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A different kind of challenge for Zanardi UPDATE

Alex Zanardi

Last Sunday, two-time CART champion and former Formula-1 driver Alex Zanardi embarked on a physical challenge unlike any other in his 41 years. After a nearly-fatal car crash during a race on Sept. 15, 2001, that blew his legs off with the force of a land mine, Zanardi not only learned to walk with two prosthetic legs and knees, he also returned to car racing on the World Touring Car Championship circuit. But he never imagined he'd do a marathon.

Until now. On Sunday, he lined up with more than 100 other hand-cyclists to begin the New York City Marathon. At stake was a silver Tiffany tray for the top three places. Since Zanardi isn't a member of the Achilles track club (normally a prerequisite for hand-cyclists in the race), he was not eligible for a piece of the $1,000 purse. Nonetheless, the Italian was eager to race. He finished an incredible 4th.  

Why did you decide to do the NYC Marathon?
I was talking to my friends at Barilla and when the question was, 'How can we get you involved' in the [prerace] pasta party which they have for Saturday night, I said, 'Well, as long as you don't make me have the check' -- because it's 16,000 people. And next was, 'Well, since I'm there, I may as well do the marathon.' They said, 'Are you crazy? It's impossible!' Up to that point, it was just a joke but when they said it was impossible, something clicked in my head. I said, 'Just get me entered and we'll find out if it's impossible.'

When did you find out you were accepted?
Early September. I was really lucky. I was accepted as they were about to close the entries.

How has your training been going?
I finally got the bike October 6, and October 7, I got my very first training and I'm a crazy man, you know? I went straight for the distance of the marathon. I had to cover it because I'd gone almost 20 miles. If I wanted to go back to my car, I'd have to cover the other 20 miles.

What? You did a marathon on your first day?
Yeah, yeah -- on the very first day I did 54K which is like, 12K more than the distance of the marathon. I tell you, you wouldn't like to see my face at the end of it, but I was alive. I was alive!

Where did you do this training?
I live in Padova, close to Venice, so I'm not far from a river called Po, the biggest river in Italy. On the north side, you've got a tiny little road which goes straight and has no traffic, a lot of trees, and beautiful scenery, so that's where I drove my car, took my bike off, and did most of my training. It's a 50K drive from home.

Do you ever train on old race-car tracks?
I did, in fact. Once in Monza. On October 9, I went back to the circuit to meet with a friend, Vittorio Podesta. He's the manage world champion of the hand-bike. Believe it or not, we met three years ago arguing for a handicapped parking spot in Italy. When I met him, he had just started to do races at high level. He's paraplegic. So when I had this idea [to do the marathon], I took out his business card and called him and was, 'Hey! It's Zanardi. You remember me?' 'Yeah of course.' And that's the way it went. He helped me a lot. 

What did he tell you?
If you are an amputee, you can still use all your abdominal and back muscles to push and pull when you pedal. He told me to push more with my back and move my body a little more -- which already makes me a faster sprinter than he is. Despite the fact that he is the world champion, if we sprint from 0 to 100 -- meters, not miles per hour (ha ha) -- I can cover that short distance more rapidly than he does. Of course, then when he picks up his pace, he just blows me away.

What's your goal for the marathon?
If I could do it in one hour and 45 minutes, I would be very happy. According to the previous years' times, that could probably mean a top-15 place finish.

Compared to the 2 to 4 hours you'd spend competing in a CART or Formula One race -- one hour and 45 minutes is not so bad, right?
Yeah, but it's much harder. I was not used to training for so long because in a race car, physically, you don't work that hard. The second time I did the distance of the marathon -- when I got to kilometer 30 -- the distance is 42 -- I realized my muscles weren't going anymore. I finished my fuel. That was it. I had no energy left. I was just crashing over the pedals basically, so for the following time, I had one pound of linguini with tomato sauce that I personally made, because I'm a pretty good chef, and that was the best doping you could have. The following time, that took me the distance -- one pound of linguini.

Did you feel prepared?
I think I was prepared. My upper body is very trained because living on a pair of prosthetic legs makes it very, very hard for my arms. My arms now, are twice the size they were when I still had my legs and was training in the gym to steer a Formula One car. I have discovered not only a way to have fun, but a fantastic way to train. It is very difficult to do aerobic training for a guy that doesn't have his legs. So for sure, this will become habitual way of training for me. That means that for 2008 I can come back for the big cup, who knows?

You'll come back and do it again?
Yeah, do it again in 2008, well-trained, to try to win it, you know? wcsn.com

10/19/07 Perhaps the word that best describes Alex Zanardi is “determined.”

After all, what else can you say about someone who lost both legs in a racing accident, survived, recovered and learned to walk using artificial legs. He then returned to the scene of his accident two years later and completed the final laps of the event at surprisingly competitive speeds.

Since then, Zanardi has raced—and won—in European touring cars, and now he’s planning to compete in another form of racing. On Nov. 4, the two-time Champ Car World Series champion will compete in the hand-cycle category of the prestigious ING New York City Marathon.

It’s simply the latest step in the life of man whose career has been marked by a remarkable power of determination.

The Italian driver made it to Formula One, but his career nearly came to a tragic halt after he suffered a severe concussion during a practice accident at Spa, Belgium, in1993. At the time, Zanardi was written off as an F1 driver, but his racing career got a new lease in Champ Car. He was an ideal teammate with established veteran Jimmy Vasser, now a Champ Car team co-owner. zzzz

Zanardi had an incredible rookie year, winning three races and six poles and finishing third in the final standings. His pass for the lead of Bryan Herta at Laguna Seca’s famous Corkscrew turn remains one of Champ Car’s historical highlights and certainly embodies his determination. He then followed up with back-to-back titles. Thanks to his sense of humor and a friendly way of dealing with the media and the fans, Zanardi was a popular champion.

But there was still that unfinished F1 business, and perhaps determination might have gotten the better of him. F1 racing was a different beast when Zanardi returned with the all-conquering Williams team for 1999. The new grooved tires did not fit his driving style and Williams’ engine program was lacking. After three years atop American racing, Zanardi was now an “also-ran.” By year’s end, he and Williams decided he would not drive in 1998 so he became a very well paid retired racing driver.

In 2001, America beckoned again, this time with the chance to run for a new team in Champ Car. Once again, Zanardi’s determination nearly proved to be his undoing. After a lackluster season, the Italian appeared to be having his first good race at the inaugural event at Germany’s new Lausitzring oval track. Late in the race, a spin while exiting the pits left him in the middle of the first-turn racing line. With nowhere to go, current Champ Car driver Alex Tagliani T-boned the front section of Zanardi’s stranded car, severing the Italian’s legs in the process. Quick work by physicians on Champ Car’s Safety Team saved his life.

After suffering the kind of loss that would have destroyed the life of any man, Zanardi emerged almost philosophical. That he could still hold his infant son meant he could overcome his handicap. Zanardi’s wry sense of humor also remained intact as he joked that with artificial legs, he could choose any length and perhaps be able to dunk a basketball!

Years later, this courageous man continues to astound people. He’s recovered, done some racing and now plans to tackle the NYC Marathon. Zanardi’s 26.2-mile trek through New York’s five Burroughs may not be his last in America, as he may have some more surprises in store for his fans within the Champ Car family.

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