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

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:

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