Team Achilles CT exceeds their goals at the 2022 Eversource Hartford Marathon & Half Marathon

By Grace McGuire

It was 7am and among the tired eyes there was only clapping and cheering as Erin Spaulding’s megaphone battled the loudspeaker to exclaim that the Connecticut Chapter of Achilles International fundraised over $16,000 as an Official Charity Partner of  the Eversource Hartford Marathon, Half Marathon and Charity 5K. They exceeded their $10,000 goal as a Gold-Tier Charity, and also gave back to the race by recruiting 30 volunteers from the community to serve as course marshals along the marathon route.

“The Eversource Hartford Marathon is the largest event here in Connecticut in which Team Achilles CT participates each year, and it serves as our major fundraiser through our Official Charity partnership,” said Chapter President, Erin Spaulding.  She and her volunteer-led Events Team started planning for the October 8th event back in July. 

“We received corporate sponsorships, individual and in-kind donations, held an online raffle, and had our athletes, volunteers and charity runners fundraising together to help us hit our goal.  It was a true team effort”, said Spaulding. Achilles CT athlete Tanmay Athreya single-handedly raised over $2,000 for the event, his first-ever marathon. Cheered on by all his family members, he only beamed and clapped when Spaulding announced he was the top fundraiser.  She also announced that Team Ultra Possibilities (made up of Cat Aniballi, Mike Feinberg and Lufeng Zou) was the top fundraising team!

The event was more than just fundraising, though. Each Achilles athlete and guide still had to run, walk, push or crank their race distance, for which they spent months training. With 16 athletes and 20 guides participating, Achilles Connecticut had an amazing turnout of both veteran and first-time racers.

Stuart Sherman, who finished the marathon in his new handcycle (fashioned with a license plate engraved with 26.Stu) had done the marathon three times previously and was still just as “excited, happy and energized” as Heather Cohen was.  Heather, a member of the Achilles Freedom Team who lives in Vermont, finished her first marathon in Hartford in her push rim racing wheelchair.

Sherman was “just grateful to be able to do this race,” and Cohen was just grateful the Connecticut Chapter of Achilles had “adopted” her a couple months prior. She had driven about three hours the day before and stayed in a hotel all so she could beat her previous marathon time of five hours and 25 minutes…which she did.  Looking to help bring her luck was her racing chair named Mushu, after the Disney character, and the plush Mushu that adorned the frame as “he brings me luck,” Cohen said.

Not everyone had support from a sentimental stuffed animal; others relied on their guides to help them safely navigate the course. Mike Tubiak, who had run the half marathon several times, ran with guide Traver Garrity who had not raced with Achilles since before COVID-19 struck in 2020. She also had only a week to prepare herself to guide Tubiak as she was called to be his guide after his registered guide, Thomas Kimball, was deployed with the American Red Cross to help hurricane relief efforts in Florida. 

As Garrity is training for the TCS New York City Marathon on November 6th, that Saturday was just another day of training for her.

“I am supposed to get a half (marathon) in today anyway,” Garrity said. “It’s good to be back.”

Garrity was not the only one whose weekends were full of running and training. Monte Wagner, the guide for visually impaired runner Jim McCollum, faced his third race weekend in a row.

“It’s been a good month so far,” Wagner said. He was guiding McCollum for the half marathon, and in preparation the duo ran the Hogsback half marathon just two weeks prior.

 “All the training will pay off here,” Wagner said. “Running the race is actually the easy part.”

For all these athletes and guides, the running is rewarding due to the community and the support, making it impossible not to run more.

“As soon as you’re done running you say, ‘Oh, this was not good. I don’t want to do it again.’ Then a day later you say, ‘Ok, what other races are out there?” Wagner said.

But in that environment, in that happy chaos where people had awoken at 5 am or earlier, stayed in hotels overnight, watched the sun rise as they donned their bibs, clapped to keep their hands warm in the 50 degree weather (perfect racing weather),the sole focus of the day was conquering the Eversource Hartford Marathon, Half Marathon or 5K.

