I have never really paid much attention to the Olympics, let alone the Paralympics. More specifically I didn’t know a great deal about wheelchair racing or the wheel chair marathon but as it turns out I will be watching what is probably the worlds biggest annual international wheelchair event on Sunday, the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon.
The volunteers who give me a free Japanese lesson once a week were involved in assisting with events around the marathon and so in lieu of my lesson this week I went to have dinner with some of the Japanese volunteers and foreign athletes.
I talked quite a bit to one of the Australian athletes, Brett. He told me a lot about the chairs and how the race works – which is really quite interesting.
The chairs have a lot in common with road bikes as you might imagine. They are generally made from aluminium alloys and composite materials. A common chair might have carbon fibre wheels and an alloy frame. There are two larger wheels at the back, a seat and then a single bar extends forward to the single front wheel. The steering is via a sort of triangular handle above the bar leading to the front wheel. As the athlete can not spend too much time steering rather than pushing the steering is spring loaded – so it self centres. A second steering control allows the steering offset to be adjusted – so that (for example) the camber of the road can be adjusted for without constant steering.
On the side of the wheel there is a circular bar that is pushed to turn the wheel, like an every day wheelchair. At racing speed the athlete will be more flicking this to keep up with the speed of the turning wheel. Thus the size of this is important. It is essentially the gearing of the chair – the smaller the circle the higher the road speed will be when flicked with the same speed. On the other hand if it is larger then hill climbs are easier. These can be changed – but obviously you only get to choose one size for the entire race.
In the style of racing there are also similarities to cycling. At speeds of around 30 kph on the flat (and 50 kph when there is some hill assistance) aerodynamics plays a big part. Racers can gain advantage or respite by sitting in another racers slipstream. Apparently it is an unwritten rule of the sport that one shouldn’t slipstream the entire race and then nab victory right at the end. Also like cycling the crashes can be nasty.
Talking to Brett and others at dinner the people he and the Japanese volunteers knew and talked about are all at the top of this sport – many of them competing in the Bejing Paralympics a month or two ago – but who I have never heard of before. I have learned that it is really an interesting sport and as well as watcing part of the race tomorrow I will probably keep an eye on it in the future!
Brett hopes to win the half marathon on Sunday and then when he comes back next year he would like to enter the full marathon.
I see on the internet he recently won the Gold Coast Half Marathon, the article photo is Brett crossing the line.
Photos of the day to follow…