As dawn breaks in New York today, a group of disabled New Zealanders will swallow their nerves and get ready to take part in one of the biggest challenges of their lives - the New York Marathon
Tawera Nikau and Frank Bunce have a special Kiwi secret to protect their feet as they pound New York's streets today. The former rugby league star and former All Black will run the 42km marathon with New Zealand wool stuffed between their toes, and cushioning Nikau's stump and prosthetic leg. It's a trick they learned while tackling last year's New York marathon.
"No blisters," says Nikau. And that was after six hours and 15 minutes of running, one of the toughest things he's ever done, he says. This year he's back with his buddy Bunce to slash that time. The pair aim to run the course in less than 5½ hours. "I want to go faster," says Nikau. "As former sports stars we always have a goal. It's about challenging ourselves. And you meet heaps of cool people."
It was more than eight years ago that Nikau, riding his prized Harley Davidson, collided with a car on a rural road in Ohinewai in the central North Island. Nikau's life would change forever and his days as a star league player in both New Zealand and Australia would be over. A month after the accident, doctors were forced to amputate Nikau's right leg below the knee.
Nikau, 43, and Bunce, 49, are in New York as part of the Achilles team, a worldwide organisation that helps disabled athletes take part in mainstream events. Running in their team today will be blind runner Mike Lloyd , 41, from Birkdale, in his fourth New York marathon, Aucklander Janet Martin, 36, who is deaf, returning for her third race, and former Paralympian, quadriplegic Dave MacCalman, 53, from Waihi Beach.
The last time MacCalman raced in New York was 1994. He came second in the wheelchair division, completing the course in a sweltering two hours and 27 minutes. "All I saw was the blue line on the road," says MacCalman. This year he plans to take the race at a more leisurely pace, keep his head up and enjoy the view.
The course starts on Staten Island, winds through Brooklyn then Queens, up through Manhattan to the Bronx then back through Harlem to finish in Central Park. MacCalman has been paired with American guide Matthew Rojas, a fundraising manager from New York who is excited to be showing his city to the visiting athlete.
"I'm looking forward to it," says Rojas. "I'm nervous to be on someone's team because I'm running their race. I want to make sure they get the best experience out of it." Perfect race conditions are predicted for today. The weather forecast is fine with a high of 13C and thankfully no sign of the unseasonable snowstorm that shocked New York last weekend.
On Wednesday, rangers in Central Park cleared hundreds of broken branches the snow brought down so the runners will have a clear sprint to the finish line urged on by cheering crowds.
This year, 47,000 competitors will race before an expected two million spectators. "It's surreal with the whole city out there cheering for you," says Rojas. From his experience last year, Bunce finds the last 1.5km of the race through Central Park the most painful part of the course. "You're just about there " but not quite." "You've past everyone on First Avenue hanging out drinking beer and are thinking, I wish I could have one of those,"' adds Nikau, who marks his course by miles rather than kilometres because the numbers are lower and distances don't seem as far.
These athletes have the determination to do whatever it takes to conquer the challenge. "Failure is not an option," says Achilles New Zealand president, Peter Loft. Four days before the big race, Loft delivers his pep talk to the team who are dressed in their matching Achilles tracksuits, sitting on bleachers at the finish line.
"We have body bags, so either finish, or be taken away in an ambulance or a body bag." This is the 18th year that Achilles New Zealand has sent a team to New York and, so far, every one of their athletes has made it to the finish line.
Achilles International was founded by American Dick Traum, the first amputee to run the New York marathon in 1976. He set up a track club for disabled athletes in 1983. That year, six Achilles members took part in the marathon. Since then Achilles has grown into a global organisation with 275 disabled athletes from 35 countries participating in the marathon.
New Zealand has a long association with Achilles, as the location of the very first international branch of the organisation. New Zealand amputee Brian Froggatt contacted Traum after seeing a photograph of him running in the late 1970s. Traum started coaching him by telephone and the pair formed a strong bond.
"I didn't realise I was coaching someone who was a far flasher athlete than I was," says Traum. "On one leg, he would hop for two hours around the track." In 1985, Froggatt ran the New York marathon in four hours and 54 minutes, setting a record for an above-the-knee amputee runner that would last for 21 years.
