Australian marathoner Michael Roeger sets a new world record in Houston

Paralympian and T-46 marathon world champion Michael Roeger has run a sub-2:20 in Houston, breaking his own category world record by more than three minutes.

*NOTE: This article on Michael Roeger was originally penned in January 2020, before the Houston Marathon. A version appeared in The Canberra Times. We are re-posting it because we believe Michael’s story (which is still being written) is both exciting and inspirational. If you want more Michael Roeger content check out our RunCreature interviews.

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When the starting gun fires at the Chevron Houston Marathon on Sunday morning, Australian Michael Roeger will be among the elite athletes bolting over the timing mat and chasing glory.

Heavyweight African and Bahraini runners will likely have lucrative prize money on their mind. Many hopeful Americans will be vying for a U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier (in the final week to make the standard). And Roeger will be looking to set his third marathon world record in just his third attempt at the distance.

Roeger, 31, was born without the lower half of his right arm. He has represented Australia on the international Paralympic stage for more than a decade. The athlete has dominated the T46 (single arm amputation or deficiency) classification —  and earned a reputation as one of Australia’s best distance runners, regardless of ability.

He currently holds world-records in the T46 1500 metre (3:46.51) and 5000 metre (14:06.56) events. And after making the leap to marathon running in 2018, he immediately began adding to his collection.

Sending a message to Paralympic rivals

At his debut in Melbourne in October 2018, he ran a solid 2 hours 23 minutes and 31 seconds (2:23:31). That shaved more than three minutes off the previous T46 world record.

In April 2019 in London, he improved that mark again, running 2:22:51, despite battling severe leg cramps late in the race.

If he executes his race strategy for Houston, Roeger won’t simply break his own world record; he’ll obliterate it by upwards of seven minutes.

The plan, he tells me, is to go through halfway (21.1 km) in about 68 minutes. That’s equivalent to a 3:13/km average pace. If he can hold it, he’ll clock a 2:16.00 finishing time.

Not only would it be a massive personal best; it would send an unequivocal message that Roeger is the far-and-away favourite for the Paralympic marathon in Tokyo.

“It’s a marathon, and it might not go my way,” the Aussie admits. “But I’ve done everything I can to put myself in the best possible position to run a pretty quick time [in Houston], one that I’ll be happy with, and one that will put my competitors on notice for the rest of the year leading into the Tokyo games.”

“If I can run something off the charts, a big time in a big American race… they’ll know that I mean business.”

During his Houston prep, Michael Roeger competed at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, winning silver in the men’s T46 1500 metre. The next day he was ramping-up mileage. (Photo supplied by Michael Roeger)

Highs and lows on the world stage

Roeger, who hails from tiny Langhorne Creek in South Australia, began his running career on the track racing middle-distances. He ran at the 2008 Paralympic games in Beijing and was slated to compete at the 2012 games in London. The night before his 800-metre heat, however, he was struck down with a serious gastrointestinal (GI) bleed.

Fuelled by instinct and competitive desire, he attempted to race  —  it was the pinnacle of his sport, after all.

He quickly withdrew, however, and ended up getting rushed to hospital for an emergency blood transfusion.

It was after the London games that Roeger began working with his current coach, Dr Philo Saunders, an exercise scientist at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. An elite runner in his own right, Saunders welcomed the recovering athlete into his high-performance squad. The pair formed a fast and enduring bond, which proved instrumental in helping Roeger regain both his fitness and his confidence.

“He was probably at a crossroads about whether he would ever compete again,” Saunders recalls.

“So that’s pretty much where we started  —  rock bottom. He hadn’t trained at all, and was recovering from a pretty major, life-threatening condition.”

Coach Philo Saunders

Under the tutelage of Saunders, Roeger continued his 1500 metre running, but shifted his focus from shorter, sprint-style events like the 800, to longer distances such as the 5,000. And he made fast gains.

In 2013, at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Championships in Lyon, France, he won his first medals on the world stage —  bronze in both the 1500 and 5000 metre events.

Three years later, he found redemption at the Paralympic Games in Rio, earning a bronze in the 1500.

However, a decision to eliminate the 5,000 and 10,000 metre track events at Rio and subsequent Paralympic Games for T46 athletes meant Roeger needed to make a decision between two extremes. He could stay on the track as a miler, or make the leap to road-running and marathons.

He chose the latter.

A domestic marathon debut

After some 10 km and half marathon success in 2017, Roeger set his sights on the 2018 Melbourne marathon.

