These past three weeks, much of the sports news has been devoted to three major marathons: Chicago, New York and, now, the Marine Corps Marathon here in Washington Sunday. To some degree, competing in and completing one of these Big Time marathons has become a rite of passage for many thousands of entrants, certifying social cachet as well as athletic accomplishment.
But with so much public attention focused on these terms of endurance, many smaller runs go ignored. One that deserves particular recognition will be held in Rock Creek Park Saturday at 9 a.m. There, the National Handicapped Sports and Recreation Association will sponsor a 10-kilometer race primarily for able-bodied runners and, more significantly, a 5-K "Fun Run," primarily for the physically disabled.
Three men who will compete in the 5-K are Ron Hopper, Mark Goldsborough and Michael Botelho. Hopper, a former national wheelchair pentathlon champion, is a 36-year-old paraplegic who was paralyzed from mid-chest down 17 years ago by an automobile accident. Goldsborough, 31, had his left leg amputated five years ago, after an auto accident. Botelho, 28, lost his left leg under similar circumstances 12 years ago.
Hopper will compete in a specially modified racing wheelchair that costs $1,500 and is capable of reaching speeds up to 40 miles per hour. Botelho will run with the aid of hand crutches -- shorter than the common variety -- attached to his forearms. And Goldsborough will run without crutches, walking briskly on his natural leg and employing a hop-skip-and-jump technique with his artificial leg.
They will run with the same goal as most long distance runners: to finish.
"A lot of people think it's amazing that I run, and that I ski on one leg," said Goldsborough, who ran cross country in high school and college. "I say, 'I don't think I have much choice.' "
It's okay to laugh. Goldsborough laughed when he said it.
Such macabre humor plays a large part in his and his friends' conversation. They often call each other "gimps," and call able-bodied people "normies." The other day, when Hopper was late for a meeting, Goldsborough said, "I'd kick his butt, but he wouldn't feel it." And Hopper laughed loudest of all.
"We do it to get people relaxed," Goldsborough said, "so they won't feel so awkward around us."
Let's not kid ourselves. It is a devastating trauma to lose a limb, or wind up in a wheelchair. There is pain and anger involved. And even if it diminishes over time, as it usually does, it never disappears. How could it? "You wake up one day," said Hopper, who played varsity tennis at Colorado State, "and you're told, 'You're never going to walk again.' That blows your socks off."
But life goes on. You might as well try to make the most of it.
"The first few years, it's all in your head; it's a real long battle until you get over that hill in your head," said Botelho. "Fortunately for me, after I lost the leg, I still felt there's nothing I couldn't do. I might not be able to do it as fast or as well as everyone else, but eventually I'll get it done."
"For two years I did nothing," Goldsborough said. "I'd been an athlete. I'd run, I'd played softball every night. I needed to do something. Then I met some 'amps' who skied, and when I found out that I could ski, too, it changed my whole attitude. All of a sudden I was going down a mountain, with the wind in my face again. I wasn't just stumbling around anymore. I could actually do things, like other people."
As long-distance running has become increasingly popular within the last 10 years, the questions of why able-bodied people do it -- whether they are motivated by psychological needs to certify their worth -- are asked with less frequency. A handicapped athlete, however, is still such an anomaly that the general public not only patronizes his efforts but assumes he competes not for joy but out of a desire to be "normal." This may be true at first -- Goldsborough says he first tried skiing "to prove I was like everybody else" -- but as time wears on, it is less so. Why should the disabled athlete have to justify himself any more than the able-bodied one?
"I'm a risk-taker," said Hopper, who has gone hang gliding and scuba diving despite his disability. "That's always been my personality. I took risks before the accident, and I still do. I'm also a competitor. I'd be the same person out of the chair, but in it people think I'm extraordinary."
"In a way, running as an 'amp' is better than it was before," said Botelho. "Because you're surpassing everyone's expectations, including your own."
Which is not to say that handicapped runners don't face problems unknown to able-bodies. Chairs tip and wooden legs break, sending amputees and paraplegics to the asphalt quick and hard. Hills, no bargain even for the able-bodied, are even worse for the handicapped. "Going downhill I'm literally falling," Goldsborough said. "Going uphill is harder because your prosthesis swings through and hits the hill."
So why do they do it?
Same reasons as anyone else: For the exercise. For the competition. For the pain. For the joy.
They'll be out there Saturday morning. They invite you to come and see. And more than that, they invite you to come and join in.