“I began
developing
the outlook
that the
more people
you help, the
more you
will be
blessed.
That’s where
my life really
started to
change.”
–Paul Erway

WHEELS UP

By Steve Kaufman

Photos by Tony Bennett

Paul Erway completed 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 weeks.

Now he’s racing to help others in any way he can.

screen-shot-2018-03-07-at-8-38-22-am

In 2013, Paul Erway completed 50 marathons

in 50 states in 50 weeks.

One of those was the Boston Marathon, the

year of the bombing.

Notice that this writer didn’t say Erway “runs” in

these marathons. Because he doesn’t. He wheels.

An automobile accident in 1980, the weekend

before he was to graduate from college, left him a

paraplegic, with no feeling or movement from the

chest down. He has been confined to a wheelchair

for 38 years.

He jokes that before the accident, he had studied

animal husbandry in college with the intention of

working in horse “reining” – an American version

of dressage. “If not for the accident, I might be

living in a trailer beside a horse stable, mucking

stalls. Now I’ve gotten to go overseas and to every

state in the country. It’s quite a life.”

Not surprisingly, that wasn’t his attitude in

June 1980, in the days following his accident,

when the spinal surgeon told him he would be

using a wheelchair for the rest of his life and that

he would “need to deal with it.”

Three times in that first year, having gone past

denial, anger and bargaining and reached the

fourth level of grief (which is depression), he

said, “If I’d had a gun, I might well have used it

on myself. So, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t

have a gun.”

A chance encounter on his college campus

(Morrisville State College in Upstate New York,

near Syracuse) changed his course from thoughts

of suicide to a full life of helping others.

“There was a kid on campus with spina bifida

who’d been in a wheelchair his whole life. As we

were heading out to class, he said, ‘I’ll race you

to the lamppost.’ He was a little kid. I’d played

basketball and football, and jumped high hurdles,

in high school. But he beat me by half the distance

to the pole. That got my fires burning.”

Hereby resolved: to eventually beat that kid

in a race.

The actual training to win races didn’t begin

for a few years, though, until Erway graduated

from Penn State University’s school of business

and moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for a

sales and marketing job with a paper company.

There, he got involved in a local wheelchair

athletic group. “Playing in that program allowed

me to network for the first time with other people

with disabilities.”

He switched jobs, going to work for a company

that sold wheelchairs and adapted vehicles. “I

came to realize that while people hate being in

a wheelchair, they love being able to drive a car.

It was my first realization of the importance of

being able to make people happy.”

He remembered his own first two questions

after his accident: “Can I still drive?” “And can I

have sex?” Not necessarily in that order.

“I began developing the outlook that the more

people you help, the more you will be blessed,” he

said. “That’s where my life really started to change.”

He began to train for racing, getting to the 1990

Para-World Championships in Assen, Netherlands.

“I got smoked,” he said.

But it encouraged him to come back home

and begin weight training with an ex-Penn State

football player. “He was 6-foot-4, 280 pounds,”

Erway remembered. “So, when he told me to do

two more on the bench, I did two more.”

He went to the 1992 nationals in Salt Lake City,

a trial for the U.S. Paralympic team, but got beat

by a 15-year-old. “I was over 30, and most of the

competition was much younger,” said Erway.

“Also, most of them didn’t have jobs, they could

train full-time. I had to work full-time.”

He did some regional 10ks, “but my heart

wasn’t in it.”

In 1994, Erway moved to Shelbyville, Kentucky,

to start his own wheelchair and adapted van

company. Eventually, Superior Van & Mobility

in Louisville – another company that adapts

motor vehicles, cars, vans and trucks – hired him

in marketing and sales, covering all of Kentucky,

Southern Indiana and Eastern Tennessee.

“It’s a gratifying business,” he said. “Every day,

I’m helping somebody get going again.”

But cruel fate wasn’t done with Erway. In

July 2006, while speeding down a steep hill in

Shelbyville during a training run, he tried to avoid

a pickup truck on the road, lost control of his

wheelchair and slammed into the driver’s door.

He fractured both his scapula and collarbone,

broke two ribs, punctured a lung, suffered a spinal

compression fracture and part of his scalp was

separated from his skull.

