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Williamstown Man Energizing Boston Club for Impaired Runners

By Stephen Dravis
Williamstown Correspondent
12:15AM / Wednesday, May 15, 2013
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Mobility-impaired runner Kevin Counihan, left, is seen with Williamstown's Hank Art and New York's Lori Gaon at the 2011 ING New York City Marathon.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Since running his first marathon in 1994, Hank Art has duplicated the feat on numerous occasions.

He is proudest of those days when his times were the slowest.

Since 2007, Art, a professor of biology at Williams College, has put his marathoning skill to work as a guide for Achilles International, a New York-based non-profit that helps mobility-impaired runners compete in distance running events, including 26.2-mile competitions like the Boston Marathon or the New York Marathon.

The latter is where Art had a revelation about the role of Achilles.

"I had several epiphanies in my relationship with Achilles," he said recently. "At the [turn of the century], I was running a couple of marathons a year, and I'd notice them there. As you pass the runners — although some of them pass you — you'd see the bright T-shirts.

"I was in New York in the early 2000s at the marathon, trying to qualify for Boston, and the run wasn't going too well. I came across the 59th Street Bridge, which is just about the halfway mark, and I realized I was not going to be running fast enough to make it. I started feeling a little sorry for myself.

"Then I came upon a woman from Brazil, wearing an Achilles shirt, waving a Brazilian flag and she had no legs. That kind of put the whole thing in perspective.

"I thought, 'I'm feeling sorry for myself?' "

By 2007, Art was back in New York as an Achilles guide, the first of his eight successful collaborations with Beverly runner Kevin Counihan.

"He's something of a legend in Achilles and the mobility-impaired running community," Art said. "At the time, he was running in about his 80th marathon. By the time I guided him in Boston three years ago, that was his 100th. Now he's run over 120 marathons.

"He'll be running the one in Bennington (May 19), and he often is the last person across the finish line."

But for Achilles athletes, the finishing time is hardly the point.

Participation is everything.

'What could be more perfect?'

To help even more runners like Counihan get to the starting line, Art is spurring the revitalization of a dormant Boston chapter of Achilles International.

That takes two things: dedicated volunteers and money. The former have been growing in numbers since last month's bombing in Boston and the realization that more than a dozen people needed amputations after they were injured in the attack.

Helping supply the latter is Williamstown eatery Tunnel City Coffee, which is taking orders through May 21 for Boston cream pies that it will have available for pickup May 25 and 26. One hundred percent of each pie's $35 price tag will be donated to Achilles International to help support the Boston chapter and purchase hand-crank wheelchairs for use by mobility-impaired athletes.

Tunnel City's owner explained that regular patron Dr. Eric White, a running partner of Art's and a marathoner himself, spread the word about Art's effort and the need for a fund-raiser.

"Realizing there was this small contingent from Williamstown participating in it ... the whole thing fell into place," Paul Lovegreen said. "What better way to help Hank's efforts to start a chapter in Boston?"

Tunnel City Coffee is planning a, naturally, Boston cream pie fundraiser to help the Boston Achilles chapter get moving.

Lovegreen said he does not know how many pies will be purchased in the fundraiser, but he is hoping to sell 100, and he would love to be able to present a check for $3,500, the price of one hand-crank wheelchair, according to the Achilles website.

To get to that level, it's going to take a team effort.

"Hey, Dara, do you think you can do 100 pies?" Lovegreen calls out to Tunnel City pastry chef Dara Lindley during a telephone interview.

" 'Sure. Why not?' she says."

But Lovegreen said he likely will end up bringing in some volunteers to support Lindley in her effort to produce dozens of homemade Boston cream pies in a 48-hour window.

"When I first hired Dara, my job was to make pastry cream all summer, and my elbow was killing me by the end of the day," Lovegreen said. "We'll be grabbing people as we see what the need is for volunteers. I think we have enough customers who will jump in.

"I have three semi-retired employees who I know will put time in. ... We also have a snowbird who comes back from Florida every summer. I'm sure she'll get involved.

