Special family may be biggest winner at SB marathon
The joy of accomplishment and personal achievement was all over Santa Barbara City College's La Playa Stadium on Saturday, as runner after runner crossed the finish line at the Santa Barbara International Marathon.
More than 6,000 people ran the marathon, the half marathon or the rehab relay.
Arguably the biggest winner was Gwendolyn Strong, a 5-year old paralyzed by spinal muscular atrophy, a condition that has left her unable to move, talk, eat, or even breathe on her own since birth.
Pushed in a specially made stroller by parents William and Victoria Strong, little Gwendolyn "ran" the half marathon in about 2.5 hours.
"This was her dream and we did everything we could to make it happen," Mrs. Strong said.
Last year Gwendolyn's father ran the full marathon, cheered on from the sidelines by wife and daughter.
But Gwendolyn would not be satisfied with merely being a spectator this time around, Mr. Strong said.
The Strongs approached race organizer Rusty Snow and his team to see if they could make an exception to the rules for a stroller.
"They went out of their way to make this an incredible experience for my wife and me, and our foundation." Mr. Strong said.
Then there came the stroller, a custom-made piece of equipment that allowed Gwendolyn to lie relatively flat while also carrying the gear that the child needs — machines to feed, breathe, suction and measure blood oxygen levels.
And they hadn't even started training yet.
"The most I ran before this was five miles," said Mrs. Strong. "And that was when I was 21."
Not only did she have to raise her endurance to almost three times her best, but she also had to push their daughter. The pair developed an intuitive tag-team system in which they would take turns between pushing and monitoring Gwendolyn for signs of distress and discomfort.
Even Gwendolyn trained, taking practice rides to acclimate to the terrain and weather.
The result was a well-oiled machine that took the 13.1 miles with only a couple of stops along the way. The Strongs were accompanied by a 100-plus member contingent running for the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation.
Gwendolyn enjoyed every minute of the ride and the Strongs managed to make it a family affair while raising awareness of SMA, which is the No. 1 genetic killer of infants and young children.
For the Strongs and their supporters, it was a lesson that it is possible to provide a childhood with full experiences to someone like Gwendolyn.
"The best advice I can give is to process the grief, own it, get through it, so you can come out the other side," said Mrs. Strong.
Fear and grief, she said, is common to parents with children like Gwendolyn.
Mr. Strong said that without support of the kind he has gotten from the community, this milestone would not have been possible.
"How lucky we are to live in a community like Santa Barbara that embraces us and our daughter like this," he said.