On skateboards and hand-cycles, dozens of disabled athletes will compete in marathon

Lance Benson, 43, will compete on Sunday in his 12th Miami Marathon.
Lance Benson, 43, will compete on Sunday in his 12th Miami Marathon. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

When Lance Benson got into running marathons “on a whim” in 2004, he used a skateboard instead of a conventional hand cycle to compete in the Lighthouse Run, a 10K on Key Biscayne. Born without legs, Benson has used a skateboard for every marathon he has competed in.

Benson, 43, will compete Sunday in his 12th Miami Marathon. “When I’m on the skateboard, my gloves hitting the ground and pushing me forward, I feel like a runner pounding the pavement,” he said. “My gloves hitting the ground, to me, simulate the feeling of what a runner feels when running in a marathon.”

The Miami Marathon, now in its 15th year, has become one of Miami’s largest and attracts athletes from all across the world. Since its inception in 2002, the marathon has generated more than $650 million in economic impact for Miami, co-founder Frankie Ruiz said.

About 80 disabled athletes will participate this year. They are screened by Achilles International, a nonprofit organization that supports and trains disabled runners. Founded in 1983 by Dick Traum, the first amputee to run the New York City Marathon, the organization has grown to over 65 locations in the United States and overseas.

“These athletes with disabilities hold the essence of the sport,” Ruiz said. “They inspire others to question their daily activities and make the able-bodied question their fitness levels. This marathon was inspired by a disabled athlete, Rudy Garcia-Tolson, who had the idea of establishing a marathon in Miami. We want to make sure that this marathon is accessible for everyone to compete in.”

Competing Sunday in his 30th marathon, Benson was one of the leading voices to bring the Achilles organization to South Florida in 2005.

Benson never used a wheelchair to get around as a child in Raleigh, North Carolina. Instead, he used prostheses, crutches or a skateboard. Despite his disabilities, Benson wrestled for his high school’s team and was a competitive weightlifter. At 118 pounds, Benson could bench press 336 pounds.

These days, he can be seen riding his skateboard around Brickell, where he lives with his wife and three children.

On a stormy night in August 2008 — a day after he signed up for the Navy, enlisting as an intelligence technician — Everglades High School pitcher Jimmy Crews lost control of his car as he drove to a movie. The car hydroplaned on a puddle, spun and rear-ended a tree. When Crews awakened from a medically induced coma three weeks after the accident, he learned he had a traumatic brain injury to his cerebellum, the part of the brain that coordinates movement and speech.

Now 26, Crews uses a cane to walk and has difficulty speaking, but his injuries have not slowed his athletic dreams. A few years after the car accident, he met with Chris Holcomb, a former Achilles International regional coordinator and took up hand-cycling.

On Sunday, he will compete in his seventh Miami Marathon.

“I have always been an athlete,” Crews said. “So, when they approached me to do hand-cycling I’m like, ‘Sure, why not?’ I’m not able to do much, but I was able to do this so why not give it a shot. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”

Crews, a Broward real estate agent, has competed in marathons in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Boston, where in April 2013 he finished two hours before a terrorist explosion killed three people and wounded hundreds of others.

“It was the most scared I’ve been in a while,” Crews recalls. “The bombing is a close second behind the accident.”

Raphael Martinez was running late for work in February 1995 when he ran a stop sign in in Hesperia, California, and lost control of his 1989 Toyota pickup. The truck flipped and Martinez was ejected and thrown about 80 feet away. The truck came to rest in the front yard of a house and Martinez landed in the backyard.

Martinez knew something horrible happened because he couldn’t get up. Shortly after, he celebrated his 21st birthday in the intensive care unit of Palm Springs General Hospital. Martinez had broken a vertebrae in the middle of his spinal cord. He remains a paraplegic.

Three years after his accident, Martinez moved to Miami “for a change of scenery.”

After meeting Holcomb about 2 1/2years ago, Martinez took up hand-cycling. He participated in his first Miami Marathon last year.

“Riding a bike gives me some of the freedom I lost in the accident,” said Martinez, now 42. “It makes me feel able-bodied again. When I’m on the bike, I don’t think about my injury. It’s a meditating and liberating feeling, to say the least.”

In 2014, Martinez left a 14-year job as a telecommunications technician at Miami International Airport to pursue volunteer work. He currently mentors spinal-cord injury patients at Jackson Memorial Hospital and volunteers for the Sabrina Cohen Foundation, a nonprofit that improves beach access for the disabled.

When he’s not riding his hand-cycle, Martinez plays wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis. He is working on setting up a wheelchair tennis program at Tropical Park.

“Around 15 to 20 years ago, none of these athletes would have considered participating in a marathon,” Ruiz said. “That has changed. Now, these athletes inspire other athletes to push themselves further.”

Related stories from Miami Herald