“I’m Stubborn Enough to Make it Happen”: Why Multiple Sclerosis Isn’t Keeping This Athlete From Ottawa Race Weekend

“My first response was to give up racing,” says Face Wallace, a long-time runner diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a condition that affects the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. “It wasn’t that long ago I was running marathons as a member of Run K2J (a Barrhaven distance running club). I trained toward running a personal best every year in races from 5km to 42.2km. Years of injuries and physical meltdowns eventually led to the diagnosis.”

Instead of quitting, Wallace is taking on new challenges with his upcoming race as an Adaptive Athlete at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend.

“I’ll be doing something as an Adaptive Athlete that I never did during my running days. That feels big to me” Face says, but he isn’t stopping there. “The New York Marathon is at the top of my bucket list, and I want to qualify for it at a future Race Weekend.

“I got the itch to push my new limits,” he says. “I looked for assistive devices that might help. I run with leg braces, and I just got a wheelchair last fall. The 17km Challenge looked like it would be something just beyond what I could do, both on my feet and in a wheelchair.”

Working with Run Ottawa’s Adaptive Athlete program, Wallace developed a strategy for the event. “The plan is to roll the 2K, run the 5K, and then get back in the wheelchair for the 10K to finish the day. Last fall, I was at the race on my own, and it was a struggle on rubbery legs to get from the finish line of the 5K race to my car, assemble the wheelchair, and then get it to the starting line. For this race, I’m hoping my wife will be able to hang on to my chair while I’m running.”

To train for race day, Face says, “I’ve been running all winter on my treadmill, but the real challenge has been finding a way to train for the wheelchair portion during the cold winter months. I couldn’t get on the roads until late April, which means early-morning rolling up and down my school’s hallways is the only consistent training I’ve done since the fall. Drivers in my neighbourhood have been courteous and patient with me as I’ve rolled around Barrhaven these past few weeks, and I’m quickly getting back up to speed and building strength. Fingers crossed that one month of road work will be enough!”

Run Ottawa’s Adaptive Athlete program works closely with athletes to make adjustments to all phases of the race experience, from registration to crossing the finish line to ensure all participants feel welcomed, informed and supported. 

“Everyone’s needs are different, and we’re hoping to do the best we can for anyone needing assistance,” says Danielle Avery of the Adaptive Athlete Program. She notes heat management tools and reducing obstacles at the start line among the pieces they’re addressing to improve the experience for every participant. 

When it comes to race day and training, anyone can support fellow runners. As Avery says, “We ask runners of all abilities to take the time to notice others around them in corrals, at the expo and on course. Participants with previous race experience can provide a kind smile or assistance to any participant who looks overwhelmed or nervous at the start line. It is always a good idea to ask if others around you need assistance, being kind and aware of others is the participant’s way.”

Wallace mentions, “The middle of the road is by far the easiest place to roll a wheelchair, and whether I’m struggling up a hill or flying down the other side, I’m so grateful that runners and walkers are quick to make space for me.” 

Making space for all athletes is the program’s priority. Run Ottawa’s program revolves around community feedback to make sure unique needs are addressed in a meaningful way. “The program can only evolve by working together with the adaptive athlete community. Run Ottawa is always happy to hear feedback from all athletes, of all abilities and address any friction points that have a solution. Communication and action will be the pillar of this program. My goal is to listen to all concerns and feedback to provide all and any action items possible for our small team,” Avery says. 

This will be Wallace’s second race in a wheelchair, bringing along some lessons from his participation in the 2022 Canada Army Run. “The Army Run was a bit of a disaster for me! My wheelchair is not made for racing, and it’s not designed to hold together for miles and miles of vibrations over the pavement. Key parts of it were falling off during the 10km route, and I was forced to flip it upside down and pound it back together with my fists several times during the race.”

“Always pack a toolkit!” he says. “I’ll probably have to stop along the way again to put things back together, but this time, I’ll have the tools to do it right! I’ll be carrying the set my Run K2J coaches gave me after hearing about how badly things went last year. That gift was thoughtful, practical, and hilarious!”

While an important lesson, the main takeaway is clear: “Chase your dreams,” Wallace says. “Life has a habit of kicking you in the seat of the pants, but there might be a way to keep pushing yourself. I failed to qualify for the New York Marathon on my feet, but now I’m trying to achieve that goal along a whole different path.”

He adds, “I’m pretty old to start racing, but I’m stubborn enough to make it happen. If you’re reading this and you have advice about racing wheelchairs, I’m all ears!”

The Adaptive Athlete Program is looking for members of the community to provide hands-on assistance from May 27-28, if anyone with a few volunteer hours in them would like to join and help make someone’s race weekend the best experience possible please email questions@runottawa.ca.