In the Boston Marathon, Watch for a Record by George Murray: Oh Yes, He's the One in the Wheelchair

updated 04/21/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/21/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

Murray's father also knew the frustrations of life in a wheelchair

George Murray hopes to beat all 5,500 competitors in next week's Boston Marathon—even though his feet will never touch the ground. A paraplegic for 18 years, Murray races in a wheelchair.

In 1978 Murray finished 90 seconds ahead of winning runner Bill Rodgers at the end of the 26.2-mile course. But like all wheelchair entrants, Murray was given a 15-minute head start to avoid congestion. He aims to break the world marathon record, 2:08.34, without benefit of that quarter hour.

"I'd love to be able to make a statement that a guy in a wheelchair can be faster than any guy running," says Murray, 32. "It would be a great thing for all the handicapped."

At the age of 14, Murray fell during a hunting trip in his native Maine and shot himself in the spine with a .22-caliber revolver. He has been paralyzed from the waist down since. By tragic coincidence, Murray's father, a professional hunting and fishing guide, was confined to a wheelchair until his death after breaking his back in an auto accident at age 42.

At the time George was hurt, he was a junior high basketball and football star with one overriding dream: to run the Boston Marathon. Less than 18 months after his accident he began training for wheelchair athletics and before long competed in his first wheelchair race, a 100-yard dash. "I was at the 50-yard line," he recalls, "when I saw four or five guys had already finished. That's when I realized maybe I wasn't going to be a racer. I got serious about the shot put and discus."

When he went to the University of Oklahoma in 1967, Murray wanted to major in physical education. His advisers said no. "They felt it wasn't appropriate for a person in a wheelchair," he recalls, "and suggested accounting." He studied to be a teacher instead and also helped organize a campus wheelchair athletic association. In 1970 he won a silver medal in the shot put and a bronze in the discus in national wheelchair competition.

Asthma forced Murray out of both college and sports soon thereafter but it could not defeat his competitive spirit. He took up chess. "I'd study the game six to eight hours a day," he says. "I couldn't train, but I could push a pawn and wheeze at the same time." Within three years he was among Maine's top chess players.

When Murray moved to Florida in 1974 his asthma improved, and by June 1976 he had won the national wheelchair gold medal in the discus. Then a friend lent him a racing chair and George revived his old marathon dream. In two years he became the first to clock a sub-five-minute wheelchair mile, and he has broken national records in all distances from 200 through 10,000 meters. Since 1978 he has posted faster real times than the best foot runners in five marathons.

In the world of wheelchair athletics, where competitors are classed in disability from "one" (most serious) to "five," the 6'5", 170-pound Murray is a "three," which means he has use of the upper half of his body, except the lower back. "He trains very hard," Bill Rodgers says. "I respect him a lot." Murray's slogan for the April 21 marathon: "Come rain, come shine, come Murray."

He lives modestly on Social Security disability benefits. "Eventually I'd like to support myself," he says. For now he concentrates on training and competition. Because his medical expenses were borne by the Easter Seal Foundation, he is an active crusader for that cause. "Handicapped youngsters get visited by professional athletes and they're flattered," he says. "But they can't go to bed dreaming they're going to be a linebacker. When they see me introduced as an athlete, they can dream." This spring Murray himself went back to college. The University of South Florida was delighted to enroll him—as a phys ed major.

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