Elite level wheelchair racer leaves Irish records crumbling in his wake
Although he is a relative newcomer to the sport, Patrick Monahan is a dead cert for Monday’s Dublin marathon
Wheelchair athlete Patrick Monahan pictured during a training session at the Phoenix Park, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Five days before defending his Dublin Marathon title, Patrick Monahan is finishing up a two-hour training spin around the Phoenix Park. He’ll do another easy spin at home around Naas that evening. This is the tedious, necessary tapering before he lets rip again.
Because he is ready: in the last month alone, he’s knocked chunk after chunk off the Irish record, starting in Berlin, then Chicago, and just last Sunday, when winning the Columbus Marathon, in Ohio. Unless he’s sent the wrong way, Monahan will win Monday’s race in Dublin by some considerable distance.
Sent wrong way
Actually, he was sent the wrong way in Dublin before, two years ago, in his marathon debut. He’d travelled up with no great ambition, other than a quiet determination to conquer the thing. He was with the two leaders, Paul Hannon and Jim Corbett, coming into Chapelizod. Someone waved them left instead of right, and before they knew it, the trio were heading towards Navan, nearly a mile in the wrong direction.
“We turned around, got back on course, but ended up doing nearly 28 miles by the finish,” he says. “It nearly killed me. It was a real struggle, the whole way around, but I was delighted I made it the finish. That’s all I wanted to do.”
Indeed he held on to third, four minutes behind Hannon, perfectly content with his time of 2:38:54. Then the angel in his head winked, and Monahan realised this was only the beginning. The only limit would be the limit he set for himself. And it’s as if he suddenly realised there was none. Like when he came back to Dublin, last year, and won, beating Hannon by 13 minutes, although not entirely content with his time of 1:52:43.
“I wanted to break two hours, so I was happy with the time. But I knew as well I could go faster. That’s when it became competitive, really. I just felt there was no point doing it half-hearted. If I was going to do this, I wanted to be the best I can. There’s no point in me coming up to the Phoenix Park, three or four times a week, for an easy spin. I’d rather push myself hard. There are plenty of days I don’t want to do it, and it can be very lonely at times. But you always feel better after you’ve done it. And that’s really why I do it now.”
At age 29, Monahan is still relatively young for an elite-level wheelchair racer – which is the sort of Formula 1 of paralympic sport. It’s always been highly technical and with extremely high standards. He’s certainly a relative novice, considering he only discovered the sport when watching the London Paralympics, just over three years ago. By then, he thought he was relatively content with his life too, since that fateful morning five years earlier, when the devil in his head winked, turning his entire world upside down, in the absolute literal sense.
“Like any 21-year-old, I felt invincible,” he tells me, recalling with perfect clarity that morning of March 2007, when Monahan was driving to work as an apprentice plumber in Naas. “I was going too fast, simple as that. There was no one to blame, other than me being foolish. I hit a few corners and the car flipped over.”
He was cut from the wreckage, conscious, thinking to himself it could have been worse. He’d broken some ribs, suffered some facial cuts, and fractured three thoracic vertebrae. Five weeks later, after being transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire, Monahan was told in no uncertain terms that he’d never walk again.
Still in shock
“I think I was still in shock, for a long time. It’s only when I got out of rehab that it really hit me. You’re around people all the time, in rehab. When I got home, I was suddenly on my own. Everyone else was gone out to work, so the first couple of months, it was all ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ It was hard to see where my life was going to go.”
The Monahans had always been close, especially around sport. His father, Michael, was a top GAA inter-county referee, taking charge of the 2005 All-Ireland final between Tyrone and Kerry. (He’s now retired from refereeing, and prefers to watch his other three sons playing rugby, which is another story entirely.) Without this close family support, coming to terms with his accident would have been unimaginable.
A cousin helped line up a job with Ulster Bank, he got himself a specially equipped car, and for the next four years, figured this was as good as it was going to get. Then, during those London Paralympics, the angel in his head first winked.
“I had played some football before, with the Raheens club in Kildare, and was always into sport in some way. I just knew I couldn’t play football again. And some of the other things, like wheelchair basketball, didn’t really appeal to me. But I actually wasn’t very aware of wheelchair racing at all. I saw some races in London, and thought, ‘I’d like to give that a go’. I was happy enough working with the bank, but just felt I wanted to try some sport again. So I left the job that summer.”
Without telling anyone, he drove out to Punchestown racecourse, and in his regular wheelchair, pushed himself about two kilometres, or what felt like forever. “And I was knackered for two or three days. So it certainly wasn’t an immediate love affair. But it’s nice to be able to look back on that period now, and see how far I’ve come. Because it is a very tough sport. I’m not trying to be biased here, but people try it, and very quickly don’t want to know about it. They think it will be easy. But I like that. I wouldn’t like it to be easy, that I could very quickly be one of the best at it. It motivates me that the standard is so high, physically and mentally.”
Encouraged by his debut marathon in Dublin in 2013, he next competed in Belfast, the following May, and won. There, he met British Paralympics coach Ian Mirfin, one of the best of business: “I realised I’d no idea how to train. I’d go out for a long two-hour push, every day. Ian gave me a monthly programme, emphasising speed intervals, and recovery. He’s opened so many doors as well, getting me over to train with the Americans, getting me into the top races, getting me measured for the proper race chair. That’s helped make all the difference.”
And helped Monahan get where he is now – and ultimately to next year’s Rio Paralympics. After an initial training period in the US this summer (travelling entirely independently), he raced the Berlin marathon in September and clocked 1:39:52, knocking four minutes off the Irish record. Then came Chicago, last Sunday week, where he clocked 1:38:52. Then Ohio last Sunday and another Irish record of 1:36:32.
Clearly, there’s a faster recovery period in wheelchair racing, although the effort is no less complete. “I can freewheel, for five or six seconds, if I want to. Going down hills too, while the runner has to go all the time. It’s a little more like cycling, really. There’s a big lactic build-up in the arms, but it goes quite quickly. But it still feels like I’m only new to this, have so much to learn. I’ve only recently got the proper racing gloves as well, because they are expensive.”
Indeed. Which raises the issue of funding. Last year, Monahan got €500 for winning the wheelchair race in Dublin; the first man and woman home won €10,000 each. In the US, most big city marathons offer more comparable prize money. Next weekend’s New York marathon has a top wheelchair prize of $15,000/€13,606.
“Maybe the prize money in Dublin is not that big because there aren’t as many in it. But for most people, €500 wouldn’t even cover your travel. I do have some sponsors, and my disability pension, but you end up spending all your own money. The new chair cost me €6,000. The wheels are €2,500. You don’t get much change out of €100 per tyre. And I’ve lost track of how many I’ve gone through. In one day alone I blew out four.
“I’ve talked to Paralympics Ireland about some funding, but don’t reach the criteria yet. I’d like to make it to Rio, but I’m not really thinking that far ahead. It just annoys me that people presume if you’re doing this sport, you get to go to the Paralympics. But really, I just want to get faster, keep improving, and maybe inspire more people to get involved, to see what can be done, and that they can do it too.”