Holly Koester considers herself a recreational runner, so she was shocked when she returned to her hometown last year for a race and won the Nissan Buffalo Marathon.
"I won it," the upbeat Koester said by phone from Cleveland, where she's a substitute teacher. "I was the only wheeler."
Koester, 43, fresh off her victory as the first female wheelchair finisher at Cincinnati's Flying Pig Marathon, returns to Buffalo next Sunday, trying to defend her title in the Buffalo Marathon.
She competes in a low-slung, three-wheel racing cycle that looks more like a dragster than a conventional wheelchair. It's made of carbon fiber and weighs a mere 12 pounds. Wheelchairs like this can easily cost a few thousand dollars.
"It fits like a glove," she said.
Her first regular chair was a clunky 20-pounder.
Koester was a 10-year Army veteran, a captain in the 101st Airborne Division, when Desert Storm began in 1991. Driving to check on some missiles one day at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, her SUV flipped on a back road and she broke her back.
Once active in sports -- at Frontier High School and Fredonia State College she competed in track, volleyball, softball and soccer -- Koester was now paralyzed from the waist down.
"When you first get hurt," she said, "you think you're the only person in a chair."
As a patient in Veterans Hospital in Cleveland, she was encouraged to take part in the National Veteran Wheelchair Games.
"My first one was in Miami, and there were 400 veterans in wheelchairs," she said. She won two gold and silver medals in various events. She took a turn in a racing chair but found it so tipsy she fell out.
Competing in other sports for the next four years, she made the move to road racing in 1995, doing her first 10K in a conventional wheelchair. Her twin sister, Joy, who had entered the Army with her, ran the race alongside her. Holly made the next step up to a racing chair.
She's done more than 30 marathons since, actively promotes her sport and says she's having the time of her life.
"It's fun," she said. "I did the Flying Pig last weekend in Cincinnati, which has a lot of hills. A bunch of runners were passing me on the uphill, saying, 'Come on wheeler, you can do it.' I'd pass them on the downhills, 'I'll see you on the next uphill.' "
She finished in three hours and 20 minutes, or about 20 minutes, three seconds off her best time of just under three hours.
It's a finishing time that puts her in the pack of recreational wheelers. Christine Ripp, a student at the University of Illinois, won this year's wheelchair competition at the Boston Marathon more than an hour faster, 1:54:47.
"I consider myself a recreational athlete," she said. "I try to promote the sport, there aren't a lot of women wheelers."
End of a tradition
Twenty-five years ago, Dennis Fay and a few others were having drinks in South Buffalo, toasting the memory of their close friends Kevin Connors, Joey Kait and Tommy Harrity, killed in a car accident in Sunset Bay.
"Dennis had all these stupid and crazy ideas over the years, and this was one of them," said Brian Hayden, Fay's closest friend. "He said, 'Let's have a race for these guys.' Sure, Dennis.
"Well, here we are 25 years later," Hayden said Thursday, just a month before the 25th and final running of Connors Kait Harrity.
Hayden had come from a funeral Mass for Fay, 49, whose body finally gave out after years of diabetes. He had lost a leg and was awaiting a kidney transplant when he died last week.
In a town where your popularity is often measured by how long the line of mourners is at your wake and how many people show up for the funeral, they were lined up for blocks for his wake and his parish church was packed.
Besides starting and running the Connors Kait Harrity with fellow founders Hayden, Mark Morgan, Dick Donovan and Mike O'Sullivan, Fay started a number of grammar school and junior high track programs in South Buffalo.
Jack Reid, another Connors Kait stalwart over the years, said race organizers got together last week and made the logical decision: This year's final CKH Race, on June 7, will be dedicated to the memory of Fay.
Yad B'Yad Run Walk 'N' Roll, 5K, Jewish Community Center, 2640 North Forest Road, Amherst, 4 p.m. today, 688-4114 Ext. 343; Little Valley Rotary Club 5K Run, Little Valley, 10 a.m. today, 938-6936 or 938-6160; Independent Health Kid Day's Run, 1.8 mile, 1 mile fun run, Delaware Park, 9 a.m. today, 635-4959; Blossom Races, half marathon and 5K, Niagara Falls, Ont., 9 a.m. today, (905) 374-2549; Lock City 5K, Lockport, 6:15 p.m. Friday, 434-3071, 433-0692; Nissan Buffalo Marathon, half marathon and relays, 7:30 a.m. next Sunday, 694-5154 or buffalomarathon.com.