Most people struggle to finish a 30-minute session on an elliptical machine these days, so imagine the pain involved with training for a competition that requires swimming the equivalent of half a mile, biking for 12.5 miles, and running for three miles.
Chris Marston ’03 trains for this every day, preparing his body and his mind for triathlons that often leave competitors in crumpled masses at the finish line.
Marston, though, trains and competes at a championship level with a caveat — he does so with cerebral palsy.
The Virginia Tech alumnus, who graduated from the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, overcame physical impairments and the grueling nature of his sport recently when he won the national championship for his classification at the Toyota USA Paratriathlon National Championships held July 18 in Alamitos Beach, California.
A relative newcomer to the sport, the Mechanicsville, Virginia, resident competed like a wily veteran, grinding through the miles and outlasting competitors not just in his classification, but also those in many others.
“I had the butterflies and the stress, and I was pleasantly surprised,” Marston said. “But it was not totally unexpected. I had been forewarned by people that I had been talking with, and they told me, ‘There is a lot of distance between you and everyone else in your class.’
“Seeing them [race officials] pull the banner across at the finish line, it felt very good, and at that point, I knew that I had won.”
The win capped a rather stunning rise to his prominence as a paratriathlete. He’s been competing for just two years because he hadn’t realized that those with cerebral palsy qualified for Paralympic competitions.
Cerebral palsy can involve many things, but is always associated with movement disorders caused by damaged parts to the developing brain. The damage often occurs before or during childbirth all the way up to 2 years of age. Damage can occur from a stroke or other interruption of blood supply to the brain, causing damage that lasts a lifetime.
“There’s not a cure, per sé, to take away that damage,” said Stephanie DeLuca, who serves as director of the DeLuca Lab in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke, Virginia, and has studied neuromotor impairments for more than 25 years. “It’s there, but it’s not something that progresses. It’s not a disease.
“It’s something that happens, and then the brain continues to develop,” DeLuca said. “Oftentimes, even though there is a ‘damaged area’ of the brain, the brain develops compensatory strategies, and a person can end up with high levels of functional abilities.”
Though one leg is an inch longer than the other and he lacks motor skills in his right hand, Marston plays sports and always has. But he struggled as a child, particularly in team sports, and he often felt as though he let his teams down.
So, he gravitated toward track and field, which features a series of mostly individualized events, and he picked up a passion for running. He kept that passion long after graduating from high school in his native Lynchburg, Virginia, and after graduating from Virginia Tech.
In 2016, while watching the Paralympics on television, he learned that athletes with cerebral palsy were eligible for competition. Intrigued, he started researching the topic in depth and submitted a form to USA Paratriathlon for more information.
“I didn’t hear anything, so I didn’t think anything of it,” Marston said.
Amazingly, in June of 2019 — three years later — he received a call from Gavin Shulock, an event services coordinator for USA Triathlon. Shulock invited Marston to a Paratriathlon Talent Identification Camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that August. He was unable to explain the three-year delay in responding to Marston’s initial inquiry.
Marston accepted the invitation. He wanted to be able to say that he had competed in a triathlon before going to the camp, so he signed up for one in Colonial Beach, Virginia, that July after receiving Shulock’s invitation. He finished second in his classification — and it unleashed a transformation within him.
He was hooked.
“I enjoyed doing it and enjoyed the overall aspect of all of it,” Marston said. “It was an experience that I will never forget because it was not for the racing and seeing how fast I could go. It was for the pure pleasure of finding out if I could finish it and what it would be like if I could do it.”
During this appointment, he heard the words “cerebral palsy” associated with himself for the first time.
“I was diagnosed at 9 months old that I had had a stroke at birth,” Marston said. “So, that’s what my mom and dad and everyone whom I talked to growing up knew — I had a stroke at birth, and that’s why I am the way I am. I know what happened. I just never knew what the condition was.”
According to DeLuca, doctors often refer to this condition as a stroke.
“Sometimes doctors are hesitant to use the term, ‘cerebral palsy,’” she said. “They think there might be less of a stigma with the term ‘stroke.’”
Regardless, Marston, who will be 41 in November, refuses to use his condition as an excuse not to strive for success in the athletics realm. Instead, cerebral palsy serves as additional motivation for him.
Marston strikes a balance as the assistant bridge engineer in Virginia for the Federal Highway Administration and his workouts. He trains daily, and typically, he does two events on the same day twice a week. He rides a specially modified bike, with the shifters and brakes on the left side as an accommodation for his weakened right side.
Marston qualified for the national championships after just his second triathlon, and he participated in a series of developmental races before competing at the national championships in Alamitos Beach. His improvement and desire led to him winning that national crown in the PTS3 classification, which is for those with significant impairments.
“I enjoy the competition,” Marston said. “I am a competitive person. I grew up in a competitive family. Being competitive is in my nature, but I also do like showing that people that have strokes, people that have cerebral palsy or other things, that we’re capable of doing things, too.”
The constant training not only keeps him in good health, but also strengthens the weaker parts of his right side. His training serves as the intense physical therapy that doctors often prescribe for those with cerebral palsy.
DeLuca, who specializes in therapy protocols for children, views athletics as a form of intensive therapy.
“I would say it [training for triathlons] helped him maximize his motor abilities,” DeLuca said. “In essence, training serves an intensive model helping him build motor skills, just like it does for all athletes. We investigate a similar model in trying to help children develop skills with intensive therapies. They [therapists] try to present a skill or an activity over and over and over to try to help children develop that skill and maximize their developmental process.”
Looking ahead, Marston hopes to earn a spot on USA Triathlon’s development team to be announced later this year, with the dream of securing a place on the U.S. Paralympic team that will compete in Paris in 2024. USA Triathlon sets that criterion, leaning heavily on a points-based system for its selections.
His love for triathlons, though, takes a backseat to caring for his wife, Keri, and their two daughters. Diagnosed two years ago, Keri Marston suffers from stage 4 breast cancer. Her doctors thought the cancer was in remission, but scans performed last October revealed a return, and she currently is undergoing treatment.
Cautiously optimistic about her condition, Marston continues to work and train. He makes one arm stroke after the other, pedals mile after mile, and puts one foot in front of the other, all in a chase toward the dreams ahead.
The very disability that limits Marston also propels him. He finds that his desire to win overrides his natural predisposition to remain in the background.
As a result, Marston often finds himself out front. And as an athlete, no matter the level, that’s the very best place to be.