At first he mocked the 5k. But sore hands, steep hills, and a laughing wife ensured first-time “roller” Nick Baker really felt the Challenge in the Scotiabank Charity Challenge.
As someone who’s completed a couple of marathons in recent years I’d like to think I was ‘reasonably’ fit. Whenever the need arises to run for the bus I can usually make it without breaking into too much of a sweat. So, in that context, just one thought raced through my mind when I was asked to take part in a 5k Scotiabank Charity Challenge to raise money for Spinal Cord Injury BC: “5k? That’s it? No problem!” But I soon learned that this was no ordinary 5k race. Instead of walking, I was challenged to transport myself around the course in a wheelchair. A wheelchair? My confidence quickly evaporated. That was something I’d never operated before.
A wheelchair? My confidence quickly evaporated. That was something I’d never operated before.
But the more I thought about it the more I began to relax. How hard could it really be operating one of those things? I mean, they’ve hardly got square wheels. Plus, modern chairs are well-oiled machines and much less work than running (I was sure of it.) Maybe I would even luck out and get a power chair? My confidence returned and concern disappeared. 5k in a wheelchair? No problem at all. Bring it on! How little did I know my pride was destined to take an almighty fall.
Fast forward to race day—a beautiful, sunny morning in stunning Stanley Park. I turned up there with my wife and our five-month-old daughter who I’d dragged along for moral support (turned out I would need it—and more!) As a new volunteer, I scanned the crowd to see if I could spot any SCI BC t-shirts and I soon spotted a bunch of people wearing them near a tent. I walked over with an extended arm and was impressed at how many SCI BC participants and supporters had showed up: more than 60 people. But more than that, I was equally impressed at everyone’s energy: warm, positive with an abundance of smiles. Right away, I felt welcomed and part of the team, and that meant a lot to me. There was a great sense of community amongst the group—while someone had baked an energy cake for everyone to share another had brought much-needed drinks. As I grabbed a large slice of cake, I for one certainly appreciated it!
One of my team captains was SCI BC’s Kirsten Sharp and our team the aptly named ‘Walk n’ Rollers.’ Kirsten introduced me to as many people as she could, including teammates like Gary Steeves and his friend Grant, a former athlete. I was in good company. With the pleasantries out the way, Kirsten introduced me to my wheelchair. It looked in good shape but there was just one small problem. Where were the gloves? I asked Kirsten whether she’d brought some and she quickly informed me that it was up to me to bring gloves and they didn’t come with the wheelchair. It was a schoolboy error of the ultimate magnitude: blistered hands were now imminent (much to Gary and Grant’s amusement.)
A few minutes before the race started I jumped into the chair and began wheeling myself (sans gloves) towards the start line. My heart beat faster as I realized it wasn’t as easy wheeling yourself along as it looked, not on grass at any rate. Maybe the concrete road would be easier? In the distance I saw Grant had already wheeled himself to the start line. This was not a good sign and not for the first time that day my wife gave me a push.
Not for the first time that day my wife gave me a push.
As we approached the line, my wife and stroller alongside me, I suddenly got worried. What if I couldn’t finish the race? What if my arms were not up to the task? Do you get disqualified if you took longer than ten hours to complete the distance? In a panic, I asked my wife if she would walk alongside me during the race ‘just in case.’ Thankfully, she obliged. At least I now had my own personal support team on hand if I needed it (boy would I need it.)
As the clock wound down to the start of the race I looked around and was amazed at all the smiling faces and positive spirits that stood around me. It was infectious. So many people had turned out to raise money for charity and it made you proud to be a part of it. When the race finally started it took a few minutes to make it over the start line due to the large number of people ahead of me, but it felt good to finally get rolling…slowly. VERY slowly. I soon discovered that even when you are travelling along on concrete, it’s not as easy as others make it look. The reason is due to the gradient of the roads. They’re not even and are designed so they slope downwards from the middle to the side of the road. This means you are constantly being pushed to the left by gravity and can’t effectively wheel yourself along with both arms. I soon found myself being forced to use only my left arm which was my much weaker limb. Already I felt in trouble and I hadn’t even made it past the first 1k marker! After what seemed like an eternity but was actually only 15 minutes (my wife was my official time keeper) I saw the 1k marker and was elated. I was a fifth of the way there.
The next two kilometres were a little easier, mostly because the course took you along the Stanley Park bike lane which was fairly even with no steep gradients. There were also a couple of downhill sections where I even managed to leave my wife and stroller behind. But it was only temporary as the worst was yet to come. The last two kilometres of the race can only be described as ‘hellish.’ They kicked my butt. Up. Hill. Pretty much all the way. It almost killed me. It was only thanks to the verbal support of my loving wife (“Nick, right now you are going so slow its embarrassing”) that I managed to finish the race, but it was pure torture. Not only have you got the hill to deal with pushing you backwards, you also have the incline/gradient of the road pulling you to the side. In short, you’re being attacked by gravity from two sides and its not pretty. Not on your arms.
“Nick, right now you are going so slow its embarrassing”
When I finally made it back to the SCI BC base camp, Kirsten and co were already relaxing, having finished the race long before me. “How did you get on with no gloves?” asked Grant. (I was sure he was smirking.) “Not too bad,” I replied, looking down at my hands. I wasn’t lying—they were surprisingly healthy considering. It wouldn’t be until the next day that the blisters would show themselves in all their glory. As I laughed and talked amongst my group of teammates everyone was having fun and it was nice to be included in it. This year the Walk ‘n’ Rollers raised a whopping $37,000 plus for SCI BC—incredible. I’ve volunteered for a few different organizations over the years but SCI BC has to be the friendliest and most welcoming. So, if you’re considering becoming a volunteer or taking part in this event yourself next year you won’t be disappointed.
A word of warning though: if you do consider doing the walk in a wheelchair just make sure you remember some gloves!