Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Marathon pt. 1

Being the worst senior on my high school cross country team I never in a million years thought I would train for a marathon, let alone finish one. Winning one? Hah! But thirty years later marathons have come to symbolize just about every facet of my life. I used to be a springboard diver and my life was all about brief bursts of energy. But 13 years into my stint as a paraplegic, what other people consider marathons are daily exercises for me - both literally and figuratively.

In the literal sense, it’s not at all uncommon for me to hop out on my hand cycle and cover the 26 mile distance. I would imagine that over the past dozen years I’ve completed more than 200 marathons – and maybe 500 more rides of 17+ miles. It’s sounds counterintuitive, but wheelchair marathoning is much, much easier than marathon running. The first one seemed like an impossible task, but once I’d completed it, I realized that my arms did all the work and I could recover much more quickly than a runner whose knees take all the pounding.

Then I realized as long as I could recover quickly there was no reason to just do six or seven miles a day. It was better to do 15 or 16. Once that became routine I’d toss in a nice big hill (now hills are MUCH tougher for the guy in the chair!) and go for longer rides on the weekends. 30 miles; 50 miles; 100 miles. So the feat of actually completing a marathon is quite routine for me.

On a figurative sense, I’ve been looking for gainful employment for over a year and that is the most heinous drain a human being’s spirit can experience (and your talking to a guy with a broken back!). I’d recently gone back to college after 23 years and got a degree in broadcast journalism. The first time I went to school I didn’t want anything close to a job upon getting out so I got a psychology degree and 2.5 GPA. This time, frustrated with my lack of a job skill, I went back with solid employment in mind. I worked my ass off, graduated Cum Laude and was one of the most decorated students in my class.

Three years earlier the local stations would have been bidding for someone with my resume, but it just so happened that upon graduating, the economy collapsed taking with it all of print journalism. I found myself in line for TV news writing jobs with Pulitzer Prize winners.

So while living in my incredibly gracious sister Sue’s basement in Corvallis, 90 minutes south of Portland, I sent out gazillions of resume tapes; did informational interviews; got rejected from the few jobs who actually showed interest in me - and continued riding. And this is the story of how the two marathons; the literal and the figurative intersected.

One of the first marathons I ever competed in was my hometown Portland Marathon. I rode it in a racing chair donated to me by my employer at the time, Adidas America. The first time I did it I was stunned by how awful the course was. It went through the ugliest part of Portland and crossed two dozen railroad tracks. There was also a part along the course where runners were crossing the road to a water stop not noticing that wheelchairs were barreling down the street at them. I knocked two women right out of the race. After that debacle, I wrote to the race commissioner who invited me to join the race committee as the wheelchair race director.

Since 1999 I’ve been the wheelchair director of the Portland Marathon. I have met some incredible people on the committee who work really hard for no pay. We also get a luxurious SWAG bag for our efforts as well as free entry to the race; although I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who routinely takes them up on it.

But this year after an unexpected training break (freebie trip to Turkey for building a website for my brother Andy’s group of International doctors!) I found myself about six weeks behind in training for the Oct. 3rd race. I could tell I was getting into shape, but I knew I wouldn’t get all the way there. I began looking for a different race to peak for and discovered that one of my dream races – The Marine Corps Marathon run around all the big monuments in Washington D.C., was being held three weeks later. My brother Dan and his family live conveniently close in Charlottesville, Virginia and I’d never been to their home. I got a late exemption to the race and I now had a marathon road trip with two big city marathons in the crosshairs.

Three days before the Portland Marathon, Sister Sue helped me stuff my van with not only my racing chair and enough clothes for a month, but also three guitars a couple of mic setups and a practice amp. As it ends up my two younger brothers and I got stung in the ass by a hard dose of Pete Townshend when we were teenagers and now we carry a ridiculous, but irreversible reverence for playing loud music. If I’m going to drive out to Charlottesville and come back via Denver (where brother Bagus lives), you can bet that van’s gonna be hauling some music gear. And no – one guitar does not suffice.

