BELMAR, NJ — When Joe Rooney of Belmar ran his first New York City Marathon last Sunday, he did not go it alone. He completed the 26-mile run powering a custom wheelchair that held his race partner, quadriplegic Mikey Nichols — and his inspiration for taking on the challenging feat.
They crossed the finish line in just under four hours — the fourth best of eight duo-teams among more than 52,000 total runners. Not even a tightened hamstring causing Rooney severe pain at the 24th mile of the race could stop them.
They were on a mission: to raise money for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which has been instrumental in Nichols’ life since 2014 — after he broke his neck while playing ice hockey for Monroe High School, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Since then, the 23-year-old has regained partial use of his arms, finished high school and has earned an associate's degree.
So far, they have raised $42,000 for the nonprofit group dedicated to curing spinal cord injury by funding innovative research, and improving the quality of life for people living with paralysis, including Nichols. “Your support is critical to help deliver effective treatments and work toward cures, while giving millions of people hope” he writes on his fundraising page for Team Reeve.
Rooney and Nichols’ friendship goes back seven years ago when Nichols was a student at Monroe High School and Rooney an English teacher — a post he still holds.
An avid runner since high school, Rooney proposed the idea to run the New York Marathon to raise funds for the Reeve foundation. The 33-year-old already had the Philadelphia Marathon under his belt — running it in three hours and nine minutes — and was eager to enter the world’s largest long-distance run and for a worthy cause.
So they started training in late summer after Nichols’ three-wheeled Hoyt racer chair arrived. “We went from four miles to eight miles to 10 miles," Rooney said. "We were aggressive about our plan."
They pushed themselves mile by mile until building their strength and stamina to compete in the Jersey Shore Half Marathon in Highlands. They placed 59th overall in a field of 703, with a time of one hour and 41 minutes at a pace of 7:43 per mile in the October 6 race.
Only one month later on November 3, they would be at their ultimate destination — the New York City Marathon.
With Nichols bundled up in blankets, and wearing a hat, hood and facemask, both men were ready for a ride — and run — of a lifetime on the brisk, sunny morning.
“I knew we could do it,” said Rooney, who was impressed by the camaraderie of the runners who would “part the sea” for them at various points along the route. “On the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, I did a good deal of yelling, telling (other runners) we were coming, but I was moved by how many runners helped give us a little bit of daylight. It was incredible.”
While continuing at a consistent pace for the most of the run pushing about 175 pounds of chair and occupant, Rooney had a surge after they crossed the Queensboro Bridge and entered midtown Manhattan at the 16th mile mark. “My adrenalin took over, and we gave it everything we could. But I gradually started to give out. I had an empty tank and my muscles started to flutter.”
With two miles to go, Rooney’s hamstring completely clenched up. “I couldn’t move and spent a couple minutes feeling mortified that we were not going to finish the race and I would be letting Mikey down.”
This time, it was Nichols’ turn to keep the duo going. “He told me not to worry,” Rooney recalled, getting a grip on himself and chugging a bottle of water — something he had been told could help with muscle cramping. And it did.
They went on to finish the race in three hours and 51 minutes, a pace of 8:50 per mile — with a massive, cheering crowd along every step of the way.
While another race is possible in this dynamic duo’s future, Rooney said that he’s going to enjoy the Belmar beachfront for now. “Looking at the ocean, I am excited to surf since I haven’t done that since late August,” he said “The ocean is where I do my soul searching and looking for the next step.”
Meanwhile, donations to their Team Reeve fundraising campaign continue to come in, thanks in large part to the media coverage they have received before and after the race. “We’re going to keep (the campaign) open for a while, so we can raise as much as we can.”
Starting out with a goal of $30,000, the campaign has reached more than $42,000. To make a donation to Team Reeve, click here.