Wheelchair racers return to AJC Peachtree Road Race

The beauty of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race is that many competitors don’t simply show up once. Their initial competition plants a seed that requires returning, sometimes decade after decade. While the 10K distance is no walk in a park, people continue to make repeat appearances with the hope of improving this time around.

Wheelchair racers Duane Morrow and Brad Smith know the desire to continuously race the Peachtree. Both men initially entered as a goal in their physical recovery, but are still competing several years later.

“The Peachtree was the first challenge for me being in a wheelchair,” Morrow, a Hoschton native, said. “I got to sit on the sidewalk in front of the Shepherd Center and watch a Peachtree my first year I was paralyzed. It was a personal goal to be able to do it and make life in a wheelchair cool.”

But Morrow wasn’t a one-and-done. The 48-year-old said this year’s edition will be approximately his 10th race.

It’s a similar story for Smith. While he didn’t get to watch the race, Smith said he heard about it after suffering a spinal-cord injury six years ago. The Zanesville, Ohio, native had competed in triathlons before he was confined to a wheelchair, so a chance to go the distance in Atlanta would be a return to normalcy.

“When I was an inpatient at Shepherd Center, (competing in the race) was a motivator,” Smith said. “I like to go back each year, and it’s my No. 1 10K race for the season.”

At this point, both men have a grip on how to handle the race.

Be ready to start fast, the 38-year-old Smith warns newcomers. His first race saw him take a nice and easy approach only to realize he was losing the pack. Find someone in the field with comparable speed and hang with them because it can keep both competitors going down the stretch.

Smith also talked about drafting throughout the race, making the Peachtree sound more like a NASCAR showdown at Talladega Superspeedway. Getting behind another racer creates less wind resistance, which allows both athletes in the front and back to pick up speed. It can also help a participant save energy for later in the race.

Morrow cautions newbies not to stop at the peak of the hill in front of Shepherd Center because they’ve only just begun. Morrow, who also serves on Shepherd Center Foundation’s board of trustees, advises that the race is won or lost in the mile that commences once the competitors turn past the intersection of Peachtree and Spring streets

Morrow explained this year’s race is a little different. Because it’s an Olympic year, many athletes who normally flock to this event are instead training for the Paralympics that will be held in Rio de Janeiro.

“Usually, we’re closer to 100-plus racers,” Morrow said. “This year, we’re at 65 or 70. That’s normal in an Olympic year. In fact, we usually have an elite-racers camp-out in Cedartown. In Olympic years, we don’t do that either.”

But the smaller crowd at the start line won’t deter either man from giving his all. Smith said he will be eyeing the clock at the end. Last year, he finished the race in 29 minutes and 54 seconds. Coming across the line in under 30 minutes is one item on the to-do list; to best last year’s mark is a step above that.

Morrow, meanwhile, said this is his first race of 2016 after undergoing three surgeries earlier in the year, so his sights are set on a solid finish. A top five in the quadriplegic division is the goal he’s set this time around.

Whether he hits that mark, Morrow sounded thrilled with the opportunity to attempt such feats.

“I’m excited I’m getting to race it,” Morrow said. “Two or three times, Shepherd has asked me to be a commentator on the TV broadcast. While I don’t mind doing that at all, I’m much happier racing.”