susannah-scaroni

SUSANNAH SCARONI ON RACING IN NEW YORK

She’s a top contender in the NYC Marathon’s wheelchair division.

The fastest competitors at the New York City Marathon are racing on wheels, not on foot

One such athlete is Susannah Scaroni, a two-time Paralympian who has competed in the NYC Marathon every year since 2013. Now an elite in the wheelchair division, 27-year-old Scaroni is studying to become a registered dietician, all while training and competing against top-tier athletes in marathons around the world.

After suffering a spinal cord injury when she was five years old, she became paralyzed from the abdomen down. But the physical challenges didn’t quell her competitive spirit, and over the years, she’s found she has an advantage of sorts. “Because I was injured so young, my legs never fully developed,” says Scaroni. “As a wheelchair racer, that’s actually beneficial because your strength-to-weight ratio is really important.” 


Furthermore caught up with her to talk upper-body strength, racing strategies, and why she fuels with liquid.

When did you notice you had different capabilities than your peers did?

During my childhood, everyone wanted to make sure I could join in on everything. I started playing able-bodied basketball in third grade and that’s the first time I realized I was in a wheelchair, because sports bring out the discrepancies. I hated it and felt like I was so slow and that I didn’t want to do it ever again.

But now you’re an elite. What reignited your interest in sports?

My mom forced me to go to a sports day in Spokane for people with disabilities. It was incredible because I got to play basketball in an even playing field. I was instantly addicted. I played that year and joined the ParaSport Spokane track team in the spring.

How did you end up on a competitive racing team?

If you’re in the wheelchair racing community you learn about the University of Illinois, where pro wheelchair racers train. When I first applied, it was too expensive, so I went to a small private school in Montana for two years where I trained every day on my own. Then a coach for Illinois called me and said they had out-of-state funding, so I got in and transferred there in 2011. That was the first time I started training with a team of this caliber.

What are the biggest differences between the able-bodied marathon and the wheelchair division?

Drafting [when you get behind someone to limit your own drag and save energy] is such a big element for us, making it a very tactical sport. In able-bodied running, if you’re able to maintain your speed over a distance that’s a great tool, but for us it’s not enough. You have to be able to speed up to beat the people around you, a strategy called rolling accelerations. While we do the same marathon course, our times are a lot faster. The top wheelchair time last year in New York was 1:37:51 compared to 2:10:53 for the runners.

What’s your typical training regimen like for New York?

I train with about 25 other wheelchair marathoners. Each week we log three road days and three track days of 90 minutes each. On the road, we do hard, steady pushes for about 17 miles at 75 to 80 percent intensity. Even though we don’t have a lot of hills in Illinois, there’s heavy wind, so you get a ton of resistance. 

Our track workouts focus on four-mile repeats at race pace. We have hand cyclists [who propel themselves forward using arm cranks, rather than by pushing the two back wheels] who act as the front of the draft, pulling at really high speeds so we can go at a higher intensity for longer.

What about strength training?

Once a week we do an hour and a half of core training and upper-body strength (focusing on the delts, pecs, and triceps) in the gym. In wheelchair racing, you push forward all the time, so we work on shoulder mobility and stability. Plus, our necks muscles are strained because we lie on our backs, so we do neck-strengthening exercises that keep the shoulders open and work the muscles that are more prone to fatigue.

A typical workout would be kettlebell curls to presses (4 sets of 8 reps with a 6-kilogram bell), floor smashes with a medicine ball (3 sets of 10 reps using a 20-pound ball), and core moves like sitting on a Bosu and catching balls thrown by our trainer.

How do you fuel on race day?

You don’t carb-load when you’re wheelchair racing. But I have longer to wait between breakfast and the start of the race than I do between breakfast and training on a normal day, so I have something starchier like half a bagel with honey and almond butter. It’s hard to eat GU during the race as you’re using your hands all the time, so I have a Camelback on with water and Scratch mix, an all-natural carb powder, so I can fuel with liquids while racing.

What’s your overall approach to nutrition?

I’m in a master’s program to become a registered dietician. My philosophy is to focus on food that will aid recovery both before and after workouts. When I’m training for a marathon, I eat 1,700 to 1,800 calories per day. Wheelchair users don’t need as many calories as able-bodied runners because we have smaller muscle groups. I’m 5-foot-5 and weigh 95 pounds.

Can you give the rundown on a full day’s worth of food?

For breakfast, I have oatmeal with milk and coffee. After training I eat a mid-morning snack of 2% Greek yogurt with a chopped apple, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds, or a smoothie with spinach, Greek yogurt, an apple, and almond butter if I want greens. 

Lunch could be sweet potato, two eggs, tomato or avocado, followed by an orange and Epic bison jerky in the afternoon. My dinner typically consists of quinoa, steamed broccoli, and  protein like tofu, salmon, beef, or chicken. I end with hot chocolate in the winter or 2% Greek yogurt and blueberries. It’s good to have something before bed to help your muscles recover.

What are your expectations for this year’s race?

I would like to place in the top three. I’m not necessarily concerned about a time per se, as the conditions can affect it so much. My best at NYC is fifth place [out of 14 women in 2015].

What’s next after you cross the finish line?

I’ll be excited for a cappuccino and a breakfast bowl from Le Pain Quotidien, plus a long nap and a fun post-race party with all of the athletes and organizers. During the eight-ish-week gap between the NYC Marathon and the Tokyo Marathon in February, we devote our time to building power capacity with less of a focus on volume.

Photo: Getty Images