"Then, of course, I'll be boxing and probably doing dishes."

Art is thrilled to see the local community rally to the cause.

"Paul came up with this brilliant idea of how to locally raise money with Boston cream pies on Memorial Day," Art said. "What could be more perfect?

"The generosity of that is just amazing."

'A real role for Achilles'

Art began thinking about the need for a stronger Achilles presence in Boston on his trip home from last month's marathon. As it happens, this year he was running on his own, but his thoughts soon turned to people like Counihan.

"I was four-tenths of a mile from the finish line, and the police jumped out in the middle of the road and stopped everything," Art said, recalling the chaos of April 15, 2013.

He pulls out a copy of the April 22 edition of Sports Illustrated and points to his own face in the magazine. Normally, it's a dream come true for any recreational athlete to appear in SI while participating in their sport of choice.

Not this time.

"I am right there, looking over here to the south," Art said. "And the police were out there. Three policemen jumped out in the road to stop everyone. I was about the third row of runners back. Then, five minutes later, the Boston Athletic Association officials came, and we were there for about an hour or so before we could sort out what happened and how we would be reunited with our baggage, which was a mile past the finish line."

Hours after the bombs exploded, the reality hit home.

Tom Montagnino of Ardsley, N.Y., left, Art and Counihan in the 2010 Ing New York City Marathon.

"As I was coming home with my wife that evening ... it struck me that there were all these people who were injured by the shrapnel," Art said. "Then as it came out the next couple of days: 15, 16, 17 people losing limbs, some of them double amputees. It was clear there would be a real role for Achilles to play relative to this incident."

On Wednesday, two days after the attack, Art reached out to Dick Traum, the founder of Achilles International and an above-the-knee amputee who began running in his 70s.

"I told him that I would like to become involved in doing something I've never done before, and that is doing some fundraising for the people who were injured and might want to have the services of Achilles provided to them," Art said. "He emailed me back saying, 'Let's talk.' "

Traum told Art that the biggest need was to get a chapter going in Boston.

Though it was founded 30 years ago, Achilles International only has a half-dozen strong chapters in the United States, Traum said this week.

"We're probably stronger internationally — Russia, Canada, Brazil, Equador, New Zealand," he said.

The Boston chapter, though it has existed on paper, has lacked sufficient volunteer support and funding, Traum said.

"Now, we have that," he said.

'Wonderful seeing the response'

The Williams College community figures strongly in the revitalization Boston's chapter of Achilles International.

Although Art first became aware of Achilles athletes during his first marathon in Chicago in 1994, it was not until more than a dozen years later that he actually made a connection with the organization.

"I happened to be leading an alumni safari to Africa in 2007," said Art, who has been on the Williams faculty since 1970. "I bumped into one of the members of the alumni group who was a fellow by the name of John Raynolds."

Raynolds is a member of the college's Class of '51 and a 2009 recipient of Williams' highest honor for distinguished achievement, its Bicentennial Medal.

"In conversation, [Raynolds] mentioned that he had run five New York Marathons," Art said. "He was in his 70s, maybe even his early 80s at the time.

"I said, 'That's amazing. Tell me about it.' And he said he'd done five marathons as an Achilles guide. I said, 'I've always wanted to be an Achilles guide. How do you do that?' "

This last "ephiphany" for Art ended in Raynolds contacting Traum, who sent a letter to Art that was waiting in his inbox on his return from Africa.

Six years later, Art is playing his role in the Williams community network, linking Achilles with 1996 Williams grad Jonathan Cluett, now an orthopedic surgeon with Northern Berkshire Healthcare in North Adams.

"[Traum] had some contacts among [Boston's] public safety departments — the fire, police and EMTs," Art said. "He said what he really needed to get are the orthopedic surgeons who are tending to the patients and the rehabilitation community.

"I got in touch with, among others, Jonnie Cluett, who was an honors thesis student of mine back in the 1990s. ... And he's just been a tiger on this. He started emailing people in the New England Orthopedic Society. They were interested in pursuing it."

