Pushing the limits

    Corey Hartgrave won the wheelchair division of the Pear Blossom 10-mile run last Saturday, and he plans to ride his handcycle in the annual 200-mile Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic in July. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

    When Corey Hartgrave won the wheelchair division of Medford's Pear Blossom 10-mile race last Saturday, it was merely a warmup for a much bigger challenge.

    Over the weekend of July 13-14, the 33-year-old Grants Pass resident will attempt to crank his handcycle 200 miles from Seattle to Portland.

    "This will be the longest race I've ever done," says Hartgrave. "Two weeks ago I pushed 72 miles in one day — it took me five and a half hours. I've never ridden that far anywhere."

    His regular training route from Rogue River to Ashland encompasses much of the Bear Creek Greenway.

    "I'm pushing two to three days a week, like today I'm doing a 25- to 30-mile ride this afternoon after work, then on Saturday I usually put in 50 to 70 miles or more. Then I try to go at least 25 to 30 on Sunday."

    His primary care doctor is a frequent training partner.

    "He's an avid bike rider," says Hartgrave. "He's had trouble keeping up with me sometimes. Especially on the downhills."

    With a full-time job to juggle, it can be hard to carve out long blocks of time to train during the week. Hartgrave is the online manager for the Daily Courier newspaper in Grants Pass, where he's worked for nearly 14 years. In addition to managing the Daily Courier's website, he fills in on a variety of production and layout tasks.

    "When I first started working here, I was sitting over there doing photos and scheduling part of it," Hartgrave explains. "A couple of years ago this position opened up, and I kind of wheeled into it."

    Hartgrave seems to wear a permanent smile, which appears subtle hidden in his dark beard, and because he's so soft spoken. His twin passions of fitness and work are more evident in his clear, focused, animated eyes.

    His fingers fly across his smartphone as he demonstrates his latest project.

    "It's a new mobile app so you can read the Daily Courier on your smartphone," he says. "I'm self-taught in this technology. This prototype is nearly finished."

    Technology for hand cycles has come a long way since wheelchair racers sat upright and pulled their wheels forward. When Hartgrave won the wheelchair division in last week's Pear Blossom — his seventh victory in seven tries — he was using a new hand-crank model he received last year through a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

    In this new chair, which actually looks more like a recumbent bike than a wheelchair, he's lying back in a highly aerodynamic position as he turns the hand crank to propel himself forward. The new machine allowed him to complete the 10-mile Pear Blossom race in 35 minutes and 39 seconds this year, about 10 minutes faster than his previous best.

    "I can put more power into the wheel," Hartgrave explains. "In my old chair, I was sitting up ... when I'm lying down I can get a full rotation without worrying about pulling my body up into the crank. I'm paralyzed from here (mid-chest) down, so I have no lower back muscles to keep me from pulling myself forward."

    Hartgrave has his sights set on even newer technology — something he feels is necessary in the competitive hand-crank world, where technology confers a huge advantage.

    "The technology is that the wheels will be lighter, the spokes will be bladed round so they'll cut the air better," says Hartgrave. "A deeper rim on it means there's less air to cut, so there's less friction. It will allow me to take 10 to 15 seconds a mile off my time by changing wheels."

    When Hartgrave embarks on his 200-mile journey from Seattle to Portland in July, he will ride with nearly 11,000 bicyclists, including his group of about 10 handcyclists organized by the Veterans for Mobility Impaired America.

    Though Hartgrave is not a veteran himself, he was headed in that direction when he graduated in 1998 from Hidden Valley High School in Murphy, where his athletic resume included football and wrestling.

    "I was enlisted, assigned to boot camp, but was injured before I was ready to leave," Hartgrave says. "It was an auto accident, right after I graduated from high school. I was being a stupid kid and pulled out in front of a dump truck. That's all I can tell you about it, I can't remember anything else."

    Within three months of that accident, Hartgrave was itching to get back into sports, so he took his new wheelchair to the basketball court, a sport he continues to play.

    "I met Corey about three years ago," says Jeff DeLeon, president of Veterans for Mobility Impaired America. "I heard he was down in Grants Pass playing basketball and really didn't have a team."

    DeLeon remembers Hartgrave as being shy and lacking confidence during that first day with the team of seasoned wheelchair ball players.

    "He came a long way," DeLeon remembers. "That's one of the things I think stands out with Corey is the fact that he's able to really adapt to any environment — basketball, handcycling. I know he's going to excel at handcycling because he's got that drive inside of him."

    DeLeon recalls one practice in particular, that he feels captures the essence of Corey Hartgrave.

    "There was a moment in the game when we had a couple of newer players," DeLeon says. "And he gave them guidance — 'I know it's been only three years, but I was in that place, I was shooting balls and they weren't going in, but I stuck to it and worked at it.' — That's the kind of guy Corey is. He's the guy who not only wants to succeed for himself, but he also wants to succeed for everybody else."

    Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.

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