NOTEBOOK: From accident
victim to marathon champ
October 7, 2002
BY JUSTIN SIMON, BILL LAITNER AND
FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITERS
He rolled up to the start line in baggy pants and a
tight, white-ribbed undershirt. His orange helmet was
borrowed from a friend. His handcycle looked more
like a child's tricycle than a racing wheelchair.
Aligned next to the aerodynamic skins and helmets
and wheelchairs of the other racers, Seth Arseneau
looked more out of place than Eminem conducting
the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
But just more an hour after the air horn sounded,
Arseneau crossed the finish line, winning his first
marathon in the first marathon he ever entered, and
crushing everyone else in the field. His time of
1:21:09 beat second-place John Enrietto by 17:53. It
was the first time handcycling had been a part of the
Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Bank Marathon.
This time last year, Arseneau, a 23-year-old Grand
Rapids resident who grew up in Sturgis, was in a
hospital bed, just a few weeks removed from the
motorcycle crash that took away 90 percent of the
movement in his legs.
He was on his way to class at Grand Rapids
Community College when oil residue sent Arseneau
out of control and into a curb, breaking his back.
Two months in a hospital and four more of rehab left
the former Army soldier and bicycle enthusiast
looking for something to do for fun.
A friend lent him an off-road handcycle and
Arseneau was hooked. He borrowed a handcycle
and started training a few months ago -- but never at
marathon distances or anything remotely close.
"I compete mostly with myself," he said. "I've never
trained without stopping for traffic or something.
Never had 26 miles without interruptions."
The handcycle looks like a tricycle flipped upside
down. One wheel in front, two in back. The
gearshift and bicycle chain are in the middle at eye
level of the racer, which he churns as if he were
pedaling a bike with his hands.
Arseneau was hoping to finish under 1:45. When he
glanced at the clock as he crossed the finish line and
saw 1:21, he looked around in disbelief.
"I never expected to pull off a stunt like that," he
said. "I wanted to get into racing and thought this
would be a good place to start."
And an even better finish.
PATRIOTIC MOMENT: The morning of road
racing began with the singing of the national anthem
by Detroit's Grammy Award-winning Anita Baker.
"I was almost in tears, it was so moving," said Steve
Evans, 45, of Royal Oak, a member of the Motor
City Striders running club, and a marathon volunteer
in charge of assisting elite runners.
After her song, Baker ran the 5K race in 34:42.
MAYOR'S TIME: About 15 minutes after the
marathon's start at 7:45 a.m., a collection of
sprinters, fun runners and walkers gathered for the
5K, a 3.1-mile jaunt through downtown Detroit.
At the head of the pack? Detroit Mayor Kwame
Kilpatrick, who lined up with Free Press publisher
Heath Meriwether and Gary Burkart, first vice
president of Flagstar Bank.
"With the mayor here now," Burkart said, "it's great
to finally see the city fully involved."
Kilpatrick said he stayed in shape by walking three
miles on a treadmill and lifting light weights at the
Lions' practice facility in Allen Park, usually three
times a week.
The mayor finished in 42:36.
WHATEVER IT TAKES: At a marathon finish line,
as older athletes and recreational runners sometimes
struggle in, there's often a fine line between heroics
and hysterics. There was bemused laughter when
spectators watched the finish of Bob Weins, a
47-year-old who ran his last three miles backward.
"I was just cramping up so much. Somebody said,
'Try going backwards.' It worked," said Weins, of
New Baltimore. The reason? Running forward
causes calf muscles to contract, while running
backward stretches them.
Weins said other runners helped him by shouting
when he neared potholes and other obstacles.
A HELPING HAND: Struggling on her handcycle,
Nicole Gilbertson of Ida was near the back of the
pack, so far down that police were taking down the
traffic barriers. One of those cops was Sgt. Eren
Stephens, who had just gone off duty when she
saw Gilbertson, a 20-year-old paraplegic, trying
gamely to finish with family and friends walking
alongside for encouragement.
"I just couldn't leave her like that," Stephens said. So
she got her squad car behind the handcyclist and
followed her slowly all the way into Ford Field,
clearing traffic with her siren when needed.
"I was the last wheelchair racer," said Gilbert, whose
time of 6:44:28 was more five hours behind the
winner. But Stephens said only one thing counted:
"We made it!"