Wheelchair athlete to make history at Modesto Marathon

jsilva@modbee.comMarch 20, 2014 

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    The fifth annual Surgical Artistry Modesto Marathon

    What: Marathon, half-marathon and 5K

    When: Sunday

    Starting times: Marathon and half-marathon, 7 a.m.; 5K, 7:20 a.m.

    Start location: M Street, between 10th and 11th streets

    Online: www.modestomarathon.com

    Race expo: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., at CrossPoint Church Family Life Pavilion, 1325 12th St.

There’s never a shortage of inspirational stories at a marathon.

If you’re looking for something extraordinary Sunday at the Surgical Artistry Modesto Marathon, look no further than Modesto’s A.J. Mitchell.

The 29-year-old will make history at the event, becoming the first wheelchair athlete to compete in the marathon, half-marathon or 5K race.

Mitchell, who was born with spina bifida, is coming off a finish at the Los Angeles Marathon on March 9. He’s been competing in races since he was 9.

“I’ve always been a sports fanatic, and being in a wheelchair, you can’t do any big sports like football or all that,” Mitchell said. “I fell in love with (racing).”

Early in the week, Mitchell said he wasn’t sure if he would compete in the marathon (26.2 miles) or half-marathon (13.1 miles) in Modesto on Sunday. It was just two weeks ago that he completed the L.A. Marathon in a little more than six hours, and he came out of the race a bit under the weather.

“I think I was just drained and kind of tired,” Mitchell said.

Prior to his first marathon, Mitchell had completed three half-marathons. A bit more than a year ago, he joined the Shadowchase Running Club and has become a mentor for other runners in the club who have been training for the Modesto Marathon.

It’s hard not to be inspired by Mitchell. But he doesn’t see himself as anything special; just a regular guy who likes to race.

“Everybody talks about going out and being healthy and all that,” he said. “That’s all I’m doing. I just want to get out and be healthy.

“It’s an honor to inspire people, but I’m out there just to be a regular person.”

Art Mitchell, A.J.’s dad, said his son always has had a competitive spirit. That’s just part of growing up with four siblings – two brothers and two sisters.

“He comes from a competitive family,” Art Mitchell said. “He’s always been a competitive kind of kid; he likes to keep up with all the rest of (his siblings).”

A.J. trains three or four times a week, with typical mileage of four to five miles during weekday sessions and 10 to 15 miles on the weekends.

He uses his regular wheelchair for races. He bought a special racing chair a few years ago but is still getting adjusted to it.

Besides getting mileage out on the roads, Mitchell also works out at a local gym and gets help from Air Physical Therapy in Modesto.

He has had more than 25 surgeries in his lifetime and received a kidney transplant a few years ago, his father said.

“He’s overcome a lot; he never complains,” said Art Mitchell, who along with wife Linda owns Mitchell’s Modesto Harley-Davidson on North Carpenter Road.

A.J. Mitchell was one of 34 wheelchair athletes at the L.A. Marathon, but will be the only one competing in Modesto on Sunday.

“It’s an honor. I didn’t know I was going to be the first one,” Mitchell said. “I kind of figured I would be. But I didn’t know.”

Who knows what inspiration Mitchell will provide Sunday? For runners on the course, struggling to complete their event, watching another athlete can be the motivation it takes to finish.

Art and Linda Mitchell will be out on the course following A.J., just as they did in Los Angeles.

“We never drove him to try to do these things; he’s just that kind of guy,” Art Mitchell said. “People are inspired by A.J., whether he thinks he’s inspiring them or not.

“He inspires me every day.”

Bee staff writer Jim Silva can be reached at jsilva@modbee.com or (209) 578-2279. Follow him on Twitter @mission26point2.

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