Article by

October 11, 2023 at 4:58 pm

All news

Wheelchair Racing Q&A with previous Brighton Half Winners Rob Smith & Gary Cooper

Since its introduction in 2017 the wheelchair race has become a big part of the Brighton Half story.

As a race team it’s always a challenge introducing a new event into the program, but we believed that wheelchair racing could really add excitement to the day – and give spectators (who come out to support us in their thousands) something else to get excited about!

We started planning for the introduction of the event back in 2016 and were helped immensely by Gary Donald, a hugely experienced wheelchair athlete based in London whose advice and guidance was instrumental in enabling us to get the event off the ground.

Our first race in 2017 was delivered very much as a Test event, and we soon realized that the nature of our course (essentially an out & back starting and finishing on Madeira Drive) created the potential for wheelchair racers and runners to come into conflict in and around Aquarium roundabout – the solution of course was staring us in the face – we just reversed the runner flow – so that runners now flow anti-clockwise around the course.

Since those early days the event has gone from strength to strength, attracting international athletes, and a course record of 53.67 in the male event and 73.18 in the women’s race.

Nevertheless, the main aim of the event is still to provide an opportunity for club athletes to enjoy the experience of road racing often in what is their first road half marathon – and hopefully that we are doing our job in being as supportive as we can as an event.

Gary and Rob have been present in every edition of the event and have become an important part of the journey – not least for the ongoing support and guidance they have offered to other athletes who have considered joining us on race day – and just needed that “athlete’s” perspective on what the event has to offer.

As Brighton Half wheelchair race veterans we caught up with Rob and Gary recently to talk about the event, some of its challenges and why he enjoys racing so much in Brighton.

How many times have you taken part in the Brighton Half Marathon Wheelchair race?

Rob: 6 times including winning twice, I think.

Gary: Gary: 6 years

What is your experience of the event and the course?

Rob: The event is very well organized.  It’s great to have the support for the wheelchair event and I love to take part in it.  The course is interesting as it’s a tough start with a long but steady climb but great to then get the downhill and then the rest of the course is mostly flat.

Gary: The event is well organised with a marquee for wheelchair racer to get set up and store their day chairs in the dry. The staff are all ways very friendly and helpful. It’s a challenging route with a steep hill at the start and with the route being by the sea it’s prone to strong winds which can either help with a push up the hill or be against us.

What is special about Brighton – what makes you keep coming back to race with us?

Rob: Brighton is a great place to visit.  My wife and I used to come more often to visit friends and shop when we were younger.  It’s now a great place to visit even though it’s a long way from the Midlands.  Now we love taking the kids on the pier and beach and now have a tradition of all the racers from Coventry Godiva’s and their supporters going onto the pier for fish and chips dinner after the race.  My son also took part in the kids race in 2023.

Gary: There’s all ways a good atmosphere with great support from the crowds. I bring my wife and daughter with me, and we make a day of it, with fish and chips on the pier after the race. We enjoy ice cream and a walk along the promenade in the afternoon before driving home.

What things do you consider when deciding what race to take part in?

Rob: The course is a big factor so flatter courses are better but also the time of year is important.  We do a lot of hard training through the winter and Brighton half is often the first time to test ourselves to see how we are doing.  It often has some tough and windy or cold weather conditions but it’s often the first major race of the year for many of us.

Gary: Traveling distance, cost to enter, the distance of the race (I wont travel to far for just short races), whether the race is on closed roads with no sections with grass or gravel paths, whether its an interesting route, Brighton is for a well worth charity and I like to be able to support the race.

How often do you train and where? Do you belong to a club?

Rob: Quite a few of us are from Coventry Godiva Harriers, we train at the track at Warwick University twice a week, also at a local reservoir to train on the road and at home on rollers when the weather is really bad.

Gary: I train 2-3 times a week at either Warwick university track as part of Coventry Godiva Harriers or at Draycote water a reservoir with an undulating road which is great for road training.

What are some of the training routines or techniques specific to Wheelchair racing?

Rob: We focus a lot on shoulders and chest strength.  At the track we work on speed endurance and longer distance training over the winter and shorter distance and sprint training in the summer.  Many of us use the rollers to improve stamina and work on technique as it’s very repeatable.  If working for a specific goal – e.g. New York marathon for 3 of the Godiva racers in November we will make sure we are doing lots of hill training as that course has many climbs and fast descents.

Gary: At the track I will be concentrating on starts, sprints and shorter bursts of effort. At Draycote I be concentrating on longer consistent effort and hill work. It’s a completely different experience racing on the road compared to the track

How do you approach strategy and tactics during a race?

Rob: It’s useful to know the other racers and their current form before the start.  Drafting on flat parts of the course makes a huge difference to wheelchair racers so working together with another similar speed racer can help you both get a good time.  Also getting on the back of a faster racer means you can save energy for later in the race if there might be a sprint finish.

Gary: If I’m racing against a racer that’s a similar speed we will take turns in front as it takes less effort when up close behind the racer in front. This tactic will result in a quicker time for both racers and sometimes ends with a sprint finish!

What is your racing plan for 2024? Do you have your races mapped out?

Rob: Big race plans – New York marathon Nov 2023, Tokyo marathon March 2024.  For both myself and Gary completing these 2 would mean we would both be awarded our Abbott marathon majors 6 star finishers medals.  (for completing London, Berlin, Boston, Chicago, New York, and Tokyo marathons).

Gary: You can’t plan ahead for the Brighton half because the weather can vary so much from storm force winds and rain to bright sunshine, it’s apart of what makes Brighton half such an interesting race. Brighton will be a part of my training program leading up to the Tokyo marathon in March which will be the last of the big six Abbotts majors I’ve been working towards finishing.

Are you coming back to Brighton again in February – we would love to see you!

Rob: Hoping to at the moment.

Gary: Yes!

A big thank you to Rob for taking the time to take part in our Q@A and for the insights into wheelchair racing.

2024 Brighton Half Marathon Wheelchair race entries are open.

If you are interested email: