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Competitive Spirit Rolls On

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RALEIGH — It's the secondlargest road race in the state, so it wasn't surprising that hundreds ofrunners turned out Sunday -- even though it was chilly --for the 14th annual Old Reliable Run.

Fifty of those racers competed in wheelchairs.They are athletes whose eyes are on the road, but for them racing isn'tjust about competetion, it's a way of life. And it's a passion.

"You just feel real independent and active and I love it," Sonya Tharp said. "I think I'll be doing it when I'm 50. I hope I'll be doing it whenI'm 50!" she said, laughing.

Tharp has been in a wheelchair since she was two years old.She got hooked on the sport eight months ago. Taking corners and hills at 40 miles an hour is now just part of her routine.

"I think you grow up hearing about what you can't do," Tharp said, "soit's a positive thing to get in a chair and show people what you can do.

Even for spectators who lined both sides of the course the atmospherewas electric with excitement.

And the excitement was contagious. For many of theathletes, it's what keeps them going.

Saul Mendoza is an international racer who logs close to fifty races ayear. He admits the training is intense, usually 20- 25 miles a day, buthe says the thrill is worth it.

Mendoza said racing is what keeps him living, and he doesn't seehimself ever stopping, either.

And on Sunday Saul Mendoza won the wheelchair division for the secondyear in a row. And in January, Sonya Tharp will compete in her firstmarathon.

For these athletes the finish line is never out of reach.