“You don't have to be defined by your limitations. It's what you do in spite of those limitations that defines you.” Justin Skeesuck, I’ll Push You.
Personally, for me, running is one of life’s greatest gifts. It has taken me places physically, as well as spiritually, but more importantly, it has brought people into my life that will forever change me. The “runner’s high” I experience extends far beyond the finish line and carries over into the bonds of friendship I’ve forged, as with my friends Robin and Corey Ward.
Athletes Serving Athletes (ASA) is where I first met this dynamic mother-daughter team. ASA empowers individuals with disabilities to train and compete in mainstream running and multi-sport events. Corey was born with a congenital heart defect, requiring three open-heart surgeries, and during her second surgery, she suffered a brain injury resulting in cerebral palsy. Though meeting developmental milestones to that point, the brain injury she sustained happened just days prior to her second birthday, stripped away her ability to eat, walk, talk, or even sit up independently.
During my initial ASA training run with Corey, I was instantly drawn to her enthusiasm and excitement for life. Despite her physical limitations, Corey rarely ever gets discouraged. She is always eager to train, race and meet new people. Corey always cheers for and encourages fellow runners along the course. She is famous for her queen like wave, thumbs up and high-fiving everyone in her path. You can’t help but love running with Corey because of the ever-present joy and fulfillment it gives her. If you weren’t motivated to run, Corey is all the motivation you need! People who meet Corey instantly fall in love with her unbridled spirit. Yes, Corey is exceptional, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Let me introduce you to Corey’s extraordinary mom, Robin. Simply put, there is no Corey without Robin. The moment you meet this unforgettable dream team, you know you’re in for a treat. Robin is a single mother who works fulltime as a graphic designer. Without complaint, Robin cares for Corey from sun up to sun down, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite obstacles and hardships, Robin chose never to ask why, harbor anger or shut out the world. Instead, she lovingly cares for her daughter and provides for her the very best life she can. She selflessly brings Corey to all her ASA training runs and events, ensuring Corey has her own interests, hobbies and friends. Corey is extremely blessed to have Robin for a mom and I am blessed to call her my friend. I admire Robin so very much. In my book, she is the definition of a hero.
"A hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles." - Christopher Reeve
Now that you have the backstory, I want to share with you our amazing journey to the most magical place on earth. Here is our Walt Disney World Marathon story!
For the full Team Corey introduction, please read my post rUnstoppable: Mobility Impaired Team Shows What It's Like to Run Like a Girl
Team Corey is a mobility-impaired team. A year ago, I had a crazy idea to run a marathon with Corey, and I wanted it to be as memorable as possible. What would be more memorable than running in the most magical place on earth? Go big or go home, right? My comment to Robin was, “Corey deserves to see the world and the world needs to meet Corey.” And so, plans were laid to run the 2018 Walt Disney World Marathon. Corey’s wingmen for the marathon would be Jen Roussillon, Mike Joyce and myself. After nearly a year of planning, preparation, training and fundraising, we were finally ready to strap on our mouse ears and conquer the Magic Kingdom!
On Wednesday, January 3rd, we boarded the plane, buckled our seatbelts and with faith, trust and pixie dust, we were off to Orlando! This was Corey’s first experience flying. The staff aboard our Southwest flight could not have been any nicer. We were treated like royalty and our very own Princess Corey was crowned by our amazing flight attendants, with a special crown made of pretzels.
We were in constant motion, it seemed, and after our magical express ride from the airport to the hotel, we headed back out to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex for the race expo, packet pick up and finally back again to the hotel for some rest.
Thursday’s alarm awoke us at 3 a.m. as it was time to run the WDW 5K. We left the hotel at 4 a.m., headed for Epcot. As we walked to the start of the race, Corey was cheered on by thousands of runners waiting in their corrals to start. We were shivering cold, in the 35-degree pre-dawn temperature but our hearts and souls were warmed by their jubilant cheers.
The WDW 5K was enchanting as expected. We ran through Epcot and the World Showcase. It was beautiful seeing all the buildings in Epcot aglow in the early morning hours. Corey had a wonderful time. She thanked us over and over again. As she often does, she cried at the finish, which always makes me cry. I love seeing how excited she gets, how the inclusion of running makes her feel, and how she freely lets her emotions flow. From start to finish, she truly enjoys the sport of running.
Pictures below from the WDW 5k. Team Corey dressed up as characters from Peter Pan. Peter Pan (Jen), Wendy (Corey), Smee (Mike) and Tinkerbell (Jill). Costumes made by my mother! Sherry's Creations. Unfortunately it was very cold on the morning of the race. We had to bundle up!
The next few days we spent walking (probably too much) touring the parks. It was extra special seeing Disney World through Corey’s eyes. Things I wouldn’t have noticed or thought special, Corey did, and that made it all the more exceptional for the rest of us. She appreciates every little detail and said “COOL!” a lot. To say she was overwhelmed is an understatement. The day we were in Magic Kingdom after meeting her favorite princess, Tiana, Corey told Robin: “Pinch me. I must be dreaming!” Her statement was fitting as we started this adventure a year ago with a quote from Walt Disney himself -- “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”
Marathon morning soon arrived and with an even earlier wake up call, we were ready to get the show on the road. In the van on our way to Epcot, a more fitting pre-race song could not have come on the radio so when Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” started, we cranked it up and sang along!
