All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for May 2003

One man's marathon

Myers hasn't let MS slow him down

Wednesday, April 30, 2003
By Gregory Mathis / Staff Writer
Marshfield Mariner

Even after the debilitating affects of Multiple Sclerosis forced Frank Myers into a wheelchair more than five years ago, he never gave up on his goal of one day participating in the most historic marathon in the world.

On Patriots Day this year, the 62-year-old Marshfield resident realized his dream and covered the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon course in a little less than four and a half hours.

"That's been my ultimate ambition," Myers said. "Boston is the greatest marathon in the world and attracts the greatest wheelchair athletes in the world."

Myers was the oldest wheelchair participant in this year's marathon field with the closest wheelchair competitor in age being 46.

While it may have taken him longer than expected, Myers said the experience was one he'll never forget.

"I had heard about the extraordinary crowds at the Boston Marathon," Myers said. "There were a few times I wanted to quit, but the exhilaration of the crowd just didn't allow it."

More than a half-million people lined the historic route from Hopkinton to Boston to encourage the 17,000 official participants of varying ages and abilities.

The highlight of the day for Myers came at the 17-mile mark when his son, Michael, who was running in his ninth Boston Marathon, caught up with him on Heartbreak Hill near the Newton fire station.

"We were able to run and wheel together for six miles, to mile 23, then I started to hit the wall," Michael said.

Dehydration took its toll on Michael's body and he began cramping up with just a few miles to go.

"There were a couple of downhills on Comm. Ave and my dad was gone," Michael said.

"It looked like we could have finished together, which would have been nice, but he wasn't waiting for me," Michael joked.

Although this was his ninth Boston Marathon, Michael doesn't claim to be among the elite runners.

"I'm no speed demon," said Michael, who lives in the Fieldston section of Marshfield. "It's hard to qualify, so I just do it for fun without a number."

Michael said Boston has been his father's focus for the last five years.

"It's been his dream to do Boston the last five years," Michael said. "When he got his number, that's all he talked about - doing the Boston Marathon. When it happened, we were all thrilled."

Myers said he was expecting to finish Boston in less than four hours, but the crowded conditions along the course slowed him down, especially on the downhills.

"With all the runners bunching up in front of me I was breaking a lot. If it wasn't for that, I probably could have done 3:45," said Myers, whose best marathon time is 3:37.

Boston was the third marathon Myers completed. He finished his first marathon in a wheelchair three years ago in Las Vegas. He did a second marathon the following year at the same location and tried once again this past February.

"I got to 20 miles and had to give up," Myers said of this year's attempt.

Crazy weather and gusty headwinds made it impossible to finish the race, he said.

Michael, who has cycled Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, and plans to cycle Europe this summer, said his father has been a source of inspiration for him.

"His motivation and his attitude toward life in general is amazing," Michael said. "It's a negative to have it (MS), but he always looks on the positive side."

Myers, who retired seven years ago as the New England director of the AFL-CIO, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis 17 years ago. Multiple Sclerosis is an unpredictable, chronic disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms range in severity and duration from person to person and can cause blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, extreme fatigue, paralysis and blindness. Symptoms could become permanent or they might occur sporadically. There are approximately 400,000 Americans with MS, which usually strikes people between the ages of 20 and 50. Twice as many women as men have MS, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Myers has a chronic progressive form of MS, which means the disease will continue to worsen.

Before Myers was diagnosed with MS, he was a long-distance runner who had competed in three marathons. He continued to run through the early stages of the disease, but began to take too many falls as his legs became more inflexible. When the running became too painful and dangerous, Myers took to bicycling . He worked his way up to 100 miles per week on the bike, but the MS started to affect that as well.

"As the disease progressed, I took a couple of bad falls," Myers said. "I had 42 stitches in my arm, then 25 stitches over my eye, so I thought I'd give that up too."

Myers said he thought he was out of athletic options until he looked out his window one September day and saw a wheelchair whirl by his house on Forest Street. The racer was competing in the annual Marshfield Road Runners 20K road race.

"That really whetted my appetite," Myers said.

Not knowing what to do next, Myers called the Boston Athletic Association and the group that's responsible for organizing the Boston Marathon put Myers in touch with Bob Hall, who co-founded New Hall Products in Somerville, which specializes in products - especially wheelchairs - for disabled athletes.

Hall made the wheelchair Myers trains and races in and Myers said the two became good friends through the process.

The racing wheelchairs are made out of aluminum and are built to an individual's specific body size and disability. Hall customized a "Leader" racing chair for Myers about five years ago and it opened up a whole new world for Myers.

"He absolutely loves it," Hall said. "He's extremely dedicated and he's done quite well for himself."

With the ability to travel 30 miles per hour on a steep enough incline, however, racing and training in a wheelchair comes with its own hazards.

Myers was training in Woodland Hills, located behind his house on Forest Street, without a helmet one day. He rounded a corner and saw a group of kids gathered in front of him on their bikes.

"It was either hit the kids or steer into the curb," Myers remembered. "I hit the curb and went flying into the air."

When he landed, Myers had broken his collarbone, two ribs and had permanent hearing loss in one ear. He was hospitalized in Jordan Hospital for 10 days.

"It drives my kids nuts," Myers said. "First the two bike accidents, then this."

Michael said his father is a stubborn man and doesn't give up easily.

"We're worried about the injuries and the accidents that happen to him," Michael said. "I get nervous when he gets out there, especially on a busy street like Forest Street, which is windy and cars travel pretty fast coming around corners."

Michael said he stresses safety first with his father, encouraging him to wear his helmet at all times.

"I think he gets the point now," Michael said.

With the danger comes the reward as well.

"The wheelchair is something that really keeps him going... he really looks forward to it," said Michael. "Thank God for the wheelchair. He doesn't sit at home thinking about his illness."

When Myers is in training mode, he'll do up to 50 miles a week. To train during this winter's bad weather, Myers had rollers made to put the wheelchair on to workout indoors.

"The last few months I've been working out more indoors," Myers said.

Like most runners, Myers mixes up his workouts. He'll go to Humarock to do his speed work on a flat 2.2-mile point-to-point route. To do hill work, Myers trains behind his house in Woodland Hills.

Myers said it takes a while to learn the proper wheelchair technique, and he's still learning.

"It takes a long, long time to get the technique down," Myers said.

Myers said his upper back was sore and he was "tired, very tired" on Thursday, three days after the marathon.

"Being on my knees like that for over four hours was very uncomfortable," Myers said.

With Boston behind him, Myers is looking to compete in other high profile racing events, including the Falmouth Road Race this August.

"I've always been active physically and this is about the only thing I can do now," Myers said. "It makes me feel good, not only physically, but emotionally. It's become one of my purposes in life.

"This has been my highest aspiration - to do Boston. God willing, I'll go back and do it again next year."

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