Athletes were jumpy with nerves and excitement when the loudspeaker and rock music finally cut out for the singing of the national anthem. While they wanted to put their months of preparation to use and start, they stilled in the crowd for the anthem.  After, there were the last whispers of “have fun” and “good luck,” and “have a great race.”

Then, finally, it struck 8 am and the first wave started and the race was underway.  With each pounding footstep, the Achilles’ athletes made their way from the starting line to the iconic finish under the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Arch in Bushnell Park. 

The Achilles-Eversource Hartford Lineup of Runners, Walkers and Rollers

By Grace McGuire

Preparations for the Eversource Hartford Marathon and Half Marathon are underway and runners are training for the big day coming on October 8.

The race means different things to different Achilles Connecticut athletes, but all agree the race is a fantastic way to showcase their abilities in the largest athletic event in Connecticut.

“It’s a good chance to bring some attention to Achilles and to disabled runners, because there’s a lot of spotlight on that race,” Jim McCollum said. McCollum is a veteran of the event, but after exacerbating a recovering injury last time, he is calling this year’s race a “revenge race.”

“I was recovering from an injury at the time and I thought I was okay, but then it started acting up on me a few miles in, so I had a terrible finish,” McCollum said. “I feel like I owe that course something, so I’m going to give it to it.”

Athlete Jim McCollum (right) with his guide Earle Smola (left)

For some though, this race will represent a first in their athletic career. Achilles athlete, Tanmay Somanath, has already set a time goal for himself despite never having run a full marathon before. He has taken to asking anyone around him if they believe he can finish the Hartford Marathon within 6 hours.

 It seems his mother, Anju Somanath, has more hesitancy about the distance, but the spirit of Achilles that shows in her son keeps them coming back for more races.

“He’s a man of few words, my son, but then you can see he’s got this glow in his eyes… he’s smiling ear to ear whenever he sees Achilles,” Mrs. Somanath said. “I feel like a winner, too.”

The mother-son duo have progressed from their humble beginnings before they met Achilles, when Anjuwould run 5k’s with her son simply to support him, taking double the time and ultimately crossing the finish line as her son looked on. Now as members of Achilles, Anju is able to take a more supportive role and let the guides run with Tanmay while she retires from her running career.

 Achilles Connecticut has made a similar difference in fellow athlete, Jen Boulette’s life.

“Achilles came at a really good time of pushing against the idea that if I can’t do one thing I can’t do anything,” Boulette said.

After suffering a traumatic brain injury almost 30 years ago that especially affected her gait, balance and vision, Boulette’s relationship to fitness simply had to change. Lately, it seems she is in a new chapter of her recovery process and so her relationship towards running is shifting as well. Despite this, she is running the 5K in October alongside her fellow Achilles athletes.

Boulette feels “good” about her training, even though she has switched from using a hand cycle powered by her arms turning a crank, to running once again, or as she says, not running, but “plodding.”

“I want to use my legs when I can, as much as I can, and not kind of just bag them and use the hand cycle,” Boulette said. “I don’t think I’ll be fast by any means but I do feel more capable on my legs than I have felt in a long time…more aware of the bottoms of my feet.”

Athlete Jen Boulette (right) with guides Keri McKay (middle) and Hayley Forcier (left)

To her, it’s simply the matter of staying competitive, but being competitive within her own capabilities and standards, not those of the able bodied, which stands true for McCollum and Somanath too as each has a different goal for the upcoming race. Where they all are in agreement is their hope that the race will be a success.

“I hope that people will show up and I hope more disabled athletes will run it–and I hope people will make some donations, that would be good,” McCollum said. With that attitude the race is sure to be “good.”

Coffee and a Great Cause Fuels Early Morning Runners

By Grace McGuire

Erin Spaulding (left) with guide Michael Lo Presti (right) at her first Achilles race in the early morning

Erin Spaulding stood with her guide, Michael Lo Presti at the Disney Half Marathon starting line. It was just about 5:30 am, but they had gotten up before 2:30 for this. Darkness still surrounded them, so they wore clunky headlamps to illuminate each other’s faces and the path ahead. 

