After 13 Boston Marathons, iconic race still tugs at Canadian Josh Cassidy’s emotions

Josh Cassidy says it feels like receiving a pat on the back from thousands of people.

The wheelchair racer from Port Elgin, Ont., has been brought to tears two or three times during competition in his career. One of them was in 2006, the first of his 13 Boston Marathon appearances.

“I remember coming around the [final] corner onto Boylston Street and it was just packed with people,” Cassidy said in a recent phone call from his home in Barrie, Ont., ahead of this year’s race. “Everyone is going nuts, I’m on my own and I remember looking around thinking, ‘Oh, no, is someone or one of the top guys overtaking me? Am I going so slow that the runners are coming up?’

“No, they were all just cheering for me coming through [to the finish line]. It was support from people that [understood] the marathon, the struggle. The whole Boston community and everyone there gets it, and it’s so special, the energy around it.”

A three-time Paralympian, Cassidy was in a struggle nearly from the outset of Monday’s race on a cloudy and cool morning.

Not only did the 38-year-old feel heavy (slow) and tight during warmup, he started to cramp during the race and had issues gripping his racing chair.

“I was great off the start, in second,” said Cassidy, who won the 2012 Boston Marathon for wheelchair athletes in a then-world record one hour 18 minutes 25 seconds. “I was in the top 10 for the first bit, then issues set in and [it was] downhill from there.”

Cassidy finished 19th on Monday in 1:47:02 and called it “the worst” of his Boston Marathon competitions.

Grip issues

There was fog and mist pre-race, but no rain in the forecast, he said, for the 9:02 a.m. ET wheelchair start, prompting Cassidy to wear light rain gear. It began pouring rain for the second half of the 42.2-kilometre race.

At least Cassidy was able to forget about the brutal conditions and grip issues for a few minutes when he wheeled onto Boylston.

“Amazing,” he told CBC Sports when asked to describe the scene. “Deafening, even in the wet, cold weather. Getting that support coming through [to the finish line] after such a brutal race, it’s emotional. It’s incredible.

“The history of a city also makes the marathon special, and for Boston it’s their sports legacy. It is a sports city through and through. It’s fun and definitely motivating when you have that support.”

But there are stretches for miles along backcountry roads in the first half where there is nothing.

“In London [England] or Toronto, when you’re in the core of the city so much, you have a lot more support consistently,” said Cassidy, who completed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 1:39:54 last October as part of a test exercise.

“It’s close to the halfway point before you [hear] the first cheers [in Boston]. It feels like such a struggle on your own with all the hills and everything on the course that it’s rewarding at the very end.”

Crashed out in L.A. Marathon

Monday was the first completed race for Cassidy since last July 30 when he placed fourth in the T53/54 marathon at the Commonwealth Games.

A month ago, he was leading at the Los Angeles Marathon around the 8 km mark. But Cassidy, who was following the lead vehicle in the dark at 6:30 a.m., soon hit “unmarked road depressions” about six inches deep and crashed out, damaging his tires.

He’ll return to his home in Barrie, Ont., to prepare for some key races next month in Switzerland as he continues to pursue a spot with Team Canada for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. Cassidy plans to race at the July 8-17 world Para athletics championships in Paris and later in the month at the U20-senior-Para athletics championships in Langley, B.C.

The 31-time Canadian champion, who is also an author and artist, will also seek sponsorships and partnerships with his public speaking engagements to provide the necessary funds to focus more on his racing.

Last fall, Cassidy was not among the Para athletes added to the Canadian Athletics Performance Pathway (CAPP) enhanced funding program due to his then-world ranking of 16th.

Instead, he receives a monthly allowance exceeding $1,000 under the Athlete Assistance Program from Sport Canada.

“I’m not back to the best shape of my life I was in two years ago,” Cassidy said, “but I’m feeling strong and getting there. I know I can do more, so I guess that’s where my calm comes from.”

WATCH | Cassidy helps lead Canada at Commonwealth Games opening ceremony:

Canada enters opening ceremony of Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

Led by flag-bearers Maude Charron of Rimouski, Que. and Josh Cassidy of Port Elgin, Ont., the Canadian team entered Alexander Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England on Thursday.

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