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26.2 miles to three-peat

Chicagoans alive for the Michael Jordan era know how thrilling—and how difficult—it can be to pull off a three-peat. When the wheelchair portion of the Chicago Marathon kicks off Sunday, Paralympic gold medal winner Tatyana McFadden will be aiming for a pair of them.

McFadden, a student at the University of Illinois and a three-time gold medal winner in the London 2012 paralympics, is the two-time reigning champ of the Chicago Marathon, as well as the reigning champ of both the Boston and London marathons. The 24-year-old talked to RedEye about wheelchair racing, competing in Chicago and meeting Prince Harry.

One thing I was thinking about is that for you to run, you need your arms. Most people think about running and they think about legs.

Exactly. Running with my arms, or racing—that's the terminology we use, running, racing—but it is through the arms. And it's hard because it's a smaller group of muscles, compared to the thighs and the calves. You have to do a lot of injury prevention too, like a lot of theraband [exercises]. And it's about recovering and eating healthy. You have to make sure you recover pretty well for your body.

This misconception that people have about wheelchair racing is that there is no gears. Our arms are our gears. I think that's a huge misconception. They see everything up front—the compensating and the steering and the brakes—and they think, "OK, they have gears too." And that's not it at all. Our gears are our arms. They push us through the whole marathon. We push ourselves through the whole marathon. So it's really tough.

Each marathon is so different. Chicago's very different from New York. New York's very different from Boston. And different from London as well. I think it will be an exciting race, and the weather has a lot to do with it. Hopefully it won't be too cold. I know a lot of the runners like colder weather than we do, but we like the weather to be a bit warmer. And hopefully no rain. [Laughs.]

Are there particularly good streets in Chicago to race on? What are the best and what are the worst?

I can't remember the exact streets. Running the marathon, you're really just focusing on who's with you, and the pack. But the best streets are the smooth, paved streets. The worst are when the roads are broken and there's lots of cobblestones and rocks. Those are the worst because if we hit potholes, or big rocks, it can make our tires flat. And that can affect your place right away. [Snaps fingers.]

So what's your favorite Chicago Marathon story in terms of a challenge to yourself?

It was my second Chicago win [2011]. I actually flatted in that race, and I came back to win the marathon. That was probably my most memorable race as well. I changed my tire so fast, I think within like three minutes, and I just said, "I have to make up a lot of ground." So I set a pace and worked my tail off to try to make it up to the front. And I ended up winning the marathon.

How about a favorite international experience?

I finally won the London marathon! I've ran it every year and I've come so close to placing in the top three, but never there yet. So this year, I won it and it was my birthday. The London marathon was on April 21, my birthday. So winning the marathon and having it be my birthday—and the queen's birthday—was probably the greatest day.

What'd you do to celebrate?

Nothing. That was lame. [Laughs.] Actually the London committee got a huge cake for me and really nice gifts. So it was really nice.

Did you hear from the queen?

Well, I met Prince Harry. And he gave the message to the queen. And he told me that he gave her the message, and she said, "Thank you." So that was awesome that I met the prince for the first time, because the top three [finishers] get to meet the royal family.

Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. @readjack

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