Achilles International Founder, Dick Traum was cracking jokes, but Spaulding was thrumming with nervous energy. She had heard a rumor the participants could encounter the alligators as they ran the backroads of Epcot around the park. When the gush of runners took off, Spaulding was just as fast, fear making the miles going by and also keeping her much too tired eyes open. Later in the race, she was awarded with the picturesque scene of a warm sunrise swathing Cinderella’s castle in oranges and pinks. 

The racing world is teeming with early call times such as these that are both awful and hilarious. The Achilles Connecticut Chapter is no stranger to these early starts. 

Margaret Rorrio, who is in charge of race day operations and sets up the Achilles team tent before the race starts, said coffee is their saving grace.

“It’s a whole lot of coffee and a whole lot of swearing,” Rorrio laughed. She has become sort of notorious for her ways of keeping people awake. One year, when she had to be there for 5:30 to set up, she made a sweet dessert for everyone.

“If we’re gonna have to be there this stupid early, we’re making fireball cake,” Rorrio said. It did its job as no athletes or volunteers fell asleep on her watch.

For some volunteers, less caffeine and fireball is needed as the principle of what they are doing keeps them awake. 

“I love that race atmosphere. I love hanging out with my friends in the morning, so, all that is usually motivation for me to be willing to set my alarm and spend some time with them and have an adventure together,” Lo Presti said. Lo Presti has been a guide for Achilles for 10 years now, so he has had his fair share of sunrise start times, but he still looks at it with this humble and grateful attitude.

“It sounds hokey but I love doing it so much it’s not a chore,” he said.

Michael Lo Presti (left) with athlete Adam Popp (right) starting the Disney Half Marathon in the dark

After doing this for so long, Lo Presti and all the members of Achilles have their early morning checklists. For Rorrio that might be getting a large coffee on her drive over and then thanking everyone who does an additional coffee run. Lo Presti has to have a breakfast smoothie and a quick shower. For guide Julie Dickinson, her routine simply entails helping whenever and wherever she can.

“I’m just one of those people that I can’t just sit still and do nothing when there’s work that needs to be done,” Dickinson said. Luckily she is already somewhat of a morning person as she has to get up at 5 am for work during the week anyway. Not everyone has been so lucky.

“Although the excitement of getting up and being there early and getting ready is exciting to do, it doesn’t make me a morning person,” Rorrio said. Even after working for this Achilles Chapter since their own early start, the effort to shut off the alarm and get up in the morning on race day is still lamentable. 

Spaulding, who has grown since that first half marathon amid alligators and is now the President of the Connecticut Chapter, simplified what the whole team seemed to be sharing: “It’s not human to run that early in the morning.” Still, this Achilles Chapter of super humans continually get up at the crack of dawn to spread their message of inclusivity, resilience, and the power of a cup of coffee.

A Weekend of Conquering Obstacles and Inspiring Others

By Grace McGuire

Why not run an obstacle 5K on Saturday, then get up at 4 am the next day to run a 4 mile race in New York City? This was exactly the inspired spirit of some Achilles athletes and their guides last weekend. Achilles participated in both the Gaylord Gauntlet on June 25 and the Achilles Hope and Possibility® race on June 26. Mike Tubiak, Jim McCollum, and Caitlyn Keller all ran both races with their slew of guides. 

Caitlyn (left) and Lori (right) in Central Park

First was the Gaylord Gauntlet on Saturday, produced annually as a fundraiser for the Gaylord Sports Association. This is not the flattest 3 mile track, instead it’s a maze of obstacles similar to a Spartan race. This added an extra element of challenge and adventure for all, but especially for Achilles’ impaired athletes. 

Even though McCollum has leber congenital amaurosis which greatly reduces his vision to some shape and light perception, the main thing he had to say about the race was, “It’s fun, you should try it some time.”

Because of the extra challenge of the obstacles, the guides need to work extra hard to ensure the visually impaired runners know the layout of the upcoming obstacles and the terrain they are racing. Sometimes this even entailed McCollum’s guide Earle Smola to get on his hands and knees in the dirt, so McCollum knew he had a trusted foundation under him as he swung across the monkey bar obstacle. 

“I’m not holding him (McCollum) up, but he knows that I’m on the ground just below him,” Smola said. He has guided McCollum since he joined Achilles in 2020 and was able to be there for both races this weekend.

