This Single Mom Trained Five Hours a Day for the NYC Marathon

She’s also a grad student, employed full-time, and hopes to qualify for the Paralympics.

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Nov 2 2018, 6:18pm

Michelle Wheeler

My spinal cord injury occurred when I was one year old due to a domestic violence situation with my birth parents. Once they took me out of there, I was put into foster care for a little bit, moved around a few times, and got adopted when I was nine.

My parents also adopted five other children with disabilities, my siblings. They threw me right into sports. We traveled down to the Bennett Blazers Institute in Maryland, where we would spend the entire day doing different sports—swimming, wheelchair football, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, table tennis, wheelchair racing. I was good at every sport I did.

As I got older, I was not only doing sports, I was also doing singing and piano lessons and all that stuff. After a while, I didn’t want to put in the time to practice and I hated to feel like I had to do it. I was just very strong willed. Still am. I also rebelled a little against my disability. I didn’t want it to make me who I was. I just wanted a normal, regular kind of life. So I stopped sports for a while.

I got started again as more of a fun thing after I had my daughter. She was three—it was 2012. It was hard starting again, for sure. But then I realized I was good at this, and this is who I am, this is what I enjoy. I feel more OK with myself. It isn’t like I’m running away from something. I also started to get my friends involved, so they could understand who I am.

I was competing at a track meet when a coach from Penn State recruited me. She asked, “Hey, have you thought about going to the Paralympics?” I hadn’t—I’m older, I have a child, I have a whole career going. I didn’t think it was even a possibility. She said I could get financial support and asked me just to think about it.

I didn’t call her for a month. I found her card again one day and called my mom to ask what she thought. She’s like, “Well, you can get a high-quality education for free, you might as well go try it out.” I decided she was right. I literally had two weeks to find a house, transfer schools for my daughter Eva, and move from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Somehow it all worked out. I didn’t even have to quit my job, which was the push to actually do this; I work remotely for the Caregivers of New Jersey. We moved a week before school started for Eva. Things really fell into place.


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It’s very hard at times, though. There’s no downtime. I train twice a day, up to five hours total, six days a week. My daughter gets up at 6:30, so I gotta get up and get her ready to go. When she gets on the bus, I get in my morning workout time—on the track or the road for about an hour, hour and a half. Then I hit the weight room for another hour and a half. I’ll come home, get something to eat, take a shower.

Sometimes I have to go right to class. I’m in my first year of my master’s in the counseling education program. It’s intense. My emphasis is in mental health and rehabilitation counseling. My goal is to open up my own practice. I want to make getting help more affordable and change policies that are holding people back.

Other days I have class later in the evening, so I’ll check in with the clients at my job. I have a caseload of clients with developmental disabilities, breaking down barriers and figuring out how to get them employment, get them out into communities and active. Since I have experience with sports, I try get them involved as much as possible.

Eva has ballet and karate lessons right now. A lot of times, I drop her off and go get my second training session in. When she comes home, I get her situated for bed. I’ll finish my schoolwork at 10:30 or 11 and then I’m back at it again the next day. Weekends are sometimes more relaxed; if I don’t have an exam or a race, I can have some downtime and then we can do some fun things together.

I ran the Los Angeles Marathon in March, and won. I honestly didn’t think I was going to. I had costochondritis, which feels like fractured ribs, and also had a rib out of place. I went into it just thinking I would push the best I could, maybe stick with the pack. I had a good start and felt really good for a while.

Near the end, I really started to feel the pain, like I couldn't breathe very well. I had tears because it was so much pain; I could barely breathe, I couldn’t sit up. Luckily the last few miles were downhill; thank goodness because I don’t think I could’ve pushed another uphill.

I just kept hoping I was going to make it all the way through. One of the men passed me and said, “You’re almost there, but she’s gaining on you, so keep pushing!” I gave everything I had left, I was pushing with one arm for the last, like, three miles.

If it’s a competition, you don't really have time to feel sorry for yourself. If you want it bad enough, you’re going to do it, you grit through. Knowing where my place was that and knowing that I could actually achieve it, I’m like, yeah, I really want this bad now. So that is pretty cool, although the next few days were rough. I had to rest for a while.

I’m hoping to qualify for the Paralympics in Tokyo in the 400-meter and 800-meter races, and maybe another distance too—I’ll figure it out more in the next year. And I want to keep doing marathons, for sure. I have to get my times down. The qualifying marathon time is about an hour and 35 minutes. I feel like every few months I’m getting faster and faster. We’ll see as it goes on. I’m not counting myself out yet.

This year will be my first New York Marathon; I’m running with Team #MovedMe, which highlights inspiring runner stories. I did the 10K, which was amazing. I’m excited. I used to hate climbing hills, I thought I was awful at it. But I'm finally getting better, so I'm feeling really good about racing in New York.

I just want to do well, to push nice and strong. I’d like to place top 10 again, like I did in Chicago—I finished ninth, with a time of 1:57:33. In Chicago, it was raining and I was losing traction—it was exhausting. I don’t like the feeling of having nothing left in me; I want to make sure that I hit the end in New York with more to give.

Eva won’t be able to come to New York to watch me, but she’ll be following along on TV and online. We don’t talk about it all the time at home—we just come back to regular life—but her teachers say she's always talking about me in classes. She has the background of her computer set up as my picture, in one of the races.

She sometimes says she wants to be like me—she’s super tall, she’s really good at track, and she’s been a ballerina since she was about two. I know she’s going to be great. I try to show her that if she wants to be the best, she has to work hard and train. I try to instill that in her now.

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