The Austin Half Marathon, Texas. February 2017. The race route had long been closed, the volunteers packed up, and spectators all gone. The half marathon runners had collected their race medals and headed for a celebratory post-event brunch. One person was still on the road, still running the race.
Kayleigh Williamson, 26, crossed the finish line of the 2017 edition of the Austin Half Marathon in 6:22:56, making her the first person with Down Syndrome to complete a half marathon. “I kept going. When I hit the finish line I was proud of myself. My friend got me pretty nice flowers“, said Williamson while speaking to Runner’s World over the phone.
Kayleigh and her mum Sandy had been jogging for years to keep their weight down. Kayleigh had two autoimmune disorders, one of which was life-threatening. She needed surgery to have her spleen removed due to an extremely low blood platelet count. Post surgery and on the road to recovery, once Kayleigh started eating better and resumed running, her platelet count went up but resulted in remission of her Graves’ disease (which causes overproduction of thyroid hormones. Kayleigh is still in remission.)
According to mum Sandy, Kayleigh has always been active – she had joined the Texas Special Olympics basketball team when she was thirteen, and still played regularly, but running was what she loved the most. In 2016, Kayleigh wanted to participate in the ‘Austin Distance Challenge’ – a series of five races that culminated with the Austin Half Marathon on the 19th of February 2017. She managed two out of the first four – the ‘Run Free Texas 8K’, and ‘Run For The Water 10 miler’. A half marathon distance would require a lot more effort. The mother-daughter duo visited RunLab Austin – a facility specializing in biomechanics, gait analysis, and rehabilitation for runners. According to Kimberley Davis, the CEO of RunLab who has been working with Kayleigh since then, “People with Down Syndrome have hyper mobility – they are super flexible in their joints, but find it difficult to do basic movements“. And that is what Davis and Kayleigh worked on for four months before the half marathon – biomechanics, gait and stability training.
“When she hit that finish line, I went from being a mother thinking she has to be protected from the world, to thinking she’s a woman who can take on the world“, said mum Sandy after the race. Kayleigh replied with a “toughen up, buttercup“.
Today is ‘World Down Syndrome Day’ – a global awareness initiative that has been backed by the United Nations since 2012. It highlights the facts of what it is like to have Down Syndrome, and how those with Down Syndrome play a vital role in our communities. The date selected is the twenty-first day of the third month – a nod to the uniqueness of the triplication of the twenty-first chromosome which leads to Down Syndrome. 21st March 2018 marks the thirteenth anniversary of World Down Syndrome Day. The focus this year is “how people with Down Syndrome can make meaningful contributions throughout their lives – in schools, workplaces, community, public and political sectors, culture, media, recreation, leisure and sport“.
Which is what makes Kayleigh love running as a sport. “The running community and everyone connected to it has been so welcoming. It has given us a home where it isn’t so easy to find one“, said Kayleigh during an interview with ESPN at RunLab. Down Syndrome is often accompanied with hypothyroidism, sleep disorders, poor muscle tone, anxiety; Kayliegh has Graves’ disease and is pre-diabetic. Sports are not a cure, but they can alleviate these conditions, and also provide a sense of community. In addition to basketball, Kayleigh also swims and has trained in Krav Maga for three years. But counts long distance running as her favorite sport. “Special needs or not, anybody can run. Even if you are not Kenyan. Work with movement and change your mindset“, she says.