Cluett said it was an easy sell.

"Obviously, everybody is looking for how they can help, and when you reach out to a community that has a way of supporting the victims, I think people respond very positively," Cluett said. "People are eager to get involved. They're eager to lend their expertise and their professional knowledge."

Last weekend, Cluett went to Boston for a meeting of the revamped Achilles chapter, which has hired a part-time coordinator who is a physical therapist. And Cluett had another meeting with Irene Davis, the director of the Spaulding National Running Center at Cambridge's Spaulding Rehabilitation Center.

Cluett, who runs marathons himself, said he was happy to see how he could help make connections between Achilles International and his colleagues.

"When Hank called on me to see if we could coordinate getting more of the medical community involved, this was just an opportunity where I thought I could help out in a way that might be meaningful to the organization," Cluett said.

Over the last month, other Williams alumni have gotten into the act.

The editor of Runner's World, a member of the class of 1989, David Willey, is working on a story about Achilles' response to the tragedy in Boston. Brooks Foehl, a 1988 graduate and the school's director of alumni relations, has signed on to be an Achilles guide, Art said.

Art, left, with Counihan and Montagnino at the 2010 Ing New York City Marathon.

"It's just wonderful seeing the response of people I've talked with to this whole thing," he said.

'Give them some lift'

Hank Art can talk at length about his experience as a runner and especially about his association with Achilles International, but bring the conversation around to April 15, 2013, and he understandably gets a little emotional.

"My own motivation for this is: The people who were injured, especially at the finish line, were the people who were going to be cheering for me," he said. "And they left their homes in the morning thinking they were going to go out and celebrate this wonderful event. ... Their lives were changed, and if there is something that can be done to give them some lift, I see Achilles as a way of doing that."

Art also knows how Achilles can lift the spirits of those around them.

He marvels at the persistence shown by Counihan, who lost most of his right foot in a childhood accident and nevertheless runs marathons without the benefit of a prosthesis.

"He's running with a shoe that is just stuffed with newsprint," Art said. "He jams his foot into it and ties it up. So he has very little control over his right foot."

That can be especially problematic when the terrain is uneven. Art said he has become an expert at knowing which New York or Boston streets need to be paved, and potholes are just part of the problem.

"[Counihan] needs help when he's going downhill," Art said. "He has a limited ability to slow himself down. Coming across the 59th Street Bridge a couple of years ago, all of a sudden, without expecting it, he kind of lost his balance and he started like a runaway train going down this circular ramp down toward 59th Street. He was just out of control. He went from a 14- or 15-minute mile pace to a 7- or 8-minute mile, something like that.

"Fortunately, we had two other guides for that race, and we had to run and grab the back of his shirt and just slow him down."

Other Achilles athletes have been blind or used wheelchairs. Traum expects that at least some of the victims of last month's bombing will be ready to join their ranks as soon as the 2014 Boston Marathon.

"We have a goal: to have 10 wounded spectators complete Boston in 2014," Traum said. "Absolutely that's realistic. The most difficult part is getting your base. It's more difficult to get from zero to five miles than from five to 26 miles."

However many of the newly wounded choose to run and however far they go, it is a safe bet that Art will be there to cheer them on.

"To me, running marathons, after a certain point — like the second one — becomes a bit narcissistic," he said. "There's a certain element of focusing on yourself. This is a way of giving something back and making a difference and being involved.

"I must also admit that growing up and even into my adult years, I was a little offput by people with disabilities. I think there's a little aversion that is probably part of human nature. Being with these people as they're preparing to do a marathon and they're taking off their artificial limbs and putting on their racing springs, it's just a way I've gotten way beyond that (aversion).

"I feel like I've benefited more from Achilles than they have from me."

To order a Boston cream pie from Tunnel City Coffee to support Achilles International, visit tunnelcitycoffee.com/Boston-Cream-Pie.

To contribute directly to Achilles' Boston chapter, visit achillesinternational.org/support/Boston.


Tags: boston marathon,   fundraiser,   running,   

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