As a Jr. High School athlete in the late 1960s, I ran Cross Country. As I moved into High School, my attention turned to basketball. Looking back, I must have assumed my running career was over. After High School, I arranged to go to college with the strong potential to earn a basketball scholarship. At least, that was the plan.
Shortly after graduation as a 17 year old, a severe accident - a fall of roughly 85 feet from a scaffolding - left me paralyzed and in a wheelchair. This was in 1970. After two years in the hospital, it was suggested that I enter one of several “special schools” for the handicapped. There, I was told, I might learn a vocation and become a “contributing member of society.”
I did go to a “special school” – college! Within 5 years, I was a Systems Programmer in the largest data center in the State of Arkansas. Though probably hired because of my handicapped status, I worked my way from Computer Operator to Programmer, then Systems Programmer and, finally, established a firm career as a Network Administrator. I am now in my 40th year as a computer professional.
Early on though, I was still left with the problem of how to stay healthy. Normal physical activity was out of the question and as there were few organized wheelchair sports available anywhere and absolutely none in my hometown, I was completely sedentary and not terribly far from losing hope for the first time in my life.
In 1978, at the age of 25, I met four other people who were in wheelchairs. Together we formed a local wheelchair basketball team. During the decade of the 1980s we became one of the elite of over 200 teams in America. We won 5 National Championships in the 90s, with the last one coming in 2000.
Having been relegated to wheelchair sports as a means of staying physically fit since my mid twenties, I have tried to apply myself as though I was playing in the NBA and for the World Championship. I'd like to think this is because, although the sports I participate in are adapted to the disabled, I don't really see my life or my adaptation as being any more difficult than what anyone else faces in their own lives. After all, each of us has our own unique challenges. We are all capable of adapting.
After a long and personally rewarding 25 years of playing wheelchair basketball, I began to realize that age was working against me. Basketball truly is for the young. On the dare of a friend, I turned to marathons as a mid-life outlet for my energies, as well as a means of staying healthy for as long as possible.
It boggled my mind to try and imagine how many "pushes" it took to get up and down a basketball court for 20+ games a year over 25 years. By the same token, the thought of pushing a wheelchair 26.2 miles in one day was nearly beyond imagination. However, not being one to turn down a challenge, my mind was made up.
The first night I took my standard, rigid-frame wheelchair out on the streets was an adventure. I found a hill! (I took it.) I found another hill! (I took it.) Soon, my wife was calling me on my cell phone - that night in February, 2005. “'Are you OK, Richard?'” “'Never better!'” But then I realized I was cold and probably should head home. Out of curiosity, we took the car out later that night and measured the course I had followed - 9 miles! And I was hooked.
The first marathon, the very hilly LR race, took a long time; 5 hours, I think. But the sport was far and away greater than anything else I had ever done. It was the camaraderie, the challenging hills, the rough roads and of course, the finish line; then more camaraderie.
There is one more thing I can add about camaraderie. During the race, as people passed me, (or I, them) many would say, “You are an inspiration.” Actually, that works both ways in that such comments inspired me. After all, when someone calls you an inspiration, what are you going to do, quit?! By being called an inspiration, I was equally inspired to finish the race. This is further testimony to the social aspect of this sport.
I ran one more marathon that year and hurt myself. Though completely unpreventable, the how isn’t as important as the what, a cracked vertebrae in my neck. After neck surgery the following January, I didn’t race at all in 2006. The surgeon said I probably should find something else to do. He may as well have taken away my best friend.
By May, I was back on the road, with my doctor’s permission, of course. The following March, 2007, my life took another significant turn. After preparing for what I hoped would be the defining race of my life – making it back - and going for my 3rd marathon finisher’s medal, I met a fellow runner at the Little Rock Marathon Exposition. He had a booth and was recruiting runners for his own state’s marathon.
I should add here that all of my races, 40 marathons (and counting) and 185 5K, 10K and "10 Nautical Mile" races have been done in a standard, rigid frame, 4-wheel chair. I do not use a three-wheeled racing chair or a cycle-propelled device. I had done one 5K race in a racing chair and it was not physically beneficial. I don’t disparage those who do use speed chairs. In fact, I applaud everyone who participates in whatever manner. (26.2 miles is a LONG way!) However, I had been racing for two specific purposes.
The first reason was to stay healthy. The very fact that my clunky, 26 lb. chair is so difficult to push is what keeps me physically fit. The light, 4 - 8 lb. racing chairs take little effort to push and do not provide for me the results I need to stay healthy; to stay alive! My chair also requires that I spend a lot of time in the gym working out with weights and even more time on the streets preparing for the races. Racing, after all, doesn't make you strong. You must be strong to race. (In retrospect, I suppose, any worthwhile endeavor requires effort.)
Second, I raced because it is a social sport. Except for the professional or semi-professional elite runners, most people who participate have no illusions of winning a marathon. Yet, anyone who crosses the finish line is a winner in my mind. To that end, I preferred to run with the crowds, not away from them.