Also, it was 94 degrees that day, so while the

medical technicians were cautioning, “don’t

move him,’” he lay on the asphalt and burned 60

percent of his back.

One helicopter ride, two hospital stays, three

rehab stints, four operations and five months out

of work followed. But this time, “My attitude was,

‘Racing brought me back before – it will bring me

back again.’ ”

Four years later, he was competing in the world’s

premiere wheelchair marathon in Oita, Japan.

And three years after that, he set out on

his “marathon marathon” – competing in 50

marathons in 50 states in 50 weeks.

“I began developing the outlook that the more people you help, the more you will be blessed. That’s where my life really started to change.” –Paul Erway

“I began
developing
the outlook
that the
more people
you help, the
more you
will be
blessed.
That’s where
my life really
started to
change.”
–Paul Erway

Those included, most memorably, the Aspen, Colorado, marathon

(“Elevation, 8,800 feet. The first 21 of the 26 miles were downhill.”); the

Asheville, North Carolina marathon (“So hilly that I had to go backwards

up some of the hills, or risk flipping over backwards and zigzagging on

some of the others – I won’t ever go back to Asheville again”); and Boston.

It was the third time he’d qualified for the best of U.S. marathons, and

he loved everything about it – the facilities, the crowds, the competition.

“But I had to get back to work,” Erway recalled, “so after I finished, I

rushed to my hotel, changed T-shirts in the lobby and got into a taxi for

the airport.”

His flight took off at 2:45 that afternoon. And in those days before use of

cell phones to go online was permitted on flights, it wasn’t until he landed

in Atlanta and took out his phone that he understood what had happened.

“It was a complete shock,” he said. “Here you are, doing the greatest

marathon in the U.S., feeling so good about completing it, and then

finding out three people were killed, several hundred injured and 16

people lost limbs.”

The bomb went off four minutes after his plane left Boston.

He has written a book about his 50-50-50 experience titled, “50 Ability

Marathons,” though the amount of information forced him to stop the

book after discussing just 14 of the races – Boston being the final chapter.

He intends to write about the other 36 in what he thinks will be two more

installments.

Erway has continued to train three times a week, both weight workouts

in the gym and speed workouts on the road. He has a special racing

wheelchair that weighs only 20 pounds and is fitted to his body size and

situation, so that it’s properly balanced and positions his shoulders to

the chair’s push rail for maximum propulsion, and to take advantage of

his arm, stomach and back muscles. “It cost me $6,500.”

But as he went through his fifties (he’s 59 now), he tailed off a bit on his

racing schedule, though he continued to do the Kentucky Derby Festival

(KDF) mini-marathon most years. (“It’s a half-marathon for wheelchairs,”

he explained, “because all those wheelchairs on the course in the park

could be dangerous for the runners.”)

screen-shot-2018-03-07-at-8-41-59-amHe began getting asked by the KDF organizers to help out with the

arrangements for the wheelchair division. And this year, he has been

named director of the April 28-29 event. That means getting sponsorships,

coordinating hotel rooms, registering athletes, caring for their regular

chairs while they’re out in their racing chairs, making sure they’re safe

on the course, and also ensuring there’s mechanical help if they need it.

Erway also will handle the next day’s Tour de Lou, a cycling event in

which handicapped racers use specially outfitted hand cycles.

He was particularly inspired by his experience in Japan, where “all

you had to do was tell them when you were flying in, and they took care

of everything else – free transportation, hotel, breakfasts, registration

for the race.”

Erway recalled while in Oita being asked by the local elementary schools

to come out and talk to the students about life in America. “We gave an

exhibit, told them about the U.S., and played games with them. We even

arm-wrestled with them.”

It has all become part of what he feels is his special mission – helping

others to live full lives and representing his community to the world at large.

“It’s the life I wish I didn’t have to lead,” he said, philosophically, “but

since I do lead it, I might as well try to encourage other people, to help

get them up and going.”

You can find out more about Paul Erway’s journey and book on his web

site, www.50abilitymarathons.com. Or call him at 502.724.2300.

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