One participant in the Brown County YMCA Hilly Half Marathon on Saturday, Nov. 12, will have dozens of hands at his back.
Mike Pieczko will push his younger brother, Joe, in a wheelchair he designed and built himself, and Brown County High School football players will be there to help.
Head coach Randy Minniear said after he was contacted about the opportunity by Brown County YMCA Executive Director Kim Robinson, he took the idea to the team, and they jumped at it.
It’s likely most of them will show up to help get Mike and Joe Pieczko up the first, long hill behind the Brown County State Park Saddle Barn, he said.
Growing up in Indianapolis, Joe and Mike Pieczko were close, but as adults, they drifted apart.
Then Joe approached Mike about training together for the 2012 OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in Indianapolis. They even did a couple of 11-mile training runs at the Indianapolis airport.
Though they both had problems and had to finish the race walking, they did finish, and made plans to run the race again in 2013.
But in April 2013, a month before the next Indianapolis mini-marathon, Joe was at home with family grilling when he saw an incident between a neighbor woman and a man, and went to intervene, Mike said.
When the man attempted to flee, Joe stood in front of the car, Mike said. The man attempted to run him over, and Joe wound up on the hood of the car. The man sped up, then slammed on his brakes, throwing Joe from the hood.
The doctors told the family that Joe would never wake from his coma, Mike said. But two weeks in, on his son’s 14th birthday, he opened an eye.
The family took this as a sign that God still had plans for Joe, Mike said.
That year, Mike ran the Indianapolis mini-marathon with his brother’s number bib over his own, he said.
Later in the year, when he was training on a treadmill, the idea came to him to push Joe in the 2014 race.
He considered a regular wheelchair but realized he would need something specialized. He looked at the chair used by father-and-son team Dick and Ricky Hoyt, who compete in the Ironman Triathlon.
Aside from the $4,000 cost, he was told by Joe’s physical therapist that they would need a chair with a removable front wheel in order to get Joe into it.
An engineer working for Eli Lilly, Mike had built two custom bicycles for himself. While that experience didn’t translate perfectly to building a chair for Joe, it did have him in the right mindset for finding the components and pieces he would need.
A few days after the idea came to him, a bicycle accident on ice tore Mike’s rotator cuff badly enough that his doctor told him that competing in the 2014 Indianapolis mini-marathon would hinder recovery.
But, it did give him time to work on his idea for the chair, he said.
He built a mockup in his garage from wood, then with the help of coworkers, built the chair itself, he said.
But in February 2015, he had another setback after a fall in the parking lot at work left him with a tear in his other rotator cuff.
He adjusted his sights to the 2016 mini-marathon, and by fall of last year, he was able to compete in a couple more small races, though he wasn’t recovered enough to push Joe yet.
After some training runs, and with the help of a friend, Mike and Joe finished the 2016 Indy Mini together.
But the chair — which was part lawn chair — was showing wear, and before taking on the Hilly Half, Mike wanted to have more reliable braking power.
So, he started from scratch, replacing plastic parts with metal and adding drum brakes designed for recumbent bicycles.
When they were children, Brown County was a favorite family vacation spot.
Joe, who understands most things well but still struggles to communicate, responded to the news they would run through that park with an “Awe, man,” Mike said.
Mike hopes that the stimulation will help Joe in his slow, yet gradual recovery.
During one training run near Lucas Oil Stadium, Mike noticed his brother straining to keep looking at the stadium. During other races, he has seen his brother respond to what is going on around him, and he is sensitive to outside stimuli, especially music.
“He won’t say a word all day, but if they (the nurses) play a piece of music that he’s familiar with, Joe will sing almost all of the songs,” he said.
During the Indy Mini, where there was music around the race, Mike told his friend who was helping him to watch for any response from Joe.
“Forget the race. Forget the time. I’m stopping, and we need to savor that moment with my brother, and let him experience that,” Mike said. “That’s what this is about.”
“Me, I’m still praying for him to actually get up and walk,” he said. “It could potentially happen.
“Until the Lord tells me, this is all he’s going to get, I’m still praying and hoping for a miracle that more can happen,” he said.