Setting the Pace: Achilles International

Jonathan Zeller

Dick Traum is the founder and president of Achilles International, which encourages disabled athletes to participate in mainstream running events. Such a wonderful organization must have sprung from Traum's desire to help people and make the world a better place, right? Not to hear him tell it.

"I kept coming in last," Traum says of his early days as an adaptive runner in the 1970s. "I figured if we got some other people with disabilities I would stop coming in last."

The story is funny, but not exactly true. Sure, some Achilles runners take a long time to finish their races. Take Zoe Koplowitz, a motivational speaker who has multiple sclerosis. Koplowitz's 20 last-place New York City Marathon finishes have made her an inspiring figure—despite considerable challenges, she has finished 20 more NYC marathons than most people.

But other disabled athletes would leave untrained competitors in the dust. For starters, Traum himself logs about 50 miles per week in his handcrank wheelchair (handcrank chairs are propelled by pumping the arms in much the same way a bicycle is propelled by pumping the legs; they're easy to fit and allow the athlete to get involved in the sport much more quickly). Like approximately 300 other Achilles runners who have come from all around the world to participate in this year's ING New York City Marathon, he has not let obstacles between him and the starting line diminish his resolve to run a strong race and achieve an impressive finish.

At 8:20am on November 1, the strenuous five-borough tour begins with its first wave of athletes: the men and women using push-rim wheelchairs, followed at 8:45 by the handcycle division (Achilles members will be part of later waves, too—some competing on prostheses and others, like blind athletes, who don't require mechanical devices). They may speed through the course in a couple of hours, or—like Koplowitz—they may take more than a day. They will be wounded veterans, cancer patients and survivors, people with multiple sclerosis, blindness, diabetes and almost every other disability imaginable, all taking on one of the world's most intimidating physical challenges.

Understandably, some beginners are hesitant to hit the road with Achilles. Encouraging them to get involved is a huge part of Traum's mission. "It's not a part of the culture," he says, for handicapped people to run marathons. He describes common preconceptions about, for example, the blind: "they walk slowly; they sit down carefully." Furthermore, some people "believe that everybody out there [running] is a world-class athlete." Prospective Achillians soon realize that's not the case, though, when they see their equally ordinary friends participate. He mimics a typical reaction: "My goodness gracious, [that guy's] not that much more athletic than I am. If he can do it, maybe I can."

Such a response spurred the true story of Achilles' birth. In 1976, Traum ran the NYC Marathon on one prosthetic leg. Canadian runner Terry Fox, who was about to lose his own leg to cancer and would eventually become one of history's most admired athletes, read about Traum in Runner's World. As Traum recalls, Fox said: "If that old guy can run a marathon, I can run one every day." So he did. Fox's "Marathon of Hope" entailed a seemingly impossible task—running 26.2 miles daily from the Atlantic Ocean until he reached the Pacific. He covered an astonishing 3,339 miles before the spread of his disease forced him to stop running, and he realized his dream of raising one dollar for every single Canadian citizen toward the cause of cancer research.

When Traum went to Canada after Fox's death, helping to raise money for the cause, he saw a strong community of disabled runners and their supporters. He was inspired to set up an eight-week program for runners with disabilities in New York when he returned, and that program evolved into Achilles. What started with two runners has become an international organization with 110 chapters on six continents.

In addition to the marathon, Achillians participate in other races throughout the year (including much shorter courses), as well as events like the Mayor's Cup kayak race, whose participants recently circumnavigated Manhattan.

Volunteers—who are especially helpful with blind runners—and athletes who want to join Achilles need only sign up on the website or just show up at one of its Tuesday or Saturday training runs. Membership is free, and Traum will be glad to welcome you. Even if you finish ahead of him.