If you’re planning to plant yourself somewhere around the city on Saturday to cheer on the thousands of participants in the Baltimore Running Festival, there’s a chance you might see first-time racers Ryan Wills and Cheryl Cummings making their sweaty way along the hilly course.
Their journeys to the finish line at the Inner Harbor will differ. Wills, a Baltimore County Police officer who broke his back and fractured several vertebrae in a car accident last year, is doing the full 26.2 mile marathon on a hand cycle, while Cummings will be running and walking the 13.1 mile half-marathon.
What they have in common is that, not that long ago, neither would have believed they’d be doing a race — not because they didn’t think they could, but because they weren’t sure they wanted to.
“Even when I was able to run, you would not have found me running a marathon,” said Wills, 24, of Bel Air, who’s doing the race as a part of a training team from the Kennedy Krieger Institute. “I even did track and field, but as crazy as it sounds, I never enjoyed running.”
Cummings, 43, never considered running at all until the day a few years ago when the marathon literally ran by her car on the way to church. “I was like, ‘Why is traffic shut down?’ and someone said, ‘The city is shut down! They’re running,’ and I thought, ‘I wanna do that.’”
Both will be out there Saturday, two of the millions of people that participate in organized races worldwide every year. Their reasons for training also differ —Wills’ physical therapist suggested it because he was already athletic, and Cummings decided to add finishing a half-marathon to her bucket list.
“Even if I have to cross the finish line crawling, I will if that’s what I have to do,” she says.
For so many of us who do races, it’s not about winning — literally the only 5K I ever placed in was one where all the faster, better runners were resting for a more prestigious race the next day. Instead, it’s about fitness, experience, camaraderie, or even reconnecting after COVID.
Jessi Ceiri, the store lead and training coach for Charm City Run in Fells Point, where Cummings trains, says a lot of people started running during the pandemic when gyms were closed and they needed to get out of the house.
“It’s cool for your mental health, and you don’t get a medal when you go to a body pump class,” says Ceiri, whose stores train between 500 to 1,000 athletes for races each year between its eight locations.
Running has not always seemed an accessible pastime for the masses. The first mythical marathoner, Pheidippides, ran 25 miles to Athens to deliver the triumphant news of the Greek army’s latest battle — and then promptly dropped dead. Which, admittedly, does not do much to help convince anyone to run a marathon.
And when Katherine Switzer became the first official woman marathoner in Boston in 1967, she had to register with her initials so people thought she was a dude, since women weren’t allowed. An angry official literally tried to physically pull her off the course when he discovered her gender. Again, not a great advertisement for the sport.
But things have changed. While everyone doesn’t run fast enough to qualify for elite races, like Boston, more people are participating just because they want to. As of 2021, marathon participation in the U.S. had grown 255% since 1980, and a reported 1.1 million people take part in a marathon worldwide every year, whether they’re running, hand-cycling, run-walking or any combination that gets them over the finish line. (When I did the half-marathon here in 2009, I was motivated by my then-fiancé hugging me right before the finish line to tell me how many old ladies and guys pushing large toddlers in strollers had finished before me.)
Wills considered himself an athlete, and had played soccer and mountain biked before his accident. After his injury, he was afraid those days were over. “I didn’t realize I could still participate without using your legs,” he says. “It was a huge relief to still be able to.”
Once he established he could still be an athlete, Wills admits “there was a mental shift” necessary to adjust to racing with the chair and “not having the function of my lower body. Overall, it’s harder dealing with the injury itself than the sport. But it’s a big accomplishment once you start doing it,” he said.
“It does make me proud. I’m still learning. You look back on what you used to do, based on how you have to do it now. But it’s possible if you put your mind to it.”
Racing this way isn’t just an adjustment for Wills, but for spectators who have witnessed him training. “Some people think it’s awesome I’m out there being active, and some are looking at you like, ‘What is that thing, that weird-looking bike?’”
Dr. Erin Michael, the chair of the 115-member Team Kennedy Krieger, says there are eight total hand cyclists doing the full marathon and five walking the 5K. “The big thing is rebuilding confidence. There’s so much of a significant focus, when someone is injured like Ryan, on what they can never do again,” Michael said. “When they get into adaptive fitness, it’s getting back into what you can do. There are new ways to be an athlete.”
For Cummings, who didn’t consider herself an athlete at all, motivation took a little longer. “I didn’t know how far a half [marathon] was,” she says now, laughing. “I got the sneakers and everything, and went to a meeting in Timonium, and then was like, ‘I’m not ready. I’m not even a runner. I’m just running my mouth.’”
She thought she’d let it go, but during the pandemic she became vegan and more health-conscious. She was also inspired by her uncle, still a runner in his 70s. “He said, ‘Why don’t you run the half-marathon? They give you five hours to finish! And even when they open the course up, you can keep running.’”
Cummings has kept on running, even though she’s an anomaly in some ways. “As a Black woman, in most of the circles I’m running in, I’m the only one. And I’m 43, just starting out running. Everyone around me I’m talking to is like, ‘I ran track! I was a sprinter!’ and I’m like, ‘Never did that!’”
But she’s doing it now, and so is Wills. He’s going to be at the Team Kennedy Krieger pasta party on Friday for carb-loading purposes and jokes that he “might dangle a doughnut in front of my bike. You know cops love doughnuts. It’s a bigger incentive.”
As for Cummings, who has been posting her training photos around social media and has “cheerleaders” all over the city, she’llbe reminding her friends that there is, once again, a race happening so they don’t get caught in traffic like she did.
“I’m telling them, ‘When the city’s shut down, don’t be angry. Remember, I’m in this race,” she says.