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.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Ghost of Humiliation Past...

No matter how far away from humiliation you get, once it comes back, it brings with it the ghosts of humiliations past. In this case it came in the form of getting pummeled in a five-kilometer road race on the streets of Pattan -  once a separate country from Kathmandu, but now just the southern area of town.

At one point in my life I fancied myself the next Frank Shorter – the great American distance runner who won the gold in the ’72 Olympic Marathon just days after terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches (yup – they had assholes even before September 11). I’d never watched a road race before but our whole family was glued to the TV as the great Wide World of Sports presenter Jim McKay described the course while color commentator Erich Segal told us what went through the mind of a marathoner.    Segal was much more famous as the author of the sappy novel and film Love Story. But this was back before the running boom had hit America and Phil Knight had sold any shoes. ABC probably figured they’d  pull a new demographic with Segal who was not only a sub-three-hour marathoner, but also Frank Shorter’s English professor at Yale. McKay and Segal had great chemistry and, with an American pulling away for the final medal of the most tragic Olympic games, they had a great story. And then just before Shorter hit the track for the final lap a German impostor pulled out of the tunnel and made his way for the tape. Segal was incensed and gave one of the greatest calls in the history of marathons, “He’s an impostor Frank – You won this race!!”

I met Frank Shorter in 2013 and was as star-struck as a 15-year-old girl meeting Taylor Swift. 
After that day I vowed to win the Olympic marathon. I started running long distances (the mile around my neighborhood) and it stayed with me into my freshman year in high school when I joined the cross country team. I was a solid freshman runner and even got to run a couple of races with the J.V. When my sophomore season started, I dropped some time and scored a bunch of points for the Nicolet J.V. In one race I dropped 30 seconds and finished in the top 20 running the three miles in seventeen minutes and twenty-eight seconds.

Basketball players talk about the change in their body during their high school growth spurt. I had a spurt, except it was pure bulk. I grew an inch or two, but I put on more than 50 pounds between my sophomore and junior season. When I started training cross country I couldn’t even break 19 minutes. My JV teammates moved up to varsity, but I stayed on JV.

Before my senior season started, I had put on another 20 pounds and was relegated to the “C” squad which is reserved for seniors who are too bad to make varsity and juniors who are two slow for JV. I’d start races out near the front of the pack then get passed by runner after runner until my legs felt like lead. I usually jogged in slightly ahead of the heavy wrestlers trying to lose weight for their upcoming season. At the season-ending awards banquet, my coach, the ever-lovable Bernie Bieterman looked at me, shook my hand and said, “Well Thomas… it’s been something.” I got my letter for going out for four years and figured out I had to be the worst letter-winning cross-country runner in the history of Nicolet High School.

No person ever walked through these doors having a poorer four-year distance running career than myself. 

I carried the shame of being a sad-distance athlete until my mid-twenties when I lived in France and started training on a bicycle. I was a professional diver and my thighs were the size of tree trunks. But using the mechanical advantage of gear shifting allows one to compensate for extra weight. All that power I had in my legs went to great use on the bicycle and I discovered I could ride hundreds of kilometers and cook just about anyone on the bike-crazy roads of the  French department of Isere.

Aside from the fact that cycling took my legs from me, I bear it no grudge as it wasn’t cycling’s fault, it was mine. All that distance training came into great use once I bought a hand cycle and started racing big-city marathons. I copped a couple of big city top tens (Washington D.C., Detroit, Seattle) and even won my home town Portland Marathon twice. So the scourge of being the worst cross country runner in the history of my high school was all but abated.

Until Saturday.

2002 Portland Marathon - Vindication!

Friday night I was riding the hospital bus into the disability compound in Jorpati, an eastern suburb of Kathmandu. The local wheelchair basketball team plays on Saturday morning so I’ve been taking my weekends there instead of my neighborhood which is wildly boring – especially when the power and Internet go out.

 I asked my friend on the bus if he was going to play and he said basketball was cancelled because of a 5K race. He told me I could still get in the race and seven wheelers from the SIRC were entered so there were sure to be rides to the start in Pattan.

Check out the logo on the rop left. It's the Association of Nepalis living in Minnesota.
The state outline kind of looks like the Nepali flag. 

I was up at 6 a.m. and rolled out to see two women racers grabbing a cab for the start. Amazingly enough we packed three racers, three chairs, the driver and two young kids into a four seat taxi. The cab driver had no such experience in this and drove with his emergency flashers on. I pointed to the flashers and gestured to him asking why they were on. One of the racers told me he thinks that since he has chairs on his roof he can get through traffic if he acts like he’s an ambulance. I reached over and shut them off.

This rig took about a half-hour to unload. 
We arrived at the start at 7:30 a half an hour before race time. But this is Nepal and nothing happens on time. 8 O’clock came and went and there was still a line of 50 wheelers waiting to get their t-shirts and numbers. I was sizing up the competition and figured that with such a short race, I’d just hop on the front pack, suck their wind for a while then pull around at the end and try to win the bunch sprint. Their chairs were all heavy and mine is made of feathery light aluminum. I hadn’t worked out since leaving the States, but neither had any of the people I knew from SIRC. With all the racing miles I’ve got in my arms, I had to be faster than they were.

Lining up for second place!
We toed the line around 8:30, but had to wait for dignitaries to give long winded speeches – a must for any event in Nepal. I thought we were about to go, when Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball poured out of the speaker system and 12 cheerleaders formed a line dance. It was theater of the absurd and I would have been just fine with it except I downed a liter of water when I got out of the cab thinking I’d be racing soon. Now it was just collecting in my bladder.

What road race doesn't start out with dancers? 
After the dance we turned back around to start the race, only to discover the street had been doubly booked. A couple hundred protesters were coming at us carrying signs in Nepali. I have no idea what they were protesting, and nobody around me spoke English well enough to tell me. The parade went on for a half an hour with me wondering if I had time to sneak off for a piss.

At 9:30 the starter called us to the line and just casually said, “Ok let’s go.” A couple of guys peeled out and I jumped right on their tail only to discover that during the past week my front caster wheels had turned into rickety grocery cart wheels. On Tuesday, my flat mate Fiona noticed my wheels were getting squeaky so she suggested I go to the repair shop inside the SIRC. I rolled in and the head mechanic said he knew what the problem was. I hopped out of my chair and he disassembled both caster wheels, cleaned them out, then re-assembled them. Now these wheels are actually quite complicated. You can’t just unscrew them and screw them back in place or they’ll stick to the side of the mount. It’s actually quite a delicate job to get them to work properly. He told me he’d never seen wheels like these before, but he knew how to get them to work. Once he was done, he spun both wheels and they freely whipped their way around the mount. The floors in the SIRC are smooth as glass so for the rest of the week, I never even noticed a wobble.

Take your marks... Get Set!   OK, we've got a little delay...

For a Nepalese street, this one was actually fairly smooth and had only a few pot holes (as opposed to Jorpati which is one big pothole). But once I went for an angry push, both my casters shook like a dog leaving a lake. The harder I pushed, the more they shook. As the lead pack flew away from me, I tried to hang onto one of the wheelers from the SIRC. After only a half mile he easily pulled away from me in a big heavy 3-wheel chair made for going over rocks.

Before the first mile, the last of the men had pulled away from me and only the slowest women stayed behind me. I was putting in more effort than anyone in the race but I was going backwards. It was like doing an uphill bike race with your brakes on.  I hadn’t felt this humiliated since the final race of my senior cross country season. After the turn at 2.5k, there were only a few women behind me. One by one they all caught me and smoothly pulled ahead. There was nothing I could do. I just kept pushing for all I was worth and my chair shook with defiance on every pull.

By the time I neared the finish line they had already started the awards ceremony. I made it over the line and a bunch of able-bodied helpers ran along with me cheering like they do the developmentally disabled kids. When I crossed the line I was drenched head to toe and my arms were cooked. People kept coming up to me telling me how they loved my spirit – by golly I was “Inspirational!” – and then they would grab the back of my chair and try to push me.

My co-worker Kesh Bahadur Gurung and me post-race. Guess which one took last? 
I wanted to punch a couple of the over-zealous do-gooders in the nads, but I opted for a polite, “Please don’t push my chair.” To which one guy said while grabbing my handles and pushing, “Relax man, I’ll push you – You deserve it!”

I held tightly to my wheels and sternly said, “Look man, don’t touch my chair.” He started to come back with some hyper positive affirmation until he saw that his gonads might actually be in danger. Then he let go and moved on to someone else.

As I slugged a bottle of water all I could think of was good ol’ coach Bieterman… “Thomas… that was… something.”

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