Not many of you will be aware, but we now have a wheelchair athlete as part of our club, Anthony Gotts. Anthony is a top level athlete who has been proudly wearing our famous colours whilst competing all over the world – even getting us some recent TV coverage at the Great North Run. I for one am proud we as a club welcome all athletes & recently Anthony and three other wheelchair athletes completed the annual Manchester to Blackpool Ride with great support from our members, Garry Wilkinson, Paul Wale, David Hogan, Myself and also John Lloyd of Cannonball Events. Below is Anthony’s account of his recent trip to Portugal to compete in the Lisbon Half Marathon:-
I’ve just got back from my first international race as a wheelchair athlete in Lisbon, Portugal. It was an invite only race so I was pretty surprised to get an invite 8 weeks ago as at the time my PB was a next to useless 77min.
I am part of the Weir Archer Academy which was set up in April by David Weir and his long term coach Jenny Archer – I’m sure David needs no introduction but his (and now my) coach is little known outside disability sport and that is a huge shame. Jenny coached David to six Paralympic golds, four of which were in London last year she has also guided him to six London Marathon wins, four world records and British records at every distance from 100m to Marathon! She also worked with the famous Wimbledon Crazy Gang and was known as the ‘woman who tamed the crazy gang’! Anybody who is considered to have tamed Dennis wise, John Fashanu, Lawrie Sanchez and Vinnie Jones is obviously hard as nails! Jenny and Dave wanted to get involved with this whole legacy thing that we had drummed into us all during the London Games, they took it upon themselves to set up a group where disabled athletes can get world class coaching and access to all the backroom support that international athletes get.
Being a member of the Weir Archer Academy is what got me invited to the race along with four other WAA athletes; My mates who did the Manchester to Blackpool push with me which CLEM members helped with Kirsty Grange and Stuart Bloor along with London based athletes Ash Archer and Justin Levine. When I got the invite I spoke to Jenny and we said if I accepted I needed to get some serious work done as 77min wasn’t an acceptable PB, I spent a week on a new training program whilst I decided if I should accept or not. I loved training twice a day and doing the extra milage so I decided to give it a crack. All I had to do was find £160 for my flights everything else was paid for by the organisers.
Five weeks into my new training plan I did the Tyne Tunnel 2km and Great North Run. The Tyne Tunnel race is the fastest wheelchair race in the world and I finished 9th overall and 3rd Brit. I was over 2min faster than last year and enjoyed every moment!
Two days later I did the GNR one year after the course almost made me quit racing because of the pain I was in for a few weeks after the race. This year I was in a new chair custom built to fit me exactly, I was fitter and lighter. I really enjoyed the race this year and smashed my PB with 55:36 and 12th place. I think that is the one and only time I will ever have a 22min PB! The weekend in Newcastle gave me a huge boost of confidence and made me knuckle down and train even harder out on the roads of Rossendale and down at Barden Lane track for the last 3 weeks building up towards the Lisbon race.
I flew out on Thursday morning, had quite a few people in the airport doing the ‘trying not to stare’ routine. I guess a lad pushing a wheelchair with one hand whilst pushing a race chair along in front with his spare hand complete with suitcase, spare wheels and pump stacked on top is a fairly unusual sight! Whilst sat in departures the mother phoned to wish me luck and remind me that last time I competed abroad I ended up in a wheelchair so I “wasn’t to do anything stupid” – yeah, cheers for that mum!
We were met at the airport in Lisbon by the race staff who had our chairs in a van and us in a car on the way to the elite athletes hotel in no time. The hotel was the same one the England football team stayed in during Euro 2004, my apartment had three bedrooms, two bathrooms a kitchen and large lounge with a wrap around balcony. I shared with Justin and Ash, who are both fairly new to the sport like me. We had time to explore the hotel, test out the indoor pool and sauna, pick up a start list and google everybody’s PB’s before tea. The dinner table was like a who’s who of wheelchair road racing with most of the athletes being paralympians. Friday morning was spent chatting with the foreign lads and picking up tips on everything from gluing sandpaper to gloves for grip in wet weather to how much pressure to put in tyres on a rough course like Lisbon. At lunch time all the elite athletes able bodied and disabled were taken to a press conference at the Hilton. I have to say sitting through two hours of foreign politicians making speeches which looked to be of the mutual back patting type was extremely boring when you don’t speak a word of Portuguese, a few of the Kenyans fell asleep!! The speeches were followed by the papers taking photo’s and once we were all suitably blinded by the flash bulbs we were led to the dinning room for lunch. I managed to make an idiot of my self on the way by pulling a hand rail off the leather lined walls of the lift – still it got a cheer and a round of applause from all the other wheelers waiting for the lift!
