Paralympian, Patrick Monahan tells the story of his rise to becoming Ireland’s fastest ever marathon wheelchair racer. He describes the accident that changed his life when he was 21, the aftermath and the inspiration he drew from the Paralympic movement.
My first time competing in the Dublin Marathon as a wheelchair racer, I clocked around two hours, 20 minutes. Finishing that first race is still a career high. It spurred me on.
Then it was, “Can I get to two hours?” Then it was, “Can I break the Irish record?” There’s always been something to aim for.
When there’s good prize money at stake you have to care about where you finish but for me, chasing a time is what drives me the most. Just seeing how fast I can push. It’s a real buzz.
In June last year, I went to compete in the Duluth Marathon in Minnesota in the US. The route runs along Lake Superior and into the city of Duluth. It’s known as a fast course, so I was going there to beat my personal best (the Irish record, 1:29:03). I didn’t care about where I placed. I could have come last, but I wanted to beat that PB. To achieve that, I needed conditions to be good. I arrived there two days before the race and the weather forecast for race day was crap. Just terrible.
Because its located on the lake the weather can change quite quickly, and by the time we got to the start line, conditions were perfect.
In wheelchair racing, the first 5km is mental. You want to drop as many racers as possible, get out of the traffic, stay in the leading pack.
We got away quick. Myself and one of the top Americans, Aaron Pike led the race early on. We went through 10km in something like 17 minutes. I thought there was something wrong with my Garmin. I knew we were going fast, but I’d never gone that fast. We went through the half marathon in under 40 minutes. The second half of the race got tougher.
Aaron pulled away a bit at 20 miles, but I knew I was on for a massive PB. The last few miles got a bit sketchy. There is a race that starts before us and because we were so quick, we started to run into traffic with other runners and walkers on a narrow stretch. I had to ease off, it wasn’t worth the risk of crashing for the sake of 30 seconds.
I wouldn’t be one for negative thinking in a race but as I pushed through those last couple of miles I thought, “It would be just my luck now to pop a tyre.” The wheels are worth about €1000 each.
”I told myself that wheel was going over the line whether there was a tyre on it or not!
I crossed the line in second place with a time of 1:22:23, beating my Irish record by six minutes and 40 seconds. I might never beat that time but it’s in the record books with my name next to it. It was an incredible feeling.
The irony isn’t lost on me that it was speed that caused me to end up being a wheelchair user.
I was 21 years old, driving to work. Driving too fast. I lost control of the car on a long bend; the back of the car skipped out. It’s like everything went into slow motion after that. The driver’s side hit the ditch and flipped the car into a field. Senseless.
I was stuck inside the car. Upside down. My head had gone through the passenger window. As the emergency services tried to get me to move, it started to dawn on me that something was badly wrong. The shock wore off. The pain kicked in. I was taken to the Mater Hospital.
I had broken three thoracic vertebrae in my spine. I was told that the spinal cord had not been severed. It was damaged, stretched but not severed. I held onto the hope that I’d make a full recovery for weeks after the accident. I can remember talking to the nurses and saying things like, “When I’m back on my feet…” It’s only when I look back now that I can read the expressions on their faces. They knew it probably wasn’t going to happen for me, but they had to keep me positive.
I’d heard the National Rehabilitation Hospital mentioned. I just thought, that’s where I was going to get my legs working again. That I’d be cartwheeling out of there.
A consultant from the NRH came in and, fairly bluntly, delivered the news that I would be moving to the hospital in Dún Laoghaire where I would learn how to use a wheelchair and that was going to be my life going forward. I would never walk again.
”It was like the world ended. Reality hit. Panic. Anxiety. Despair.
I was angry too about the way I found out. There was very little compassion in the way the news was delivered. No arrangements had been made for my family to be there in that moment. I was just a patient on the rounds.
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That was a very hard day.
At the NRH, I saw people who were worse off than me; severe brain injury and such. I had to get perspective. I had to get on with my life.
It was watching the London 2012 Paralympics that inspired me to take up wheelchair racing.
Paralympics is inspiring in every sense. My first games was Rio 2016. It was the first time I was properly exposed to the full range of sports. You see people overcoming their disability in the most extraordinary ways. Even aside from the sport, I saw guys in the canteen with no upper limbs using chopsticks with their toes to eat – I can’t even use chopsticks with my fingers.
”When you see those things, it empowers you. You want to get out and compete to the best of your ability. It’s not about disability.
I’d recommend for anyone to experience Paralympic sport. Even just watch one of the many montage videos of action from the games. It’s amazing to see what people have done with their lives and what they have managed to achieve.
There’s no such thing as feeling sorry for yourself and your situation. I’ve never been one to do that much anyway. My accident was my fault. I accept that. I would find it harder to accept if it had been someone else’s but there was no one else to blame. What if I’d injured someone else, or worse?
Of course, there were plenty of tough days. There was a long period of time where I didn’t even want to be seen in a wheelchair in public. Competing helped me to get past all that. You have to adapt. I had to travel through airports. Get set up for races. Be independent.
When I took up racing, it was always to be competitive. That’s the way I am. I couldn’t really do it just for the fitness. I wanted to be good at it. I wanted to make times and win races. I’m pretty hard on myself that way.
A lot of hard work has gone into it. Following my accident in 2007 I thought sport was finished for me. Now, I’m fitter than I ever was. I often reflect on that.
But hard work pays off. I often get to do talks in schools about my experience and that’s something I always try to get across to them. No matter what you want to do in life you need to challenge yourself. I’ve had to step outside of my comfort zone so many times.
I race in a mixed class. I’m paralysed from below the chest but I’m racing many guys that have more physical function, which makes it a little more difficult. Therefore, winning a major title, probably isn’t a realistic goal for me. But it doesn’t stop me trying. It certainly doesn’t mean that I can’t be competitive. I’ve been getting myself into the lead pack this past year and that’s where I want to be.
Hard to believe now that, in early March, I was preparing to compete in the Manchester Marathon. It was a good option for me as it would be a low-key opportunity to test myself. Good preparation for Boston, London and Seoul.
Those plans fell apart, of course, along with the rest of world sport.
Right now, it’s hard to see how marathons can return without a vaccine. Or even if they do return will they be a safe place to compete for people like me in the “at risk” category? Time will tell.
I wouldn’t mind only I’m pushing so well right now.
I’m fortunate that I live next to Mondello Park, the motorsport venue. They kindly let me train away in isolation on the track while they are temporarily closed to motorsports. It’s not just in lockdown, the support me all year round. I’m so grateful to them for that.
With all that’s going on, I don’t know when I’ll race again. It won’t stop me plugging away.
I hope to be competing in the next Paralympics when it eventually happens.
There are lots of variables when it comes to securing your place on the plane. For now, I’ve done all I can, so I won’t worry about it too much.
Hopefully I’ll be fit and ready to compete again, whenever that may be.
Patrick Monahan is a Toyota ambassador and a Paralympian wheelchair racer. Toyota is an official partner to Paralympics Ireland. Toyota’s team of five Irish athletes; Patrick Monahan, Ellen Keane, Jason Smyth, Nicole Turner and Noelle Lenihan will all feature in their “Start Your Impossible” campaign as they prepare for the Tokyo Games in 2021. Visit www.Toyota.ie for more information on Start your Impossible.
If you enjoyed Patrick’s piece you might like to read Dessie Fitzgerald’s “Make The Most Out Of It.”
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