I pulled out of Cornvalley and headed north up to Portland to crash at my friend and playing partner Bill Crabtree’s crib. Bill and I were roommates in 1996 when I cracked my back. Since that time we’ve discovered we both lived in Milwaukee, are rabid Packer fans, fanatical followers of the Tour de France and have both completed the Boston Marathon. But the cool part is just about two years ago Bill decided to stop looking at the backpacker guitar in his living room and start giving it a good workout every day. Now after a nice Ibanez acoustic upgrade, he too is a guitar addict. So we do just fine.

After two days of working the marathon expo and jamming with Bill the Sunday morning raceday alarm clock went off. I got up at 5:30 a.m. (why they start this race at 7 a.m. is beyond me) and caught the light rail downtown to the start. My chair was locked up at the Marathon offices at the Hilton but I arrived after breakfast with 20 minutes to spare. Unfortunately they don’t hire the best help for early Sunday mornings so the guy who went to look for my hand cycle just disappeared into the bowels of the hotel not to resurface until 6:57. I usually like about 20 minutes to check my gears and brakes, stretch out, maybe catch a sprint or two. Not today. It was all I could do to get in the rig (I assumed they would take care of my day chair because I just left it in the lobby) and haul ass towards the starting line. I asked a group of spectators to open up a barricade (luckily I was wearing my committee credentials) and I found myself in full sprint towards the line while the other five competitors in the hand cycle category were sprinting back at me having already started the race. I got to the start line with only 20 seconds to go before the other 10,000 runners took off. I begged a group of volunteers and elite runners to help turn my rig around (hand cycles have the turning radius of Rhode Island). I got pointed fairly straight and busted away from the throng just seconds before the mayor yelled, “Three, Two, One…BANG!”

So any chance I had of being up with the elite guys was gone, but I had nothing to lose so I put in the college try to catch the front of the race. I realized at the first turn around that I was so far behind I didn’t have a chance. Demoralized, I also realized that I was riding about 2 mph slower than I do in workouts. I never found out why, but I must have had a brake rubbing or some bad alignment from carrying the hand cycle around in the van. At that point I decided to go for a hard training run. I put in a lot of effort but was still not up to top speed when I came up to the St. John’s Bridge, the steepest part of the course. I was dreading the climb, but for some reason the bike started to loosen up and I was able to hit it pretty hard. After crossing the Columbia River, I barreled down the bridge in a solid third place (I caught all but two riders, but those two were minutes ahead of me). The bike felt great and I was ready to put some hurt into the last 9 miles of the race.

“pffffffffffffffffftftftftftftftftft..ka bum ka bum ka bum ka bum ka bum”

And so ended my 2009 Portland Marathon. My front tire which takes all the pulling from the drive train, flatted. Sure I had a spare in the back, but at that point just too many things had gone bad (and I HATE changing flats). So I slowly rolled the nine miles back to downtown Portland stopping to chat with several old friends along the way. I stored my messed up rig back at the Hilton, grabbed my day chair and hopped the light rail back to Bill’s house.

I was thinking the day was a complete disaster and I was just going to drown my sorrows in a 12-pack when my cell phone’s obnoxious ringtone woke me from my funk. It was brother Dan in Charlottesville. I assumed he would ask how the race went or what gear I was bringing for the gig we planned on playing, but before I could say a thing he said:

“Hey man – I just got an email from one of the guys on the Tibetan tech network. They just got a radio license and don’t know what to do with it. You wanna go to India and help ‘em run the place?”

In order for that to make sense you would have to insert Dan’s as-yet unwritten 700 page synopsis of how he brought the Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamsala, India into the 21st century – all during the 20th century. But since that tome hasn’t been written, just trust me – it happened and he knows people. I actually spent three months in Dharamsala in 2000 seeing what went down, so I’ve got a decent grip on the place too. Before he could spew out any of the details I said, “Yes! Hell YES! Hell fukking yes!”

We both got a good chuckle out of it and he said it’s a pipe dream and we could talk about it more as I get closer to Charlottesville. That little marathon I just wimped through in Portland was just the start of it.

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