UPMC/City of Pittsburgh Marathon: Wheelchair favorites anticipate tight duel in marathon

Saturday, May 03, 2003

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

As a wheelchair athlete, Ernst Van Dyk had a different set of sporting role models growing up in South Africa. Van Dyk idolized Franz Nietlisbach, a pioneer of wheelchair racing and a former five-time winner of the Boston Marathon.

As Van Dyk hits his peak in the sport of wheelchair racing, those in the marathon community are starting to refer to him as perhaps the greatest wheelchair racer of all time.

Van Dyk of South Africa is quickly setting his own standard in the sport. He is the three-time defending champion of the Boston Marathon and will defend his title at the UPMC/City of Pittsburgh Marathon tomorrow.


What: 19th UPMC/City of Pittsburgh Marathon

When: Sunday

Where: Race(s) start and finish at Heinz Field

Schedule: 7 a.m., walkers; 7:35 a.m., wheelchairs; 7:45 a.m., marathon; 8 a.m., marathon relay; 8:10 a.m., wheelchair 5K; 8:15 a.m., 5K run/walk.

Purse: Men's and women's overall winners receive $12,500, with an additional $2,500 being awarded to the man if he breaks 2:12 and to the woman if she breaks 2:32.

Last year he set the course record at Pittsburgh by negotiating the hilly course in 1 hour, 34 minutes and 49 seconds.

"He's in a league of his own," said Katherine Switzer, a former women's champion at Boston who will call the race on WPXI's telecast. "He's the best in the world. No doubt about it."

Van Dyk's ultimate goal is to break the world record held by Heinz Frei, whose time of 1:20:14 is the gold standard in the sport. But Frei's time won't be falling tomorrow.

"This course is too hilly," Van Dyk said. "If we ever get the right conditions in Boston, we'll get it for sure."

Van Dyk, 30, and fellow South African Krige Schabort, 39, are the favorites tomorrow. Schabort began his racing career in 1989 after he lost his legs serving in the South African military. Schabort beat Van Dyk at the New York City Marathon last year, and Van Dyk beat him this year in Boston.

"I really had a positive experience here last year," Van Dyk said. "I enjoy the race a lot. It's a very challenging course. It doesn't really suit me as an athlete because of all the hills. I think there are better-suited athletes for this course out there. I invited one of them, Krige Schabort. I convinced him to come over here. Between the two of us, we'll do a good race, and I think the course record is very much in [jeopardy]."

Schabort is better-suited for the Pittsburgh course because he is smaller in stature and weighs much less than Van Dyk, who has a tougher time climbing hills. But if Van Dyk can stay close, he has the advantage coming down hills and has the ability to pull away.

The wheelchair racing community is a small and tight-knit group. Van Dyk and Schabort are close friends, and Van Dyk just got back from Switzerland and a meeting with his role model, Nietlisbach.

"It's very unique," Van Dyk said. "The top five guys in the Boston race went out to dinner afterward. In the race, we're really fierce competitors. Sometimes we'll work together for a while, but in the end, when the line comes up, there has to be a winner."

Schabort made national headlines a few weeks back at the Boston Marathon. He was the racer who accidentally ran over a 7-year old girl on the course, ruining his chances of catching Van Dyk, who had a about a 60-second lead at the time of the accident.

Wheelchair racing can be dangerous for the participants and people along the course. Van Dyk said he reached speeds of 50 mph during the race last year in Pittsburgh. He indicated that crowd control is a big issue in Boston.

"It's great to have a big crowd on a course," he said. "But every time the leader would pass, people would walk across the course and try to get on TV. It was difficult to gauge how far ahead I was because all I could see was people. I was not surprised to hear about an accident there. I was actually surprised runners did not run people over because people really don't pay attention."

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.