“Believe” was my key word and theme for 2016. I qualified for the Boston Marathon in 2016, and it was also in 2016 when I promised Corey we’d run a marathon together the following year. I wore a necklace with BELIEVE engraved on it, and my 2016 training journal has the word embossed on the front. Believe. A small yet powerful word, and an even more powerful mindset.
Eleanor Roosevelt said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”, and Theodore Roosevelt said “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.”
Our journey to the WDW Marathon started with believing in our dreams and believing in ourselves. It was believing nothing was impossible to those who have the courage to pursue their dreams. And now, here we are and we will not stop believing!
It’s difficult to recap the entire 26.2-mile voyage. From start to finish it was magnificent. It didn’t even feel as though we were running a marathon, mainly because each mile was magical, just as Disney promised, and each mile was filled with more excitement coming from Corey.
Along the course a woman named Deb ran up to Corey and introduced herself. She told us Corey was the reason she was running the marathon. Deb said she had seen the video on Facebook, when it was revealed to Corey she’d be running the marathon, and it inspired her to run the race as well. She thought “If Corey can do it, so can I” and so, she did. From the initial start of our planning, our goal was not only to complete the marathon, we also wanted Team Corey to be impactful beyond our community. Meeting Deb, along with many others throughout our time in Disney, I believe we accomplished our mission.
Corey not only inspires and motivates, she also senses when others need support. Nearing mile 23, I was struggling to run uphill and Corey sensed I was having difficulty. With a mighty force, she outstretched her arm and placed it behind me, using her own strength to push me. Corey is very intuitive and has a keen sense of awareness. She knew her friend was struggling and came to my aid when I needed her most.
Jen, Mike and myself pushed Corey in her race jogger. Pushing our athletes never feels like a burden, encumbrance or a job. Pushing Corey for the marathon was the greatest gift and honor I could have ever received. It was my pleasure to push Corey to the finish. On Sunday, January 7th, 2018, Corey became a marathoner. I am grateful we, Team Corey, could give her that opportunity.
The flip side of the story is I needed Corey just as much as she needed me. On January 25, 2017, I had knee surgery. I’d already promised Corey we’d run the marathon but I knew I had a year’s time to recover, heal, rehab and train. But alas, as Proverbs 16:9 says: “A person plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” I had one plan, God had another.
After surgery, things didn’t go as planned. Road blocks were numerous, as well as new injuries as I overcompensated on the one side, I injured the other. I wanted to give up, yet I knew I had the Disney Marathon and couldn’t stop training and so because of my promise to Corey, I kept going. Then tragedy struck my family.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my mother sustained a pathologic fracture of her tibia. Her indolent lymphoma became aggressive, spread to her bones and other parts of her body. I stayed with my mom after her surgery and chemotherapy treatments, flying back and forth on weekends to Boston to be with her, and to help with her medical care. I didn’t want to leave her side. As a result, my training took a back seat. I can’t even say that I followed a training plan at all in preparation for the Disney Marathon. I was so worried and overwhelmed by my mother’s illness and taking care of her, I again wanted to give up on running. But I couldn’t. I made a promise to my friend and I intended to keep it. Despite upsetting circumstances out of my control, I kept going because keeping my promise to Corey was important to me. I didn’t want to let her down. Through all of this, Corey indirectly and unknowingly pushed me. I needed her to give me motivation and purpose during that most difficult time. I wanted to give up on running because it no longer seemed worthwhile to me but acutely aware of the promise I’d made to my friend, Corey, I kept going and for that I am grateful.
“Loving and serving others is the only way we can push through the darkness that life will undoubtedly give us. Acts of unconditional love shine a light into the lives of both the giver and the receiver. A light no darkness can hide from.”
My friend Jen gave me the documentary, “I’ll Push You,” for Christmas. I encourage you to watch it or read the book. I love this quote by Patrick Gray, the man who pushed his friend Justin in a wheelchair for 500 miles on the El Camino pilgrimage. This quote sums up how I feel about Team Corey and our ASA family:
“We have people that surround us that carried up these mountains, they have given so much,” Gray said. “And I want that to be a testament to how we're supposed to live our lives, is that whoever we come in contact with, whatever their walk is, the greatest gift we can give them is to love them.”
Whether it’s using my legs and arms to push Corey to the finish, or by being a friend to her and Robin, the greatest gift I can give them is to love them. And in return, I receive more than I am giving. Having Robin and Corey as my friends makes me the richest person on the planet. Corey unknowingly pushes me to be better. She pushes me to do the impossible and to not give up on the very thing that brought us together, running.
So, to all of you out there, whoever you are or whatever your situation is, don’t stop believing in your dreams. Find someone in your life who will push you, be it figuratively or literally, to achieve your goals, and to be the best version of yourself you can be. Find someone who will believe in you and believe in your dreams. Thank you, Corey, for believing in me and pushing me. I’ll forever be grateful for you and our friendship.
"To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe." - Anatole France.