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 16, 2013

A Boston Marathon Story

The first time I ever got a paid writing gig was covering The 1994 Boston Marathon for the fledgling Adidas America corporate newspaper, L’adidas. Jay Edwards, who was corporate America’s equivalent of Ken Kesey, started the paper to cover the unique corporate culture that defined the early days of Adidas America in Portland, Oregon.

They covered athletes, business departments, corporate events and publicly mocked a deserving employee each issue. In the Feb ’94 issue L’adidas announced its’ first ever writing contest, a 100-word essay on why you want to write an article from the Boston Marathon. The prize, of course, was an all-expense paid trip to Boston to write said article.

I had been a big Bill Rogers fan as a teen and was familiar with some of the legend of the Boston Marathon and Heartbreak Hill. I submitted my entry which was a story of how my mother ran the Boston Marathon pregnant w/me and gave birth to me in the middle of Heartbreak Hill. She never got to finish that race, so I had to go and finish it for her!

A lot of this is his fault. I'm lucky to have had drinks a few times  with Bill Rodgers over the past few Portland Marathons. He is as crazy as this looks. (cheapseat.blogs.starnewsonline.com)

Edwards got a spit take from the entry and I ended up on a plane to Boston. Although my Boston Marathon article was nowhere near as memorable as my entry (some people at Adidas actually believed my story!), it was in fact my first paid writing gig. And I never really looked back. That’s all I wanted to do from then on.

Fast forward to 1998 and I found myself working full time for L’adidas as an actual corporate reporter – albeit still working for the Ken Kesey of corporate America. I was also in a wheelchair having taken a horrific spill on my bike. One day Stephen Hamilton, from the Soccer Unit, came down to our office and announced he’d just signed up for one of the spots on the Adidas corporate team for the Boston Marathon. Adidas has always been the equipment sponsor for the race and is given a few non-qualifier entries. (Qualifying for Boston is VERY difficult.)

Hamilton looked at me and said, “How ‘bout you, Tommy – you in?” I gave it very little thought and said, “Hell yes, I’m in – as long as I can get a racing chair.”

1999 L'adidas Boston Marathon Edition

Edwards over heard the conversation and said, “You just start training and I’ll find you a racing chair.”

And so during the cold damp winter months of 1997-8, I began rolling 5-6 mile lunches and 10-20 mile Saturday mornings. Come Patriots Day I was once again covering The Boston Marathon for L’adidas, this time kneeling in my brand-new Quickie race chair sponsored by Adidas Retail Outlets – which coincidentally was headed up by Jay Edwards. It also must be noted that ARO did not have a promotional budget as such, so you can guess where the money for the chair came from.

At the time, the Boston Marathon was the de-facto World Wheelchair Championships and I was severely out of my league. Not only had I not qualified, I’d never even done the distance before. And I’d only had three weeks to train in the new-fangled racing chair.

But out of the gate I went letting all the big-time wheelers blast ahead of me. After a nervous start, I found a comfortable pace and the wonders of Boston slowly unfolded before me. The craziness of Hopkington was replaced by a bit of rural New England then an actual crowd roar as I rolled into Natick. The timbre of the crowd shifted to soprano as I passed Wellesley and before I even felt tired I came upon the Newton Hills. These hills weren’t as nasty as the ones I’d trained on in Oregon, so when I came upon Heartbreak Hill, where my imaginary mother had given birth to me, I charged it w/all my might. From then on it was all a blur as every magical inch was accompanied by a consistent and deafening roar from the crowd, sometimes 3-4 deep.

Eventually I hopped on Beacon, passed Fenway, and smelled the homestretch. Before I knew it, I turned on to Boylston and saw the greatest stadium in the history of endurance sports – the arrival of the Boston Marathon. Five lanes wide ending in a giant blue sign with those golden letters 'FINISH' dominating the horizon. Spectators were 6-8 deep and the bleachers along the last few hundred meters were packed.  I was greeted with a massive roar which I hadn’t heard since my days as a show diver. I was the 50th and second last chair on the course and I thought to myself, “Man, these people just loves ‘em a crip race!” What I didn’t realize was that the eventual female winner, Fatuma Roba, was just a few paces behind me and the crowd was actually cheering her. But WTF – I had the best seat in the house!

Completing the Boston Marathon led to more significant competitions - like this drag race in the suburbs of Delhi in 2000

Had I arrived at this same point on Monday, this is where it all would have ended. A police man would have come up to me and told me to stop.  In 1998, I ended up finishing the race, getting a medal placed around my neck, then meeting up w/family and friends who showered me w/hugs, praise and beer. It was my statement to the world that I was back! My legs don’t work, but screw that! I just did the muther-fukking BOSTON MARATHON!

It changed me forever. It made me whole again.

And this is the feeling that some deranged freak robbed from thousands of people yesterday. Aside from the lives they ruined, they took away that sense of fulfillment that can only come from crossing the finish line of the muther-fukking BOSTON MARATHON. There is no level of disdain describable that is as low as I feel for the culprits of this cultural rape.

