This weekend I was out with some (non-running) friends at a holiday gathering and like it often does for me, running was brought up in conversation. My friends mentioned how they just never were able to get into it and how they couldn't ever build up to running regularly or doing longer distances like a marathon. And immediately I spun into why I think that they could do it, how I got into it, and all of the incredible things I have learned from running - that don't have anything to do with running. Setting goals and working towards them, pushing through pain, persevering through setbacks, not giving up, mental strength, body appreciation, positive self talk, sense of pride and accomplishment, and the overall knowledge, "If I can do this - than I can do anything."
Because its something that I feel so passionate about, that the benefits and lessons from running (and triathlon) are so big, and because I truly know that if I can do it - anyone can - I always love to try to look for ways to get others involved, or give back to the world of running and triathlon somehow.
For years, since my first marathon in Paris
, I have seen runners in races pushing athletes in wheelchairs. It has always inspired me and seemed like an incredible way to share the love of running and the race experience with someone else who may otherwise not have been able to. It has been in the back of my mind for a while, and slowly has gained more and more momentum. Last summer I spectated at the Highlands 5K when some running friends pushed a local runner who had suffered a debilitating stroke in a race. I consciously made the decision that this was something I wanted to do and then this summer I met a friend, Kevin, who regularly runs pushing wheelchair athletes with a local organization called Walking with K-Peasey. Through him I also met a local runner and triathlete, Scott Rigsby
, who is a double amputee and became the first double amputee to compete Ironman World Championships in Kona. I read his book and was given a more close up view into the world of para-athletes. And if I am being honest, the first person I really have ever had a conversation with who is an amputee of any kind, athlete or not.
Because of all of these experiences, when the Atlanta Triathlon Club made a call for volunteers to participate as part of a triathlon relay with local para-athletes, I decided to participate. This past October, I was paired up with two amazing women, Ashley and Sarah, and we competed in the Macon, Georgia Rock N Rollman Sprint Triathlon.
Although I didn't know it before, I realized I had met Ashley earlier in the summer at an open water swim and knew she was super badass as she had been training to swim back and forth from Alcatraz. Sarah I met that day, who uses a wheelchair full time, but is an incredible athlete who actually competes as a wheelchair tennis player.
Ashley swam. Sarah used a hand crank bike. And I ran the 5K to complete the sprint triathlon. There were a few other para-athlete relay teams at the race and I was incredibly inspired by all of the athletes, their stories, and their determination to not let their disability define them or stop them from being physically fit or compete in races of all types - swimming, tennis, running, triathlon, mud races, etc.
While at the sprint triathlon, I also met a young man named Cougar and his mom Colleen. When Cougar was 15, he was playing around in the snow with friends, did a flip, and landed the wrong way, breaking his vertebrae. Since that time, Cougar has gone from being fully paralyzed to slowly regaining the ability to hold up his head, sit up, use his arms and hands, and gain feeling in his legs. He has been living outside of Atlanta undergoing therapy at the Shepard Center, and has found sport and racing as a way to aid in his therapy - mentally and physically. His mom explained to me that he had gotten involved with the foundation Walking with KPeasey, who loaned Cougar the biking and running sport chairs to use that day. At that Rock n Rollman race, Cougar completed his first sprint triathlon unassisted. With an aid following along for guidance, Cougar was able to complete the swim on his own, the bike using a cycling chair, and the run using a run chair. I was fully blown away by his story, his positive attitude and his mom's positivity and encouragement.
Walking with KPeasey was the same organization that my friend Kevin had pushed wheelchair athletes with, so after hearing the name come up again, and being so inspired by Cougar - I went home, looked up the organization, and filled out their form online saying that I wanted to volunteer and get involved.
