m saying is I’m used to being slow, at the end of the line, with not many folks left around with which to celebrate when I participate in a race that’s for and filled mostly with able-bodied runners. Still, I’ve sometimes wondered what it would feel like if those fast runners and their spectators ever hung around long enough for me to join in, to feel like I belong.
Which is why the Achilles International Hope & Possibility Race sounded phenomenal. A race where I’m considered as visible and as valuable as the person next to me? A race where I – middle-aged, MS-laden (slow, with a limp) and accompanied by my service dog – am deemed as welcome and wonderful as the woman with her young, perfect-looking, healthy, beautiful runner’s body in fly-weight shorts and cute-sexy sports bra. Where everybody cheers for and acknowledges all the effort we’ve put into our training for this event equally? A race where the “elite” runners don’t consider me an obstacle to go around, but a teammate? I wasn’t even sure it could be real, to be honest with you. But apparently it was, other people like me were telling me it was true. And I wanted it. I craved it. This experience of being welcomed and included, respected and celebrated, a part of, not apart from, able rather than dis-able.
I believed them, too. I signed up & showed up. Plane tickets, hotel, food & other travel expenses. It was worth it, I kept telling myself, because of the experience. And not just the experience I wanted to have for myself, and truly believed I would get to have, but also for the experience of watching all the others like me being welcome and included and celebrated, as well. I wanted to bear witness to that. I wanted to partake in that. I wanted not only to cheer others on, even as I was being cheered, but to revel in everybody’s mutual, collective cheering.
God, I was so excited. I was excited in the way you anticipate something that is without-a-doubt going to happen. Which is to say, I was excited with the kind of confidence that comes when you’re looking forward to something that’s a foregone conclusion. Like your birthday or anniversary or a holiday which happens as scheduled, every time. Or, since it was my first time at this race, maybe I should compare it more to a graduation. A graduation when your grades are in and good and you’ve no doubt you’re going to walk across the stage and get that rolled-up diploma placed into your eager, out-stretched hand. There will be applause, recognition, celebration. Because you’ve worked hard and you deserve it, just like all the others getting their diplomas on that day. Mass happy-hysteria.
Can you imagine how you’d feel if suddenly time stopped and everything went dark right before the curtain was parted and you walked across the stage on graduation day to receive your diploma? You’re there in the wings, back stage, a group of others behind you as eager and glowing as you are. You’ve waited for this day for a long time! You’re toward the end of the pack of graduating because your name starts with an S, but hey, you’re used to being near the end, so this doesn’t concern you in the slightest. And then no more names are called out from stage. In fact, you hear nothing; complete silence. You peek out from the curtain, but you cannot see anything because the lights have been shut off. You notice the seats are mostly emptied and the rest of the audience is departing through the doors. Then the stage manager asks if y’all wouldn’t mind clearing out from backstage because they really need to get things cleaned up and ready for an event in the theatre later on.
Shock? Utter confusion? Angry and trying-to-keep-from-crying all at once? Yeah, that’s kind of how I felt on Sunday.
I will write more about this later. I’m sure I’ll be able to articulate my thoughts better once my emotions calm to a simmer instead of this slow nausea-inducing boil. But I have to get this on record, now, because what happened was inexcusable.
The short version is this. The very race that Achilles International & NYRR (New York Road Runners) tout as a hallmark event of inclusion & celebration was, in my experience, discriminatory, disheartening & dangerous.
