At the expo for her fourth Austin Half Marathon in February 2020, Kayleigh wanted to register for a full marathon the next year to honor her grandmother. At that time, she had completed 7 half marathons and wanted to do the full. I am not going to lie, the thought scared me. 26.2 miles is not just a hop and skip down the road. It would mean hundreds of miles of training just for her to be able to place her foot at the starting line. As a single mom, me being able to dedicate that kind of time was going to be difficult but I always want to be there with her for every mile.
Kayleigh’s training was a steady build of miles early on Saturday mornings with her up at 5:00 am. As we increased the distance, she continued to complete half marathons. When it was time for her marathon, she had completed 15 half marathons along with hundreds of miles of training. To add onto the training, every time we went to the store, I always parked as far away from the store as possible for extra steps. There were many Saturdays after we completed our training miles, that our additional shopping steps ended the day with over 15 miles. I included her love of shopping with as many steps as possible. Her mind was on what she wanted from the store and not on the steps. Today, those long walks to the store are normal and she enjoys them. Our Saturdays included walks around the farmer’s market where she got to pick out the vegetables, and we then found a recipe to use them – which helped with her nutrition for the race.
On the day of my race, Kayleigh was up at 3:00 am – which she made very clear, was too early for her. Once we were parked and made our way to the starting line, I loved seeing the confidence in her. She was there with support from friends in our local community and friends who had travelled for days just to be there for each of her miles. It was dark as we started and with excitement, she started out fast. With each gentle rolling hill, Kayleigh ran them. With such an early start, we were worried about her not having the cheers from spectators that usually are heard at the start of the race. But when we passed mile 3, there stood two volunteers waiting for her. As they cheered, her speed picked up.
It was past mile 8 that all the lead runners caught up with her. As they passed, she could hear some of their words of admiration shouted for her. As she approached water stops, there were more cheer squads. Kayleigh has been so blessed to have a lot of support within her running community no matter where she has travelled. They know her and respect her drive to participate. They pass with high fives and run part of the race next to her. As her mother, I get to see something that has been so important for me – to see my daughter unconditionally accepted as part of the community.
She has competed in the Austin Distance Challenge for 6 years. It took until her third year, to earn her jacket due to how long it took her to finish the races. On the morning of her first marathon, she was averaging 16-18 minutes per mile – including several large hills. Austin Full and Half Marathon contains difficult hills with three that have sharp inclines. As she made her way past mile 16, she heard several folks yelling her name along with words of encouragement. Those cheers seemed to carry her up her fourth hill at mile 18 into East Austin. Just past mile 20, a gentleman was running next to her for a short distance. He finally asked her if her name was Kayleigh, in which she said yes. His smile grew and he told her that he had heard her recently on a podcast. He said he admired her and all that she had accomplished. Kayleigh had several runners tell her that during the race.
As she approached mile 23, the heat began to have its effect and her pace slowed down. She had been training that last several months in cold weather. She had started the race with the temperature in the low 40’s but by mile 23, it was over 75 degrees. She was hot, tired and sunburnt but she was determined to finish her race. Mile 25 ½ was the most difficult part of the race. The course between 19 and 25 was flat but when she turned from Red River onto 11th street there was a large steep hill. It was not an easy track getting up the hill for any of the runners, but she never stopped. Finally at the top of the hill, she handed her sunglasses to a friend and announced that she was “done with this race” and ran to the finish line. As she approached the end of her race, cannons of confetti went off as the announcer told all who could hear about her. Once the medal was around her neck, she danced like no one was watching.
It is a week later and she still carries her medal wherever she goes. She has watched some of the coverage on tv, but not to see herself but rather to see the reporter that was following her for over two months. She has made sure he knows how good looking she thinks he is. She tears up when people tell her how much she has inspired them. She has had people coming out on the racecourse to tell her they started running because of her.
As a mother, this means the world to me. I remember when I was told she had Down syndrome. I remember crying uncontrollably and asking how I was going to protect her – how was I going to explain to her when she was rejected or made fun of because of two words: Down syndrome. I think of the bullying she experienced in school and my heart still breaks. But through running, she has this unbelievable community that accepts everyone.
I remember the night before the race, the reporter who had been following her story asking me if I really understood the impact she was having around the world. She never sought attention – her running half marathons and a marathon was never about that. It was always about her enjoying something that has become a passion. To travel to different states to complete 13.1 miles – including an international race that took her into Canada and back.
The drive for me as her mother was for her health. She had developed several autoimmune diseases. When she was 216 lb and a doctor told me her life was not going to end well, I knew changes had to happen. I knew I did not want my daughter fighting the same disease that was slowly taking my mother (her grandmother), Alzheimer’s. Changing her exercising and eating habits had to become a priority – and it had to be something we both did.
Today, all her autoimmune diseases have been in remission. She is healthy and through her races, she has a drive to exercise. She has a strong sense of community both within her running community and outside of it.
On April 2nd, she participates in her 16th half marathon in Hattiesburg, Ms. It is her second time participating in this race. She loves travelling to other places to run races, to raise money for local charities and inspire others. Each time she laces up her running shoes, she knows she is a part of something big. Prior to all her running and nutrition changes, her doctor had warned me that her life was not going to end well. She was 215lbs and had several health issues. The week before her marathon, that same doctor hugged her and told her how proud he was of her. Tears fell to see him hug her in awe of all she has accomplished.