A few weeks later, I had an introductory call with Brent Pease, the founder of the organization. Brent and his brother Kyle, who has CP, have been competing together in races for years. They started the Kyle Pease Foundation
and the program Walking with KPeasey, to raise funds, success, and awareness for people living with disability through sport. Brent told me over the phone that they aren't just looking for people to come out and push a wheelchair and disappear. They want people to be involved in the athletes lives, learn about them, raise money, and really take their mission to heart. That seemed to be in line with what I was thinking and decided to come out and meet Brent and Kyle at their next local race. They were both actually competing in the NYC Marathon as well but I knew I likely wouldn't see them there, so planned to come out at the Thanksgiving Day Marathon.
Two weeks before the NYC Marathon and a bit before the Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon, I received an e-mail from Brent asking if I could possibly push someone during the race as they had a volunteer drop out. Not entirely sure what it would entail, I said yes.
The Sunday before the Thursday race was the annual Kyle Pease Foundation fundraiser, which I went to in order to support the cause, see friends, meet Kyle and Brent for the first time, learn a little more about the details of the race and the chair I would be pushing, and hopefully meeting the little boy Grant that I would be paired with! I was fortunate to be able to do all of the things on the list except for meet Grant, but I went home super inspired by the two brothers, all of the racers I met, and super excited to get involved with this organization.
Thursday morning I arrived at the race start and met Grant and the team. I learned a bit more about what to expect during the actual race, and without much ado, we set out for the start line. There were a number of other disabled runners and their partners at the race - including Grant's mom - who was participating herself. My buddy Cougar was there as well and racing in his brand new chair that had just arrived the day before.
The wheelchair athletes started 10 minutes before the official race start so at 7:20 a.m. we took off on on an open course. It was a pretty neat way to start a race and within a few minutes, the other runners and chairs were way ahead of us (fasties!) and Grant and I had the course to ourselves. He told me to go faster a number of times until finally letting me know "Hey this is cool because it seems like we're in first place!"
Well that just lasted a moment until all of the fast people started swarming around us when they made their way through the 10 minute head start we'd had quite easily.
Pushing Grant was really, really challenging. About 3 miles in I thought to myself, "Maybe I should have started with a 5K..." and my body was aching from the change in running form that kept my arms stiff in front. It was challenging to turn the chair but also an incredible feeling to be participating in a race that was not about me, but about someone else experiencing the high of being a part of a road race.
We got lots of cheers from other runners throughout the course - many of them mistaking me for Grant's mom - and I would do my best to correct them, not for the sake of correcting them, but to promote Walking with KPeasey and the organization. It was great to have the encouragement and I tried to cheer Grant on throughout the whole race - the cheers I wanted to be for him, not for me!
I struggled from early on and allowed myself to start walking up the hills at Mile 6. I also had a very difficult time trying to navigate the water stations with lots of runners all around and not wanting to get in the way of others. I hate when people dead stop in the middle of a water station but I didn't know what to do with Grant and the chair because I needed to get him water too. At one point I had to stop the chair, dart over for water, and then get back to Grant. We were told to stay on the outside of the road as much as possible to not interrupt the other runners.
We saw Cougar at a couple points on the course - him passing us on a downhill and us catching up to him on an uphill where he was taking a break since his new chair was causing some rubbing on his wrists and they were bleeding. Without any other option, his mom was bringing over duct tape for him to wrap around his wrists. Talk about inspiring and being a true badass.
My friend Ethan ran with us for a few miles, which was great to have a distraction. I did my best to walk a bit on some of the uphills but maintain running for as much as possible. The course is a VERY hilly route and even the downhills were tough as you needed to hold on to the chair to stay in control. There were a few moments of flat where I was able to push and let go with my arms a bit and get some relief but it was definitely an adaptation in running form to be pushing throughout the race. I had to take it mile by mile. At 11, we were walking up a hill and one woman told me "No, we can do it!" and grabbed a hold of the chair which forced me to run and we went up the hill with her holding on to the chair with one hand. At this point in the race, a lot of the people cheering started to get very aggressive.
