Kurt Fearnley at Merewether Beach on Thursday. Picture: Peter StoopWINNING no longer comes easily to wheelchair-racing world-beater Kurt Fearnley.
The three-time Paralympic gold medallist inspired the pack of wheelchair racers who now challenge him on the road and track, and they in turn have pushed him to train and compete even harder in his final full season on the international circuit.
Which is why Fearnley’s fifth Chicago Marathon win on Sunday was so significant.
Chicago was the first milestone on his road to the Rio Paralympic Games next September. He flies out on Friday for the International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Doha, where he will contest the 1500m and 5000m track races, then on to the US for his New York Marathon defence on November 1.
“That was a big confidence boost,” he said on Thursday as he soaked up some sun at Merewether.
“To jump away by a couple of seconds in the last 400 metres was a handy way to finish, and traditionally, when I have a good Chicago, I have a good New York. So when you get on that roll, you’re hard to beat.”
Having won in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and last year, 34-year-old Fearnley is chasing a sixth bite of the Big Apple. His Chicago victory followed wins in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011.
“There were a few years there where wins were easy,” he said.
‘‘I remember knocking out 10 marathon wins in a year, but it’s not like that any more.
‘‘You look at the world wheelchair majors over the past three years, no-one would have won two.
‘‘We traditionally have four major marathons and every single one of those have been won by a different athlete over a 12-month period.
‘‘So I’m a little bit grateful that I’ve already got that win up for this year, and also still pretty confident about how I’m feeling about New York.’’
Fearnley’s American friend and arch rival Josh George lives and trains with him in Newcastle during the n summer, and George returned the favour in Chicago.
George pipped him by one second to win in the Windy City last year but he turned the tables on his host last Sunday to win in a time of one hour, 30 minutes and 46 seconds.
That was two seconds ahead of Switzerland’s Marcel Hug and George, and another two seconds in front of South Africa’s Ernst Van Dyk.
‘‘I don’t know whether I’ve seen Huggy lose on the road without some sort of a technical issue for a couple of years, so he’s been in bloody good shape, and Ernst is rolling in a $30,000 carbon fibre wheelchair, so the boys are trying to go that next step,’’ he said.
‘‘Midway through that race, there were 12 other guys in the pack, we were going at a good pace, and I had this feeling that I was going to win. I felt really strong, and aggressive, and confident, and that’s such a good feeling, so I’m still loving that. It’s a good gig.’’
Fearnley covets the prestige and financial rewards that accompany success on the streets of New York, and is just as keen to test himself on the track in Doha to provide a Rio form guide.
‘‘The world champs will be a good way for me to see what the rest of the world are doing on the track,’’ he said.
‘‘I haven’t seen a lot of these wheelchair racers since London, so if I want to have a crack at multiple medals in Rio, I need to see what the best in the world are doing right now.’’
He will allow himself a short break of seven to 10 days at home for Christmas before climbing back into the saddle and competing at the Tokyo Marathon in February, then he will train and prepare in Europe and the United States in the middle of next year in the lead-up to Rio.
‘‘If you have three weeks off, it takes six weeks to get back. I can’t afford that any more,’’ he said.
Fearnley stayed at George’s house in the week leading up to the race last week, because he lives a couple of hours out of Chicago, and they shared some reflective moments.
‘‘I was telling him I’m going to miss everything,’’ Fearnley said.
‘‘I’m going to miss the nerves – I’m going to miss everything – so there’s so many parts of it that I have to enjoy now because I’ve only got this limited window.’’
But international competition comes at the high cost of time away from his wife, Sheridan, and their 18-month-old son Harry.
That’s why he squeezed in three days at home in Newcastle before heading to Doha.
‘‘Six weeks away from home, it’s not happening any more,’’ said Fearnley, who is in the final months of his reign as Newcastle’s Citizen of the Year.
‘‘They allow me to do it, but I don’t want it, and that makes what I do possible.’’