The competitors wait in anticipation at the starting line. A crowd has begun to form around them. The camera operators are in position. The rules have been set, and agreed upon. There is no backing out now. All eyes are on the flag girl standing in front of the challengers. The moment has arrived. Any second now, the flag will drop and the race will commence. Jazza, Marty and Ginski share one last look amongst themselves. A final nod. Then it begins. The flag is waved, the crowd cheers and our 3 daredevils accelerate to maximum speed. The vehicles on all four wheels lurch forward. And then nothing. Dammit, I’m stuck on a cobblestone! Why did they make the front tyres on wheelchairs so damn small?
The Great Antigua Wheelchair Race was a concept conceived over one of many random, drunken conversations. Alesha and I met Marty and Ginski on a public bus from La Ceiba to Copan Ruinas in Honduras. We became good friends over the following few hours confined by the windows of the bus, and ended up spending the next two weeks travelling around, drinking, surfing and just generally having a debaucherous time.
The boys were working on a web show, “The Marty and Ginski Show”, and were off to Guatemala to break a world record: How many people can you fit inside a chicken bus? As always happens when you are backpacking with no set schedule and itinerary, Alesha and I decided that sounded like a hell of a good time and decided to change our (non-existent) plans and tag along for the ride. On top of all these adventures, we somehow decided to have a wheelchair race through the cobblestone streets of Antigua, Guatemala the day after the chicken bus world record attempt. While we were discussing the logistics of how we could go about accomplishing it, none of us having ready access to wheelchairs in a third world country, we added a clause to the race: The loser would have to stay in their wheelchair for an entire week after the race concluded! No ifs. No buts. No exceptions.
After the successful bus record attempt (which will be saved for another story), we started working on organising the race. The guys had heard of a place that supposedly rented out wheelchairs for those in need. Well, we were in need! And so off we went to track down some suitable racing vehicles. The first place we tried steered us in the direction of a mini warehouse that maintained and serviced our desired mobile seats, and so that’s where we ended up. I was starting to get second thoughts on the idea and Alesha had completely bailed on us. Her moral conscience had gotten the better of her, and she wanted no part in our misadventure. But the friendly volunteers at the “Wheelchair Shop”, who were all disabled themselves, thought our idea was great and took great pleasure in fitting us out with appropriate vessels.
With a smile, a transfer of cold, hard Guatemalan Quetzales, and the promise that we will return 2 wheelchairs that night and the other the following week, we set off to complete our final preparations.
We had organised a support vehicle, some willing volunteers to work the cameras, conducted a route survey and were now at the start of the race. The rules were quite simple. You must stay on the main, cobblestone road, no standing up out of the wheelchair for any reason (including if you fall over), no accepting help from anyone and of course, an acknowledgement of the final consequence. Lesh and I were due to bus it to Mexico the next morning, and Lesh had no qualms at all informing me that if I lost, she was not going to “push my ass around Mexico in a wheelchair”. She announced that she would leave me there in Guatemala, only meeting up with me again once I was deemed “able-bodied”.
Never-the-less, there I found myself at the starting line with the boys, about to compete in the most epic race on four wheels!
With the flag dropped and the race off to an almost humorously slow pace, the pressure was on. We leap-frogged each other for first position multiple times, struggling on the unevenness of the ancient stone streets. The timing for the start of the race hadn’t been ideal as we had taken a little longer than anticipated to get underway. Now it was late afternoon peak hour traffic in the middle of the city. But even with the congestion of vehicles and tuk-tuks, all in a rush to make it to their place of residences after a hard days work, everyone slowed down and waved us through. Patient and with that ever-present smile of the amazing Guatemalan people.
We ducked and weaved amongst the traffic, tumbled and fumbled over the cobblestones and began to feel the burn in our arms early on. Our selected track was an estimated 5km. Not a short jaunt, that’s for sure. Soon our hands were blistering and bleeding. Muscles aching. My ears and knees trembling at Alesha’s constant barrage of angry encouragement. “Hurry! He’s catching up to you! You better not lose, I don’t want to go to Mexico by myself!”
We made it onto the final stretch. A long straight. A really, really, really long straight. It was now or never. Do or die. Walk or roll. Soon the finish line approached, and it was neck and neck between myself and Marty for first place. I stole a glance behind me and realised Ginski had fallen behind, having crashed on more than one renegade boulder in amongst the stones.
Marty crossed the line a few lengths ahead of me, and we stood up and embraced. Then we began laughing at our unlucky comrade, who would not have the pleasure of standing up for an entire seven days.
The Great Antigua Wheelchair Race has always lived on in our minds as an enormous achievement. Another random idea developed over a few beers which eventuated into an amazing event. The world of backpacking has an endless array of possibilities of things which make complete sense at the time while in a foreign country, but might not be feasible (or socially acceptable) in your own backyard. The next morning we parted ways with Marty and Ginski. We were off onto our next adventure, and they onto their next destination. One that included wheelchair access ramps, I’m sure!