On Saturday, May 12, 2012, thousands will come together to make history in the Fifth Third River Bank Run in downtown Grand Rapids. This year’s event celebrates the River Bank Run’s 35th race, and will involve more than 21,000 athletes – including those who compete from wheelchairs and handcycles – in the largest 25k race in the country.
The Fifth Third River Bank Run is one of the first races in the United States to include wheelchair and handcycling divisions. With the help of the Mary Free Bed Guild, the River Bank Run added the wheelchair division 23 years ago and the handcycle division in 2005. Both divisions are sponsored by the guild. The guild provides $36,000 in sponsorship monies as well as continued support to racers.
More than 50 racers are expected to compete in the race’s handcycle and wheelchair divisions. Among those athletes are past Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital patients, many of whom received their first exposure to handcycling and wheeling during treatment at the hospital.
Nick Long, a handcyclist from Essexville, was injured in a diving accident 9 years ago. Before his injury, Nick was an avid upright cyclist. During his rehabilitation at Mary Free Bed, Nick was introduced to handcycling and was immediately hooked. Each year, he competes in other races around the state – Rochester Hills, Flint, Traverse City – but says the River Bank Run is one of his favorites because of the support he gets as a wheeler through the organizations involved, specifically Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital and the Grand Rapids Wheelchair Sports Association (GRWSA). Nick trains twice a week, often with his two children.
A dirt bike accident 12 years ago sent Bryan Wilkinson to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital for recovery and rehabilitation. He discovered competitive handcycling through Mary Free Bed’s Adaptive Sports Program. For the past 5 years, the 30-year-old has participated in handcycling races. Since 2010, he’s been the coach of the GRWSA’s handcycling team. He trains each year for the race both individually and with his GRWSA teammates, which meets weekly to cycle up to 26 miles on the White Pine Trail.
Tabitha Landon, from Lake Odessa, is the youngest female handcyclist competing in this year’s Fifth Third River Bank Run. Last year, she won first place in her division with a time of 1:26:00. Tabitha is a Lakewood High School junior and competes in handcycle races all over Michigan. She loves the competitiveness of the sport and practices often with the GRWSA handcycle team.
This year’s River Bank Run marks the 12th anniversary of the motorcycle accident that injured David Briggs. David was introduced to handcycling by his recreational therapist during his rehabilitation at Mary Free Bed. While not an overly competitive racer, David loves the speed of the handcycle and feeling the wind race past him. When he’s not racing, David enjoys cycling with his kids and playing tennis on the GRWSA team. He works at UPS as a clerk and as a union steward representing about 175 employees.
Matthew Smith is a thrill seeker. Even before his motorcycle accident in 2007, Matt raced dirt bikes competitively. Post injury, he became a handcyclist for the same reason – the thrills. He also appreciates the social aspect of the sport. Matt trains on the weekends with the GRWSA handcycle team, and finds it incredibly motivating and supportive. He considers this race to be the ultimate test of his skills, as it will be the longest-distance race he’s competed in. Matt plans to finish in under 2 hours, which potentially places him in a top-finisher category with a cash prize payout.
Nathan Schout from Holland, Michigan, began wheelchair racing 2008, and set his River Bank Run personal record at 1:58:07. With a good chunk of prize money awaiting the winners, he’s shooting for an even better time this year. Nathan is an engineer, and has worked at his current job for more than 10 years. He also plays on the co-ed Grand Rapids Thunder wheelchair rugby team when he’s not training for the River Bank Run.