Here are the basic facts, and please do keep in mind the large percentage of racers with illness and/or physical disabilities in this race:
No route markers/volunteers or race guides to keep participants on charted racecourse
No sweep van/bicyclists or drivers designated to look for/redirect/transport any walkers/runners/handcyclists/wheelers who have veered off-course and/or are unable to continue on foot
– in the case of Central Park, because there were no route markers or anyone to direct which turn to take (or not take), going off-route means missing the turn for a shorter loop, thereby going on a much longer loop
– which also means no water stations or porta-potties or First Aid readily available; absolutely no one affiliated w/the race available to you for any reason, including asking if you’re even walking remotely in the direction of the eventual Finish Line
No official Finish Line after 2 hours
– as in, nothing there & no one to even indicate you’d arrived at the end of the racecourse; they literally dismantled the Finish Line
Which also meant:
No promised Gatorade, not even water
– as in, you had to go buy a $4 bottle of water from a freakin’ food cart or take yourself to a restaurant
No goodie bags or finisher’s medals
And of course, this also meant:
No crowds, no cheering, no one to yell Yay! or Woohoo!
– not a single hand-clap
No receiver still in place to record the crossing of your D-tag and your finishing time
Not an official representative or volunteer wearing NYRR or Achilles shirts, that you can find, anywhere in the vicinity of the Finish Line. (If the Finish Line were there.)
– you only know where it WAS because there’s an EMS guy standing off to the side who, when you ask him how much farther you have to go to the Finish Line, tells you, “Well, it was back there, you passed it already. Everybody’s gone now.”
And the thing is, I wasn’t even close to the last racer. There was an entire wave of us, a few dozen I’d guess, who missed the left turn for the 5-mile race course. We’d been told at the start that race workers & volunteers would be at the turns-offs to guide us. There was a much shorter route for the kids’ race, as well as anyone who needed (or simply preferred) to do the shorter distance. So any turns, we were told (both at bib pick-up & over the PA before the start of the race), would be pointed out to us, so there would be no confusion as to which racers were to take which turns and when. I’m sure if you live in NYC and frequently do races and fun runs in Central Park, or just run there, period, you know which turns – which loops – equate to this or that total miles. So even if there were no sign marking the racecourse or no guide to direct you, you’d be OK. But many of us don’t fall into that category. And not even my friend, who does in fact live in NYC, was sure which turn to take.
A little while into the race a turn-off appeared, where, indeed there were lots of volunteers directing everybody “Short course this way, turn left!” and “5-mile course this way, go straight! A bit later another possible left turn-off appeared, so we stopped and looked around. There was no sign, no route marker, no guides or race workers or volunteers wearing orange vests or Achilles or NYRR shirts. The other people with race bibs like ours? They went straight ahead. So we did, too. And so did the people behind us.
Not long after that we passed individuals in wheelchairs, some others walking at a slightly-slower pace than us, one was scooting along backward by kicking out with his feet, I suppose because he didn’t have the use of his upper limbs. We passed a teenager on what looked like relatively new prostheses. We passed an older gentleman on Canadian crutches and sight-impaired walkers with guides alongside. We passed a few parents with their adult children, coaching and coaxing and cheering. My point here – aside from the obvious, which is how great it was to see anybody and everybody out there in the park tackling those miles to the best of his/her ability – is that there were a lot of people behind us. People who had not turned off for the shorter route, but who had also missed the turn for the actual 5-mile course. So while, yes, I have MS and I ambulate with a service dog, slow on a good day, even slower on a hot day – and certainly was further behind the pack of most of the racers that day because of missing the turn – there were many folks even later than I was to finish the racecourse. They deserved a proper Finish Line. They deserved cheering and medals and mother @#$%ing Gatorade every bit as much as the racers who finished under 2 hours.
Perhaps even more so. Because the race and the race organizers let them down, completely failed them – in fact, endangered them, by not providing a clearly marked race route. And then up and leaving, abandoning the racers in so many more ways than the actual, physical absence. Giving the remaining racers no way to know where the end of the course was, no way to have the satisfaction that comes with moving your body across the official finish of what you officially started.
I regret that I did not return to the once-upon-a-time Finishing Line myself to clap and cheer for those last racers, so that they knew they’d come to the end, that they’d done so well – in spite of ending up lost (through no fault of their own) and going much farther than necessary in the heat. But the truth is that I was barely mobile myself after the race. My service dog was exhausted, nearing dehydration, and his paw-pads were tender, I could tell. I was weak and thirsty and needed food in me fast before my glucose-level became a serious issue. Knowing I should be there to support those last racers, wanting to be there to do that more than anything, but needing to take care of my service dog and my own health – that was a defeated, helpless and hopeless feeling.
