December 8, 2021

Pushing her limits

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Searle won this racing wheelchair in the Boilermaker Wheelchair Challenge.

Emilie Searle can’t say enough for the Boilermaker race — being among a community of wheelchair racers in the 15K event.

“The Boilermaker is so great. They go out of their way to get wheelchairs involved and be as accessible as possible,” said the Cortlandville woman, 30.

“I never did races with other wheelchair people. There — half are amateur, recreational racers. The other half are professional Paralympian athletes,” she said.

Searle, who uses a wheelchair, started doing 5K races five years ago. Now she’s in another realm: participating in the 9.3-mile Boilermaker, doing half marathons and just recently, a full marathon.

In fact, Searle applied for and won a $3,500 custom-made racing wheelchair in the Boilermaker Wheelchair Challenge, meeting its requirement to complete the race in a standard manual chair in under 2 hours and 15 minutes.

“I did it in 1 hour and 20 minutes,” she said.

Background

Searle has been living with a disability for nine years. She didn’t want to give it a name, to give it more power.

An illness affected her legs, leaving them weak, mostly in the right leg, she said. She has poor balance. She also has a foot-to-hip brace to walk, but that is cumbersome.

She also is legally blind from a rare autoimmune condition that she’s dealt with the past few years. She can see blurry straight ahead, “but it’s not so bad.” Peripheral vision is tough.
The woman lives five miles outside Cortland but insists on using her wheelchair to get to town when she can. Searle uses a special free wheel, a large wheel on her wheelchair front that helps her negotiate bumps and cracks.

“When I am around town, people honk: ‘Yeah, you can do it!’” she said.

“I am really determined to be as independent as possible. … There are a lot of things in my life that are out of my control. I just feel doing as much as possible gives me a sense of pride.”

“My father (Mark) was a paraplegic for 13 years as the result of an accident. He was in so much pain. You would never know … I want to live like his example. And I also hate to put people out.”

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Emilie Searle, left, and Yale Hughes, strength and conditioning specialist, work on an exercise Hughes created to mimic racing in a wheelchair.

Getting in shape

Over five years ago, Searle was struggling with her health. She used to be active.

“I had done long-to mid-distance running. I always loved to do it. Suddenly, I wasn’t able to do that anymore. I got out of shape and was generally weak.”

“If this is the way things are for right now, how can I make the most of the situation? I started small, pushing myself up the driveway to get the mail. I started giving the dogs walks in my chair. Maybe I could try a race in my chair? … To have that feeling of the wind in your face, to have that exhilaration again!”

She asked to do a 5K outside of Cortland County and was denied. “’It’s an insurance issue. We don’t know if you can be involved in a wheelchair,’” Searle was told. “It was discouraging.”

“Just because I have a disability does not mean I’m not an athlete.”

‘I am an athlete’

Rachel Anderson, accessibility modification coordinator at Access to Independence of Cortland County, is organizing a 5.5 K race in the spring that will include people with disabilities. There will be 5K and half-K treks.

“It is for anybody,” she said. Proceeds will go to projects to make the community more accessible.

“If anyone uses a wheelchair, walker or cane, they can participate.” Those with visual disabilities need to communicate if they need a guide or if they will provide their own guide, said Anderson, race director.

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Emilie Searle of Cortlandville, 30, on her wheelchair racer.

Anderson is a runner with a disability and knows people need as much information as possible ahead of time to see how they can participate.

The McGraw woman has a neurological disability that affects her balance and vision. She just did a half-marathon in Watertown and told the race director that she can trip. She can shake or tip.

“I don’t fall all the way down. I hang on to things. I tip into things … I use things in the environment to help prevent falls.”

“I had done five full marathons and 11 half-marathons. I know what I am doing,” she said.
Still, race officials in Watertown had eyes on her the entire race. A race director’s goal is to make sure that everyone is safe on the course, she said.

Anderson was incensed that Searle was denied that first 5K.

“Any good race worth its salt should be inclusive of people with disabilities,” she said.

“Just because I have a disability does not mean I’m not an athlete. When I was on the race circuit before my disability, I was ranked in the top 10 percent of half-marathons in the country,” she said.

Anderson said acquiring a disability “is terrifying.”

“It’s new. You have to find a new normal. If I come to a point where I am in a wheelchair, I want to keep running like this woman is,” Anderson said of Searle. “We all have identities. My biggest identity is running. I am an athlete.”

Paralympian

Ann Cody of Washington D.C., a 1981 Groton High School graduate, is a paralympian in wheelchair racing and basketball. She represented Team USA between 1984 and 1992, winning five medals, including one gold in the 4-by-100 relay.

One roadblock as an athlete is funding, she said. “When I was working full time, it was hard to train full time at the elite level.”

She quit her full-time job, worked part-time and trained full-time. But paying rent, buying food, having transportation and paying to get to competitions was tough.

Access to high-end equipment was also huge. Searle said some racing wheelchair could cost $30,000.

When Cody moved from Illinois to Albuquerque, N.M., getting access to the track was an issue. There was no racing program there.

“They didn’t want me on the track. They were worried I would hurt myself,” she said. Discussions ensued.

Cody, who works for the U.S. State Department as the special adviser for international disability rights, said she’d tell Searle to contact coach Adam Bleakney at the University of Illinois. The college is a national center for wheelchair racing. In fact, Cody said, it’s one of the top places in the world.

“She could learn a lot by going out there and training.”

Racing back home

Searle’s first race was the 5K Ramp it Up by the Cortland United Methodist Church in Cortlandville, to raise money for wheelchair ramps.

When Searle moved from Freeville to Cortland, she could have used a ramp. Her health insurance doesn’t cover the cost. She sold her car for a lift, that cost the same as a ramp.

“It was a huge thing I felt passionate about.”

Searle was welcomed at the race, which is two-thirds on the road and one-third on a trail, and did it for five years.

She did the YMCA 5K series and worked herself up to the Boilermaker in Utica, two half-marathons, one in her regular chair and another in a racing chair, and lately a full marathon, which she achieved in her racing wheelchair.

Photos by Suzanne Searle

Searle completes the Utica Boilermaker.

In training

Searle started working in July with Yale Hughes, a strength and conditioning specialist at Vine on Main Street in Cortland to get her core, back and triceps ready for the rigors of a marathon.

“Doing anything for three hours is not good for you. You have to make sure you are healthy enough to do it,” Hughes said.

Hughes looked for gym exercises that would mimic what Searle was doing in the chair. They created a “rope saw” exercise, pulling heavy ropes with 115-pound weights in the middle, pulling it back and forth.

“It’s really tough for me to keep up with her,” Hughes said. “I have been getting stronger after training with Emilie.”

In fact, the woman can do anything Hughes throws at her, he said.

Searle was in the Empire State Marathon in Syracuse on Oct. 13.

“I did good. I was really blessed. My goal was three hours. I ended up finishing in 2 hours and 51 minutes.”

“The goal is to keep improving,” Searle said.“With the racing chair, it’s the beginning. I am excited to see where it goes.”