HELL ON WHEELS

Craig Blanchette, the world-record holder in the wheelchair mile, has lifted his demanding sport to a new level
July 16, 1989

Craig Blanchette wrestled at 106 pounds for the varsity in his senior year at Springfield (Ore.) High in 1986. He won 12 matches and lost six. "People had trouble with me getting to their legs," he says.

He had no such trouble. He has no legs. Blanchette was born, 21 years ago, with no femurs, and vestigial lower legs and feet. He was compensated with a boundless capacity to adapt and astound. He enjoys your imagining a wrestling opponent trying to contain a wildly scuttling torso. "It was really bad for some guys, but once we were both down on the mat, it evened out well," says Blanchette. That was not the last time he would make legs seem a liability.

Blanchette, like many other so-called impaired humans, seems emancipated from convention. Gold earrings and a diamond stud in his right nostril underscore that impression. Cat quick, he plays a fierce game of racquetball. He skis. He often uses a skateboard to get around. Now, with superb performances in his true calling, he is certifying wheelchair racing above the realm of disabled games, as compelling sport.

In 1985 Blanchette was in front of his house, tending his mother's garage sale, when a man named Kevin Hansen cruised by in a racing wheelchair. "My grandfather had bought me one, but I'd never used it." says Blanchette. Hansen, a racer and coach, got Blanchette going. "He told me to push three to five miles every other day."

Blanchette proved to be a prodigy. Already strong, and getting stronger, he developed a powerfully smooth technique. Soon he was a contender on the national wheelchair-racing circuit. Equipped with a new chair, he went to the Phoenix 10K in November 1986.

"I took a wrong turn and went off course at a mile and a half," says Blanchette. "Jim Martinson. Marty Ball and George Murray [then the sport's dominant racer and holder at the time of the world record for the mile, at 3:59.4] went by and got a 50-meter gap. I was stuck back in a big drafting line [wheelchair racing tactics are similar to cycling's]. I popped out and caught the leaders with a mile left. When I did, George turned and said. 'I don't want you slowing us down, kid. I want us side by side.'

"I said, 'No way. I'm tired. If I'm too slow, go around me.' So they did, and I drafted on them. Near the finish there was a corner with a little cement ramp built to get us over a curb. I'd practiced that corner." Blanchette launched a wild finishing sprint, and he beat Murray by .3 of a second to win in 25:01.5.

Blanchette had arrived—whereupon he kept going. Eleven straight victories in 1987, including Tampa's Gasparilla Distance Classic, where he set a 15K world best of 37:19 (he improved it this year to 37:05), brought him competitive supremacy, a little prize money and eventually a sponsorship from Nike.

Blanchette's tactics may be cycling-inspired, but his training is grounded in running. Hansen applies the principles of former Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, keeping Blanchette at about 30 miles per week and employing a sophisticated system of intervals on the track to build his speed and recovery ability. There will be no marathons, they have agreed, until Blanchette is older and has properly explored the middle distances.

Blanchette trains uphill for power, downhill for his tuck. "Once you're over about 23 miles per hour, you can't push," he says. "So if you're aerodynamically better on a downhill, you can get a lead. and there is absolutely nothing anyone else can do." In May he won the Lilac Bloomsday Race in Spokane by breaking away in this fashion.

"A 10-kilometer race is 20 little races," says Blanchette, explaining his aggressive strategy. "If you lose one, you've gotten gapped." Not one to be gapped, he won the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on July 4 with a 21:52 clocking, which shattered the world record by 48 seconds.

Blanchette's acceleration is so great that he can cover almost any move an opponent makes or bolt away whenever he senses weakness. "He can race any way he wants." says Bob Hall, one of the sport's pioneers, who won the Boston Marathon's wheelchair competition in 1975 and '77. "And he shows no mercy on those behind him."

Hall now builds racing chairs, including Blanchette's. "I always tried to exhibit myself as an athlete in my races, and I did well," says Hall. ""But it was clear there was a long way to go. Now Craig has the tools, the coaching, the advances in chair design. He's the guy we all hoped to he."

Maybe not in every particular. Blanchette suffers from a barely controlled lust to be a disc jockey, though for now he contents himself with working dances, parties and under-21 clubs. He has dyed his hair pink and blue to set off his shirts. "Do I love attention?" says Blanchette. "For goodness' sake. I drive a pink van."

A van with three shades of pink and a broad magenta stripe, to be exact. The license reads DEPECH. "Depeche Mode is a new-wave group," he explains for the benefit of the trend-impaired.

The van, which Blanchette drives with the help of elongated pedals, has skirts. "They're conveyor belts I cut up to make it look low," he says. Sometimes when the van balks at starting, Blanchette hops out, grabs the left front tire, wrenches it and the van into motion, scrambles back in, pops the clutch and roars off. "Hey, it's not how you feel," he says of the sleek but temperamental van. "It's how you look."