I will never forget it.
And the thing is, there’s not a single damn reason that situation should have occurred. It was unfair, unsafe, and unconscionable to send out invitations and proclaim a race for everyone, of any and every ability, any and every “dis” ability, promoting community and possibility and inclusion and celebration – and then leave those who showed up with so much hope and excitement and feelings of belonging and counting. Just go off and leave them.
Us. They left us. There’s no way to separate out my own feelings of betrayal. Not yet, anyway.
Today I see the photos and media coverage of the race online. There are celebrities – Jon Stewart and Anthony Edwards – there are smiling faces, looks of triumph. I see celebration. I see what looks like inclusion. I am happy and grateful that those people got to have the experiences that they did. It is inspiring. I love that Stewart and Edwards and everybody else showed up to make it a great day and an unforgettable journey for most of the racers and their families and the spectators. I’m truly grateful for all of that.
But I am also heartbroken. For all those who went out on Sunday morning with hope and possibility twinkling and zinging in their hearts and minds and bodies. Who gave their all – just like every body else – but missed out on the promise of the race that day. I know it sounds like a cliche, and this may even sound like a childish remark to some, but the fact remains and I know no other way to say it but this: it just wasn’t fair. What happened to that last wave of racers yesterday in Central park Was Not Right. I’m mad and I’m sad and I’m confused all mixed together in a thorny tumbleweed of emotions and thoughts that make me feel physically, actually ill. I have not been able to sleep. What little I eat keeps trying to come back up. When I’m alone, I keep bursting into tears.
I believed, for a while anyway, that inclusion really was possible. Even for a day, or a part of a day at least, in one designated place and span of time. Now I hate myself for being fool enough to believe. I feel tricked. I’m furious that I was sold a bill of goods and set-up for this hard fall. And I’m equally furious that I allowed myself to get my hopes up. Above and away from myself, I think about those racers after me, and I wish the way they were treated were the kind of crime that came with punishment. Because at the end of the day what happened was discrimination, pure and simple. And like all discrimination, it was wholly unavoidable and unnecessary.
If you devise, organize, promote and advertise a race for the able, supremely able and disabled alike, saying come and celebrate, be welcomed and included and counted as worthy and wonderful, no matter how fast or slow you may be – then, when they all arrive, you do not extend basic care and consideration to every single one, including that “slow” population, and in fact endanger their health and safety, then outright abandon them when they find their way (a way that is longer than all the others before them) to the finish line, thereby denying them what everyone else received and enjoyed – that’s the very essence of discrimination.
Discrimination at any race open to the general public is unacceptable. Does it happen? Of course. But when you throw a race with the primary stated mission of being inclusive and celebratory of all levels of ability – and then you turn off the time clock, shut up shop, remove the Finish Line and goodie bags and medals, even the Gatorade and water, leaving anybody who takes longer than 2 hours to finish 5 miles without – that is the most disgusting kind of discrimination. Because you KNOW the race is chock-full of challenged athletes who have been training for and looking forward to this day and this finish line and this medal and being acknowledged and celebrated for their victories in the same manner, with the same spirit, as elite runners. My god, what is that? What can you possibly be thinking?
Forget thinking. What about your hearts – what the hell is wrong with your hearts? That’s what I want to know.
And that is why I can’t sleep. Because I cannot make sense of it.
In the long run (no pun intended), this race was in preparation, in anticipation, of a much bigger one–the finish line of which resides in the very same place. You can help me make the Hope & Possibility 5K worth all that heartache by helping me help my charity team–Team Leary Firefighters Foundation–for the Big Race on the Big Day in November. I’d really love that; I’d be immensely grateful ~
I only have till November 21st to reach my fundraising goal and I really, really need your help!