William Brosnahan was completely ready to compete in the 2022 Boilermaker Road Race. He had done all of the hard work and training required to allow him to compete in the 15K wheelchair division.
All that was left was counting down the days until he would travel to Utica from his home in Highland, NY to compete in the Sitrin Wheelchair Challenge, which awards a racing wheelchair to the program participant that can complete the Boilermaker 15K in 2 hours and 15 minutes or less using a traditional chair.
He was confident and excited. All systems were go. And then, they weren’t.
“I felt sick starting the Friday before July 4th and ended up in the hospital by July 5th or 6th and couldn’t leave,” he explains. “I’ll do everything I can to avoid going to the hospital until after the race this year!”
While missing last year’s race was a disappointment, the 42-year-old has responded with resilience and optimism that his friends and family have come to expect. He has a history of adapting and overcoming each and every obstacle that dares to stand in his way.
When Brosnahan headed out for a late-season day of snowboarding in 2011, he had no idea that his life was about to change. He hit the trails of his local mountain with the intention of participating in the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade later that day. Unfortunately, his plans quickly took a turn for the worst when the poor conditions of the trail he was riding on caused a horrific accident.
“Since it was the end of the year, they dug a lot of the snow from the sides of the trails to get as much coverage as they could,” he explained. “I was standing looking up the mountain to tell a friend we were taking the trail to the left at a fork, lost my edge and fell in the hole where the trails split.”
The fall left Brosnahan with fractures in his back, leg, ribs and a collapsed lung. He is paralyzed from the chest down (T6 Complete). The “complete” means he has no feeling/range of motion below the level of injury, though still experiences nerve pain where he has no feeling.
An avid hiker, runner and snowboarder prior to his accident, Brosnahan began running in his wheelchair about 8-years after his accident to gain back his competitive edge and get back in shape. “I started by walking my mom’s dog after work while dog sitting,” he said. “I put some pounds on from sitting down for 8 years, so as I started to push my chair for 30 minutes a day, I noticed that I was losing weight and started feeling like I had more energy.”
After joining a running club and competing in local races, Brosnahan heard about the Boilermaker wheelchair challenge. Program participants who meet the time requirements are fitted for specially made chairs which typically cost upwards of $3,000 according to Marc DePerno, STARS adaptive sports program director for Sitrin. Since 1997, 31 racing wheelchairs have been awarded to challengers. Program participants are chosen through an application process.
“These chairs are designed for speed and stability,” Deperno said. “We are proud to be in a position to sponsor the challenge and truly make a difference in the lives of these athletes.”
Unlike traditional wheelchairs, racing chairs are ergonomically designed to allow athletes to propel themselves safely and efficiently at speeds that are impossible to reach in a traditional chair. They sit closer to the ground for stability, especially on uneven or rough terrain and the rider is positioned securely, with their legs fastened safely beneath the seat.
“I have fallen out of my chair so many times due to my feet getting caught behind the footplate on a bumpy road, or my front caster getting caught in a pothole,” Brosnahan said. “If I am able to meet the time challenge and receive a racing chair, it would make running more secure and allow me to push my times.”
Brosnahan has improved his pace from 12-13 minutes per mile at the beginning to below eight minutes per mile today. By contrast, the winner of the Boilermaker 15K wheelchair division averages just under four minutes per mile.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve maxed out what I can do in a normal wheelchair,” Brosnahan admits. “With three big wheels and the position you are in on those chairs, falling out of the chair or missing the push rim and flopping on my knees should be a thing of the past. The new chair would reduce my risk of injury and allow me to get out there more and really push my pace.”
In addition to his road racing exploits, Brosnahan has also returned to the slopes, even returning to his local mountain where the original accident happened. “After about 2 years, I bought a sit-ski rig and was taught by their adaptive program how to ski again,” he explains. “It took a long time to get ok again but I can now ski down double black diamond trails as long as it’s not icy. I got good enough that I was accepted to teach at the same program that taught me after years of trying. I’m a volunteer instructor and it’s really rewarding to be able to show people what is possible, no matter what is going on with you physically or mentally.”
To get ready for this year’s race, Brosnahan is planning to run a half marathon in April and his trademark optimism has him planning for the future. “My girlfriend signed up for the NY Road Runners 9-1 plan to do the NYC Marathon in 2024,” he said. “I’m going to be doing that with her. Hopefully, the racing chair will be ready before that race, I’m not sure it will be smart to do a marathon in my normal chair!”
The Sitrin Wheelchair Challenge is part of the Boilermaker 15K Road Race presented by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, which will be run on Sunday, July 9, 2023. For more information about the challenge, visit: https://www.boilermaker.com/events/wheelchair.php
William Brosnahan competing in the Helderberg to Hudson Half Marathon in April. Brosnahan is competing in the Sitrin Wheelchair Challenge, as part of this year’s Boilermaker 15K Road Race presented by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. The challenge provides a racing wheelchair to the program participant that can complete the Boilermaker 15K in 2 hours and 15 minutes or less using a traditional chair. Since 1997, 32 racing wheelchairs have been awarded to challengers. (Photo provided by Helderberg to Hudson Half Marathon)