His debut was a test-race of sorts. He was receiving funding from Athletics Australia to compete as a 1500-metre runner, not as a marathoner, recalls Saunders, so he needed to prove he could be competitive at the new distance and manage the added training mileage without getting injured.

“We didn’t want things to go wrong, so we were a little bit conservative,” says Saunders. “We just wanted to break the T46 world record [of 2:26:54, then held by Abderrahman Ait Khamouch of Spain]. That was our plan. We do that, we know, obviously, he’s the best in the world in that class. Athletics Australia has to come on board and support him as a marathon runner.”

Despite being setback by another GI bleed and blood transfusion in his marathon build-up, Roeger persevered.

When race day rolled around, it was hot and windy. Saunders paced his athlete through the first 21.1 km in 71 minutes, before assuming his role as a spectator.

Roeger fought through the back-half of the course, and triumphantly crossed the line in a then world-record time of 2:23:31. For Roeger, who has “AFL [Australian Rules Football] in his veins”, it was a thrill to run onto the field at the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground, and a massive relief to nail his plan, despite suffering pretty debilitating cramps in the final few kilometres.

Philo Saunders (left) pacing Michael Roeger in his debut marathon in Melbourne in 2018. (Photo supplied by Michael Roeger)

A world championship race in London

Saunders maintains his athlete was in sub-2:20 form, but Roeger believes the conservative approach was wise.

“I nearly didn’t finish. I was cramping up at 39 k… I think my athletic career could’ve gone down a different path if I didn’t finish that race. But thankfully I did.”

Six months later, Roeger was lacing up for his second marathon  —  this time at the IPC Marathon Championships in London. Roeger won the gold medal and narrowly set a new T46 world record of 2:22:51. He did it despite missing three drinks and once again fighting through painful leg cramps.

It began around the 29 km mark. There was some tightness in the iliotibial band (ITB). This is a long, thick band of muscle-connecting tissue that runs down the outside of the thigh.

“Being a championship, I just had to back it off and run a little bit within myself,” Roeger recalls. “Then between 35 and 40 k it was pretty bad. The quads and hammies were cramping. Then at 40 k I just had to stop and stretch out.”

“To get the win and to break my own world record by 40 seconds was awesome. But yeah, it was a tough race,” he says. “I learned a lot out of it, and I think I can improve a lot out of it as well.”

Past performances boost confidence

Heading into Houston, the memory of those cramps has not vanished. Roeger and Saunders have taken a systematic approach in this latest training block to  —  hopefully  —  minimise the cramps, or delay their onset.

One area of concern following London was footwear. Instead of wearing super-light racing flats, Saunders says his athlete will switch to something more cushioned in Houston. This will help alleviate muscle damage in his legs from all the pounding.

There has also been a focus on overall leg strength, logging more mileage on hard surfaces, and better managing nutrition.

“I think we’ve addressed better footwear. I’ve done a lot more longer runs on the road [and] gone to 40 k runs in this prep and I’ve never touched on 40 k training runs before. I’ve done a lot longer sessions, 33 to 35 k sessions on the footpath or on the road. And have over 10 weeks of 170 k [per week] in the legs… So there’s a lot of things that will reduce the likelihood of cramping.”

“It is a little bit scary, because I may cramp up, and it’s also scary because I’m going out about 6 minutes faster than I’ve run [the marathon] before,” says Roeger. “So there are a lot of unknowns. I’m prepared to cramp, I just hope it comes on later in the race and I can deal with it.

“I just have to back myself and trust the process, and look back on all those tough, hard weeks I’ve done…. If it’s my day, I’ll be able to run something pretty special.”

Michael Roeger (left) training with fellow Australian Paralympian Jaryd Clifford. (Photo supplied by Michael Roeger)

Running a 2:16 marathon means cranking out each kilometre in a zippy 3 minutes and 13 seconds. It may seem audacious, but Roeger has proven he can sustain even faster speeds on the road. In July 2019, he ran the Gold Coast half marathon (21.1 km) in 64 minutes and 17 seconds. It was the 11th fastest time run by an Australian athlete last year. To hit that mark, he maintained an average pace of around 3 minutes and 3 seconds per km.

“I still look back at that race and I know it was a huge run. It gives me confidence that I can go through halfway in Houston in about 68 minutes feeling very comfortable.”