New Yorker Brian O'Sullivan beat it in 2006, running four hours and 20 minutes. Now aged 70, Traum is still hauling himself out of bed early to line up at the start. "I fear the alarm clock at four in the morning," he says.
Today Traum is competing in his 43rd marathon, his 20th New York. His fastest one on foot was in 1977, when he knocked off the 42km in six hours and 44 minutes. Now he races marathons in a hand-crank wheelchair in under two hours.
"My speed going down hills is the reason why I'm going bald," he jokes. There are multiple benefits to participating in events like this, says Traum. "The running cleans you out. It makes you feel good. You develop friendships with other competitors. There is the process of seeing improvement. Finally you have a goal, you get feedback and that reinforcement means you see more improvement. It affects all parts of life." Achilles also caters to able-bodied runners.
As well as the guides who, like Bunce, accompany disabled runners on the course, runners can participate under the Achilles umbrella to fundraise for the organisation. Rosa Carter-Holt, 32, a commercial real estate agent from Christchurch struggled to find work in recession-bitten New York when she moved five months ago, so she set herself the goal of running the marathon. She had just 12 weeks to prepare, a huge task considering the furthest she had ever run was 13km in Christchurch's City 2 Surf.
Her training has hit a few hiccups. She dodged trees and debris after Hurricane Irene struck in August, flooding her New Jersey home. She thought by leaving Christchurch she was escaping the turmoil caused by natural disasters. Carter-Holt motivates herself by watching videos on the Achilles You-Tube channel. "When you see them out there doing it, you think, What the hell am I complaining about?'."
Carter-Holt has raised more than $3000 for Achilles and hopes her association with the organisation will be ongoing. She has already been in touch with fellow Cantabrian Brian Coker, who had both legs amputated to free him from the Pyne Gould building after he was trapped during the Christchurch earthquake.
He is not sure if he will be ready to take on the challenge of a marathon next year, but if he is, Carter-Holt hopes to be there by his side. And it's likely that Nikau and Traum will be there too. There is something infectious about the race. "It's tough, but it's a fantastic atmosphere," says Nikau. "I was amazed at the support of people of New York coming out. I've been to a lot of sporting events, and this is probably the best I've even been to."
Specialist Nicholas Koulchar had been serving in Iraq only seven months when the blast from an IED (improvised explosive device) destroyed both his legs. It was August 2008 and the US Army soldier was on patrol in Baghdad to clear explosives. This one was far too close. The bomb killed the driver of Koulchar's vehicle, and seriously wounded his two comrades. Koulchar managed to drag himself away from the blast zone and was airlifted out by helicopter. He spent a fortnight in a coma and 2½ years recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington, DC.
The double-amputee's aim during that gruelling rehabilitation was to walk again, with the help of prosthetics. It was a tough ask for a guy of Koulchar's heft. He was 1.85m tall and weighed 108kg when he was injured. "The doctors told me right off it was going to be a battle," says Koulchar from his home in Michigan. "At end of day, it turned out I can be independent in a wheelchair." Not just independent - a marathoner. The 29-year-old has completed five marathons in the past year using a hand-crank chair. He is a member of the Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans, a branch of Achilles aimed at getting injured military personnel to take part in marathons.
Achilles founder Dick Traum has seen the programme have a huge impact on participants' lives. One soldier, who had only one leg, returned to the front line after proving his physical ability by running the marathon.
"Not only do you get the joy of achieving but people see you differently," says Traum. This weekend will be Koulchar's first attempt at the New York Marathon. He hopes to complete the course in about two hours. He registered last year but had to pull out when his brother, his only relative and caregiver, was seriously hurt in a car accident. As the only Freedom Team member in Michigan, Koulchar is looking forward to meeting fellow competitors, other injured veterans he got to know at Walter Reed Hospital.
"You bond and have connections with guys because you're all going through the same thing," says Koulchar. "Even if you have family and friends there, no one else really understands the frustration or bad days." The wheelchair division is the first over the line in the marathon so when Koulchar sets off he will have the deserted streets of New York City to himself.
"The biggest thing I like about doing the marathon is a lot of times the cities are closed down to traffic," he says. "You get to see a lot of these places desolate. Like one of those movies where the world's ended and the cities are empty. It's peaceful in a way."