At the University of Oregon's Hayward Field, he takes his racing chair from the van. "People see this," he says, "and say. "What do you call that? A cart? A bike?' They seem to think chair is somehow, subliminally, negative."

This one has a specially treated steel alloy frame, two 27-inch racing-bicycle wheels on the sides and a 16-inch front wheel. "That's an improvement over the old ones with two front wheels." says Hansen. "Two can't turn together without a little 'scrubbing.' a little drag."

The chair Hall won with at Boston weighed 48 pounds. This one weighs about 13. (Blanchette will soon be getting a titanium model, which will be a couple of pounds lighter.) Fastened to the outside spokes of the large wheels are 16-inch rings, wrapped with black friction tape. It is to these that a racer applies his power, and a key decision is how large they should be. Using a smaller ring would seem to correspond to going to a higher, faster gear in cycling, but that's not the case with Blanchette. He started with 13-inch rings, and as he has tried larger ones, he has gotten faster. "A large ring," says Hansen, "lets him bring his whole shoulder girdle and all his arm muscles to bear on his stroke."

A small one, moreover, can put more abrupt stress on the arms. "You see guys blowing elbows with 10-inch rings," says Hansen. Blanchette tugs on gloves that have an extra slab of blackened synthetic leather stretched around the knuckles of his first two fingers and across to the base of his thumb. That's where the hand meets the ring. "I used to tape my hands, but that took time, " he says. In fact, it took at least 45 minutes. "And the tape was always rolling up or giving me blisters."

He gets in the chair, cinches himself down with a Velcro strap, puts on shades and heads out for an 800-meter warmup. Hansen uses the time to fill you in on the remarkable scope of wheelchair sport. "There are 20 million 'mobility-impaired' people in the U.S., and about 700,000 people use wheelchairs," he says. "Something like seven percent of all chair users are athletes."

For the most part, these athletes were adaptive, physical people who have had disabling injuries and are striving to become adaptive, physical people again. Of course, all these cases begin with terrible stories. However, at least among wheelchair athletes, they are told in a terse and practiced way. to impart the facts but spare the listener the need to blanch and moan. The offensive thing around here is not dismemberment but pity.

"I'd skied for 18 years." says the 36-year-old Hansen. "In 1975 hotdogging came into vogue, and I went out—with a broken neck."

It's probably not possible to gross out Blanchette with wheelchair jokes. National Lampoon long ago ran a picture spoofing wheelchair springboard diving. Told of it. Blanchette. far from being offended, thought it was something he would like to try. "Remember." he says. "I was born the way I am. I'm not someone who was injured and had to relearn everything." Even so. he relates to those whose disabilities are the results of injuries. He screamed in delight at the words of the beast on an episode of television's Jim Henson Hour. "You call us monsters? We prefer the term cosmetically challenged."

Hansen directs Blanchette to continue his workout with a pair of 1,000-meter intervals in 2:40 apiece. A runner might do the same, but a runner doesn't have to pump through 30 or 50 meters just to reach cruising speed. Once he's there, though, Blanchette maintains velocity with far less obvious work. Sometimes he'll glide for 30 meters before putting in two or three sharp downward flicks. "Not all the guys do that," says Hansen, "but I figure if he's got that kind of feedback from his body, hey, let it speak."

Wheelchair records reflect both slow starts and the chairs' high sustainable speeds on the straight and level. The world 100-meter mark is 15.55 seconds; the 200, 28.75; the 400, 55.78, all much slower than those for men afoot (100 meters, 9.83; 200, 19.72; and 400 43.29). But Philippe Couprie's wheelchair marathon record of 1:36:04 is a full half hour faster than the 2:06:50 world mark of runner Belaine Densimo of Ethiopia. Blanchette's new 10,000 record works out to a remarkable average of about 3:30 per mile, yet until this year only Murray had ever broken four minutes for a single mile on a track. A track's curves make it extremely difficult to maintain speed.

Blanchette does two 800's, each in 2:06, pumping hard along the straightaways, bouncing the front end around the turns. The chair has a spring-loaded cylinder that he can activate to lock his front wheel at the angle of the curves. But Blanchette. as ever, prefers to set his own course.

Next, he pumps through six 100-meter sprints, his hair flying. He recovers quickly. His sixth is in 16 seconds, very near the world record. "He did a wind-aided 13.8 the other day." says Hansen. "Every month or two he does something I thought was impossible."

Blanchette also trains with weights, sometimes doing bar dips with up to 180 pounds of barbell plates chained to his 130-pound body. That work translates to forceful stroke mechanics in the chair. "Power is from 12 o'clock to five o'clock on the ring," says Hansen, who sends Blanchette through two 600's, then checks to see that his pulse, which reaches 180 beats per minute in flight, drops to 110 within 1½ minutes.

