Author & Wheelchair Marathoner Paul Erway Talks Inspiration For First Book
Paul Erway is co-founder of 50 Abilities Marathons, a group of wheelchair marathoners who also speak at rehab centers to “get patients going” to try adaptive sports. But also to the therapists to let them know how important their role is in the recovery of patients. The group, Erway and his friends Grant Berthiaume and Aaron Roux, set an initial goal to run in 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 weeks.
Erway was injured in two separate accidents, the first being a car wreck in 1980, the weekend of college graduation when he was just 21 years old. His spinal cord was injured and he became paraplegic. He was later hit by a truck in his racing wheelchair in 2006. He was inspired by the late actor Christopher Reeve and wanting to help his Foundation, and by the people and research at Frazier Rehab in Louisville. Erway was an equestrian, like Reeve, and had been doing horse shows since age 11.
The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation funds research to help spinal cord injury patients through grants and advocacy, to improve quality of life. The Foundation is named for the late actor and producer and his wife. Reeve was paralyzed after a horseback riding accident in 1995 and used a wheelchair for nine years before he passed away in 2005. His wife Dana, an advocate and caregiver, suffered from lung cancer and passed away in 2006.
Erway was told he had great stories and that he should write a book, so he attended a workshop by Cathy Fyock, author of “On Your Mark: From First Word to First Draft in 6 Weeks.” He ended up with enough material for two books!
His first book, “50 Abilities, Unlimited Possibilities,” covers his first 14 marathons toward his goal of 50, up to the Boston Marathon in 2013. His second book, covering the remaining marathons, came out this past July.
The first book covers the team’s first marathon toward their goal in Jackson in January 2013, the Mississippi Blues Marathon. There are also marathons in Houston, Phoenix, Miami, Myrtle Beach, Birmingham, New Orleans, Albany (Georgia), Little Rock, Los Angeles, Cape May (New Jersey), Knoxville, and Adeline (Kansas).
Each chapter of the book describes one marathon and also includes “Behind The Scenes” stories of people that Erway and his friends meet.
“I didn’t go to win but to complete each marathon and had so many great experiences I wouldn’t have had,” he says. “Having a series of goals gave drive to come back, asking what can I do, what else can I do, and wrote a book in the process.”
The idea began as a way to bring awareness and to raise money for Team Reeve. Erway and his friend Grant Berthiaume had just completed the Oita, Japan marathon, considered the best event in the world for wheelchair racers, as there are only wheelchair racers and no runners, and thought “what next?”
Erway began competing in wheelchair racing in regionals and went to the world championships in Assen, Holland in 1990. His mentor Marty Ball, a member of the Wheelchair Sports Hall of Fame, recommended the Boston Marathon, considered the greatest race in the US, and he completed it three times. It remains special to him because he qualified for it the first time after he learned he had not qualified for Paralympics, and he wanted to give up racing. Ball suggested he try Boston first.
There are marathon runners “50 state” clubs, but the group became the first wheelchair racers to do so. The team then came up with the goal of 50 marathons and began after two years of planning and finding sponsors.
Another goal was to visit hospitals and rehab facilities in each city they traveled to, to raise awareness and encourage participation in wheelchair sports. They spoke at Touro Rehabilitation Center, Next Step Fitness Center, and Patricia Neal Rehab Center, among others.
Each marathon was unique in terms of travel arrangements, hotel issues, even logistics like making sure their racing chairs and everyday chairs were in order. Even going out to dinner became a challenge sometimes, as on one occasion a restaurant recommended by their hotel was not wheelchair accessible, due to the age of the building. One hotel that stated it was wheelchair accessible was not, and the bathroom door had to be taken off hinges to allow entry. A car rental company lost one of Erway’s air pumps while transferring his luggage.
Even the weather became an issue in some cities — in Houston, Roux suffered from hypothermia due to a cold rain, and had to be taken to the race’s medical tent for treatment. At that same event, Erway had two flat tires on his racing chair. After that, each team member carried two spare tires and CO2 cartridges. But they also met many helpers along the way — a local bicycle club had volunteered to ride along with them for safety, and one of them helped Erway with his flat tires.
In a least one race – Knoxville – they were the first racing chairs to enter. Because of the hills there, only hand cycles (like a recumbent bike) were used. They also met two 6-year-old boys there and encouraged them at entering the Kids Race. Both had suffered spinal cord injuries before age three and became good friends.
In Miami, the team was introduced to the owner of “Shake A Leg,” an adaptive sailing and kayaking program, so they were able to go sailing as well, and a group called Team Achilles helped with picking up race packets, special parking and pre-race food. Team Achilles helps individuals with disabilities participate in athletic events.
The team even met some notable friends — descendants of President Eisenhower in Kansas, the president of Saucony Shoes on a plane and a college friend of Christopher’s daughter Alexandra Reeve on a bus to a race.
The team also took time to enjoy some great food and sightseeing, like fresh seafood in New Jersey and beignets at Café du Monde in New Orleans. Erway also recommends “Abilities Expo” a traveling exhibit with workshops and demos of wheelchair sports, which the group attended in LA.
Of course, the Boston Marathon in 2013 ends up being an unforgettable experience for Erway. He left the race and took a cab to the airport right away. The gate attendant announced he was the first marathon finisher to board. Only after the plane landed did he learn there had been a bomb at the finish line. The experience left him saddened, but inspired by the “Boston Strong” resiliency of the city and its people, and determined to continue his races.
In addition to his busy marathon schedule, Erway also works as a marketing representative for Superior Van & Mobility in Jeffersontown. He has been with the company for more than 20 years. They have been very supportive of his “50 Abilities” goal, even helping sponsor hotel and food costs for the team in the five states where they have locations. He credits the company’s success to their giving nature: “The more people you can help, the more you’ll be blessed.”
Erway’s family has also been very supportive of his travels. He grew up in Pennsylvania as one of eight siblings. He came to Louisville for work and has a brother living in Lexington. His father is 90 years old, and he stated he gets his “perseverance” from him. He credited his wife Barbara also with looking after their “four-legged children” – six dogs – while he is away.
Of his books, he says “I don’t think I am a great writer, but I have a story to tell.”