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Katrina Gerhard Loves The Challenge As Much As The Reward Of Wheelchair Marathon

by Jessica Price

Katrina Gerhard competes in the Chicago Marathon.

Katrina Gerhard’s schedule is jam packed.

Between medical school and marathon training, the 2019 Los Angeles Marathon wheelchair winner doesn’t have much time for hobbies — unless studying counts. 

Instead, she said, “My days are pretty much all identical. I make sure that I can train hard, sleep well, and eat well.”

If it sounds intense, that’s because it is. But you don’t get to be a 20-time marathoner and second-year med school student without a lot of self-discipline. And after all, Gerhard said, she loves it. 

“By the end (of a marathon), you know you’ve put every last ounce of strength into it,” she said. “And that feels great.” 

The idea of racing in even a single marathon, let alone liking it, seems like an impossibility for most. At one point, Gerhard was one of those people. When she started track as a high school sophomore, she just used the sport as a way to stay in shape. But that escalated into a full Para career after her coach heard about a wheelchair racing clinic in Boston. Gerhard decided to go and met a coach who offered her a spot on his team. She “started training properly,” and competed in the summer.

It wasn’t until her freshman year at the University of Illinois that she decided to give the marathon a shot. “I had always looked up to the wheelchair marathoners, but I wasn’t sure if I could actually do it,” she said. As it turned out, with the backing of her coach, Adam Bleakney, she could. 

“He believed in me and helped me become the best athlete I could be,” she said. “The team at Illinois has a really special dynamic that helps wheelchair racers of any competitive level excel, and it is all thanks to Adam.”

She raced the Chicago Marathon, which she described as “definitely a learning experience.” The NYC Half and the Boston Marathon were next, setting Gerhard off on an incredible 16-race streak for her college career by the time she graduated in 2019. 

“I was hooked,” she said.

Marathons gave Gerhard the opportunity to race alone, something she said she loves about them. “I also love how long they are,” she said. Long races also mean long stretches of training. But for Gerhard, they turned out to be her calling. In her sophomore year of college, she qualified for the national team. 

“I remember getting the email from Team USA, and I remember that I emailed them back to make sure they hadn’t sent it to the wrong person,” she said. “It felt really surreal and it was a huge honor.”

From there, Gerhard’s rise was meteoric: In March of 2019, she won the Los Angeles Marathon. And just a month later, she was racing at the World Para Athletics Championships in London, placing seventh in the marathon. For both races, Gerhard expected snags, but celebrated when none came. 

“Everything worked out perfectly that day,” she said of the L.A. Marathon. “A lot can happen over the course of a marathon, and it’s possible for other racers to catch up and overtake you. So I really didn’t let myself believe that I was winning until the last mile.”

In just a few years, Gerhard has raced in around 20 marathons (she’s not sure). Most of the time, her many medals sit in a shoebox, though she took them out one December to hang them on her Christmas tree.

Now, like with many other athletes, Gerhard is uncertain of the future, as many races have been postponed or canceled. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t still marathoning. 

“I study for about 10-12 hours a day. I’ve been using a lot of marathon metaphors to describe my studying,” she said. “It’s hard and exhausting in the moment, but it will be so worth it in the end.”

At some point, Gerhard said, medicine will take precedence in her life for good, pushing wheelchair racing to the side. Still, she’ll find a way to fit it in. 

“I want to always keep wheelchair racing in my life,” Gerhard said. “I hope to continue competing in marathons for as long as I can.” 

Jessica Taylor Price is a sportswriter from Somerville, Massachusetts, whose work has appeared in various publications. She is a freelance contributor to USParaTrackandField.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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