Saunders believes his athlete has only “scratched the surface” of his marathon potential. “If he’s running at his best, if the conditions are good and if he can tuck-in with a pack of elites, then 2:16 or even faster could be on the cards.”

Something special in Houston

A strong pack of elites shouldn’t be too hard to find come Sunday. According to race officials, there are upwards of 100 runners in Houston’s athlete development program who will be running sub-2:19 pace, trying to make the U.S. Olympic Trials standard.

“Some are bound to go out faster than that,” says Houston Marathon Race Director Brant Kotch. “Michael has a great opportunity to set a record.”

“As far as I know  —  and I guess I’m the unofficial historian since I’ve been Race Director for 18 years and involved with the event for 28 years  —  a world record has never been set at any of our races,” Kotch says. “We’d love to change that!”

The nervous energy of Roeger’s three-week taper  —  the period when marathon runners begin to ease their training  —  has shifted to excitement.

“I’m looking forward to toeing the start line, enjoying the city of Houston and the crowds for the first 10 to 15 k… then homing-in and focusing for the second half of the race.”

He knows from experience there will be “pain and hardship” down the home stretch. But he’s got something special to keep him motivated; to keep him gritting his teeth and fighting until the final surge.

Roeger’s twin brother, Chris, has flown to Houston to cheer him on.

“He means everything to me, but we don’t see each other all the time because he’s [interstate] in South Australia.”

“Definitely in the last 5 or 6 kilometres, I’ll be drawing on him. Knowing he’s there at the finish line waiting for me, I’ll be trying to run as fast as I can to get to see him.”

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Epilogue

Add another world record to the list for Australian Michael Roeger.

The Paralympian has competed in three marathons in his relatively short road-running career (which began in earnest in 2017) and he has now set three-straight T-46 category world records.

On Sunday morning, Roeger raced the Chevron Houston Marathon and crossed the line 26th overall in a time of 2:19.33.

That’s more than three minutes faster than his previous time.

According to race officials, it’s the first world record — of any kind — to fall at the Houston marathon festival.

One of the lucky ones

Roeger often tells new acquaintances that his arm was bitten clean-off by a shark in a surfing mishap. (It’s the yarn he told surprised reporters in Houston, while doing a press conference on Saturday).

If he’s feeling particularly mischievous, he’ll tell curious kids it fell off because he didn’t eat his vegetables.

“You give them a bit of a fright,” he laughs. “I like to have a bit of a joke with people. But then I feel bad sometimes because they believe it.”

“A lot of the people I have competed against at the Paralympics have had accidents or illnesses,” he says. “But I never had to go through any trauma or had to adjust my life in any such way… I know no other way, so I sort of feel like one of the lucky ones.”

Competing with the best able-bodied Aussies

Lucky maybe, dominant definitely.

Roeger has been a force on the world stage in the T-46 classification for more than a decade. He’s won multiple medals at Paralympic Games and World Championships, and run scorching times.

But he doesn’t view himself as a disabled runner.

“When I’m on the start line, we’re all equals… I believe I can be mixed in with the best able-bodied runners in Australia.”

That’s not hyperbole. According to the 2019 rankings compiled by Athletics Australia, Roeger was the 10th fastest Australian half-marathoner (64:17 at Gold Coast). And he was the 25th fastest Aussie over the marathon in 2019 (2:22:51 in London).

His latest marathon time would have bumped him up to 15th.

Houston, was there a problem?

While running sub-2:20 is a boon, there are likely some feelings of disappointment mixed in with the post-race elation.

Roeger had game-planned for a 2:16, top-10 finish in Houston, but he came up a bit shy.

The weather conditions looked good on the morning, and Roeger started strong. He went through the 10 km mark in 32:10, which was spot-on his target pace of 3:13/km.

He went through halfway (21.1 km) in 68:26 and remained in fairly good shape until the 30 km mark. But then he began to slow.

Between 35 and 40 km, his average pace dropped considerably to 3:25/km. And it took him nearly 8 minutes to finish the final 2.2 km.

Roeger suffered severe leg cramping late in both of his previous marathons, and he knew it might be an issue once again. It was something he focused on in training.

“I’m prepared to cramp,” he told me. “I just hope it comes on later… and I can deal with it.”

Until he sets the record straight, we can only speculate.

For now, two things are clear: with the bar raised once again, the T46 world record is firmly his; and the focus now shifts to the Paralympic marathon in Tokyo.

Myles Gough

Myles Gough

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