Marathoners being held up just short of the finish.(Boston Globe)

Whatever your sick cause is, you have destroyed it. My cause is hope. My cause is effort. My cause is victory. And even if you blew my ass to kingdom come you would never be able to destroy that.

Tom Haig: International Road Race CHAMPION!

Taken literally this is, in fact, the truth. I DID win an international 10k on Sunday:

But if you look closely my podium is quite empty, the reason being I was the only wheelchair entered in the First Annual Aix Les Bains 10km du Lac. Also, I happened to be the only foreigner in the entire race.

NONETHELESS - I did come in first place and also set the course record! OK, I am in fact the only one in history to have actually registered a time in the event. Basically I finished a relatively smooth local 10k without incident. But having lived in the false-glory world of hand cycling, this really brought me back to where I am as a runner. While it is true that I’ve won a couple of Portland marathons and finished in the top ten in some huge races (Detroit, Seattle, DC), I am still the worst four-year Cross Country runner in the history of my  high school. They actually gave me a charity varsity letter my senior year even though I never once scored a point for said varsity.

My body type just isn’t cut out for running so I gave it up after high school and picked up cycling. Cycling, with its mechanical advantage and reliance on the thighs I’d developed being a catcher and springboard diver, was much more to my liking. Early on in my life as a disabled athlete, I competed in a racing chair, but even that is closer to cycling than running.

But for the 10k this Sunday, seeing as it was a short course and I was the only chair competing, I decided to roll the 6.2 miles in my daily wheel chair, a 22 lb. four-wheeled Quickie. The race director gave me a one-minute head start so I wouldn’t get tangled up with the elite runners. But the eventual winner, Benjamin Cheruiyot (31’30”) passed me before I hit minute number two.

Benjamin Cheruiyot is a Kenyan exile, ex-Auburn Tiger, running for the track club in Aix.(Dauphiné Libéré)

Soon after Cheruiyot blew by me, a familiar feeling I’d repressed decades ago came back. Everybody started passing me. First it was young men, next it was the ladies. A couple of teen agers dusted me, then a pack of gray-haired studs… then a couple of gray-haired not-so-studs. By the time I’d hit the turnaround point I’d settled into a group of nine-minute milers – whom should not be mistaken for a group of nine-minute marathon milers. These people were gasping just to finish the 10k.

If I paid for the pic do I have to credit it?? (OK - Gerald Vagneron Photo)

The turnaround was a bit tough as the course became slightly hilly and broke down into a couple sections of gravel and smooth cobblestone. But once back on the main course, a smooth and wide pedestrian path along the stunningly beautiful Lac du Bourget, I became inspired and started picking off runners. First it was the chubby guy who got me on the gravel. Then it was the granny who took me on the bridge at 6k. Eventually I caught up with the hipster who looked like he was jonesing for a smoke.

Finally the finish line was in sight and I went for my big push. But seeing as nobody in my group wanted to be the guy who lost to the wheelchair dude, all of them unceremoniously passed me on the final rise 100 meters before the finish.

Has that guy in the chair finished yet? 

I have absolutely no idea what my time or place was as I think they may have turned the clock off after the first couple hundred finishers. But being the first chair across the line, I was asked by the race organizer to hang around for the awards presentation.

I really wanted to hit the beer tent, but instead I sat in front of the stage for an hour while they presented fairly lavish gifts and trophies for the winners of nearly 20 categories. All the meanwhile behind me they are scrambling to find something to present to me.

Aix's Homecoming King and Queen - Euro 100m champ Christophe Lemaitre w/Miss Aix Les Bains.

As it turns out, this is actually my SECOND international crown as I won the Herzogenaurach, Germany 8k road race back in 1997. Herzogenaurach is the main headquarters of Adidas as well as Puma. A few of my work friends entered a seriously jet-lagging me into the local road race. As a prank they told me the German announcer had called my race then sent me to the starting line of the kids race just so they could get a hoot from watching me roll back after I realized I'd started the 2k race, not the 8k. But eventually I came away victorious in the 8K! Although there were plenty of foreigners in the Herzo race, I was of course the only chair.

Herzo Track Club! 

After the Herzo race the organizers embarrassingly scrambled around to find something to give to the handicapped winner. They found a Herzo Track Club bathroom cup which I still proudly display. So it was no surprise for me to see the same faces scrambling around on Sunday to come up with something which ended up being a T-shirt that was too small, a key chain and a water bottle – which I will use!

One really cool thing resulting from getting my butt out of bed was that the person giving away the awards was Aix Les Bains' own, Christophe Lemaitre. Lemaitre happens to be the fastest white guy on the planet -> first Caucasian to break 10 seconds in the 100 meters..

So I will leave you this lasting image of the world’s greatest and worst white runners:

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Living the dream... almost!

Had a great time talking to Wayne Chism, Erroyl Bing and Antoine Michone from the Aix-Maurienne basketball team here in Aix les Bains. Take a peek at what life is like for most college players who decide to continue to play.

For full screen push play then double click.