The roadrunner is a bird made famous by its name and ability to run up to 20 miles per hour. While the Roadrunner can fly, it stays mostly on the ground. A roadrunner has long, wobbly legs and is often seen as both solitary and unique. There are relevant comparisons between me and the roadrunner. In some ways my experience of disability is solitary and unique. By choice or by circumstance I have had to forge my own path.
The Roadrunner is also the name for several races held throughout the country. One was held each year at my high school. I ran the race almost every year I attended school. There was never any question that I was going to run. The definition of my running might vary depending on the spectator. My running is the combination of foot drag, hiking my hip forward to step, and using my arms to propel.
I’m not the type to shy away from competition. Students from every grade level were required to run up and down grass covered inclines. The distance was a mile. Your speed was timed. Since this was a competition, there was a starting line and a finish line. Running the mile course was a requirement for physical education class. Students were trained to run in an actual race.
I have recollections of four physical education teachers and coaches in their track jackets standing by the starting line and finish line. A big score board-size clock counted down the minutes and seconds. My “run” was as fast of a walk as I could muster. The steps were not a sprinter’s run but a combination of legs and arms.
Since I drag my feet, my sneakers and the bottoms of my pant legs would be covered in mud. Twenty-five other students would run with faster times. My goal was not to get the fastest time. My goal was to finish. There were times when I wanted to be like the roadrunner and run as fast as twenty miles per hour. Running the mile would take me an average of forty minutes from the start to the end.
During the training process, students would run just to get the job done and over with. When my feet touched the ground, I would focus on the green and brown terrain ahead of me. I knew what my base run time was and I was determined to beat it and finish. Despite speed improvements, I would always be the last student to cross the finish line. Training for the race happened over the course of several weeks.
The day of the race I remember that the leaves were starting to change. It was chilly. This time in place of students running or observing on the side line, there were more than 100 people present — masses of kids and adults– runners and spectators combined.
Our coaches and teachers took their place by the start and finish line. The runners took their positions. A horn sounded signaling the start of the race. Like the other runners, I found my rhythm and pace. Up and down hills I went, but instead of the usual quiet, the teachers that were positioned at the start line, were suddenly with me.
I kept moving. My arms moved forward and back like the motion of a skier. My feet and canes carried me across the hilly terrain. I heard “You can do this.” “Keep going.” I reached the halfway point. The teachers didn’t leave me.
All I saw were the brown and green colors of the grass and the slope of the hills as my feet carried me closer to the finish line. My shoes and pant legs were covered with mud, just like every other practice session, and my face and clothes were drenched with perspiration.
The one or two teachers that joined me in the race didn’t seem to see any of that. I didn’t see it. I was just aware of the motion of my body and the desire to cross the finish line.
As I rounded the last bend in the race, the crowd of adults, students and spectators erupted into noise. One of my coaches was egging on the crowd, causing them to get louder. I heard clapping, cheering, and the same encouragement that my teachers were filling my ears with – “You can do it. Go, go, go!” The people who followed me over the course, on the grassy terrain, left me to finish the race. “The last steps are yours!” was their farewell to me as I took the final steps to finish.
I saw that clock with the minutes and seconds. The faces of the people on the sidelines finally came into focus for me. The shouting, the clapping, and cheering did not stop. I finished that mile and it was my best time. Somehow in the harmony of the noise, the time did not matter. I finished. The four teachers who supported me in training for the race came over to offer their congratulations; some people slapped my shoulder or hugged me.
On that day of the Roadrunner race, I discovered what it felt like to be a part of a team. The running that was a cross between a walk and dry land skiing did not matter. Sportsmanship, partnership, and finishing are what I remember the most about that chilly autumn day. Sometimes I can still hear my coaches, saying “You can do it. Go! Go! Go!” and it drives me toward accomplishment. I internalized the outcomes of that race. I wish every student with or without a disability could recognize their own unique and solitary qualities and experience their own Roadrunner race.
This article were originally published in 2011 in the “Endless CapABILITIES Blog”, and National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, sponsored by The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (www.nchpad.org). NCHPAD is part of the UAB/Lakeshore Research Collaborative and supported by Grant/Cooperative Agreement Number U59DD000906 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).