Hand cyclist pushing his limits in Pittsburgh Marathon
Inhale on the way up. Exhale on the push.
With every rotation of the crank, remember to breathe, remember to shift gears. Up a hill. Down a hill. Breathe. Shift.
After the gun goes off at the start of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon on Sunday, that’s all Dan McCoy will be thinking about for the next 26.2 miles.
McCoy, 25, of Pittsburgh’s South Side is one of 25 hand cyclists participating in the marathon. Many of them are highly trained athletes. The fastest will clock mile splits around 3 minutes, 20 seconds and reach speeds of nearly 40 mph.
“Growing up, I always had that competitive edge,” said McCoy, who has spina bifida.
McCoy started playing sled hockey at 5 and went on to become a member of the U.S. men’s sled hockey team, which took a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics. He works full time as a personal trainer and has his eye on paracanoe and power lifting as future paralympic pursuits. Growing up, he played goalie for the Fox Chapel Area High School lacrosse team.
There really isn’t a sport he hasn’t tried.
“A lot of people, when I say that to them, just casually talking to them, they’re like, ‘Oh, you have a disability. You have spina bifida. You’re trying to see what spina bifida allows your body to do,’ ” McCoy said. “It’s not really the case, and honestly, I want to try to push past what spina bifida allows me to do. But I’m a human just like everyone else. Any athlete can attest to the fact that we just want to push our bodies as hard as we can, as safe as we can.”
But hand cycling has presented new challenges, McCoy said.
“I kind of had to learn to pace myself and get used to timing, cadence, rhythm,” he said.
McCoy got his start with hand cycling after returning from Sochi and connecting with Pittsburgh’s adaptive sports community.
His first bike was a recreational bike. But once he started considering competition, he upgraded to a racing bike — technically a tricycle, with two wheels in the back and one in the front — which has gears and brakes closer to the hand cranks. He’ll add bumper guards before the race to protect himself and others from spinning out in the event of a collision.
Hand cycling is just one more way to push himself and his body as a professional athlete.
Pittsburgh has had a hand cycle division since 2009. The race relies on pit crews to assist with equipment repairs on the course and medical teams to support athletes during and after the race. It’s a qualifying race for the Boston Marathon, which runs a hand cycle race as an exhibition event, said P3R Race Director Patrice Matamoros.
“We’re a public event that wanted to provide access and accessibility to everybody,” she said.
Hand cyclists sit barely a foot or two off the ground, depending on the bike. Coupled with the city’s topography — streets that wind through 14 neighborhoods along the course route, seemingly endless uphills that stretch multiple city blocks and bridges, along with the occasional obstacle like a pothole or road median — the Pittsburgh marathon is an especially difficult course for hand cyclists, Matamoros said. On race day, they’ll be accompanied by bicycle escorts to help them navigate the course.
As for McCoy, he’ll be focused on quieting his mind and channeling his training — especially as he approaches mile 11, where athletes ascend Forbes Avenue from the Birmingham Bridge into Oakland.
“That hill seems like it goes on for an hour,” he said.
Other parts of the course are more forgiving. McCoy said he’s hit speeds close to 40 mph descending Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield.
“The adrenaline junkie that I am, I was like, this is awesome,” he said, acknowledging that there are speed limits on certain parts of the course to keep cyclists safe.
In 2018, McCoy finished eighth of 18 in the men’s hand cycling division with a time of 2 hours, 1 minute, according to Pittsburgh marathon race results.
During his fourth Pittsburgh marathon this year, he hopes to break previous personal bests in the 1 hour, 40 minutes range.
“I always joke around, this is the only participation trophy I’ll accept,” he said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .