Jerry Davich: Special needs boy races in mini-marathon: ‘We did it, mom!’
Andrew Labus couldn’t hide his feelings leading up to the Merrillville Mini-Marathon last weekend.
“Mom, I am three things inside — crying, screaming and nervous ... like I am on a roller coaster,” the 10-year-old Crown Point boy told his mother before crying himself to sleep.
Andrew, who has cerebral palsy, didn’t run in the 13.1-mile race. He gets blisters on his feet simply from walking without his wheelchair, so the idea of him running in any race is out of the question. But he still competed with help and hustle from his mother, Kathy.
“If he could run with his own two legs, watch out. He would be a force,” Kathy told me.
Andrew and his twin brother, William, who has very mild cerebral palsy, were born at 25 weeks, weighing less than two pounds each. They spent four months in the neonatal intensive care unit and have since had 19 surgeries between them.
A couple years back, Kathy walked in the Turkey Trot 5K in Valparaiso to spend time with her family, especially her father, Bob Hooper, who still runs races at age 71. Kathy pushed Andrew in his wheelchair and, they had so much fun, the dynamic duo decided to try it in another 5K. But this time while running and competing.
Their first official race took place last year in the appropriately titled “2 Big Hearts” 5K in Beverly Shores. That’s when Andrew began yelling back playfully to his mom, “Pass him!” and “Pass her!” while waving to everyone and anyone they passed along the race route.
Easier yelled than done, considering that Andrew’s modified wheelchair weighs 45 pounds and he weighs 60. His right hand has very little strength but he tries to push his wheelchair with his stronger left hand. That is, when he’s not adjusting his iPod strapped to his right arm.
He has a playlist of songs to listen on his headphones during races, especially his favorite “pump me up” song, “Hall of Fame” by The Script. He has listened to it during most of their races, more than a dozen to date.
“Andrew loves the races and is thrilled to compete,” Kathy said. “There are not many adaptive sports out there but the ones we do, he loves.”
Last year, their family joined the Calumet Region Striders. Kathy’s father has been a member since the late ‘70s and the famed running group has been very supportive of Andrew’s special needs.
“The running community and race directors have embraced us,” Kathy said. “And the wheel we put on the front of Andrew’s chair was purchased by our running club to help us go over grass and gravel, for a smoother ride.”
Their fastest 5K was on Labor Day in Lowell, where halfway through Andrew asked, “Why are you slowing down Mom?”
In her best “mom voice,” all she could get out was, “It’s a hill, Andrew. It’s a hill.”
Earlier this year, Andrew and his mother watched the inspiring “Team Hoyt” YouTube video, showing Dick Hoyt pushing his son, Rick, in a wheelchair during several marathon races. Rick was born with spastic quadriplegia and cerebral palsy.
Andrew made a new goal for “Team Labus”: Race in a mini-marathon with his mother. They immediately began training together, running 5K’s and five-mile runs on the weekends.
Kathy also trained with Andrew Wallen from Integrated Movement in Valparaiso, working on her strength endurance to push Andrew’s chair for longer stretches. Her brother, Scott Hooper, is also a runner who planned to shadow her during the mini-marathon.
On the day of that race, last weekend, Scott told Kathy they could finish it in less than two hours, which would be 15 minutes faster than she had planned. She was leery.
Their first mile set a brisk pace of 8:30 minutes. Kathy wasn’t sure if she could keep up at that pace while pushing Andrew, who was waving, chatting with his mom and uncle, and listening to his iPod.
When Kathy felt too exhausted to push Andrew, she felt another hand take over to offer a needed reprieve. It was her brother. She never had to ask. It was a family thing.
“It was like a symphony,” Kathy recalled. “Perfect in every way. No speaking, just an unspoken language of support to get Andrew to the finish.”
Their entire family attended the race, with Andrew’s brother, William, and his cousin, Taylor Hooper, working the water booth nearest the finish line for vocal support.
Andrew’s father, Bob, photographed and video-recorded everything while riding his bicycle. It can be viewed at the P-T website, my Facebook page, or on YouTube, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBkNlXHj02Q&feature=youtu.be.
Andrew’s stricken body doesn’t always listen to his adventurous brain, but he can do math rather easily.
“Three miles to go!” Andrew yelled to his mom.
“Two miles to go!”
“One mile, mom!”
With roughly 100 yards left to go, Kathy stopped running so Andrew could get out of the chair. He wanted to finish the race on his own two legs, not hers, their racing ritual.
As they approached the finish line, other runners, visitors and strangers stood to greet them with cheers and applause. Kathy held her son’s left hand, his good hand, for balance. He shuffled across the finish line.
“Good job!” they yelled to Andrew.
High fives were offered. Smiles were exchanged. A volunteer draped a medal around his neck. They finished at 1:58:29, breaking their goal.
“We did it, mom!” Andrew told his mother with a big hug.
His legs burned. His feet hurt. His lungs felt on fire. He bent over to catch his breath, like every other participant who finished the race.
When Andrew went back to school, at Timothy Ball Elementary, he proudly wore his new medal of sporting achievement. The next school day, too. He also has a new sticker on the back of his wheelchair. It says “13.1.”
Other races for “Team Labus” are already circled on the calendar.
Connect with Jerry via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.