While no one would choose the circumstances, pandemic induced cancellations presented marathoners with a unique calendar of events this fall. All six of the iconic World Marathon Majors — Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston, Tokyo (held virtually, in-person event postponed to 2022), and New York — took place within a span of 42 days. (In a typical season, Tokyo, Boston, and London are run in the spring.) While Shalane Flanagan has been in the limelight for her accomplishment of running all seven events each under 2:47, many other marathoners also seized the opportunity to run multiple Majors this fall.
Among these athletes was Aaron Pike, professional wheelchair racer and U.S. Para Nordic national team member, who raced the London Marathon on October 3rd, followed by Chicago on October 10th, and Boston the next morning. This was all on the coattails of the Tokyo Paralympics where took 6th place in the marathon, just 40 seconds outside of the medals.
While the transition between a Summer Paralympics in August and a Winter Games six months later is already tight, Pike trusted the crossover in fitness between sports and seized the opportunity to put together a fall marathon series. FasterSkier connected with Pike on a call in early November at the beginning of his first on-snow camp of the season in Canmore, Alberta.
Before jumping into the races, a bit about Pike’s background in sport. After sustaining a hunting injury when he was 13, Pike was paralyzed at the T11 vertebra of his mid-back. He explained that his family was living in Virginia at the time, which was fortuitous as a community member who was a former Navy Seal that began racing IronMan distance triathlons after his own injury heard about Pike’s circumstances and quickly took him under his wing.
“He came and visited me in the hospital pretty shortly after [I was injured],” Pike recalled. “I think I was still in inpatient [treatment] — but he came to visit me and was just telling me that he’d be a resource. He showed me some pictures of adaptive sports and what he does, and gave my parents all the contact information.”
The mentor was also coaching a youth wheelchair racing team and invited Pike to attend a practice once he was out of treatment.
“Maybe like a month or two after, I went out to watch a practice.. He had a group of six or seven other kids out there, and he brought a program chair out for me to try out. And it all just went from there.”
Pike advanced quickly in wheelchair racing through high school, but it was during his time at the University of Illinois-Champaign when his career flourished. Pike found success racing on the track, focusing on events 1500 meters and upward. It was also at the University of Illinois where he was first introduced to nordic skiing and biathlon, although he did not try it for himself until later on.
“[Former US Para Nordic] biathlon coach, Rob Rosser, came to the University of Illinois with a SkiErg and some rifles and just to introduce people to biathlon and cross country skiing. He set up the SkiErg so we could try them out — I think they were set up side-by-side, so you could sort of race each other. But the timing was tough, because it was right before the London Games, so everybody was kind of like, ‘Oh, this is cool,’ but then was right back to what they were focusing on. I didn’t think too much about it either.”
Shortly after racing the marathon at the London Paralympics in 2012, Pike received an email inviting him to attend a Para Nordic camp in Bozeman, where the national team now calls home base.
“So the first place I ever skied was in Bozeman,” he laughed. “So I got to try [out sit skiing] and, ended up liking the sport a lot right off the bat, day one pretty much. So it didn’t take too long for me to realize that it wasn’t just something that I was only going to try here and there in the winter.”
Two years later, Pike made the Paralympic team for both the Sochi Games in 2014 and PyeongChang in 2018, earning his best results in Korea with a 6th place finish in the 15-kilometer biathlon event and 7th in the 12.5k biathlon. He hopes to improve upon these results in Beijing this winter.
While he hoped for more in Tokyo, Pike has steadily climbed the Olympic ranks in the event. He was 16th in London in 2012, 10th in Rio in 2016, and 6th in Tokyo. As previously stated, he was just 40 seconds outside of the medals and finished alongside the 5th place athlete from Great Britain.
“I was happy with how [the race in Tokyo] went considering a few factors: we had wet conditions, which always makes it super challenging. It’s kind of like skiing where if you choose the wrong [wax], you’re going to have a really rough race. So I set myself up really well by prepping for the rain, whereas a chunk of the field had problems just managing [the conditions].”
Let’s unpack the ski comment quickly. What those unfamiliar with wheelchair racing may not expect is that one of the primary challenges on race day is much like that of classic waxing: achieving optimal grip. Instead of skis on snow, it’s gloves on rings, and problem solving with sandpaper, rubber, and even klister. Yes, klister. Pike shared that Rode Chola is a commonly used product in wet conditions.
Despite preparing for wet conditions, Pike explained he did not feel his strongest during the event and quickly fell out of medal contention. Nonetheless, he stayed in it and advanced through the field as the race went on.
“The start was not the best for me, a couple people got away early. Right off the bat, I was in eighth or ninth place, but I was able to keep reeling people in. I pulled up to one of the Japanese racers, and then he and I pulled up to my teammate, Daniel [Romanchuk]. All three of us reeled in two more guys, so then we were in a pack of five, but weren’t able to catch the front leaders.”
The experience of competing in a pandemic-shrouded Games also gave him a taste of what to expect in Beijing. Compared to his past Olympic experiences, Pike missed the energy of team processing and meetings where collective energy was all that was infectious. He explained that travel was more cumbersome with the added precautions, however, once in the Olympic Village, the differences felt less significant.
“Once you’re in the Village, that was normal. The Village life was cool. We still got to go to the cafeteria [with all the other international athletes], they just had plastic barriers up everywhere. I think the weirdest part was having an empty stadium. It was just super bizarre… it’s like this gorgeous massive stadium that can hold like 70,000 people and it’s just empty.”
He explained that tickets had been sold out for all of the final rounds of events, so it was disappointing that fans could not attend.
While Pike was happy with his effort in Tokyo on the day, he felt significantly stronger in each of the three World Majors that he raced. Rather than cumulative fatigue, Pike was in full stride throughout the series.
“Oddly enough, the worst was the first one, the London Marathon. For whatever reason I was able to hang with people, but not really do much more than that.”
Pike took 5th place in London in 1:31:36 (+5:09), before hopping on a plane bound for Chicago.
Despite unseasonably warm conditions and wind that supported the city’s nickname, Pike raced his fastest time on course to finish on the podium in third, his best overall result in Chicago. It was a race where everything came together so well, he had little to say about it, other than, “It was awesome.”
Pike finished 21-seconds behind the winner in 1:29:28. Less than 24 hours later, he was back on a starting line in Hopkinton, ready to race to Boston.
“That was the one I was going to be the most worried about, because that’s a really tough race, and coming the day after [Chicago]. And that was one where I made the wrong decision about grip.”
Remember: like classic skiing, some days are straight-forward cold snow and hard wax days, whereas others you’re down to the wire looking for answers, tossing an extra option or two in your drink belt before heading out just to be safe. Variable conditions and changing weather for wheelchair racers are akin those dreaded humid near-freezing with falling snow days where you can’t tell if hairies will get the job done, or if you need some kind of miraculous combination of covered klister, and no matter what you go with, you’ll probably deal with some icing. Err on the side of caution with icing, and you may have no grip whatsoever.
In a race wheelchair, rubber on rubber maximizes surface area between gloves and rings, allowing the most force as the athlete pushes powerfully on each stroke. But Pike explained that sandpaper is “night and day better” when the wheel rings are wet.
On the morning of the Boston Marathon, a mild storm was clearing. Pike explained it was raining during the warm up, but it let up before the start. Still, the precipitation left standing water on the roadway, making for conditions that were wetter than the weather. Because the weather didn’t match the actual race conditions, Pike explained his initial choice of gloves meant he could not take advantage of the early downhills, which is typically one of his strengths. Luckily, he stashed a backup pair of gloves, which he normally does not do.
“It seemed fine,” he said of his glove choice in the warm up. “I had my sandpaper gloves on me [just in case I needed to switch], and I strapped into my chair, which I’ve never done, but I just had a feeling something might not go right with a grip. Sure enough, when we started bombing down the hills right at the beginning — it wasn’t until going super fast on the hills that the wheels were lifting up water from people around me and spraying the rings and getting them wet. But there was no time to change [gloves] early on, so it was just kind of a struggle at the beginning.”
While trying to minimize his time losses, Pike found an opportunity to switch into the sandpaper gloves, which drastically improved his grip and allowed him to bring himself back into contention.
“Once I switched them out, then I was just catching one person after the next, all the way up to the point where I got fourth. I think I could have easily got third in that race as well if I just started with the sandpaper.”
Every year, Pike has to decide when to hang up the race wheelchair and transfer into his sit ski. The calculus is complicated by late-season opportunities like the marathon series, and is especially fickle surrounding Paralympic cycles.
“It was a really hard decision…I think the fact that there were three marathons in such a short time — having missed so many marathons because of COVID and not having the opportunity to race for a while, then having three of them within eight days of each other. It was just hard to pass that up.”
While both are endurance sports, wheelchair racing is a pushing motion, while double poling in a sit ski, like standing, is a pulling motion that involves more engagement of larger back muscles. For whatever reason, Pike feels the transition from skiing to wheelchair racing happens more smoothly than the opposite direction. As he shifts back into ski mode, his primary focus is rebuilding the specific strength.
“I really have to moderate the intensity for the first month,” he explained.
Eager to begin the transition process, Pike and his partner, Oksana Masters, headed to Canmore a week before their teammates. Masters is also a USA Para Nordic team member and is a three-time Olympic Gold Medalist in both cycling and cross country skiing.
“It’s just getting that feeling back,” he said. “Nothing truly replicates skiing. So just going out and skiing every day and getting x-amount of hours on snow every week is just huge.”
Pike reiterated the importance of a smart progression in the early season as his specific strength develops, not rushing into intervals that his body might not be ready for without that strength and trusting that his fitness from the marathon season will stick around for when the time does come to push hard.
“And also — not worrying about the first World Cup…” he continued. “We almost don’t even look at the results sheet. We’re still going to be lifting heavily and will mostly just use it as an intensity block in the training season.”
He added that the coaches are also able to take plenty of video for technique work during the camp and opening races, ensuring athletes are skiing with good form from the start of the season.
The opening World Cup event will take place in Canmore beginning on December 4th. Pike explained that his season goals are not until March, when the Paralympic Games kicks off in Beijing. He’s focused on gaining race experience in the World Cups and working with his coaches to hone his skiing and shooting skills. Ultimately, his eye is on a Paralympic medal.
“[In terms of specific events,] on the cross country side, I really love the sprint. It’s our only race where we go head to head and it’s purely just a race to the finish line. More times than not, I’ve made the final for the sprint, so that’s definitely one of the focuses for me.”
Pike also is focused on the individual biathlon events.
FasterSkier will continue to follow the Para Nordic athletes through their build up to Beijing.
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646