Wheels, walking sticks, crutches, canes and sneakers rhythmically crunched the fallen leaves across Flushing Meadows Corona Park as a dozen runners and their guides clocked their final mileage in preparation for this year's New York City Marathon.
The teams trained on one of the first brisk mornings of autumn in preparation for the Nov. 3 race with the Queens chapter of Achilles International, a nonprofit that empowers people with all types of disabilities, seen and unseen, to participate in mainstream running events.
Glendale resident JP Pierre was working at a McDonald’s doing maintenance and facilities work when a brutal mugging in 1999 left him with a traumatic brain injury.
He has since completed 13 marathons, and dons a trademark cape that fits his alter-ego, “The Ultimate Running Machine.” Through the organization, he has found a community of his own superheroes.
Among Pierre's fellow runners is Fresh Meadows resident “Backwards” Bill Reilly, 67, who has cerebral palsy. After losing much of the ability to use his limbs, Reilly propels himself backwards in a specially designed wheelchair. His guide, Hector Ramirez, 52, not only accompanies Reilly during training, but drives him to and from training by loading Reilly’s chair into his car. Ramirez is also particularly skilled at interpreting Reilly’s impaired speech, and helps him to communicate.
“He’s done over 40 marathons,” Ramirez said.
“46,” Reilly interjected.
“He’s done a lot,” said Ramirez, while adjusting Reilly’s windbreaker. “He’s an inspiring guy.”
Inspiration comes with a risk. When asked about how he felt about the upcoming race, the marathon veteran said he felt nervous.
“There’s another gentleman who races backwards, too,” Hector explained. “He’s a younger gentleman, who saw Bill and got inspired. He got himself a backwards chair, and now they’ve got a competition going on.”
Last year, Reilly was beat by his competition, but hopes that he can emerge victorious after putting in the training.
“He feels that a lot of people with his type of disability don’t get out there to exercise,” interpreted Ramirez. “Not everyone is able to do a marathon. Bill feels that if people had the training and support, that more people would get out there and do it.”
Runners and their guides train for 16 weeks, typically running four to five times per week often built around citywide weekly workouts in Central Park, Prospect Park and Flushing Meadows. Guides are experienced runners and are able to advise on proper pacing, training, stretching and injury prevention. Additional coaching is provided by Chapter leaders and volunteers who are certified coaches.
The Queens chapter of Achilles International was started by Wendy Phaff in 2016. Phaff is also the development director for Queens Centers for Progress, an organization that promotes independence, community involvement and quality of life for those with developmental disabilities.
“Besides having a passion for running, I also have a passion for helping this population,” said Phaff. “I wanted to blend the two together.”
Though the cohort caters to unique challenges, Phaff says it’s no different than your average running group.
“I would liken it to any other running club. There are other challenges, our athletes have different goals, but the camaraderie is the same, and like being in any other running club. Even though you’re out there on your own, it is a team sport. Your running club is there for you,” she said.
One runner, Alan Kaufman, came full circle through the Queens-based group. The 61-year-old completed 11 marathons as a participant, and then 13 as a guide, after the Achilles Foundation’s signature neon shirts sparked his curiosity.
“I was smitten, I was completely hooked,” the Forest Hills native said of the welcoming community.
But after a grim brain cancer diagnosis, Kaufman completed his first marathon in 2018 as an Achilles athlete.
“It was life-affirming,” Kaufman said. “I had been given a very dire cancer diagnosis, and traditionally it was a 6-month timeframe. I went on a new medication and my doctors said, ‘if you can do it, do it.’”
Kaufman jokes that he has gone from guide, to guided. As someone who has been on both sides, Kaufman knows a thing or two about what makes a good guide.
“Know your athlete. I firmly believe as a guide that the first thing you need to ask your athlete, politely and respectfully, what is your challenge?” said Kaufman. “I always made sure I knew every detail of what I had to look out for: how often you need to stop, how often they need medication, when to boost their morale.”
His guide, Petrina Schneiderman, 33, will be by his side on race day. Achilles guides work with a veteran guide for their first few workouts. They are taught the basics of hour to guide their runner, and are ultimately paired up by pace.
“Once you get started with them, everyone is so warm,” said Schneiderman. “It’s hard not to want to come out every Sunday.”
“It’s about us, it’s about friendship. We’re going to finish comfortably and smile the whole way,” Kaufman said. “We’re not looking to shatter records. We’re not looking for anything other than to have a great day.”