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Paralyzed woman finishes Boston Marathon

By David Whiting / The Orange County Register


Article Tab : sanden-marathon-dream-com
Beth Sanden holds up her finisher's medal moments after completing Monday's Boston Marathon, a dream she has pursued for nearly a decade. Sanden was paralyzed in a bicycle crash in 2002, but triumphed with determination, training and the support of family to compete on a hand cycle.

Nothing gets in the way of Beth Sanden and a dream.

Not some rocks on the road. Not the skidding, sliding, spine-crunching bicycle crash that followed. Not the broken back. Not even paralysis.

And on Monday, Sanden heard four words that she should have heard, would have heard eight years ago if it hadn't been for those awful rocks.

"Beth Sanden, San Clemente."

But the dream wasn't about the words. It was about where they were said – at the finish line of the legendary Boston Marathon.

What's the big deal about Boston? After all, every marathon is the same – 26.2 miles.

Perhaps a 2006 poster in my garage says it best, "Three words every runner lives to say: I finished Boston."

Still, of the 26,735 runners who competed in the 114th Boston Marathon, Sanden's race was, to say the least, unusual.

There were only 23 other hand cyclists.


The 'impossible'

When you first meet Sanden, the thing you notice is change in the air around you. Her energy supercharges it.

It's little surprise then, when you discover this personal trainer, mother of two and Challenged Athletes Foundation fund-raiser is a triathlete. And not just any triathlete.

Sanden qualified and competed in the Ironman world championships in Kona.

That was in 2001, the same year Sanden made the qualifying time for Boston. But during a training ride a few months later, Sanden headed into a corner going down a hill. Gravel.

Sanden was left unable to walk. For many of us, the dream to finish Boston would be over. But never underestimate the power of love – and the human spirit.

Sanden's husband, Burt, adjusted his life and found the kind of patience I can only hope I could find. Her daughters helped. And Sanden rediscovered courage, hope and perseverance.

On Oct. 1, 2006, Sanden atop a shiny new red CAF hand cycle, completed her first triathlon in five years.


The race

It's Monday, 4:30 a.m. and Sanden has four hours and 52 minutes before her start time for the Boston Marathon. She lifts one leg, then the other and reaches for her crutches. Sanden has a race to finish and a dream to realize.

It's gray and cold in the small town of Hopkinton where the race starts. Gun time approaches, 9:22 a.m. Sanden, a woman of deep faith, is nervous.

"God, just calm me down a little bit," she prays. "Let me do this and let me do it well."

Sanden is one of three women hand cyclists. Her competitive nature kicks in. The race is on.

The first mile includes a steep downhill. A police escort ensures the hand cyclists don't go over 14 miles an hour. Sanden goes exactly 14 mph.

She rips past the five kilometer mark, just 15 minutes, 12 seconds into the race. She can't believe what she sees and hears.

She moves through one of several small towns on the outskirts of the course, and it's wall-to-wall people. They gather in parking lots. They sit on porches. They cheer like crazy.

Sanden, pedaling with one hand, reaches toward the crowd. She blows kisses.

She hits the half-way mark. Her time is 1:12:44. She realizes she can't beat the woman hand cyclist ahead. Sanden's 14 minutes behind and, I'll add, 20 years older.

But Sanden, 55, is determined to make it a race for second place. Kristina Ripatti, 37, is just one second ahead.

Heartbreak Hill, however, also is ahead. Sanden hits the incline that has defeated many a would-be finisher. Running it at race pace is hard. Pedaling a hand cycle uphill is even harder.

"You can do this," someone shouts.

"You're fast and you're strong," another fan encourages, walking alongside Sanden.

It's like a shot of adrenaline. She makes the top and shoots down, thinking, "I'm free and clear."

It's then that Sanden discovers Boston Marathon's cruel secret. Heartbreak Hill isn't the only hill.

She cranks with all her energy. At the 40K mark, Sanden is ahead of Ripatti – by six seconds.

As she nears downtown Boston, the roar from the crowd builds. Cheerleaders wave. People bang on drums. Kids yell.

She sees Rapatti just behind. Sanden pushes like crazy.

The crowd erupts. Sanden can't think in the roar. But she can crank.

She crosses the finish line in 2:33:44. Ripatti is four seconds behind.

First, Sanden calls her daughters. Then, as we arranged, she calls me. The noise from the crowd is deafening. Sanden finds a church alcove.

"When I saw the finish line and they said my name, I couldn't believe it," Sanden tells me.

But I could.

I know Sanden. Deep down, she never stopped believing.


David Whiting's column appears in Sports on Tuesdays and on News One on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.