Chaz Davis has been waiting a long time for the 2021 Boston Marathon.

In 2019, the Boston Athletic Association announced that the Marathon would start up competitive Para Athletics Divisions, a first for the race. While there are already divisions for wheelchairs and handcycles, the Para Athletics Divisions would be a groundbreaking opportunity. It was a moment Davis knew would be big for Para athletes.

But then COVID-19 happened and the Marathon, like so many other traditions, got sidelined. Davis, a 2016 U.S. Paralympian, lost out on his chance to run in a historic race, but for a while, he lost out on running.

“When the pandemic first hit, I wasn’t able to train with guides and people that I have to really rely on to train outside, so I couldn’t do that,” said Davis, who was diagnosed with Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, a disease that damages the optic nerve in the eye, when he was a freshman in college. “Then the gym shut down, so I couldn’t really run on the treadmill.”

Davis got creative with workouts but didn’t really get back into the swing of running until late into winter this year. Then, just as he was getting his feet under him, he suffered an ankle injury that took him back to square one, squashing his hopes of competing at the Paralympic trials for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

“I was in excellent shape at that point,” he said. “Having another setback there — and this time, it was another thing outside of my control — it just was really hard for me to get motivated again and look for the next thing to get kind of on my calendar so I could work towards a goal again.”

A pandemic and injury took away Davis’ Marathon and Paralympic hopes. But now, with the 2021 Boston Marathon happening — for real, in-person for the first time in more than 900 days — he and other Para athletes are eager to get to the starting line in Hopkinton for a race that’s about more than finishing times.

BAA CEO Tom Grilk told GBH News that the Marathon has not always had the best history of inclusion for athletes, pointing out that it didn’t have a wheelchair division until the ’70s — when it became the first major marathon to include one. He said it was appropriate to recognize Para athletes and what they do in the same ways as others.

“This year we’ll be the first major marathon in the world to have competitive prize money divisions for Para athletes with upper-body impairments, upper-limb impairments, lower-limb impairments, visual impairments as well as the push-rim wheelchair athletes,” he said. “And we are delighted that they’re here.”

"People were just happy with participation and just seeing people with disabilities participate. ... But I think we can also start to see that on a higher, more elite level as well to really encourage that kind of competitive sport."
Chaz Davis

Chris Lotsbom, a spokesperson for the BAA, said there will be 30 total runners competing for prize money and awards in the Para Athletics Divisions for its maiden voyage, but there’s hope for growth in the future.

“Unfortunately, with the Paralympics just a month or so ago, some athletes had to choose whether to run at the Paralympics or run here in Boston,” he said. “So we lost a few athletes to that, but definitely in future years they’ve said they want to come back, they want to race here in Boston and be a part of the division in the future.”

For the athletes who made it to Boston, there’s a sense that this could be a race that sets the pace for others.

Marko Cheseto Lemtukei, who is running in the Lower-Limb Impairment division, said this opportunity is long overdue.

“A lot of Para athletes couldn’t have imagined, including myself, participating in a marathon that doesn’t even have a class for that particular disability,” he said. “So I think this is going to be huge because it’s opening a door, an opportunity for more people who would want to do a marathon, but they didn’t have…that opportunity to participate.”

Misato Michishita won the gold medal in the women’s T12 Marathon in the Tokyo Paralympics, a classification for visually impaired runners. After setting a record in her home country of Japan, she told GBH News that she’s happy to be in Boston.

“There’s already a wheelchair division, but for blind runners, it’s the first time to be [invited competitive athletes], so I’m so happy and I want to do my best here,” she said through a translator.

Davis points out that “para” means alongside, which evokes a sense of equality. But when it comes to Para athletes, that meaning often gets lost.

“So much in life when people think of individuals with disabilities it’s ‘inspirational,’” he said. “People were just happy with participation and just seeing people with disabilities participate. And I think that’s great on that level and I think we absolutely need more participation across the field of people of all different abilities.

“But I think we can also start to see that on a higher, more elite level as well to really encourage that kind of competitive sport,” Davis continued. “And so I just really think it’s taken years for society to catch up to what should have been in place, probably, at the beginning of the movement.”

Davis will be part of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s Team With A Vision, whose blind runners have hit a qualifying mark to run the Marathon.

And while he’s excited to be on the starting line in Hopkinton Monday morning, it will, in some ways, be an end to a long journey.

“I think that will probably be a pretty emotional moment for me,” he said. “Because running has been such a huge part of my life, and when I lost my vision initially in 2014, becoming legally blind, it was a way that I was able to work through that. And so especially the competitive side of it has really kept me going throughout this time. And for the last two years, not really being able to have that competitive nature being exercised, it’s been difficult.”