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Meet The World Marathon Challenge’s First Wheelchair Finisher

Johanna Garvin became the World Marathon Challenge's first wheelchair finisher on February 5, 2018.

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Johanna Garvin with Steve Birnie and James Alderson.

On February 5, 2018 in Miami, Fla., Johanna Garvin became the first person to complete the World Marathon Challenge in a wheelchair.

Steve Birnie and James Alderson assisted Garvin, who has cerebral palsy, in the challenge, which consists of seven marathons in seven days on all seven continents.

The Cerebral Palsy Alliance (CPA) handpicked Garvin, who had never completed a road race prior to the event, for this challenge. Garvin surpassed her initial goal of raising $50,000 for the CPA, and has raised more than $65,000 to date. “I really hope that this will motivate other people like me to take part in this kind of event,” Garvin said. “If you really want to do something, find a way to do it, and find people that will help you do it!”

The challenge began on January 30, with marathon number one taking place in Novo, Antarctica. Initially this marathon concerned Garvin the most, since there was a possibility of black ice. However, with better-than-anticipated weather conditions, Antarctica was an event highlight for Garvin. “Never in a million years would I have thought that I could go there. To see the whole landscape and to feel the different terrain was amazing,” Garvin said.

From there, Garvin and 49 other competitors traveled via charter plane to South Africa for marathon number two. “Cape Town was quite difficult because it was very hot, especially coming from Antarctica,” Garvin said. “Everyone was making sure that they weren’t dehydrated and that they had put on enough sunblock. I left with a nice souvenir of a sunburn on my leg from a spot I missed.”

As the competitors continued their journey around the world, one of the biggest challenges was that some continents were more wheelchair accessible than others. In Portugal for the fifth marathon, the group had difficulty navigating the cobblestone course. After the wheelchair became stuck in a walkway, they decided to switch its wheels mid-race. During a NASCAR-esque pit stop, the group changed to their thickest tires, originally engineered for Antarctica. Even with the stop, this was the group’s third fastest marathon.

Throughout the challenge, Garvin, Birnie and Alderson had one goal: to finish. Their strategy to do so was simple. They enacted a strict “no bathroom breaks” policy. Because Garvin was in a wheelchair, stopping mid-marathon to use the bathroom would have been exceedingly difficult and time-consuming. During the instances when Garvin was tempted to relieve her bladder, she remembered her motto: “Hold on!” This tactic was successful, and not only was the trio able to avoid any bathroom stops–they were also able to log consistent times in all seven marathons, averaging a time of 4:45:55.

Marathon 1: Antarctica: 5:08:30

Marathon 2: Africa: 4:54:40

Marathon 3: Australia: 4:34:15

Marathon 4: Asia: 4:38:16

Marathon 5: Europe 4:38:15

Marathon 6: South America: 4:50:52

Marathon 7: North America: 4:36:36

During the event, Garvin relied on text messages and social media posts from family and friends for strength and encouragement. Prior to the challenge, while speaking to a former physical education teacher, she received her best piece of advice. “I was told to remember that I have the inner strength to do this, to just believe that. That inner strength kept me motivated when those negative thoughts came. It kept me focused on why I was doing it,” Garvin explained.

The challenge ended with marathon number seven in Miami, Fla. With a large contingency of American competitors, the final finish line was teeming with runners’ friends and family members. “The atmosphere was fantastic. To be there and think about what we had done the whole week, and then think about what this will hopefully mean for others like me, was incredible. I was quite anxious beforehand about how it would go, so to be there and to know that we’d done it made me feel incredibly proud,” Garvin said.

When asked if she plans to complete a challenge like this again, Garvin laughed. “Who knows! I never thought I would do something like this in the first place. Life is funny like that; opportunities like this arise. Never say never,” she said.

In the meantime, Garvin intends to indulge in some “Netflix and Chill,” specifically catching up on Mad Men. She also plans to talk to as many people as she can about this experience and to thank the CPA for giving her this opportunity. “I’ve come away from this experience feeling like a completely different person,” Garvin said.


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