It’s been almost two years now since Olympian Ruben Sança of Cape Verde and Paralympian Patrick Monahan of Ireland have raced a marathon thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And that’s what makes the 45th Grandma’s Marathon so important, as both racers are doing much more than just return to competition on Saturday, June 12. Their trek along Minnesota's North Shore from Two Harbors to Duluth will be their one and only chance to compete before the delayed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, begin approximately six weeks from now on July 23. The Olympic marathon is Aug. 8 in Sapporo.
The Paralympic Games are scheduled to get underway a month later on Aug. 24 in Tokyo.
“I just want to race, the competition,” said Monahan, who first competed at the Paralympics in Rio in 2016. “I’m probably going to regret saying this, but for once I can say I don’t mind if it rains. I don’t need a fast time.”
Monahan last raced in the New York Marathon in November 2019. Earlier that year, he finished second in his Grandma’s Marathon debut. While his spot on the Irish Paralympic team is not locked in yet — the team has not officially been announced — he said he’s pretty confident he’ll be in Tokyo come Aug. 24 when the games get underway.
“I’m looking forward to actually competing again,” Monahan said. “It’s been hard to believe its been so long.”
Sança, however, isn’t as lucky and time will matter to him in his Grandma’s Marathon debut. Time is what he’ll be racing against as only one marathoner from Cape Verde can be selected to compete in this year’s Summer Games.
Sança first represented Cape Verde in the 2012 Olympics in London — one of three competitors from the island nation located in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa — running the 5,000 meters. Already a high-mileage runner, he switched to the marathon as it better fit his lifestyle, but failed to qualify for Rio in 2016, missing out by five seconds.
Grandma’s Marathon could be his one and only chance to make his case to be in Tokyo come July. Sança is shooting to beat his personal record of 2:18:43, which is also the national record for Cape Verde.
“It’s sort of like one of my last chances to really get a good score to put on the board before,” said Sança, who last raced the Chicago Marathon in October 2019, but had to stop at Mile 19 due to an injury. “It’s been really hard to find races because each time I signed up for one it kept getting canceled. It’s pretty tough because you’re trying to have a performance to put on the board as far as scoring goes, but there’s not really many performances.”
Whatever it takes
Sança, 34, moved with his family from Cape Verde to Boston when he was 12. He was a four-time NCAA Division II All-American distance runner at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and earned a masters degree in 2011. He now works in the River Hawks’ athletic department as an assistant athletic director after previously working in student affairs.
Sança said he briefly dabbled with the idea of running professionally after college, but felt it wasn’t for him. With the country being in a recession at the time and him being an immigrant to the United States, he wanted to make sure he had a stable career with a salary to support his family build for the future.
Sança said working full-time in college athletics and training full-time for the Olympics is a lot of work, and not something he recommends, but both are equally important to him.
“I had the opportunity to represent Cape Verde, and I wanted to keep training toward that so I decided to take the hard road and go for both,” Sança said.
Giving back to the community is also something that is important to Sança, who originally was denied entry into Grandma’s Marathon because by the time he inquired, the race was full. Desperately needing to run in a competitive marathon to have a shot at competing in the Olympics, Sança admitted to begging for a way in.
Grandma’s organizers gave him the option of fundraising for one of the race’s many charity partners, who grant bibs to those who are able to raise a certain amount. Sança chose Grandma’s own Young Athletes Foundation, and has already surpassed his $500 goal, and is closing in on $600.
The Young Athletes Foundation aligns closely with Sança’s own nonprofit youth organization, The Sança Foundation. He collects shoes from teammates around Massachusetts and sends them and school supplies back to local track and field programs in Cape Verde.
“In a country like Cape Verde, where you don’t have the ability to get shoes, even to wear to school, you’re most likely not going to buy your first pair of shoes to be a training shoe for running,” Sança said. “It goes a long way to helping those who are not able to buy shoes, specifically for track and field, to practice the sport and maybe create an incentive for them to get into the sport.”
Back for more
Sança wasn’t the only one who had to plead his way into this year’s Grandma’s Marathon. Monahan also had to overcome some hurdles, though it wasn’t with race organizers. The Irish Paralympian had to seek approval from the government of Ireland to travel to the United States to race during the pandemic.
“I was adamant I was going back,” said Monahan, who just recently received his second vaccination shot.
Monahan said Ireland was in a strict lockdown because of COVID-19 for over a year, so much so that he had to seek approval from Sport Ireland to travel more than 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from his home.
Thankfully for Monahan, that wasn’t necessary for him to train during the pandemic, because he lived next door to a 3.5-kilometer (2.175 miles) race track that was happy to have him while nonessential businesses were shut down because of COVID-19.
“I had free rein for the course of a year,” Monahan said. “Fortunately for them and unfortunately for me, we’ve opened back up slowly. I kind of got used to having that to myself. It was really, really good to have that right on my doorstep.”
Training alone is nothing new for Monahan, who has been doing so ever since taking up wheelchair racing after a car crash at the age of 21 left him paralyzed from the waist down. It was the 2012 Paralympics in London that inspired him to take up the sport.
“I saw David Weir (Great Britain) win four gold medals and I was like, ‘I want some of that,’” Monahan said.
It took Monahan only three years to reach his first Paralympics in 2016 in Rio, but once there, he became ill and didn’t perform as well as he’d like, finishing 16th in the marathon. He said he almost pulled out of the race.
“I remember saying, ‘You just never know. I might not get another opportunity for whatever reason, whether I wasn’t good enough or anything.’ I was like, ‘I’m finishing this race,’” Monahan said. “I was thinking back a couple months ago when the (Tokyo) games were looking dodgy, ‘I’m glad I finished that race.’”
Monahan cemented his status as Ireland’s fastest racer in 2019 in Duluth when he and American Aaron Pike posted the two fastest times ever at Grandma’s. Pike won in 1:20:59 while Monahan set a new record for an Irish racer at 1:22:23, beating his own personal best by 6:40.
Two things stood out to Monahan about that day. The first was how good the course surface was — “something you don’t get at a lot of places,” he said — and how surprising it was that he and Pike were able to surge ahead of the rest of the field so quickly.
Monahan said he normally likes to push to the front, but if there is no one willing or able to race alongside him — like Pike last year — he may consider dropping back and racing the field.
After over a year of racing all alone against the clock, Monahan said he’s OK with a tactical race.
“I’m looking forward to the mind games and whatever else goes,” he said. “I’ve tried tactical situations in training, but it’s just not the same.”