Grant didn't like the bumps in the road, so I was navigating around those, trying to stay on the outside of the route, and was purely exhausted. I was doing the best I could and was on pace for the finish time that I had predicted, so was very comfortable allowing myself to walk up the hills. However, some other runners really wanted to see me continue to run. I understand the motivation and I am often one encouraging others to keep going - but I was a little turned off by the aggressive-ness of some people. That being said, I never allowed anyone to take a turn at pushing the chair. As tired as I was, I had committed to doing this and Grant's parents and Kyle and Brent had trusted me to push throughout the race. I felt a strong commitment and obligation to do so.
At mile 12, we crossed paths with one of the pace groups and were about to tackle the last 2 hills of the course before the slight downhill to the finish. Two of the older men in the pace group offered to push as they saw me walking up the hills and I told them they didn't have to. However, one man, very assertively, insisted we run up the last hill and took the chair out of my hands to push up the last hill. I told him that I was okay and asked to be able to take the chair back and he let me know "I'll just push up the hill!" Which, although, I very much understood where his sentiment was coming from, I found very frustrating that he wouldn't allow us to finish the race at my pace and had literally taken the chair from me.
When we made it to the top of the hill, I took the chair back and paused to check on Grant as he had actually fallen asleep. I woke him up for the finish and as we ran down the final stretch and under Atlanta's Olympic rings, he was cheering, clapping, woohoo-ing and as we crossed the finish he raised both hands in the air. It made me cry and the whole morning worth it. It was a great day!
The race gave us both medals and we returned to reunite with Grant's family and the rest of the Walking with KPeasey racers. I had loved the opportunity to be a part of the volunteer group and share the experience of racing with someone else. As tough as it was, I am so glad that I did it.
Running and racing is such an amazing thing. I have repeated the quote many times, but as Katherine Switzer said "If you are ever losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon." It is so true and people like Grant, Kyle, Brent, and Grant's mom are the reason why. Running has truly changed my life. And the people that have helped me along this path will forever be a part of my heart, my life, and my journey.
My mom was always a running inspiration to me, long before I ever imagined myself to be a runner. So many mornings growing up she would be out of the house to run miles with friends before sending us kids off to school and she ran her first marathon when I was in high school.
Then as I began my running journey, I could never have ever gotten through that first marathon without Jess encouraging me and motivating me through every long and hard run. Training for Paris with Jess was one of the most transformational things in my life and I cannot think back on those memories and all that Jess did for me without getting teary-eyed. She got me out of bed in the mornings. Told me that I could do it over and over. And would literally run in front of me
and block the wind for me on our cold and dreary runs where I would cry and not think I could make it.
Tes, Holly and Ryan coached me through training for my first sub-2:00 half marathon. My friend Earon taught me about nutrition and put the idea in my mind that I could run a marathon in under 4:00 hours. My friends Janet, Shayla, and Jarrett never let me have a morning run on my own as I trained for Chicago. Brick, who when I would be training on my own, would text me in the mornings "You had better be running right now!!!" And there are so many more influential and important people that have encouraged me and kept me motivated as I have gotten more into running (and triathlon) over the years.
When I think about my journey forward, I want to be that person for someone else. I have loved getting involved with the para-athletes and the organization Walking with KPeasey. Before that, being involved with Girls on the Run, and being there for many friends first half marathons whether in Kansas City or Miami, or cheering on friends from afar as they train for their first 5Ks in LA or first sprint triathlons in Georgia. It means to much to me to be able to give back a little to others and pay-it-forward because there is no way I would be where I am right now without the community of people who have encouragement and taught me what they know and helped me through.
Earlier this month I went to Chattanooga for the weekend to take a 2-day course to become a certified RRCA running coach. I learned about the various types of runners and what their different needs are in a coach. I learned about how you building training plans for people, what different workouts mean within a plan, how to coach groups and individuals and access their needs and goals. It is something that I have wanted to do for the past year and I was so glad that I could sneak it in before the year wrapped. I am not planning to quit my day job any time soon - but anything that I can do to become a better supporter, champion, and coach to others who are just starting their running journey, or returning to running - I want to be able to do.
Here's to more giving back to the running world in 2017 and if it's something that you're thinking about at all, please let me know! The best way to move forward is with others by your side.