Akron Marathon’s first ‘push-chair’ partnership seeks to inspire

By Katie Byard
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Andre Travis and racing partner Zeke Petrie watch a video about their competition in the Akron Marathon at a professional development seminar for Summit County Developmental Disabilities Board employees at the John S. Knight Center on Monday in Akron. The two men were the featured speakers at the event. (Michael Chritton/Akron Beacon Journal)

Andre Travis pleaded with the crowd of about 600 on Monday, saying he wanted “normal people” to see that “people in wheelchairs — we can do anything we put our minds to.”

Last month, Travis, who has severe cerebral palsy, and his wheelchair rolled into Akron Marathon history. Travis, 32, and Zeke Petrie, the Barberton man who pushed him for the 26.2 miles, are believed to be the first “push-chair” partnership in the marathon’s 11 years.

The race allowed Travis, who has never been able to walk and cannot feed himself, to fulfill a dream. A sports fan, he had wanted to be a part of something athletic, to show that people in wheelchairs can find ways to participate.

Monday, Travis, of Akron, embarked on another dream: to inspire others by sharing his life experiences.

He spoke to about 600 people attending a professional development seminar at the John S. Knight Center in downtown Akron. Attendees were workers with the Summit County Developmental Disabilities Board, who provide services to more than 4,000 Summit County residents, including Travis.

Travis told the gathering about his rough teenage years when he was in a foster home and felt isolated, living in a basement room.

“God was always with me. ... You can overcome anything if you have God,” he said in his strained, halting speech.

“If you get mad and angry, think about what God would do,” Travis said while sitting in his wheelchair next to a podium.

“Preach, Andre!” someone in the audience yelled at one point.

The crowd stood and applauded. Travis wrapped up his talk by telling the workers, “We need you all.”

On Monday, Petrie, 40, pushed Travis up a ramp to the stage at the John S. Knight convention center, just as he had pushed Travis along the entire rolling, challenging marathon course.

Petrie, who lives in Barberton, is a health aide for Travis and also drives a van, shuttling Travis and others to a day program. Last fall, Petrie, who had been running to get in shape, took Travis on a short run, and soon the two were training for the marathon, with Petrie pushing Travis on longer and longer runs.

Monday, Petrie told the crowd that last year he took the job as a driver and health aide — with a private agency — so he could “get a paycheck,” not out of any particular interest in working with people with disabilities.

He had returned from Haiti earlier in the year, where he had worked as a freelance “fixer,” transporting journalists, translating for them (he taught himself Creole), taking them to the impoverished country’s slums, and working for various nongovernmental organizations.

Petrie told those at the event Monday that he was arrogant and angry when he returned from Haiti. He said it wasn’t long before he was inspired by Travis’ “suffering” and the way he handles it. “‘Dre is just class, he’s grace. I pushed him, and pushed him and pushed him.”

Petrie called Travis one of the “most inspirational and kindest human beings” and thanked him for “changing my life.” Petrie also thanked his wife, Wiseline Elien, for “putting up with me.”

Now, Petrie said, he and Travis are planning to train for a triathlon (swimming, cycling and running) and are talking about participating in the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon as well as returning to the Akron Marathon.

Petrie and Travis’ journey to participate as a team in the marathon — first reported a week before the Sept. 28 race in the Akron Beacon Journal — inspired staffers at the Summit developmental disabilities agency.

They created a “Team Andre and Zeke” Facebook page and produced a video — called Zeke and Andre’s Legacy.

Thousands of people from all over the country have viewed the Facebook page and other agency online postings about the marathon quest, said Eric Bailey, who is in the agency’s communications department.

The video — shown Monday at the Knight Center before Travis and Petrie spoke — includes shots of Travis speaking to the crowds at Canal Park downtown, shortly after he and Petrie crossed the finish line there. The two completed the race with a time of 4:53:53.

“Thank you, Lord. ... Thank you all. Anything is possible,” Travis told the crowd that day.

Petrie and Travis, in a racing chair, served as a test case as the marathon — now in its 11th year — had no division for “push-chair” teams.

Bailey said “it was just a natural” to have Travis speak at Monday’s event once the Summit County DD heard he wanted to give motivational talks.

The agency also plans to feature Travis and Petrie on five billboards — with the slogan “Supporting Greatness” — around Summit County during the month of November.

Monday’s event was a reunion of sorts. Attending was Georgeann Haviland, founder of myTeam Triumph, a Columbus-area nonprofit that finds volunteer “angels” to push “captains” — those with disabilities — in running events.

Haviland loaned one of her group’s racing chairs to Travis.

Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or kbyard@thebeaconjournal.com.

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