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Health

Trotting with a team

MarathonMuscular DystrophyBoston MarathonBaltimore Running FestivalU.S. Olympic CommitteeParalympic Games

Shane Lauer can be forgiven for wanting to stay in bed. It was a chilly Saturday morning in early November and even veteran marathoners like him don't always feel like training.

He did get up, though, and headed to the Northern Central Railroad Trail north of Baltimore to join six other athletes who were preparing for one of several area Turkey Trots, the annual Thanksgiving Day races.

Even on this day, Lauer, a soft-spoken 21-year-old from Phoenix, said running makes him feel "good."

But finishing races, or even starting, might have been even harder not long ago. Lauer has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that leaves him with very limited mobility, and he needs the help of "wingmen" who push him in a special racing chair. He and the other disabled athletes get that help from a nonprofit program called Athletes Serving Athletes that turns six at year's end.

As the popularity of racing has grown, it's common to see a wheelchair category in the nation's premier marathons. Competitors are now even officially tracked by the national track and field governing body. But those athletes are able to cross the finish line under their own power, and some advocates for the disabled say there are fewer organized opportunities for those who need help to complete a mainstream event.

"Everyone should experience the sheer joy of crossing the finish line," said David Slomkowski, who founded and runs the Lutherville-based Athletes Serving Athletes. But for severely disabled athletes, the roar of the crowd as they finish a distance race "is everything," he said.

Slomkowski said he was inspired seven years ago by Team Hoyt, a Massachusetts father-son racing team. Now well-known in racing circles, Rick Hoyt talked his father, Dick, into pushing him in a local 5K in 1977. Rick had been diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy but said racing made him feel as if he was not disabled.

The pair have since completed more than 1,000 races and launched a foundation to help others. The foundation estimates there are about 25 or 30 other groups around the country that match disabled athletes with able-bodied runners. A group called myTEAM TRIUMPH has a chapter known as Ainsley's Angels based in Columbia.

Slomkowski, who played college lacrosse but wasn't a runner, said he couldn't stop thinking about the Hoyts for a year. He finally quit his day job running a closet organizing company and dedicated himself to creating a local program. The group's budget this year is $176,000, which is mostly raised from individual donors, though there have been some grants. The money pays for two full-time and two part-time employees, plus all the fees, transportation and equipment needed for races.

The group has about $50,000 worth of equipment, including 35 special wheelchairs that cost at least $1,000 each and custom bikes that cost close to $10,000.

About 200 wingmen and wingwomen (as ASA calls the athletes who help others compete) of all ages and abilities have volunteered, including 40 who act as captains and are responsible for getting about 350 disabled athletes across at least one finish line. They train once or twice a week with an athlete. They bond, build each other's confidence and health, and share the joys of competing, said Ben Mortenson, who became Lauer's guardian seven years ago.

There aren't many athletic opportunities for the disabled, especially as they age, Mortenson said. In the past five years since they joined Athletes Serving Athletes, he and Lauer have completed many races, including full marathons, sprint triathlons, Olympic distance triathlons and half Ironman triathlons. Last year, he won the para-triathlete division at the Columbia Triathlon and qualified for a championship race in Des Moines, Iowa. Fellow athletes raised money to send them to the event, where Lauer placed again.

Lauer's longest race was last September, the ChesapeakeMan Ultra Triathlon on the Eastern Shore. It took almost 16 hours to complete the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. Slomkowski believes he's one of the few disabled athletes to finish the distance.

Lauer's wingmen include Mortenson who runs, Slomkowski who bikes and Chip Connor who swims.

"He's very competitive," Mortenson said of Lauer. "His body doesn't work, but his mind does. He wants the medal. It's awesome, but it puts more on us. We stop for water and he says, 'Push.' "

Most wingmen are not related to the athletes they serve; rather, they hear about the program or see them racing and decide they want to help. The highest-profile local race is the Baltimore Running Festival, which includes a marathon, and this fall, Athletes Serving Athletes fielded eight athletes supported by 68 wingmen, said Dave Gell, spokesman for race organizers Corrigan Sports Enterprises. The group had one ASA athlete in their first race in 2006.

The group has spread along the Mid-Atlantic, with its most recent marathon in Harrisburg, Pa., where four athletes competed, including three from Pennsylvania. Training locally is done in all but the coldest months on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings on the NCR trail. This day, there were hoots and cheers from the athletes as soon as they arrived, including from 5-year-old Braxton, who wanted to get started.

Braxton's mother, Allison Reber of Monkton, wanted him to know what competing felt like even though he couldn't participate in organized sports. Braxton is developmentally and intellectually disabled, and she thought this would build his confidence and social skills. She trained to handle pushing an extra 45 pounds plus a chair.

"I have two other kids, and it's so awesome to see them at the finish line cheering for their brother," she said. "He squeals the whole way."

The sentiment is not limited to young athletes. The Massachusetts Association for the Blind has been fielding athletes of all ages and their guides for two decades in one of the nation's premier races, the Boston Marathon. The race allots 60 spots, making Boston one of the largest mainstream events for the visually impaired.

Sighted runners are tethered to the blind and are responsible for guiding them around obstacles such as discarded sweatshirts and turns, as well as water stops, and across the finish line in less than five hours — though 2 hours and 44 minutes was the record last year.

Coach Joshua Warren said blind runners come from across the nation, and on race day they feel no discrimination, stigma or pity. But it isn't just about what the race does for them.

"When I don't feel like running, when I come up with all kinds of excuses, I think of these folks who are faced with so many more obstacles before they even walk out the door," said Warren. "It makes me lace up a little faster."

At the elite level, however, it is all about the competition, said Joaquim Cruz, an Olympic gold medalist from Brazil who now coaches disabled sprinters for the U.S. Olympic Committee. His athletes represent their country in the Paralympics.

"They are athletes, period, and we make no adjustments for them" he said from the U.S. training center in California. The blind runners are the only ones afforded guides on the track. There are also athletes with diseases and amputations. They train by competing against able-bodied college athletes, who, Cruz said, don't feel sorry for them "after they get beat."

Cruz scours the country for the best of the best to recruit and train.

"They experience the same joys and disappointments of any athletes," he said. "You spend so much time and energy and make so many sacrifices to get to the podium. It's the summary of everything you did, the accumulation of all your dreams. …You wear the U.S. uniform, you hear the national anthem. That's what you compete for."

Back on the NCR, members of Athletes Serving Athletes will also soon fly a flag but not for their country. These are emblazoned with their names and affixed to their chairs during races so the crowds can cheer for them.

Erik Peterson of Hanover, on his first training run as a wingman this day, said everyone should know what it's like to have their name shouted by strangers.

"Even for an able-bodied adult, hearing the cheering and the cow bells ringing from the sidelines," said Peterson, searching for words, "It's such a special feeling."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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