To make for fair competition, wheelchair racing has a classification system. "It's based on where you broke your spine." says Blanchette. "Kevin is a class IA, the most impaired quad with enough arm mobility to race. I'm class V and open, the least impaired. An able-bodied man can race in the open division. But he's at a little weight disadvantage against me. He has legs." In fact, unimpaired athletes have occasionally competed in open wheelchair road races—and have usually been soundly beaten.

Blanchette concludes the workout with an all-out 300. Coming off the turn, his inside wheel lifts from the track, but he holds his line to finish in a personal-best 37 seconds flat. "I was wondering if I was going to be able to take that corner," he says.

The Olympics include two exhibition wheelchair races, at 800 meters for women and 1,500 for men. The Olympic 1,500 is the most frustratingly tactical distance for runners, and it's similarly challenging for pushers: In Seoul, however, Blanchette was not of a mind to hang back and kick. "I led at 400 in 58 [seconds]," he says, "and moved out and waited for them to come around."

Oh, callow youth! "No one did." he continues. "All I saw were their shadows." France's Mustapha Badid and defending Olympic champion Paul Van Winkel of Belgium were drafting on him, spending far less energy. But Blanchette continued to set the pace—"After 800 I was racing for the sport and not for me," he says—until, with 200 meters to go, they shot past him, both taking a 10-meter lead over him. Badid won in 3:33.51, to Van Winkel's 3:33.61, but Blanchette cut their margin to three meters in the stretch, finishing in 3:34.37. The bronze confirmed his talent and made him mad to show more of it.

So this spring he and Hansen plotted an attack on Murray's 3:59.4 record for the mile. The week before last month's Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., Blanchette tapered to a restorative 13 miles of training. He had the back cut from his slippery, long-sleeved Darlexx racing suit and replaced it with cooling mesh.

The day came, along with a strong north wind that killed record chances in all the running races. Blanchette conceded nothing. "The plan was to throw in a surge 150 meters into the race, to test everyone's seriousness." he says, "then wait for the pack to catch up."

That he did, passing 400 meters in a modest 61.4 (even though it was a mile race, Hansen timed Blanchette's splits in meters), a few feet ahead of Kevin Orr, a friend and a top racer. "I told Kevin to go around," Blanchette recalls, "and he took the lead to the 600." Having Orr in front allowed Blanchette to hide from the wind on the second back-stretch, but Orr became exhausted.

"I went by him and got a gap." says Blanchette. "He said. 'If you can sprint like that, go now.' But I waited. At 800 I thought I heard 2:00 I the split was actually 1:58]. I looked at Coach, shaking my head like, Am I going?"

Hansen said yes, by all means, go. So Blanchette came up with an unheard-of third quarter of 52 seconds. "I was holding off the adrenaline rush." says Blanchette. "I could feel my body starting to tingle with it. I was trying to go boom-boom float, boom-boom float and be cool."

With 500 to go, he was strangely elated with his power, drunk with it. "I started to do a little wrist wave at the crowd, a habit from road racing." he says. "I caught myself and ducked back into my racing lean."

Now he had a single lap to hold on. The Eugene crowd, well versed in miling, was stamping him home. "I just remember hitting the hand rings down the last backstretch." says Blanchette. "And moving the steering in the last turn."

Over the final 100 meters his hands and arms shot down on the rings with such force and flew out behind with such abandon that he seemed a butterflyer gone wild. This vision of athletic mastery obliterated any sense of handicap. Legs, again, were superfluous.

At the finish line he threw up an arm to break the photoelectric beam of the automatic timer and was done. His time of 3:51.0 lopped more than eight seconds from the record. Quickly recovering. Blanchette took an ecstatic victory lap.

Hansen experienced a coach's classic reaction to a remarkable performance. "What did I do," Hansen kept asking himself, "to ever deserve bumping into this athlete?"

Many of the fans trembled. One was Mike Hodges, the track coach at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, who grew up in Eugene and threw the javelin for Oregon. "I've seen the great things that have happened here." said Hodges. "From the runs of Steve Prefontaine and Henry Rono, back through the first sub-four-minute mile here, by Dyrol Burleson in 1960." His eyes grew misty, as though he were seeing it all again. "This man's mile." he said, "was the equal of those."

"Equal," said Blanchette with satisfaction when told of Hodges's assessment. "That's a good start. Now, you say Steve Cram's mile record is 3:46.32?"

PHOTOLANE STEWART PHOTOPETER READ MILLERBlanchette blasted to his 3:51.0 record last month in a state-of-the-art 13-pound chair. PHOTOLANE STEWARTHansen (left) considers himself blessed to be coaching an athlete as gifted as Blanchette. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBlanchette's aggressive tactics in the Seoul 1,500 won him the lead but cost him the gold. TWO PHOTOSLANE STEWARTHardly a shrinking violet, Blanchette gets about in a pink-and-magenta van and does turns as a disc jockey at parties and clubs. PHOTOLANE STEWARTBlanchette's training regimen includes considerable time spent in the weight room.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)