I digressed to these points because as I do run a rather unique style, the 4-wheel chair, I am invited to attend marathons and other races in many different cities. Of course, no one can participate in the hundreds of races and scores of marathons held across the country each year. I was looking for events that might lead to the Boston Marathon or one just as prestigious.
Back to the defining moment I mentioned earlier. That day at the 2007 LR Expo, I stopped by a booth and talked to a person who would ultimately alter my attitude and change my outlook on racing forever. He was pitching the Oklahoma City Marathon. I visited with him for a few minutes and politely took a brochure. My parting thought as I dutifully deposited the brochure in my swag bag was, “What’s in Oklahoma City that I couldn’t find somewhere else?”
When I got home and was going through all my handouts, I spotted the OKC brochure. My heart nearly melted when I realized it was for the Oklahoma City Memorial; the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing of 1995 and the worst terrorist act ever on American soil by Americans, against Americans.
Two days after the bombing, I wrote down my own thoughts about this senseless act and presented it to my Church. I had titled it, ‘Let the Healing Begin.’ This act, this senseless tragedy, had been a stark reality for me. Even though it touched my soul and led me to what I wrote, I couldn’t fathom the effect it had on the citizens and affected families in Oklahoma City. I even drove to OKC and toured the Memorial.
I knew I had to run this race and immediately went online to sign up, despite the fact the OKC Marathon was only four weeks after the LR Marathon. I didn’t know if I would have enough recovery time between the races to put on a decent showing in the OKC race but I really didn’t care. I simply knew I would do all I could to prepare and run the best race possible. But this was an event I would run. There would be no excuse!
I got in touch with the race coordinator and apologized if I had been abrupt with him at the Expo. As well, I wanted to be sure the OKC route would accommodate wheelchair participants. The “defining moment” was that not only did I make an instant and lifelong friend I found reason #3 to race. I would never again run a race that wasn’t for a worthy cause.
What I gained was even greater. In one short race, (If you can call 26.2 miles ‘short.’) an entire city, Oklahoma City, took me into their hearts, I knew I would put this race on my calendar for as long as I was able to race.
A year later, at the same Expo in OKC, I was invited to race in Kansas City, the Waddell & Reed City of Fountains Marathon. Again, I wondered what was in KC that I couldn’t find in, say, Miami or San Francisco. The answer was sobering. This race was for the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society.
As it happens, I have a co-worker with Lymphoma. Also, when I was in rehabilitation at Easter Seal in LR, Arkansas at the age of 18, I witnessed 3 children die from Leukemia. This was another race I had to run. But there was a bit more to it.
For the first time in my racing “career,” I actually went out and raised funds for the KC Marathon. I shamelessly asked everyone I was acquainted with to donate. I said, “You write the check, I’ll push the 26.2 miles.” Together, we were able to raise nearly $1,500. In addition, I won the wheelchair division of the race and its $250 cash prize, which I was able to sign back over to the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society. Since then, through the sale of my poster and individual donations, we have raised nearly $25,000 for LLS the past 9 years.
This year, (2016) I hope to raise at least $2,500. To that end, all the the proceeds from theposter I am selling on this site will go to the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society.
To sum this all up, I do race “the hard way.” I do so for the reasons I spelled out. I race for specific and worthy causes, in 11 racing years and nearly 200 events, I have met over 3,000,000 people I would not have otherwise met, my wheelchair has over 15,000 certified street miles on it and I am healthy!
I am often asked why I race. The short answer is, because I want to live. The four guys in the wheelchairs who helped me form the wheelchair basketball team? None of them stayed with the program past the first few years. Sadly, none of them are still alive. The average life expectancy of a teenage paraplegic in 1970 was 50 years. My teammates went sedentary and died young. I, on the other hand, am 64 and will very soon race in my 40th marathon, in KC, Mo.
People also ask me if I get tired during a race. Again, there is a short answer. With proper preparation, one can finish a marathon (Or any goal, for that matter) with relative ease. The longer answer is there were many times I felt too tired to push my chair. But I have not yet been too tired to push myself.
Thus far, that hasn’t been a problem. As I write this, my blood pressure is 117/74, with a resting pulse rate of 58. My BMI is 24 and my health makes a hero of my neurosurgeon. (That is barely a joke.)
I have done the poster that is included in this website. (See the tab labeled “poster ") “What’s Your Excuse” isn’t to say, “If a guy in a wheelchair can do it, why can’t you?” It is saying simply – well, you decide.
These are things I have learned through my years of running and the social opportunities that accompany running.
I close with an ironic summation regarding this rather long story. As a teen, I began athletics with running and gave it up for basketball. As an adult, I gave up basketball for running. Wheelchair notwithstanding, the circle is complete. Except to say, I will keep running. Why? Because I don’t have an excuse not to!
2016 R. Vaughn Marathon