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A Survivor Will Go for the Roses : Wheelchair Racer's Growing Stronger, Loving the Challenge

May 02, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

It was a rainy night in May, 1963, when the car Bud Harris was riding in on the way home from the Kentucky Derby struck a telephone pole on a rain-slick street.

Thrown from the car, Harris hit an embankment. And when his body landed on the ground, the car fell on top of him, severing his spinal cord.

In an instant, the 30-year-old Indianapolis building contractor and father of six children was a paraplegic.

For Harris--who had been a YMCA Golden Gloves boxer at age 9, who had played football, run track and wrestled in high school, and who had played amateur and semi-pro baseball for 15 years--it seemed that his days as an athlete were over.

But anyone who shows up at the benefit Run for the Roses 5K and 10K races at Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley on Saturday morning will see otherwise.

Harris, now 53 and a Long Beach resident, will be participating in the wheelchair divisions of both races.

And if his track record is any indication, he just may win them both.

Harris, the 1981 Southern California Wheelchair Athlete of the Year, has won the wheelchair divisions of the Los Angeles, Culver City, Orange County and San Bernardino marathons over the past five months.

The race on Saturday, which coincidentally is Kentucky Derby Day, will mark the latest in more than 400 wheelchair races Harris has entered since his first race competing with able-bodied athletes in 1978.

The Kentucky Derby-themed race, which will begin at 8 a.m., is being coordinated by Bill Madden, owner of Silky Sullivan's Restaurant and Irish Pub in Fountain Valley, where pre- and post-race activities will be held.

Run for the Roses will benefit high school athletics in Fountain Valley and Camp Whe Cha Pines, a proposed sports camp for wheelchair athletes in Orange County.

That pleases Harris.

"Absolutely, I'm one of its greatest advocates," he said, adding: "This is something whose time is now."

Harris, who is now involved in developing sports equipment for handicapped people, says race directors are increasingly making room for wheelchair athletes.

"About 80% of the races now have handicapped divisions," he said, "and some of them just literally cater to us. God bless them; I love them all."

Harris, whose legs were amputated four years ago, will be using the unique, three-wheel racing wheelchair he built himself using 10-speed bicycle wheels. With his torso lying in a metal tray, Harris propels himself forward with street ski poles. In a race, he averages about 13 m.p.h. which, as Harris pointed out, "is a little faster than the hot runners run."

Racing, said the ruddy-faced, muscular-armed Harris with typical enthusiasm, "is the most positive thing I have ever seen in my life. I wish I had been involved in this when I was on my feet."

Harris doesn't restrict his racing wheelchair activities just to runs, however.

Last August, with a support crew trailing him, Harris crossed the Mojave Desert. He covered 95 miles in 12 1/2 hours, including a two-hour rest stop. Two years earlier, he attempted to reach the top of Pikes Peak in Colorado, but a blizzard drove him back down the mountain road about six miles from his goal.

To keep in shape for racing, Harris maintains a rigorous, five-day-a-week training schedule.

Three days a week, he does "quality" 15-mile workouts. Twice a week, he does six miles of fast and slow intervals on a college track to build up speed. To build up strength in his arms, he also uses a rowing machine, which, he said, "takes the place of hills for me."

The hard work pays off.

"Anything you do toward improvement is obvious on race day," he said, "and if you leave something out, it's obvious. If I don't use my rowing machine or I don't do intervals or long, quality miles, then it shows: I have a tremendous struggle."

Now that wheelchair athletes have started developing equipment that is "built to fit us and perform especially for us," Harris said, they are capable of outperforming able-bodied athletes. Harris, in fact, has come in first overall in about 125 races in competition with able-bodied athletes.

For Harris, racing helps defines his sense of self.

"It's exciting, because it's like I'm real people again; it's something I can do," he said. "This is one of the best ways I've found to express myself since I've been in a wheelchair."

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