Katrina Gerhard Tells Us What It's Like to Train for Marathons In a Wheelchair
Katrina Gerhard just finished her 10th marathon with a top 10 finishing time. She tells us what it's like to be a wheelchair finisher, what the sport has taught her about her body, and why mental strength is even more important than upper-body strength.
For many runners, crossing the finish line of a major marathon like New York, Chicago, London, or Boston would be a lifetime achievement. Katrina Gerhard finished all four-in a wheelchair. (Psst, here's what running a marathon does to your body.)
Gerhard, a pre-med junior at the University of Illinois, just finished her 10th marathon, the TCS New York Marathon, nabbing seventh place in the women's wheelchair division. "It was a hard one," she said. "But I also had so much fun, and I felt really powerful doing it."
It's easy to think of running a marathon as an individual pursuit. Unlike team sports, running is just you, the road, and the dream of a PR. But in wheelchair racing, where there's only a handful of competitive athletes on the circuit, it's hard to escape the familial feel. (Of the 50,000 finishers in New York this year, only 54 were wheelchair racers and only 17 of those were women.) "It's a very close and collaborative group," says Gerhard. "Some of these people have been racing together for 20-plus years, so you start to realize everyone else is a good resource."
When you're competing with some of the world's best athletes in a major marathon, that community spirit can make a huge difference on the course. "If you're able to hold pace with someone, they're most likely willing to draft with you," she says. (Drafting is a technique that allows you to conserve energy by tailing someone else, instead of facing the wind head-on.)
Gerhard is no stranger to teamwork. After a neurological disorder left her wheelchair-bound at age 14, she joined her school's track team on a dare, rolling onto the track without a racing chair or any idea of what to expect. Before long, she was competing and volunteering at local camps to coach kids of all abilities in wheelchair sports.
It was only a matter of time before she challenged herself to take on a marathon, she says. "Most wheelchair racers who become elite tend to do marathons, so all of these role models I had going into wheelchair racing were doing marathons regularly." After high school, Gerhard enrolled at the University of Illinois, which non-coincidentally is an official U.S. Paralympics Training Site. "I joined the team my freshman year and immediately started marathon training," she says. Just a month later (!!) she raced in the Chicago Marathon-the first of 10 marathons she'd speed through in the next two years.
"A lot of runners who I've spoken to ask when I start training for a marathon. But for us [wheelchair racers], we do multiple marathons a year so we're sort of always training," she says.
If you're wondering, yes-she does have killer arm strength. But that's actually less important than you'd think when it comes to hauling yourself-and a 20-pound piece of equipment-over the finish line. "You can be really, really strong but a lot of wheelchair racing depends on the technique," she says.
During her off-season, she spends time in the gym building her upper-body strength. But when she's in full-on training mode, she focuses on her technique and endurance-two hugely important elements for any marathoner. "There's such a huge mental component," she says. "Once you have the strength, being able to push that hard for that long is all mental."
Earlier this year, Gerhard earned a spot on the U.S. Paralympic national team when she finished the Boston Marathon with a time of 1:40:34 (again clinching a spot in the top 10 female finishers). "I really just want to become as good as I can," Gerhard says. "I don't need to achieve a certain level or make it to certain games."
Instead, her impressive track record is more about how her life has changed since she landed in a wheelchair. "Instead of thinking what benefits I can immediately get out of this sport"-the stats, the enviable PRs, the Olympic dream-"it's thinking about what I can learn about life or about my body through the sport," she explains. "I want to be able to still do these races for a very long time. A lot of people have the assumption that people in wheelchairs aren't as independent. A huge goal is to be able to be a healthy and athletic disabled person for my whole life."
Though Gerhard's story looks different from the majority of finishers, there's one universal narrative you hear from marathoners: "Every marathon has that moment where it just feels awesome," she says. "You realize this why you're doing this."