Series champ Schär sets sights on NYC No.4
Making history has been a habit in recent years for Manuela Schär.
She has broken the world record twice, became the only athlete to go through an entire Abbott World Marathon Majors series with a perfect record of seven wins, and reeled off ten marathon victories in a row between September 2018 and December 2019 – the last one being that most recent world record in the Japanese city of Oita.
Then she became a double Olympic champion in the summer, taking gold medals in the 400 and 800m and bronze in the 1500 and 5000m on the track in Tokyo, adding silver in the marathon.
Another couple of entries in the record books await her this weekend as she approaches the 2021 TCS New York City Marathon.
She has won the last three editions of the race and a fourth triumph on Sunday would put her into the New York pantheon with two women she admires deeply – her current rival Tatyana McFadden, who has already won four in a row, and one of her great inspirations in the sport, fellow Swiss Edith Wolf Hunkeler, a five-time New York champion.
She will also collect a third straight AbbottWMM Series title – a crown she wrapped up before arriving in New York thanks to wins in Berlin, London and Boston in this compressed 2021 program, adding them to the 2019 editions of Chicago and New York.
“To win a gold medal at the Games is the same level as winning the Series, so it’s really important to me,” said Schär.
The pandemic threw up a host of challenges for elite athletes across the spectrum, and for Schär, it was dealing with the uncertainty that proved hardest to overcome.
“I finished really strong in 2019, then we had that stupid break and no racing and you’re just training. You don’t have any way of seeing where you stand, you don’t know how anyone else is doing, so it was difficult at some points.
“I always have a chat with my coach at the end of the year where we look back and then look to the next season where we set out internal goals. I think he would give me a ten out of ten for this year, we’re really happy with how it went.”
To round the Majors season off with a win in New York will underline the dominance Schär has had in the sport for the last three years, but she’s expecting a tough battle on Sunday.
Her modus operandi in most races is to escape early and leave no doubt about the outcome, but New York’s gradients have not always allowed her that luxury.
Her first victory in 2017 came with a three-minute cushion over McFadden, but 2018’s race was nip and tuck until that final few twists and turns in Central Park that saw Schär eek out a 21 second margin. A year later, she was back to a comfortable gap of nearly four minutes.
“I have won in different ways here, that year Tatyana was in front, then I caught her, then she caught me. It’s the climbing, there’s a lot of climbing and so many bridges.”
The nature of wheelchair racing at the marathon distance bears a lot of similarities to cycling, with the need for cooperation to keep the pace high and the challengers at bay.
“We usually work together,” says Schär. “There are always people behind, so you have to work together so the once behind can’t close the gap - usually that’s how it works, but there are always people who try to refuse to do work.
“The bigger the group, the more people try to hide in the back and save some energy, but I’m always someone who wants to do something for a good race and I try to pull. It gives me a better feeling at the end.”
It’s a feeling she will hope to experience again this Sunday before she can reflect on a year like no other.
After the gruelling schedule of track and road at the Paralympics she was unsure how she would perform when the hectic schedule of Majors returned.
“I felt in Tokyo for the marathon (where she lost out on gold after a sprint finish with Australian Madison de Rozario) that I wasn’t in best shape because I focused so much on the track, but that was my goal too so that was OK.
“Then I felt really good in Berlin, surprisingly good. I felt really good in London too, but after that I started to feel the fatigue.
“It’s been a lot of racing and a lot of travelling and it’s been a lot of that in a short time, so we’ll see what happens on Sunday, but it’s been special year.”
As she approached her 37th birthday in December, there are inevitable conversations to be had about future schedules, but there’s no intention to cut back on marathons for now:
“It’s definitely a very important time, the next two years,” she said.
“I’m not the youngest athlete, I’m not standing at the beginning of my career and we’ll definitely talk about that, but marathons will still be a big part of my life.”