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.
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
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.
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
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
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.”)
He 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.