No Better Place For Tatyana McFadden To Return To Racing Than Chicago

by Lela Moore

(Photo by U.S. Paralympics Track & Field)

Tatyana McFadden celebrates after winning a medal at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)

Tatyana McFadden returns Sunday to Chicago in pursuit of her 10th win on that storied marathon course.


The Baltimore native and University of Illinois alum is already the winningest wheelchair racer ever to traverse 26.2 around the Windy City, where she also holds the course record of 1:39:15, which she set in 2017. Now, she hopes to add a potential first-place finish to her goal of 30 career marathon major victories — she has 23 going into Sunday’s race.


That goal was sidelined temporarily in the spring when the six-time Paralympian and 20-time Paralympic medalist pulled out of the Boston Marathon because her iron levels were perilously low.


“That was really such a bummer,” McFadden said.


McFadden’s hematologist told her that because of her low iron levels, she would not produce enough oxygen to propel herself through the most difficult parts of that notoriously tough course. McFadden, 33, takes a blood thinner since she was diagnosed with blood clots in her legs in 2017. That drug makes her more susceptible to low iron, she said, and the hematologist had prepared her for a big drop at some point.


Women, she added, are at additional risk for low iron because of their menstrual cycles. If more red blood cells are lost to monthly bleeding than can be replaced, the body does not retain enough iron to produce hemoglobin. Hemoglobin moves oxygen from the lungs throughout the body.


“It’s dangerous on all levels,” McFadden said. “It’s dangerous for your menstrual cycle, and it’s dangerous for building muscle. And it’s not cool to train when you’re so depleted that you could cause an injury.”


Recovery requires patience.


“It was hard to be patient this year,” McFadden said, “because my mind wanted to race, but I knew my body couldn’t.”


Beginning in April, McFadden received five monthly iron infusions and stayed off the roads. She was finally able to resume marathon training in August. She did the seven-mile Falmouth Road Race in Maine on Aug. 21 to test her fitness, finishing second to U.S. Paralympic teammate Susannah Scaroni.


“I love, love the race directors in Falmouth, and I love being in Boston,” McFadden said, adding that it was fun to do a “no pressure” race. She also used the trip to see family and visit Cape Cod.


Competing in a race with that much comfort helped her enter the buildup to Chicago with a renewed sense of appreciation for her fitness.


McFadden said when she entered the sport of wheelchair racing at 15, she took her health for granted.


“You’re so young, and you could just bounce right back,” she said. “My mindset is so different now. I’m extremely happy to be healthy.”


She said she was happy to know that the low iron was “manageable and fixable,” and said she received only support and concern from her fellow elite athletes when she had to drop out of Boston.


“Molly Seidel told me it’s important to take care of myself,” McFadden said, referring to the U.S. Olympic marathoner.


Other racers told McFadden that they, too, had experienced blood clotting issues and low iron as a result.


That sense of community, among the larger racing community, is what keeps her coming back to Chicago, McFadden said.


“There’s a lot of positive encouragement, whether you win or lose,” she said.


She praised the recent change by the Abbott World Marathon Majors to award elite wheelchair racers prize money equal to that earned by the able-bodied runners in this year’s Series XIV, which began in Tokyo in March and will culminate in New York City in November.


“This is our job, just like the elite runners,” McFadden said. “We’re racing the same course and putting in the same training. And so it’s really nice to be treated as equal coworkers.”


McFadden hopes that individual marathons will respond by raising and equalizing prize money across divisions as well.


As she has become an outspoken champion of disability rights, McFadden said she’s worked hard to build allyship among her able-bodied colleagues. She said that meeting with other athletes and discussing their backgrounds and sharing training stories builds mutual respect.


“I think they find it awesome, but they don’t know until you tell them,” McFadden said about wheelchair training. “They had no idea we trained like that, that we don’t have any gears, that we power it all with our arms. So they got a little bit of understanding of how we do it.”


She said her sport is changing and evolving quickly.


“It’s an exciting time to be a Paralympic athlete,” McFadden said.


She has a side hustle in film production, with the 2020 Netflix documentary “Rising Phoenix” under her belt. But she plans to stay in the sport through the 2028 Paralympic Games in  Los Angeles, at which point, she said, “I’ll recheck in with myself.”


Her goals for the fall marathon season are staying healthy, and to get “a little bit faster and a little bit quicker.” She hopes to drop her marathon time below 1:38 and to bring home medals from next year’s world championships and from the Paralympic Games Paris 2024.


She hopes to qualify, again, for all the races in which she competed at the Tokyo Games last year: the 100-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, 1,500-meter, 5,000-meter, marathon and the 4x400 relay.


“To have all that on my plate again, and see what I can do with it, and to continue pushing those records,” she said.

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