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Ellington runner with MS has complaint with Hartford Marathon

Hartford Courant - 1/26/2020

Marisa Boasa has multiple sclerosis. She runs with the aid of trekking poles, wearing orthotic braces on her feet and legs. She was named as one of the Eversource Hartford Marathon’s Aiello Inspiration team members and decided to run the half marathon at last October’s race.

But when she asked the marathon organizers about a month before the 13.1-mile race if they would let her start an hour early to accommodate her disability, they said no, citing logistics and the fact that the course has to be closed for over six hours already, impacting the towns of East Hartford, South Windsor and Hartford.

Boasa, 42, of Ellington finished the race that day but afterward, she contacted Saud Anwar, the state senator who represents her town of Ellington, and asked if he could sponsor a bill to ensure that Connecticut athletes participating in open athletic events in the state be given reasonable and necessary accommodations in order to participate.

She then met with officials at the Commission on Disabilities Issues in Hartford. On Feb. 4, marathon director Beth Shluger will speak at a commission meeting about the Hartford Marathon Foundation’s denial of Boasa’s request for an early start.

“My intent for this legislative proposal is to require all open athlete competitions make an accommodation necessary to allow athletes with disabilities to fully participate,” said Boasa, who is a diversity and inclusion manager for disability programs. “The law says in the workplace you have to provide reasonable accommodations, but it does not say anything about the athletic community.”

Shluger responded that the marathon was unable to accommodate Boasa’s request because the roads can only be closed for so long due to safety and logistical concerns.

“To me what’s reasonable is what’s safe for everyone involved,” Shluger said. “Safety trumps every other consideration as far as I’m concerned. I think the key word is reasonable. We support anybody that wants to participate in our races that can do so in a reasonable fashion.

“You can’t look at this one person and what they want. Let’s say we could give her an early start. What’s to say next year, there’s five people and they need a three-hour head start. We can’t do it, it’s not safe and we can’t support that.”

Both Shluger and Brian Foley, a former Hartford deputy police chief who works for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection and is on the marathon’s board of directors, said the logistics of the race are complicated and more goes on behind the scenes that meets the public eye.

“The planning and security around setting up a marathon is so impactful on so many aspects of the cities, the residents and the services,” Foley said. “The longer we hold the route [closed], the longer the strain is on all three of those.

“We communicate with the hospitals, the emergency rooms, the fire departments and the police departments. We take the brunt of the complaints. From police departments. From residents who can’t get in or out, upset how long it’s taking. There are churches and schools which have events. Weddings seem to be the big one - those are impacted. The services surrounding them.

“It’s a heavy lift every minute that route is closed. It’s stretched out to the max as it is."

Race security - after the Boston Marathon bombing amped up everywhere - would also be impacted. Shluger added it would be difficult to shut the roads down earlier because people are trying to get to the race in Hartford.

The marathon works with the Achilles International Connecticut chapter and the Hospital for Special Care to accommodate athletes with disabilities and has a page on its website dedicated to those athletes.

Erin Spaulding, the president of the state Achilles chapter, sends many of her athletes to different races around the state. Before the race, she will call the race director and let him or her know who’s coming.

“I’ve built a relationship with many of these race directors,” Spaulding said. “Each accommodation is individual. We’ve had athletes who say, ‘Can I start in advance?’ Obviously, each race and each race director are different. There are so many variables behind the scenes a lot of the public don’t know about - insurance, permits, timing. Is the course open or partially open to traffic?

“Sometimes the answer is yes. And sometimes it’s no and I have to respect that and we’re going to have to figure out how to work around it.

“In my opinion, it’s not discrimination, it’s well thought out and collaborative with the race director. I’ve never had a race director knee-jerk say, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ Sometimes it can’t be accommodated.”

Some races in the state - the Hogsback Half Marathon in Barkhamsted and the Norfolk Pub 10-miler are two that come to mind – do allow early starts, not necessarily for runners with disabilities but for slower runners. But the courses aren’t closed to traffic.

Boasa said she ran the Philadelphia Marathon in November after Hartford and said that Philadelphia was more accommodating to her.

Philadelphia offers the wheelchair athletes a five-minute start, just like Hartford. So do other races, like the Denver Colfax Marathon in May, which offers all athletes with disabilities a five-minute head start. In the bigger races, like the Boston Marathon, where the runners start in waves, the athletes with disabilities start earlier.

Boasa said she doesn’t want to bash the Hartford Marathon Foundation. She’s run numerous HMF races.

“It’s not about HMF,” she said. “It’s about we need to build reasonable accommodations within the running community.”

Lori Riley can be reached at lriley@courant.com.

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