How a chance meeting made my New York City Marathon an exercise in inspiration

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The New York City Marathon features 50,000 athletes from around the world and more than a million screaming fans.

It’s been called the world’s largest street party.

CBC Reporter Jason Warick set out on the 42.2 kilometre course Sunday, focused on his breathing, mile times and mounting fatigue.

Then he met James Akaka and Ben Parore, and everything changed.

It was perfect racing weather Sunday morning: 8 C with blue skies. The starting gun sounded and we left Staten Island to the sound of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York.

I’ve run several marathons, including the famous Boston race, but nothing compares to the crowds of New York. They were lined five deep for most of the course, which heads through all five boroughs.

Nearly every block in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx was filled with bands, dancers and food. There were thousands of hand-made signs saying things like “My Mom’s Faster Than Yours” and “Toenails are for losers.”

About 35 kilometres into the race, I crossed the Madison Avenue Bridge into Harlem.

That’s where the pain and anxiety usually begin for most runners. For me, it came right on schedule.

That’s also when I saw a middle-aged man riding a hand-cycle wheelchair with a burly young guy pushing him.

James Akaka used one arm to hand-cycle the 42.2 kilometre New York City Marathon course Sunday, with an assist from New Zealander Ben Parore. (Jason Warick/CBC)

I caught up to them and shouted encouragement. It was necessary to shout even when right beside each other.

I asked what was going on. Were they related, maybe father and son?

The man in the chair shook his head. The other guy pushing — his name was Ben Parore — laughed and said, “Nah. We just met.”

I learned later the man in the chair was James Akaka, a father of three from Honolulu, Hawaii.

He had a stroke a few years ago. He’s unable to speak or use three of his limbs, so he races with a modified one-armed hand-cycle.

His friend, Corinne Makahilahila, said the New York City Marathon has been one of James’ goals ever since the stroke in 2011.

To get ready, he’s done some shorter races and some ocean swim competitions. He lies on a surf board paddling with one hand and helpers swim next to him.

“He just wants to inspire people,” Corinne said.

As for Ben, the guy pushing, he’s a personal trainer from New Zealand.

He spent thousands of dollars and came halfway around the world to beat his best time. Ben was feeling good and racing well when he found James, who had completed a lot of the race on his own, but had run out of gas.

Ben asked if he could push. James nodded. They became a team.

“Man, [James] did well just to get to that point. He was only using one arm,” Ben said after the race.

“I just couldn’t leave the guy.”

It shows that something so simple can be so beautiful.

– Ben Parore

I met them in Harlem about an hour later.

I was inspired by the sight of James still giving everything he had, and amazed Ben would sacrifice his own goals to help a fellow athlete, so I asked Ben if he wanted me to take a turn pushing.

He said he’d try to push the rest of the way, but there was something I could do. Ben asked me to clear a path for them.

By this point in the race, the road had narrowed to four lanes. It was clogged with thousands of exhausted runners struggling to dip under their target finish time.

James’ racing chair was nearly two metres long and not meant to steer in crowds. He’s also nearly horizontal in the chair, so it’s tough for runners in a crowd to see him.

“There were so many people, as you saw. When we got to you, it was pretty hard to get through everybody,” Ben said later.

I joined their team.

CBC Reporter Jason Warick ran the New York City Marathon on Sunday, but any thoughts of personal goals faded when he met a pair of inspiring strangers along the way. 7:49

The home stretch

The three of us meandered through the crowds for those final seven kilometres.

Ben would push, James would turn the hand cycle with whatever power he had left and I handled the crowds, running five or 10 metres ahead yelling, “Please move to your left, chair racer coming!”

It took a few seconds for the exhausted runners to make way, but they all did.

More than 50,000 athletes and one million spectators were out Sunday for the New York City Marathon. (Jason Warick/CBC)

On some of the tight corners, we had to grab the front wheel of the chair and help James to turn. We also had to keep his other arm secured with a fanny pack strap and make sure he had enough to eat and drink.

We headed into Manhattan, down Fifth Avenue. Runners, police and volunteers were waving and clapping for James.

Then, more than six hours after we all started, we reached the finish in Central Park.

James crossed the line with Ben and I following. We crouched down to give James a high-five. He pulled us in with his arm and hugged us.

James started crying. Then a volunteer placed a finisher’s medal around James’ neck and we all started crying.

Hawaiian hand cyclist James Akaka (right) shows a “hang loose” sign after finishing Sunday’s New York City Marathon with Saskatoon’s Jason Warick (left) and New Zealander Ben Parore. (Jason Warick/CBC)

We took James to meet his friend outside the finish area and exchanged emails. Just before we parted, James told us one thing by tapping us a message on his phone.

It just said “come run hawaii.” So maybe our next adventure will be the Honolulu Marathon.

Ben said it was one of the best experiences of his life.

“Just incredible, man,” Ben said.

“One, just to be in New York and run the New York Marathon. That was enough hype for me. I guess now that I’ve had time to reflect, this just added to how special that event is, just bringing different people together, different cultures. I know that whatever happens in this world, it shows that something so simple can be so beautiful.”

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