Camilo (left), Mike (center) and Thomas (right) at H&P

For a Gauntlet veteran like Tubiak who has now done the race 5 times and can visualize the obstacles somewhat from memory, the focus is more on the “fun” aspect of the race. 

“The fun thing about the Gauntlet is you have a chance to paint your face and kind of be fun with it, so I show a little more of my crazier side,” Tubiak said. This was a more difficult thing for his guide Camilo Cardona to fathom, as Cardona only joined Achilles this past April.

“I was honestly a little bit afraid because I hadn’t guided him before, and I was like an obstacle course with a visually impaired person sounds way beyond just a challenge,” Cardona said. “I guess we make the impossible possible.”

This theme of conquering the impossible continued into Saturday as Cardona and all the other participants had to be at the Metro North train station at 4:45 am to catch their ride to New York City for the Hope and Possibility® race. The Gauntlet may have been familiar to many of the athletes and guides, but none of them had done the Hope and Possibility® race before. With almost 9,000 runners there, many Achilles members from other chapters, Sunday’s race was very different from Saturday’s.

Tracy (left), Jim (center) and Earle (right) at the Gauntlet

Keller, who was running both of that weekend’s events for the first time after recovering from a broken back and chronic injury, enjoyed the crowd.

“Just being in a big swarm of like 5000 people makes me happy for some reason,” Keller said. Overall, this weekend only brought back pleasant memories prior to her injury. In fact, she was so committed to running in Sunday’s race, waking up too late did not stop her.

“ I woke up the minute I was supposed to meet my carpool, but I had purchased my ticket, I’d already got my guide and I was really excited to do this. And so I just got in my car and I drove straight to New York City,” Keller said. This entailed an hour and a half of driving and then a 50 minute walk to the starting before the day’s real exercise could begin.

For these Achilles members, though, it is about more than the race itself, sometimes the journey is the best part. Tubiak, Cardona, Keller and Smola all said their favorite part of the weekend was simply spending time with the Achilles community in between both races. 

“You would think the memorable thing would be the race, but I actually think one of the most memorable things actually was my ride to the race,” Tubiak said about the long, early morning commute to Central Park. This, at its core, is why the Achilles members get up at all hours and run any lengths for these races: the sense of community that is there to cheer them on.

20 Years of Hope, Possibility and Trisha Meili

By Grace McGuire

Trisha at the finish line of her first Hope & Possibility® race in 2003

Trisha Meili sits at home in Florida. She has been through so much. She is the Central Park jogger. She has been attacked and raped. She has gone through trial after trial. It is now over 30 years since her assault and has been 20 years since she revealed her identity to the world. Despite all this, Trisha Meili sits at home in Florida wearing a neon yellow Achilles International tank top and an equally vibrant smile. 

After suffering a brain injury from the assault, Meili has endured years of recovering and recuperating, but now she focuses on spreading messages of support and hope to others with similar physical “challenges” and other victims of assault. One of the ways she has done this is through the race she founded with Achilles in 2003 called the Hope & Possibility®.

“To me, this race is about the power of the human spirit. It’s a celebration of resilience,” Meili said. The four mile race that takes place in Central Park every year, the same place her attack took place, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. 

“It’s an opportunity for all of us, of all abilities, to choose to move forward together. That’s what Hope & Possibility® is all about,” Meili said. “The race focuses on what we can do, what we are doing! We are moving forward no matter what knocked us down.”

Meili has overcome many obstacles that would keep some people knocked down, but she has always rebounded with spirit. She attributes some of this spirit to the Achilles organization which she joined during her inpatient recovery at Gaylord Hospital in Connecticut. It was this handful of Achilles members that she “ran” with for the first time since she had been attacked in a quarter mile loop through the hospital’s parking lot.

“I’m here, only a few weeks after being fully dependent on a wheelchair, and I thought to myself, can I do this and do I want to?” Meili said, reminiscing. She remembered how heavy her limbs felt that day, how standing and stopping “just did not happen naturally” because of her brain injury, but she was still able to do it. “There’s a slight incline in the parking lot where the course ended and it seemed like Mount Everest to me, but I just felt like I had conquered the world.”

