On a Roll: The Anatomy of Wheelchair Marathon Cyclist

Photo illustration by Jesse Lenz

The marathon is set for April 18, and chances are that we already know the winners of the wheelchair division. Ernst van Dyk has won nine of the past 10 wheelchair Boston Marathons. (Before him, Franz Nietlispach took five of six and Jim Knaub three in a row.) On the women’s side, Wakako Tsuchida has won the past four, which is nice, but nothing compared with Jean Driscoll, who came in first every year from 1990 to 1996, and again in 2000. In case it isn’t obvious, when you win a wheelchair Boston Marathon, you tend to keep winning…and winning…and winning. What are the keys to perennial glory? We talked to van Dyk and Driscoll, the race’s two greatest champions, to get the breakdown.

1. Head  A fast start in the hilly first 10 miles is critical to a racer’s confidence. “Winners in Boston all use the same strategy: They get away, then they stay away,” van Dyk says. Once you get the lead, the hills become your friend; they make it hard for your trailers to see you. “And if you can’t see the guy, you can’t chase him.”

2. Upper Body  The most powerful competitors can push down hardest on the wheels rather than whip through reps the fastest; they hold the advantage on the uphills.

3. Back Muscles  Your back is the most important place to have strong muscles, according to Driscoll. First, she says, since you hold your head out in front of your body, you must be able to support it. “Next, to be able to keep lifting your arms to come in for the next stroke, you need really good back strength.”

4. Abs and Spine  Many racers were disabled after suffering a spinal injury; the location on the vertebrae is significant. With lower-spine injuries, ab function is usually retained. With higher-spine injuries, core strength suffers. Driscoll, who suffered a lower-spine injury, says that being aerodynamic on the downhills is crucial. You’ve got to be able to lean over to become as compact as possible, and the stronger your abs, the farther down you can get.

5. Legs  For wheelchair marathoners, legs can be an impediment — they’re dead weight, and mess with aerodynamics on the way down. “It does play an advantage,” says van Dyk, who was born without legs. “Boston’s the perfect course for me.”