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Wheelchair racer Josh Cassidy returns to action

Former Guelph resident competed in Boston Marathon and Scotiabank Tornoto Waterfront Marathon during October

October was quite the month for wheelchair racer Josh Cassidy.

He competed in the Boston Marathon for the 11th time and did a 10-kilometre demonstration run at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, the latter a few days before the birth of son Henrik Locke Cassidy on the final full moon night of the month.

For the former Guelph resident who moved to Barrie 15 months ago, but still comes here twice a week to train, the Boston Marathon is likely his favourite event. This year it was a little different as it was held on a Monday in October rather than a Monday in April.

“Even though it was the fall, the weather was very much the same,” Cassidy said. “Instead of things blooming, there were leaves turning colour, but temperature conditions wise, it felt very much the same.”

The crowd was also about the same, he felt.

“Into Boston it seemed normal,” he said. “It didn't seem any more or less, but my head was down and I was near blacking out in the final sprint, but it felt close to normal, for sure.”

For Cassidy, Boston was his return to tough racing as an rotator cuff injury and then COVID had kept him away for more than a year.

“It was my first international marathon since before COVID,” he said. “I had the marathon that I hosted and put on in my hometown of Port Elgin in the summer, but it was just for three Canadians due to COVID protocol.”

His performance was a little bittersweet as he placed fifth, his best finish since winning it in 2012 in a then world-record time of 1:18:25. He was on form that day, crossing the line more than three minutes ahead of his nearest pursuer.

The record has since been lowered by 21 seconds when Marcel Hug of Switzerland won in 2017. Hug won this year, too, his fifth Boston triumph in six years. Cassidy was a second behind the fourth-place finisher and 13 behind the third-place finisher.

“I wanted to do better because a number of those guys were coming from the Chicago marathon the day before, the guys that are going for points or just up for the challenge,” Cassidy said. “Normally I think I would've been up for the challenge, too, but with the baby coming and all, I didn't want to be too far away. Chicago and Boston, I thought I'm just going to focus on one and picked Boston.”

He would’ve liked to have a little more training beforehand, too, and even thought of not going. But it’s Boston.

“Ideally, I would've liked some more quality training,” he said. “I was sick with chest and sinus infection. It was two and a half weeks of training in September that I lost. I actually almost pulled out because I lost so much training, but I thought I'll just get back into it and see how it goes and the next week and a half was actually not too bad coming into it. But I think that would've helped. Overall I was happy enough and it was just so good to be back in Boston again.”

As for continuing to come to Guelph a couple of times a week, Cassidy’s support team is here, mainly at Pursuit Athletic Centre and The Shift Concussion Management clinical practice, and when you have a good support team, you make the effort to continue with them.

“You find people that know you and you love working with and do good work on you and certain people you find really know how to take care of certain aspects of your health or rehabilitation or whatever it may be,” Cassidy said. “That's the main reason.”

It also helps that he’s able to get some speed training on the paved track at Bishop Macdonell Catholic High School.

“It's a great track,” he said, adding he can combine a session at Pursuit with a session at Bishop Mac. However, it’s not the kind of track he competes on during the racing season. “It still does the trick. It's a harder surface so it's good for some speed training.”

However his road sessions here aren’t as frequent. He does a circuit that includes riding on Gordon Street, Arkell Road, Victoria Road and Clair Road, but it’s just too busy with traffic now.

“There were days when I cut training sessions short because I just didn't feel comfortable,” he said. “There were so many big construction trucks and transports that are just booming past. Even though there's the bike lane, they're a foot apart from you.

“I feel like I'm very aware. I've avoided tons of crashes because of my awareness, but I can't be watching my six behind me my entire session because that's something that I can't control and avoid if someone's texting on their phone and slightly drifts off into a bike lane. That was really the main hazard.”

October partly made up for the disappointment of September when he was left off the Canadian Paralympic team despite being ranked in the top 10 in the world in the wheelchair marathon.

“It's something I, obviously, never expected in my career to have qualified, ranked in the top 10 and not be going,” he said. “I wasn't the only one. There were a number of top athletes -- 10 of the top 15 ranked didn't even go in the marathon. It was just some major issues there starting with the Paralympic committee.

“Basically, they're in a position where they're trying to expand, create more events, but they're cutting numbers to do so at the expense of competitive events which is the point of sports. ...  Changes need to happen, for sure.”

Does Cassidy, who’ll turn 37 this month, have another three years of training left him so he can try to qualify to compete in the 2024 Paralympics in Paris?

“That's a good question, a fair question,” he said. “That's a question I had to ask myself a lot, too. During the Games, I couldn't even think about it. My mindset was just so focused on Tokyo, I couldn't conceive going beyond that because I was just so focused on that moment. But actually watching the Games and feeling where I was at, it's just not how I expected it to end.

“It's one week out of four years. On one hand it's what you're aiming for, but it also doesn't really define you. So much goes on between them, so many other races and the training.

“I have decided that I will go for it, but (with) a different mindset. Mentally right now I'm just focusing on these races for now and going with the flow. Mentally, just trying to take a breather for a minute and I'll likely get back into gear if all healthy and well. I won't stop racing.”

Next on his schedule is to be the New York City Marathon the first week of November.

“That would be my last race of the season and then some major time off and then gear back up again in the spring,” he said. “I won't go away in the winter like I normally do.”

With a new baby at home, going away for training can’t be on his schedule.

“I've got to rebalance here so no going to Dubai or Australia for winter training this year,” he said. “Just kind of stay home based and start racing again in the spring.”

And he knows he’s going to love staying at home getting to know Henrik.