Trisha in her element at the finish line

She has felt a similar energy at every Achilles Hope & Possibility® race, especially the first one in 2003.

“There was such a remarkable light and spirit in the park that day,” Meili remembered fondly with a bright smile. “It just lifted me…It really was incredible.”

The Hope and Possibility® race, a name that pays homage to Meili’s memoir and recovery process in general, has only grown since that first day. With over 8,000 runners signed up two weeks prior to the race, Meili is predicting 9,000 runners at the starting line on June 26. It will be their biggest race yet. 

“It is just amazing that it has grown as it has,” Meili said. She has expectations for this race, though. “What I want people to do is look to their right and look to their left with the idea that we’re in this together, appreciating that we’re all a group supporting each other to run the best race we can!”

Meili will be spreading this sense of community and empowerment from the sidelines as she focuses on others this year. She will of course give inspiring comments before the race, both commemorating and kickstarting this year’s event. Meili will be at the finish line to cheer for the participants as everything she has been through has taught her the importance of seeing a smiling, supportive face.

Join us this Sunday 06/26/22 in Central Park (or virtually) for our 20th Anniversary Hope & Possibility® 4 mile race, an annual celebrated tradition in the Achilles family.

Mike Tubiak: An Unbreakable Force and Father

By Grace McGuire

To some, creating a legacy simply entails treating strangers with kindness; to Achilles Connecticut athlete Mike Tubiak, creating a legacy entailed passing strangers in the two half marathons he ran last weekend.

Tubiak, 41, joined Achilles International Connecticut in 2014. Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when he was 14, Tubiak has not allowed his eye disease to slow him down, literally. As well as being a stay at home dad to his son Evan, he teaches a jump rope class at The Fit Factory and also works as a spin instructor at the YMCA in Naugatuck. At this YMCA he also works out six days a week, sometimes even twice a day! In short, Tubiak is something of a gym rat.

“My friends say I’m crazy,” Tubiak laughed.

He has brought this same energy to his races with Achilles. The first weekend of June, Achilles Connecticut participated in two races. On Saturday, June 4 there was the UCONN  Health Half Marathon, 10K and 5K and on Sunday, June 5 there was the MJP Wealth Advisors Fairfield Road Races. Most athletes signed up for one event, at which Tubiak shrugged his shoulders.

“I thought that it would be cool, that I should just sign up and do both (half marathons,)” Tubiak said. 

Tubiak said he did it simply because he could, despite not having trained for a marathon, nor having run in weeks. Tubiak has run multiple races in a week before and likes leaving people with a story.

“It was almost like an opportunity that nobody’s really done before,” Tubiak said. “I always believe in leaving behind a legacy.”

Mike (center) surrounded by his guides: Alex Soter (left) and Yuhui Zheng (right) at the Fairfield Half Marathon.

One of the biggest struggles of being a visually impaired athlete was finding an opening amid the throng of runners at the starting line. Because Tubiak was running a farther distance, he needed two guides, one at each side to create the formation he calls a “flying V.” Once he passed those first runners though, it was practically smooth sailing. Despite his lack of training, Tubiak finished the first race within two hours and 17 minutes and the second race within two hours and 19 minutes. He even found Sunday’s race to be easier.

“I mean my quads were killing me yesterday (Monday) and still sort of today (Tuesday), but I would do that race again,” Tubiak said with a goofy smile. “That was a great race. I felt actually, weirdly, pretty good (during the marathon),” he laughed. 

This “great race” came a day after his half marathon at UCONN where he and his guides struggled against the heat. 

“I struggled with my hydration,” Tubiak said. “Before mile 10 or so I was starting to have issues, but I fought through it and I had some really awesome guides that helped.”

And not only did he fight through that race, but he ran another one the next day, which was the sort of strong example he wanted to set for his 10-year-old son. Ironically, his son was not there to see him cross either of that weekend’s finish lines, but Tubiak smiled and claimed “When he’s older he’ll appreciate it.” In the meantime, Tubiak is fully prepared to run races three days in a row “if that’s ever an option.”

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