Holly Koester is no stranger to challenge. The U.S. Army veteran was paralyzed from the waist down in an auto accident during the first Gulf War. One year later, she returned to sports after being inspired by other paralyzed veteran athletes.
Koester's Alaskan marathon will be the Frank Maier Marathon on Douglas Island August 2. At the same time, she will set the Women's Wheelchair record for the course (she is the first woman to ever complete the course in a wheelchair).
At press time, Koester was the only wheelchair racer registered for the marathon this year, according to race director Bob Marshall.
"Usually there's only one wheelchair racer," he said.
It has been almost 18 years since Koester first learned she would never walk or run again. In August 1990, she was called back on base after Iraq invaded Kuwait. She was then a 30-year-old army captain, and U.S. troops were preparing for Operation Desert Shield. On the road back to base her civilian vehicle tipped over.
The first months after the accident were hard for Koester's entire family. Two months after she was injured her twin sister was sent to Iraq, knowing Koester was still bedridden.
And Koester, who played volleyball and softball in the Army, had to face the assumption that she would give up her athletic life.
"You're in a wheelchair and they tell you that you'll never walk," Koester said. "And when you're participated in sports for so long, (people say), 'Oh poor Holly, she'll be sitting on the sidelines watching.'"
But a few months later other veterans got her back in the action. She participated in field events at the National Veteran Wheelchair Games in 1990 and was "in awe" of the wheelchair racers she saw there.
"When you're first in the hospital you see people that are sick ... and then to go to the games and see real life competition and people battling it out ... everyone's cheering on each other," Koester said.
photo courtesy of Holly Koester Koester will be the third wheelchair racer to compete in the Frank Maier Marathon.
"I thought that was just so cool," she said.
As she traveled across the country, she competed in races that had never seen wheelchair racers before, including the marathon in her hometown of Buffalo, New York. She has qualified for the Boston Marathon twice, with times of 2:36 and 2:39.
The final course that awaits her has been compared to the Boston Marathon in difficulty but Koester chose it for the scenery. The Frank Maier Marathon's out-and-back course begins and ends in Savikko Park by Sandy Beach and follows the Douglas and North Douglas Highway, promising views of the ocean, mountains, rainforest and the Mendenhall glacier.
Only a couple of wheelchair racers have ever completed the course.
"It's not an ideal course for a wheelchair because the roads aren't closed," Marshall said. But he doesn't foresee any problems for Koester.
"We do have good shoulders along the North Douglas Highway ... (and) Holly Koester is pretty savvy," he said.
Marshall expects about 50 entrants for the marathon and half marathon, most of whom come from outside Alaska. Shawn Miller, who holds the Men's Open marathon record (2:31:30), will be running this year.
Koester's personal best isn't much slower than the Men's Wheelchair record for the course - 2:27:21, set by Seth McBride in 2007 - but she is not trying to set any time records.
"My goal is to finish the marathon," she said. "I'm not an elite wheeler. If I can finish under 3:30 I'll be ecstatic."
One of Koester's biggest sponsors has always been the Paralyzed Veterans Association. She is now returning the support. She is the Sports Director for the Ohio chapter of PVA and spent the last week in July at the National Veteran Wheelchair Games. Lately she has been talking to and encouraging wounded veterans.
"It's one thing for someone standing up to say, 'Oh your life isn't over,'" Koester said. "It's another thing to have someone in a wheelchair (tell you that). There's a lot of things you can do in a wheelchair as long as you have people around."
Past wheelchair racers
Holly Koester will be the third wheelchair participant ever in the Frank Maier Marathon, and the first female wheelchair participant.
In 2004, Don Brandon became was the first wheelchair marathoner to compete in the Frank Maier Marathon. He also raced in 2005.
"He was kind of a champion for equal opportunity," said race director Bob Marshall. "He was what got me ... to consider a wheelchair division."
In 2006 Para-Olympian Seth McBride, of Juneau, participated for the first time and set a new course record for the half marathon with a time of 1:37:19. In 2007 he set the course record for Men's Wheelchair marathon with a time of 2:27:21.
Marathon participants expecting to finish in less than five hours will start at 7 a.m at Savikko Park near Sandy Beach on Douglas. Marathon runners expecting to finish in less than six hours start at 6 a.m. and half marathon runners start at 8 or 9 a.m. The six aid stations along the course will be staffed until noon.
There will be a post-race barbeque at Sandy Beach from 10:45 to 12:45. Trophies for the winners will be awarded around 11:30 a.m.
For more information about the Frank Maier Marathon visit www.southeastroadrunners.org/marathon.htm.