03/04/2014 06:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Toughest Race My Daughter and I Ever Ran

In early January, my daughter, Sarah Kate, who has cerebral palsy, came home from running club with a flyer for the First Light Marathon Fun Run -- a 1.2-mile event being held in Mobile on January 12. I was registered for the half marathon, and I was happy that she was so excited about it. She's completed 1-mile fun runs before, so I had reason to believe she could do it, but she struggled so mightily this past fall with the tween growth spurts that I was... concerned.

The fun run didn't start until 2:00 p.m., well after I finished the half marathon, so I came home, showered, and we drove back across the bay for it. As soon as we got out of the car and began walking the block-and-a-half to the start, my heart sank. Her knees were buckling under her and she was unsteady.

I sat her down on a curb and began stretching her hamstrings.

The fun run field was large enough that they started it in three waves, based on age. We lined up on the left side of the road and I told her to start out walking, not running, because of the danger of being knocked down. Based on previous experience, I expected her to try to run when the gun went off, anyway, but she followed my instructions and within a few seconds we were alone. Another gun went off, the little kids sailed by us, and we were alone once again on St. Francis Street.

I asked her if she was ready to run. She shook her head vigorously.

I wasn't sure what to think. Before the race started, we had agreed upon a plan of action: run for one minute, walk for two minutes, repeat. A power pole was just ahead, and the next one wasn't far away, so I suggested that she run between the two power poles. She tried, but stopped almost immediately, saying her knee wasn't going to hold up. We kept walking. She asked me how far she had gone and how long she'd been walking.

Four minutes, baby doll. You're over 1/10 of the way. 

We kept walking. I jogged a few steps ahead of her to take her picture, and that's when I realized just how bad her situation was. Her gait was atrocious. Her knees were bent and her hips were at an angle as she stepped. She looked nothing like the girl who ran the 400 meters at Walt Disney World just one year ago.

I returned to my place and continued to walk beside her. She was slowing down, and we hadn't even gone one-third of a mile yet. The course was a long U-shape, so I decided we needed to cut the course short. I was afraid if she kept going that we'd end up stranded half a mile (or more) away from the car, and she is much too big for me to carry. We turned left onto Lawrence and headed south a block, cutting the course to just over three-quarters of a mile.

It wasn't enough.

We turned left again onto Dauphin toward the finish line. Even with the dramatically shortened course, we were still dead last -- all alone at the back of the pack. She stumbled in the intersection, and I heard her whimper. Her knees were failing her. I grabbed her under her right armpit and elbow and held her upright. We kept walking, but at a painfully slow pace. After a few minutes, she asked me to switch sides because I was hurting her.

I did as she asked, and we kept walking.

A policeman had pulled alongside and just behind us, and he called encouragement to Sarah Kate from his squad car window. He told us she was free to stop and rest if she wanted, but we kept walking. I switched sides again.

Do you see that, baby doll? That's the cathedral. It's midway between us and the finish.

Two more blocks at our painfully slow pace. I switched sides again. We reached the cathedral, and I could see the finish line banner -- three blocks to go. I started telling her how when I ran the 10K there in November, and the half marathon earlier that morning, this spot was where I kicked it into high gear, because that's what my friend, Robyn, coached me to do.

I don't want to try to run again!

I switched sides -- and tactics -- and pointed out the finish line ahead. We were at Cathedral Plaza, which contains a few restaurants and shops, and -- most importantly -- people. People who began to notice this tiny little thing with a race bib being held upright by her mom. People who began to clap and call encouragement.

I began to cry.

I appreciated the sentiment of those people who were doing the only thing they knew to do, but I hated how badly things were going. I just wanted us to be done, and inconspicuous. What were they thinking when they saw us? Did they pity Sarah Kate? Did they think I was a horrible parent for making her do this race? The finish line seemed so far away, and we were so slow that it didn't appear to be getting any closer. But it did, and we passed Cathedral Plaza.

Two blocks to go.

A group of young people stood in a line on the sidewalk to our right. I remembered seeing them earlier in the day on the half marathon course -- designated volunteer spectators -- and they were still out there waiting for the last few marathoners to come in. They saw Sarah Kate, and one by one they made their way out to the middle of the street, reached out their right hands, and gave her a high-five as she passed. Slowly, so slowly.

One block to go.

A runner wearing a finisher medal was walking toward Cathedral Plaza on the left sidewalk. She spotted Sarah Kate and hurried toward us, yanking the medal she'd just earned a short time earlier off of her neck. As we went by, she reached out and placed it around Sarah Kate's neck.

I thanked her through tears and we kept walking.

As we approached the orange bollards of the finish chute, I asked Sarah Kate if she could do the rest of the distance without my help. She hesitated, but then let go of my hand and plodded ahead. She didn't pick up the pace, and I worried that she would fall, but she made it across, greeted by a small cheering crowd who didn't seem to quite know what to think about her.

I won't lie or sugarcoat things: that race was miserable and heartbreaking. I can still hear the little whimpers and feel how unsteady she was as we walked. It's hard to believe that it was so hard for her, when in the past it's been (relatively) easy. But when the pain of the day had subsided just a bit, I recalled one of the mantras of slow distance runners:

Dead Last Finish is greater than Did Not Finish, which trumps Did Not Start.

Despite her struggles that day, six weeks later she laced up her shoes and tried again at the Disney Princess Kids 1-Mile race. A friend and I followed behind her with a wheelchair -- "just in case" -- but she didn't need it. She ran across the finish line in triumph and received a standing ovation, pushing that wheelchair.

Photo Courtesy of runDisney

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