It started with a simple New Year’s resolution: Run a half marathon in 2015.
Kayley Drake, a 24-year-old with cerebral palsy from Yukon, Oklahoma, began working toward that goal last December.
“November 19 marked the 12-year anniversary of a surgery I had to help me walk,” said Drake of the procedure that involved putting a metal plate in her right hip. “I was sitting on the couch that day, and it hit me that I felt like I was taking the ability to walk for granted because there are so many people affected by cerebral palsy who are wheelchair-bound.
”I realized I could be doing so much more with my ability to walk than I have been doing, so I decided I was going to run a half marathon.”
Her first step included registering for the Oklahoma City Memorial Half Marathon—her first race ever—on April 26.
At first, running 13.1 miles seemed like a big jump. Before December, Drake said she’d never been very active. Armed with that newfound drive to finally put that surgery to good use, Drake started logging miles however she could.
“I did a lot of running on a treadmill, which makes it a lot easier,” Drake said. “When I run, the plate is constantly grinding, which is a little painful. But I’m so used to it now that it doesn’t bother me as much.”
The training stayed on track until her first five-miler in February caused a knee injury that set her back a few weeks. She returned to running in March, but her fitness had taken a hit.
“I thought, [This race] is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Drake said. “Then the week before the race, I ran 7.5 miles with my dad and my sister, which was the most I’d ever run.”
At the expo during race weekend, Drake learned about a tradition where firefighters walk the race in full gear to memorialize those lost in national tragedies like the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
This tweaked her outlook for the race: “I figured as long as I beat the firefighters, I did a good job,” Drake said.
Drake felt the typical flurry of emotions before the race, tearing up at the start then going through the first mile in a blur.
The next few miles flew by, too, and every time Drake approached a firefighter she'd pick up the pace to pass him. A game of cat-and-mouse ensued with a group of firefighters from Midwest City, Oklahoma. By mile 10, however, the adrenaline that had carried her for so long began to wane.
“[Kayley] got ahead of us as we came up to the mile 11 mark,” said Caleb Bryant, a firefighter walking the race for the third time. “I noticed her cerebral palsy and thought that’s quite an inspiration to see what she was trying to accomplish. But you could tell that she was struggling and doing her best to keep her legs moving.
“I yelled, ‘Stay with us and keep your pace.' But over the next half mile, she really hit her wall.”
Drake said she stopped to stretch, which was her body's way of telling her to call it quits.
“I couldn’t physically get back up,” Drake said. “I thought I’d failed.”
Then Bryant and his colleague Garrett Matlock approached her, saying, “No, you’ve come this far, and we’re going to make sure you get to the finish line.”
Slow but steady, the trio covered the remaining two miles of the race and crossed the finish line together in 3:42:37.
Though Drake didn’t realize it at the time, the small group of firefighters had tripled in size while they were walking to the finish. Each one asked to shake her hand after the race.
“Kayley is such a fighter,” Bryant said. “What an incredible young lady that showed an immeasurable amount of heart and determination. She’s got a no-quit attitude, and I wish there were more people in this world that had her guts.”
Drake said the Midwest City firefighters have welcomed her to their “fire family,” and she plans to visit the station soon.
“Those firefighters were there when I needed them, and I have to thank God for orchestrating the day like He did,” Drake said. “I used to question why I was born the way I was, but after this experience, I would not change a thing about myself. I will never forget it.”