Lunch made up for the two hours of boredom a thousand times over, swordfish and it was b.e.a.u.tiful and once I knew it was definitely free the northerner in me came to the fore ‘owt for nowt’….. I had an apple crumble for desert, followed by gateaux..followed by fruit salad… followed by chocolate cheesecake. All of which were great! After stuffing my face at the Hilton we had a couple of hours rest before a training session at Portugal’s national athletics center which was built into the side of a hill which meant it had virtually no wind at all. The track was old and worn which made it really fast for chairs as there was no give in the surface. Jenny had us do an easy 10km, it was hard to hold back on such a fast track when I felt so fit, I didn’t want to give anything away to my competitors so each time somebody was near me on the track I stopped pushing and started doing arm drills instead.
Saturday morning we had another session on the same track, just an easy 5km. As soon as the minibus and van stopped I was out and in my chair, I got the 5km done whilst others were still messing about getting sorted before starting the session. That suited me and helped me with my tactic of not giving anything away. In the afternoon I had a massage from the race physio on a niggle in my shoulder that Garry Wilkinson has been working on at home. I ate my own body weight in rice and had an early night.
On race day I was up and ready for breakfast at 6AM, WAA athletes and Jenny had a table to ourselves and she did a great job of calming us all down. Once our chairs had been loaded all the elite athletes traveled to the start in convoy with a police escort, complete with out riders who closed off roundabouts and traffic light controlled junctions to let us speed through. We had a 200m long stretch of road on a hill to warm up on which was soon filled with nervous looking athletes, about 5min before the start we had our final team talk from Jenny and then made our way to the start grid. I was 4 rows back but there were another 4 rows behind me so it was the furthest forward I have ever started a race. Once in position Jenny went round her athletes and whispered a final instruction for each individual. She has a way of getting the best from us and I used my instruction through the course.
Once the gun went there was the usual mad dash for the racing line, my main targets were Stuart who was next to me on the start grid, Bret Crossley who beat me by over three minutes at the Great North and was on the row in front of me along with Shelly Woods who also beat me at the great North by a few minutes (however old we get and however good they are, lads don’t like losing to girls!). I knew lads in the row behind were gunning for me so I started fast and shot around Shelly before the roundabout followed by a steep climb 80m into the course. Stuart stuck by my side up the climb and I think we were both a little surprised that Bret had stole a march on us, Bret is faster than both of us but he isn’t usually as strong on the climbs. we spent a kilometer or so closing the gap on him and by the next hill we had caught him and passed him. Stu then worked at the front for three kilometers or so and I hung on like hell, to be honest he had me blowing big time but I didn’t let him go. By kilometer six we had caught a Portuguese athlete but Bret had caught us, I noticed the Portuguese guy pushing one handed for long periods and it annoyed me he was keeping up with me so I hit the front of our group and tried to drop him. After going past the 10km mark in 24:29 (1min 37 under my 10km PB) I decided I’d done my bit and asked Stu to take over at the front. I tucked in behind him and unfortunately he took us straight to a huge pothole, Stu hit it, I rammed Stu and hit the pothole but Bret and the Portuguese one armed bandit managed to swerve round us and keep their speed.
We spent another two kilometers closing back in on the pair of them when Bret’s tyre exploded – it’s awful seeing that happen to a mate but there is nothing you can do about it. The one armed bandit almost stopped pushing until we caught him, he really didn’t like doing any work at the front of the group. At kilometer 14 I was starting to think about the finish line and the fact that my training buddy has a much much faster 100m pb to me. I’d never been with him at any point other than the first 5km in my other two Half Marathons but I decided to try an wind it up ‘Paula Style’ and drop him before the finish. I worked my backside off and opened a gap on three occasions but each time the course threw a hill at me. Stuart only has one leg so his power to weight ratio is slightly better than mine as I have two useless limbs to carry around with me, he closed the gap each time and the inevitable happened…. We hit the last 300m and he shot round me along with the one armed bandit who was now pushing with both arms again. The Finish was an experience to say the least, it was made with small uneven cobbles complete with speed bumps (who the hell speeds on cobbles?) it was like riding rodeo and I seriously thought I was going to end up out of the chair. Stu and the part-time one armed bandit both got given the same finish time and they had taken 6 seconds out of me but I was mega happy with my 8th place and 54:26 taking 1:10 off my three week old PB on such a rough old course was a good day at the office.
At the finish line everyone was comparing war wounds and missing kit, there were GoPro, Garmin, race gloves, push rims and tyres that had been lost whilst trying to stay seated in the home straight…. luckily I had only lost my Jelly Babies that I hadn’t had chance to eat.
That night the Weir Archer crew hit the hotel bar with Shelly Woods and her fella. We had a few beers and swapped stories just like I would have done after a big race as a runner. It was a cracking trip and I learnt so much from both my coach, the other athletes and the organisers (who did a cracking job). I can’t wait for my next opportunity to wear the Clayton vest abroad – Whatever the design 😉